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Pit Roasting a Pig

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Roasting a Whole Pig in an Open Pit

By: Michael Laverty (Really Nice!)

This eGullet Culinary Institute lesson describes the process of roasting a whole pig in an open pit -- also known as a pig roast. This is open pit roasting as opposed to closed pit roasting (Hawaiian Luau Style) where the pig is surrounded by hot rocks and buried in the ground, or to cooking in a closed smoker.

I saw my first pit-roasted pig at a wedding in Wenatchee, Washington in July 2000. Pit-roasting a pig is not as difficult as you might think if you break down the process into individual steps as shown below.

1. Identify what you know (these are the assumptions), and then list the things you don’t know (these are the risks). Deal with each risk on an individual basis. (I’ll offer a couple of suggestions for each).

2. Next, break down the scope of the process into individual steps. This is the game plan:

a. Obtain the pig

b. Write the mis en place list

c. Dig the hole

d. Store the pig in a HAACP safe environment

e. Build the fire

f. Prepare the pig for roasting

g. Prepare the pit

h. Roast the pig

i. Carve the pig

j. Eat

Assumptions

The first assumption is that you can procure a whole, fully-dressed pig. In some parts of the country this might be easier than in others. Figure on about 1.25 to 2 lbs per person of dressed pig. For the wedding we had a 160 lb pig to feed about 100 people and it cost about $225. This was supplemented with two ham legs and many other dishes. At another event, the pig weighed 60 lbs and fed about 30 people at a cost of $100.

Another assumption is that you have a safe environment for storing the pig from the time you pick it up from the butcher to the time you begin cooking it. It doesn’t matter how good something tastes or what sensations a food item gives you, if it isn’t safe to eat, you’re going to be in serious trouble. Fortunately, the FDA provides some simple guidelines you can follow to help ensure safe storage.

Taking a paragraph from my culinary school notes:

A safe environment is defined by HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point); a seven-step proactive, comprehensive, science-based food-safety system that allows operators to continuously monitor their establishments and reduce the risk of food borne illness (prevent food-safety hazards from occurring).

More information is available here.

I recommend that you view the details on the Web site provided above. The key things to know are:

1. Keep the pig at or below 40F while transporting the pig from the butcher to where you will be storing it.

2. Store the pig at or below 40F.

3. Don’t allow the pig to sit for a period of time after preparing it. If the pig is ready to go on the fire, but the fire isn’t ready, return the pig to a cool environment. (Keep the amount time it is in the danger zone (40F to 140F) to a minimum.

4. Cook the pig to its proper temperature (at least 160F).

5. Minimize the time it takes carving the pig.

6. Don’t leave the leftovers out; store them in the refrigerator or cooler right away.

7. Reheat the leftovers to 165F for at least 15 seconds.

Enough of the sanitation lecture.

Risks

What risks are involved in taking on such a task? If you haven’t done this before, it can be daunting, even scary. Some things you might be thinking include:

1. If you screw up, it’s expensive. Trying a recipe with 150 lbs of pork is an altogether riskier endeavor than trying a new recipe using 1 lb of pork.

2. If you screw up, there’s going to be a whole lot of people disappointed. Read through this lesson a couple times before starting and know what to expect. Be flexible. This lesson can’t anticipate everything you might encounter.

3. How can you be sure that it will be cooked to the proper temperature? Use an instant read thermometer that can be calibrated to within 2 degrees of accuracy.

4. Will the weather interfere? It shouldn’t be a problem as the pig will be covered while it's cooking. Digging the hole, however, may be difficult if you decide to do this when the ground is frozen, extremely rocky or when the soil is saturated.

If you’re still interested, let’s get started!

1. Obtain the Pig

Ask your regular butcher, about a month before the event, for a dressed pig at the weight you want. If your butcher can’t provide you with a pig, perhaps he or she can give you the name of one who can. Make sure it can be delivered or that you can pick it up on time.

One week before the event, contact the butcher again to confirm your order. You don’t want to be left empty-handed if your butcher is absent-minded (like my former butcher).

2. Write the Mis en Place List

List the equipment you need, then begin to gather it so you have it all in place on the day of the roast.

.

a. People. You shouldn’t try this alone. Get all the help you can to dig the pit. For the preparation and cooking of the pig you’ll need at least two people.

b. Shovels. One per person.

c. Sheet metal covering (or roofing)... this is the same stuff used as roofing on a backyard shed. You’ll need a piece about 6 feet long by 4 feet wide. Don’t use plastic roofing material!

d. Tape measure.

e. Instant read thermometer, preferably one that can be calibrated to within 2 degrees of accuracy.

f. Garden sprayer filled with water to put out flare-ups. Buy a new one; do not use one that has had chemicals in it.

g. Four-3/4 inch pieces of rebar, about eight feet long. You can purchase these at any hardware store.

h. Two cinder blocks. These keep the rebar off the ground and make it easier to flip the pig.

i. Chicken wire fencing; about 15 feet, or enough to wrap the pig twice around.

j. Saws. You will need a wood saw for the initial cutting and a hacksaw, with an extra blade or two, for more precise cutting.

k. Wood for fuel. Expect to use between 1/4 to 1/2 cord of wood. We used apple wood because this pig roast was on an apple farm, but you can also use alder, cherry, hickory, mesquite, oak, or pecan. However, don’t use too much mesquite as this wood burns at a hotter temperature, and with good pit roasting, the motto is low and slow. Avoid evergreens such as, cedar, fir, pine, or spruce. These woods produce toxins in the smoke that can make you very ill.

l. Container to hold a second fire. This can be 55 gallon drum cut in half, a kettle grill, or even another hole in the ground.

m. Welder’s gloves. When you ‘carve,’ you"ll be pulling the meat from the pig with your hands. The meat is going to be very hot and you need to work quickly so your guests are served hot, succulent pork. Buy new welder's gloves just for this purpose.

3. Dig the Hole

About two days ahead of time, you need to dig the hole. Get extra help as you’re going to dig a hole 18 inches deep, 3.5 feet wide, and 6 feet long. If you dig the hole too deep, you might not get enough heat; if you dig it too shallow, you might get too much heat. Make sure the walls of the pit are straight up and down. If the walls are at an angle too much heat and smoke will escape. Throw the excavated dirt well away from the hole; you don't want the rebar resting on dirt piles as this will alter 18-inch depth.

4. Store the Pig in a HAACP-Safe Environment

The pictures that follow are from the wedding in Wenatchee, Washington. A friend of mine was getting married at his parents’ house and the roasted pig was the main course.

The pig had been stored in the garage, surrounded by ice, since delivery the day before. It was kept as cold as possible, and except for a last minute sniff at 7 A.M. when we were moving the pig, the storage conditions were GRAS (generally regarded as safe). We used a forklift to move the 160-pound pig the 200 or so yards from the garage to the fire.

pigroast1_DCE.JPG

5. Build the Fire

This picture was taken at 5 A.M. on the day of the wedding. We were told to build a huge, hot fire, so we started with a whole cord of wood which measured 4 feet, by 4 feet, by 8 feet. It turns out we only needed about 1/3 of that.

Here my friend’s dad is throwing another log on the fire. You don’t need a fire this big.

Give yourself a very wide area free of buildings or any sort of combustible material. In hot, dry months make sure you’re well away from surrounding trees or grass.

pigroast2_DCE.jpg

6. Prepare the Pig for Roasting

Preparation includes using a wood saw to cut through the backbone, jawbone, and groin. You want the pig as flat as possible to ensure even cooking.

pigroast3_DCE.jpg

pigroast4_DCE.jpg

You need to create "handles" for manipulating the pig while it is roasting. For the wedding feast, we drove four 3/4-inch thick rebar rods through it. For a pig of this size, you need 3/4 inch thick rebar. If you use 1/2-inch the pig will sag, if you use 1-inch it will be too rigid and carcass will fall apart when you try to lift it.

pigroast5_DCE.JPG

7. Prepare the Pit

Meanwhile, have someone prepare the fire pit after the fire has settled down. You want about a 1-inch layer of coals on the floor of the pit. Never let the coals flare up during cooking, so don’t leave it unattended. On this occasion, we had built the fire too hot and had to remove most of the coals from the pit. These extra coals were placed in a small metal drum that acted as the container for the second fire.

pigroast6_DCE.jpg

Prepare the Pig for Roasting Continued

Wrap the pig with chicken wire to help keep it together while it is roasted and turned. Near the end of the cooking time, the meat will be tender enough to fall off the bone. The chicken wire helps keep it in place.

pigroast7_DCE.jpg

pigroast8_DCE.jpg

Pierce the skin so the fat can drip out of the meat. There's enough fat in the pig to keep it from drying out. If you don't do this, the meat will be very greasy. We added neither spices nor marinades but you can insert garlic cloves in the slits you made to drain the fat, or you can smear a molasses, brown sugar, and spice mixture over the exterior.

Note the two rebar rods, inserted perpendicular to the ones inserted in a previous photo. This arrangement of rods allows you to turn the pig any way you want.

pigroast9_DCE.jpg

8. Roast the Pig

Bring the pig to the roasting pit. (For the wedding, we also roasted a couple of ham legs.) Now all that’s left is to cover the pig and begin the low, slow cooking process.

pigroast10_DCE.jpg

Notice the cinder blocks used to hold the rebar off the ground. These makes it easier to flip the pig every hour or so. This is also why a depth of 18 inches is important. The cinder blocks elevate the pig even further away from the coals. So you’re actually 25 to 27 inches above the bottom of the pit.

pigroast11_DCE.jpg

Cover the pit with metal roofing material.

The following picture was taken at about 8:30am. At 8:31 the beer came out.

pigroast12_DCE.jpg

Notice in the picture above that the metal roofing doesn’t cover the sides. We dug the hole a bit too wide. This allowed heat to escape, and because it was a bit windy that day, air got in and generated some flare-ups that had to be extinguished.

In the picture below, you see how to flip the pig over. You want to do this about every hour.

pigroast13_DCE.jpg

Add coals when necessary. Because our fire started very hot, we didn’t add anything until about two hours into cooking. Knowing when to add coals isn’t determined by measuring temperature; it’s determined by the sight and sound of fat dripping into the coals. Listen for a slow, steady sizzling rhythm and look for the smoke where the fat is dripping. You need to know that the fire is burning evenly, so that the pig cooks evenly. In other words, you need to manage the coals.

By coals I mean, pre-burned wood. This is where the secondary fire comes in. Keep a fire going off to the side. When you need some more heat, pull the coals from the secondary fire and place them where needed beneath the pig. It helps to have one person lift the corner of the metal covering with a shovel, and another person to shovel the coals into the pit.

You’ll know where additional heat is needed; the areas where you don't see the fat dripping.

Also, as the fuel is burned up, add coals to different parts of the pit on an as-needed basis.

pigroast14_DCE.jpg

Towards the end of the cooking time (about 7 hours), start checking the internal temperature. Check the temperate in various parts of the pig and when you get a consistent 155F, remove the pig from the fire to a prepared carving surface. The carry over cooking will bring it to 160 to 165F. A 160 lb pig takes about 7 hours to cook; a 60 lb pig takes about 4 hours.

pigroast15_DCE.jpg

One photo I don’t have is spraying the little flare ups that occur. Keep the garden sprayer near by and don’t be afraid to use it. Move the coals around if one area of coals sounds like it’s getting more fat dripping on it than the other areas.

9. Carve the Pig

Once fully cooked, the meat just falls off the bone. In this instance, the smoke ring was about 1/2 inch thick. There were no leftovers. Notice the gentleman on the left is wearing the thick welder’s rubber gloves. You don’t need a knife to ‘carve’ a roasted pig. But know that the meat inside is going to be very hot and the gloves are necessary.

pigroast16_DCE.jpg

10. Scenery

This is the view we had overlooking the valley. All-in-all it was one of the most memorable days of my cooking experience!

pigroast17_DCE.jpg

Copyright 2003 Michael Laverty. All rights reserved.

Please post your questions here -->> Q&A

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