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Home barbecue 101: Going whole hog

IMG_1694Disclaimer: Unlike some of my previous home barbecue posts, in which I drew from years of trial and error experience, this account of roasting a whole hog comes entirely from the perspective of a newbie. I’m sure that there are much more practiced hands at this style of cooking reading this post right now, so I can’t claim to be an expert. But I learned a lot in my first go-round, and plan to keep at it until I have worked out all of the kinks.

So I won’t get sued disclaimer: Grease fires are a very real possibility when roasting a whole hog. Make sure that you build your pit away from the house or other flammable materials, and always have a fire extinguisher on hand. Check out this video just to see how bad these things can get. You’ve been warned.

As a man that takes pride in his ability to cook barbecue, there has always been a void in my background that irked me. While I’ve smoked every cut of pork or beef that I’d care to, I still hadn’t gotten around to going whole hog. I finally changed that a few weekends back.

Because I didn’t want to put all of this time into cooking a pig only to screw it up, I did as much research as I could. I found brains that had done this before, and I picked them. I got as much input as possible, and I think it made all the difference.

There is more than one way to roast a pig, and I weighed all of my options carefully. At first, I found the idea of digging a pit and burying it Hawaiian-style to be very enticing, but I like having absolute control over the heat when I’m making barbecue. If you don’t get the coals right before you cover over the pit, you are going to get yourself into some trouble. I also considered a spit-roast, but I wanted to get more smoke into the meat than that allows, so that went off the table quickly.

Everything in my barbecue background told me that I should do this low and slow, cooking at 200-225 degrees for 12-24 hours. But here is the problem: That works for a 70lb pork shoulder, but do you know what a rack of ribs would look like if it were cooked for 24 hours? How about a tenderloin?

When cooking an entire pig, you have to remember that not everything cooks evenly. While the shoulder and belly will be perfectly done at 190 degrees, the tenderloin will be dry and the hams will be just past overcooked. It was this fact that led me to build a cinder block smoker.

By building a rectangular pit made of stacked cinder blocks, the pig remains suspended above the coals, which you can freely arrange to properly distribute the direct heat, and it can be covered to act as a smoker. When the time comes to refresh the coals, simply pull a cinder block or two off the end, shovel in some coals, and seal it back up. Also, it is a lot cheaper than buying a smoker large enough to accommodate a whole animal.

So let’s say you are one of the dedicated few that wants to try building one of these pits and roasting your first pig. There are two major things that you should realize before sending out the invitations.

1 – You can’t do this alone

Unless you feel like hauling a lot of cinder blocks, wrangling a 70lbs carcass, and being on pit-watch duty all by your lonesome, you are going to need some help. Enlist your friends, entice them with drinks, and make a night (and day) out of it.

2 – It is time consuming

Especially for a newbie, this is definitely an investment of time. Between the planning, provisioning, building, prepping, and cooking, expect to sink quite a few man-hours into this. If the roast is on Saturday, don’t plan on going out on Friday. But it is totally worth it.

Building the pit

NOTE: This builds a 3-stack high pit. If you want, a 4-stack build is also an option, and provides better smoke circulation. Simply add 12 more blocks to the list below for the top row.

Materials:

36 standard concrete blocks (8”x8”x16”)

1 expanded metal grate (NON-GALVANIZED), roughly 3’x5-6’

3 pieces of rebar, 3-4’ long (if needed for support, depends on the strength of your grate)

2 pieces of plywood, roughly 3’x3’

Aluminum sheeting, 30 sq feet (optional, but recommended to prevent fires)

Aluminum foil

Hammer and chisel

Level

2-3 roasting pans

2 probe thermometers

40-60 lbs of charcoal (depending on the size of the pig)

Directions:

The first thing you should do when building the pit is to find level ground. Making sure the bottom row of blocks is level makes all the difference in the stability and heat retention of the pit. In my case, there was no level ground, so we grabbed some shovels and leveled it out.

IMG_1683The blocks are arranged in a rectangle, two wide on the ends, four blocks long, for a total of 12 blocks per layer. Once the base is level, add a second layer of blocks. This is the layer where the grate and rebar will go. Line the inside of the first two layers with the aluminum foil, and place the roasting pans side-by-side in the middle of the pit to catch grease. All of the charcoal goes on either end of the rectangle, so that only the hams and shoulders actually have direct heat under them. This helps the ribs and tenderloin to finish cooking at the same time as the thicker ends of the hog.

You may need to chisel groves into the blocks so that the rebar sits low enough in the concrete and won’t leave a big gap once the top layer is in place. Once the rebar is down, lay the grate over them and add the top stack of blocks.

For the lid:

This can be done with a sheet of tin or thick aluminum, but I chose to use aluminum-lined plywood instead, as the weight of the wood keeps a better seal without having to stack additional bricks on top of it.

IMG_1687-1Using non-galvanized nails or staples, line one side of each piece of plywood with the aluminum sheeting (not the foil). This helps protect your lid from bursting into flames in case of a flare up.

70lbs whole pig recipe

Ingredients:

1 whole pig, trimmed to 70 lbs

BBQ rub of your choice

1-quart apple cider vinegar

Buying the pig

One of the first questions everyone asked me was “Where did you get the pig?” And that is because not every butcher will sell you a whole hog at a decent price. However, those of you in Atlanta can do what I did and head down to the Sweet Auburn Curb market. Two vendors there will sell you a cleaned whole hog, and will butterfly it for you. They typically run anywhere from $2-$2.70/lbs, depending on the total weight.

You can generally estimate about a 60-70% yield of useable meat of the trimmed weight of the pig. A 70lbs hog will feed a group of 40-50 people, depending on the other sides and dishes served. We fed 30, and still had about 20 lbs of leftovers when the smoke cleared.

Prepping the pig

photoWhen you bring the pig home, unless your butcher really went above and beyond, there is still some trimming/cleaning that needs to be done. Remove the membrane from the inside of the ribcage, as well as trim off any excess fat or gristly material. In order to butterfly the pig so that it will lay flat, the butcher will split the animal’s spine up the middle. You are going to want to, with a gloved hand or tool of some sort, remove the spinal cord from the pig before cooking. There isn’t anything tasty about spinal cord.

Once trimmed to your satisfaction, wash the inside of the pig out with apple cider vinegar to remove any bone dust that may have settled on the meat during the butterfly process. If you plan to use a rub, now is the time to apply it.

Put the pig in a cooler, covered with unopened bags of ice. Chill overnight.

An hour or two before you are ready to start cooking, heat up a pile of charcoal either in a side-pit or in a charcoal chimney. I actually used my Big Green Egg and shoveled the coals out of that when needed. Bank the coals on either end of the pit.

Once you have stabilized the temperature around 250 degrees, place the pig cavity-side down and cover with the lid. Make sure to periodically add some wood chips/chunks, especially early in the process. It takes a lot of smoke to penetrate all of that meat and skin, so don’t be afraid to get a little heavy handed with it.

Keep one probe thermometer in the ham and the shoulder of the pig. A third to measure ambient temperature inside of the pit is also highly recommended. When the temperature begins to drop into the 225-230 range, refresh the coals accordingly. You are trying to stick as close to 250 as you can.

IMG_0101

Credit: Jennifer Zyman

After about 3 hours, carefully flip the pig over so that it is skin side down. Now is also a good opportunity to mop the pig with additional apple cider vinegar. Cook for about another 3-4 hours, keeping your eye on the temperature of the shoulder and the hand. My total cooking time was about 6.5 hours for this particular pig, but variables like the weather, size of the pig, and temperature consistency will impact the total cook time. Go by temperature instead. When the shoulder hits 190 degrees, the ham should be around 175 (or close to it). At this point, with the help of some friends, carefully remove the pig from the pit however is easiest for you.

Now there is nothing left to do but slice that bad boy open, pull, and serve.

There is something both disconcerting and exhilarating about cooking a whole animal carcass. It was the first time for many of our guests that their food had a face. Some didn’t like that part all that much. But, as I and a few of my key helpers later confirmed, it was quite a delicious face. The cheeks were a special treat I reserved for myself and those that participated in the cooking. (Some other time, maybe over a drink, I’ll tell you about the part where my buddies and I popped open the skull like a paint can and each got a taste of hickory roasted pig brain.)

730397711507Overall, the pig was a resounding success with our friends, though I didn’t serve them the slightly overcooked hams or tenderloins. I ran into some temperature control issues at one point during the process, and the end of the pit near the hams ran a little hot. Nevertheless, the shoulders, belly, and ribs came out incredibly juicy and delicious.

If you enjoy barbecue, and especially if you like entertaining for large groups, roasting a whole hog is absolutely something that I would recommend trying at least once.

I know there have to be some veterans that looked over this post to see if I knew what I was talking about. If anyone has some great whole hog tips, please, bring on the comments! I’ll put them into action next time.

- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog

22 comments Add your comment

Miss P

December 2nd, 2011
8:41 am

I just wish this poor little piggy could have stayed home, where he/she really belongs. Vulgar.

Baltisraul

December 2nd, 2011
9:03 am

Miss P………you are not from around here, are you? Take a break and get a nice salad or pay your condo fees early. Vulgar? WOW

Mark

December 2nd, 2011
9:06 am

Let’s not do the vegan vs carnivore debate here. Been there, done that.

On the other hand, as a devoted barbecue-er (using a coward’s electric smoker rather than real charcoal) and survivor of a few pig pickins from back in my North Carolina days, this was awesome! Pig on a fire is as primal as food can get, harkening back to caveman days. My remembrances of similar 24-hour cooked pig are amazing, partly from the beer and companionship, but also for the final results, proving that sometimes the simplest foods can be ethereal.

Loved the detailed instructions: this is the first time I’ve ever contemplated doing a whole pig down here. Not wanting to weld 55 gallon drums always stopped me before, so I’ve clipped the page to Evernote for next summer. Great piece!

carla roqs

December 2nd, 2011
9:12 am

jon, you are a man after my own heart. never been to a pig roast, but it is a dream. my folk in the “country” used to do them, but we would always have to drive back to the city (Atlanta)before they would be done. ummmm, i was not able to hit comments on the chef show– for some reason the system would not let me. so i shall here: you were in top form and right on target! loved it!!

Reds

December 2nd, 2011
9:34 am

You are the man. If i had man parts, i would be envious of yours. Since I don’t, I will just be envious of your pig.

Shockadow

December 2nd, 2011
10:06 am

Why did Ms. P even read this article?
I’ll tell you why. SO SHE COULD BITCH??? I feel sorry for the people who know her. I’m sure she is a “dream” companion…
As far as the effort goes, I think this was a really good example of a layman’s methods for smoking a pig. The only opportunity i’ve had to perform this feat included using a “Cadillac” of a smoker. Although i was able to follow along, I knew there would have to be extra efforts put into the pit. Thanks for the pit details!

Fisherman

December 2nd, 2011
10:18 am

Jon, at few tips from watching my father do this a number of times. (I’ve done it once) Thread a couple of aluminum tubes through hams, under ribs, and through shoulders. Great aid in turning the beast. Have a fire of real hardwood off to the side and shovel coals under shoulders and hams. Used no or very little charcoal. And most important frequently apply a good mopping sauce. Key ingredients are butter, salt, cider vingar. Consider lemon juice, garlic powder, sage, peanut oil and water. The butter captures smoke very well. Other that adding flavor the purpose of a mopping sauce is to keep the outside of the meat from charring. Flare ups most often occur when turning the pig to skin-side-down.

road warrior

December 2nd, 2011
10:18 am

looks pretty good, but i also have another grate to put on top to facillitate turning, and use hickory wood coals from a fire pit instead of charcoal

Miss P

December 2nd, 2011
1:00 pm

Miss P didn’t read the article, she saw the picture and that was enough. Calm down S(hackad)OW, all that blubber you’re trying to digest has gotten you angry.

JimmyZ

December 2nd, 2011
2:17 pm

Hey Miss Piggy, don’t you have a frog somewhere to jump?

Miss P

December 2nd, 2011
3:27 pm

Pretending to be Miss P? How origional.

PapaDoc

December 2nd, 2011
4:56 pm

Great article John. Did a variation of this in Texas, where beef is king. Folks loved it. The process is the perk. Really helpful simple directions that will entice others to give it a try. Thanks.

PapaDoc

December 2nd, 2011
4:57 pm

Right now, I am content to let Chef Cody do this hard work for me at Heirloom. He’s amazing.

ted

December 2nd, 2011
8:46 pm

I don’t think Heirloom has enough space to lay out a whole cooked hog, much less cook one. No offense to them.

Good stuff, Jon. Not something I’ve had a hankering to do, though I came face-to-face with a whole pig in a shopping cart in one of the Asian markets on Buford Hwy many years ago.

malleesmom

December 3rd, 2011
6:41 am

excellent. yum. reminds me of pig roasts my father used to do. you need to try it w/ goat too.

Tiff

December 3rd, 2011
11:40 am

Fantastic info! I actually have cinder block lying in my yard for a bbq in a couple of weeks. Been searching for more info before I start digging and found your blog. Where did you get your expanded grate? Only found 24″ grills from HomeDepot. Would like bigger grate like in your photo.

Baltisraul

December 3rd, 2011
1:06 pm

One way to get the right equipment for this pig pick’en is to go to a local bank or church that has one of their own. For a small fee or even free you can rent/borrow the rig and start somk’in. I have done this twice, using a bank and church each once. The bank charged me the church did not. Go figure!!!!!!

mike

December 3rd, 2011
8:38 pm

Make sure your mesh is NOT galvanized. I welded a frame out of rebar that works great. I do 120lbers all summer for a conference center. I also just cover the top with foil in place of a board. I usually run through 30 to 40 lbs of lump hardwood charcoal for the roast, with coals in the corner. We did a 20lber recently. Brined the whole thing. VERY TASTY! Google cuban pig roast for some more details on this style of cooking.

[...] Excellent post, long and throough, on barbecuing the entire hog. [...]

Glenn

December 6th, 2011
9:18 am

Way cool . Makes me think of the last episode of BBQ pitmasters . They all had a cinder block rig similar to that . It was cool how they were judged on different sections of the piggy . I loved/miss that show . I even enjoyed Warren Sapp .

Baltisraul

December 6th, 2011
5:53 pm

Miss P…….are you done throwing up yet?

DJLake

December 7th, 2011
1:15 am

Great article….