How to Cook a Pig

The tradition in the southern US of slowly cooking large quantities of dead animal over open flames dates back to when that was the only way to cook anything, but many refinements and rituals have been added as time has passed and more modern and sanitary methods have developed. In the age of fast food and microwave dinners, the proper preparation and celebration of this tradition is fast going the way of the horse and buggy, but when properly executed the effort is guaranteed to produce a Grand Old Time and some of the best eating and conviviality to be found.

Different areas have different ideas about the correct meat to use for this tradition, from goat to beef to (possibly) yak, but in the southeast of the United States of America, the consensus overwhelmingly demands pork, and if the celebration is of sufficient importance, then the only choice is to cook a whole pig. When cooking a pig, the party must last at least 12 hours and the tending of the fire and turning of the meat are a central part of the festivities. There are as many variations on "proper" pig cookery as there are pit masters willing to take on the task. I'll describe my methods and some of the variants as we go along.


The Pit

The pit is where the cooking takes place. A pit may be anything from a hole in the ground to a specially fabricated, gas fired "pig cooker" with automatic temperature control. The minimum requirements are a means to contain the heat - sides of some sort, access to the heat source so that wood or coals can be added as needed, and a means to elevate the pig above or to the side of the heat source, usually a sturdy metal rack. You also need plenty of room around the pit for handling fire and turning the pig. The pit needs to be set up where there is no danger of fire spreading outside its desired bounds.

Pig cookers are usually fabricated from steel with a hinged lid and mounted on a trailer. Some use propane as a heat source with a smoker box to put wood in to provide the wood smoke flavor. Some are constructed with a firebox as the sole source of heat. When using such a cooker it is possible to control the heat much more precisely than with a regular pit. This makes the cooking more predictable and is the preferred method when the quality of the finished product is critical. Every cooker performs differently, and it takes practice with any cooker to learn how to control the heat. The fire tending and meat turning is minimized, however, and this aspect of the ritual will lack the impact desired for a real pig cooking. I use a cooker when I know that most of the guests will not be participating in the cooking rituals, but are there mainly for the food. Preparing a pig for a wedding dinner would be an example of when this would be the preferred method.

My preferred pit for an all out pig cooking is constructed of cinder blocks. If possible it should be built on a level sand base, but if building it in the yard, at a minimum the vegetation in the pit area must be removed down to clean dirt. I usually place a piece of sheet steel on the ground in the pit to make working the coals easier. Build the pit at least two blocks (sixteen inches) high. Your rack will need to be supported about eight inches above the bottom, and can be supported on the lower level of blocks if it does not have other means of support. The width and length will depend on your rack, but for a small to medium whole pig it will need to be at least three feet wide and five feet long. While the top and ends can be left open, you get much better heat control if you have sheet metal on hand to block the ends and cover the top. I usually use old corrugated metal roofing sheets for this.

If cooking with wood, you will need a separate fire pit for producing hot coals from cured firewood. Many pit masters will have a special fire barrel with a grate in the bottom that allows coals to drop through from the wood burning above. These coals are then transferred to the cooking pit with a flat bladed shovel and strategically placed under and around the pig. You can cook a pig with store-bought charcoal, but most brands of that stuff are made with as much rock dust as wood, plus chemical binders, and the taste gets in the meat. Whatever you use, you will need more of it than you think. Remember, you're going to have a good fire going for about eight hours, and that takes a lot of wood. The wood should be well dried hardwood. Hickory is a favorite. Pecan is great if you can get it. Fruit wood such as apple, pear and peach are also nice. Oak works fine. I usually use a blend of hickory, oak and pecan, using the hickory and pecan earlier when the smoke flavors are being readily absorbed, then finishing out with the more plentiful oak.

The Guest of Honor

Unless you are killing and dressing your own pig, you will need to order one from a meat processor. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where this sort of behavior is not considered aberrant, you may be able to place the order at your local grocery store. Size is important here. A good size to feed anywhere from twenty to fifty people is about 100 to 120 pounds. That is the animal's weight after slaughter, but includes the head. Once cooked, the actual yield of meat for service will be significantly less - about 1/3 of the stated weight. Anything much larger will be hard to handle and harder to cook evenly. The meat will be tougher, too. You will probably have meat left over anyway, but that is a good thing. Order it "butterflied", that is, have the processor split the chine bone down the back so it will lay out flat on the rack (unless you have a rotisserie, then you'll want to leave it unsplit, but if you have a rotisserie, you probably know what you're doing anyway). You may be asked if you want the head. Unless you know what you're going to do with it, you don't want it. There are great delicacies to be made from a pig's head, but that is beyond the scope of this writing. You can get the feet removed, too, to save some room on the rack.

Pick up your pig at least a day before the event. It will be well chilled when you get it and should be brought to ambient temperature before cooking time. Apply your rub liberally (more later) and wrap it in clean plastic sheeting or tarps. Store it in a relatively cool place where animals can't get to it. This could be a garage or storage room, although I've used a pickup bed in cool weather. Allow about twelve hours for warm-up, but you should pack bags of ice around the pig until then if you need to keep it longer.

A dry rub is not essential, but adds flavor to the outer regions of the meat. A basic dry rub is just salt and pepper, but every pit master eventually develops their own preferred mix that can get very complicated and is frequently regarded as a proprietary secret to be passed on only on one's death bed. The recipe for my mix is here. When using salt and pepper, use about 2% of the dressed weight for the salt, and about 1/4 of the volume of the salt for pepper. Put on latex gloves and liberally rub the mix all over the carcass. Not much will stick to the skin side, but don't worry about that. You want enough on it so that some will fall onto the coals when you start cooking and provide some aromatics. Definitely get as much as you can on all the exposed meat. Do this as soon as you get home with your pig. Give it at least twelve hours. Two days is better.

Cooking the Pig

Timing is of course critical. You need to have everything done and ready to eat at the time when the guests are planning to eat. This almost never works out exactly as planned, so it's best to shoot for being ready early and "holding" the pig until serving time. The alternative is to find yourself surrounded by a ravenous mob, possibly drunk, who have been smelling this thing for hours and are ready to take matters into their own hands. A 120 lb. pig, cooked with diligent fire management and minimal outside interference from people who just have to see how it looks, will be ready in six to seven hours. Plan on a "hold" time of at least an hour, so you want to get the pig on the heat at least eight hours before serving time. A couple of hours more is OK, as long as you manage your hold properly. Since you can't start cooking without heat, you need to get your fire pit going at least an hour before cooking time. You need time for the wood to burn and create coals to transfer to the cooking pit. Underestimating the time needed to develop good coals is probably only second to recovering from the previous night as a cause for getting a late start.

Once you have a good bed of coals in your fire pit, put the pig on the rack skin side down and transfer coals to the cooking pit. Place the coals along the sides, not directly under the pig. We're looking for indirect heat here, not grilling. At the start you can use a good bit of coals as everything needs to get up to temperature. Many people feel that this is the proper time to open your first of many beers and salute the start of a masterpiece. Give him about a half hour skin side down (for some reason, pigs on the cooker are invariably referred to as male, although the sex of the animal when alive is both unknown and irrelevant, at least for a young pig), then turn him for the first time. It takes at least two people to do this, and you need some kind of insulating gloves. I have found that heavy black rubber chemical resistant or dishwashing gloves work well. Try not to drop him on the ground. This is considered poor form. Once the pig is re-settled on the rack meat side down, check your coals. Don't overdo the heat now, but make sure that there are plenty of active coals down both sides. Add more if needed. Continue turning and checking the coals every half hour for the next couple of hours. Some aficionados feel that a new beer should be opened at each turning.

Somewhere along here you will begin to hear grease dripping onto the coals and sizzling. You may need to turn the music down some to hear this. This grease dripping is significant for two reasons. First, if the coals are too much directly under the pig, there is a danger of a flare-up of grease catching fire and getting out of control. This can badly scorch the meat, so be prepared to take drastic measures such as dousing the coals with a water hose or completely picking up the blazing rack and removing it from the coals. A friend badly burned his hand doing this, so make sure to take the time to put on gloves if it becomes necessary. The second significant event signaled by the grease dripping is that it is time to start basting. The baste is half and half water and cider vinegar with a lot of salt and pepper in it. The sizzling will start with the meat side down, so turn the pig and liberally sop the meat side (now up) with the baste. When it's time to turn him again, baste before turning. Do this at each turning from here on. Other than that, keep the pit closed up as much as possible and mount a guard to keep curious on-lookers from trying to peek at it, thus screwing up your temperature control.

Some notes are in order here on temperature control. There are two critical temperatures to be aware of. First of course is the internal temperature of the meat. This is the only accurate measure of when the pig is done. A meat thermometer is essential, and it should be the instant read type, since with the turning you can't leave a standard roast thermometer stuck in him. You won't need to worry about this until you approach the end of your estimated cooking time. Probe the thickest part of the ham, keeping the probe tip away from bone. The meat is safe at 170F, but not ready to eat until it reaches 190F. The second critical temperature is the pit temperature at the grill. This will optimally be kept between 225F and 275F - aiming at 250F, but by the nature of cooking in this environment, you will have highs and lows outside this range. With experience you can learn to control this temperature by feel, but the best way is to get an electronic oven thermometer with a shielded wire running from the probe to a separate display module that can be placed outside the pit. These can be found for about $20US at stores such as Bed, Bath and Beyond that feature household articles. Run the probe through a half a potato and place the potato on the rack in an area that will give a representative reading for what the pig is feeling. Use this as a guide for when you need to add coals, or for when you've overdone it. Don't panic if you get spikes to 350F just after adding coals as long as it comes down fairly quickly, but if it stays there for more than five minutes or so, pull some coals back out.

Holding and Serving

If things have gone well thus far your pig should be at 190F in the ham a couple of hours before serving time. You can hold him at the ready for several hours and, if possible, you should try to get at least one hour of hold time before serving to let the meat set. Simply pull the coals completely to the sides and end of the pit and let the grill temperature drop to about 150F. Holding should be done with skin side down. Keep the pig covered as much as possible. If holding for a long time you may need to add coals to keep the temperature up, so don't let your fire pit go out.

The most common way to serve a whole pig is called "pig picking". Basically this means giving sharp implements to the starving hordes and standing back, but there are some secrets the pit master should know. It is best to put your gloves on and pull the ribs out before letting the masses at it. Just under the ribs next to the back bone is the loin. This will simply roll right out and along with the ribs is the pit master's tribute to eat and share with special helpers or persons with whom the master wishes to score points. This tradition is not unlike the alpha male lion in a pride getting the first share of a kill and inviting in favored females by rank. It is best to do this discretely to avoid hurt feelings from others hoping to bask in the glory due the maestro. While removing the ribs and loin, go ahead and pull out the large bones in the hams and shoulders. They will come right out with a little wiggling. This will not only help disguise the rib/loin activity, but will also make access to the remaining meat easier and will cut down on the waste inherent in letting unskilled people massacre your masterpiece. If you own good knives, put them away before sounding the serving bell. Otherwise they will be ruined. No matter how drunk you are and how good you feel after creating this wonderful repast, suppress the urge to believe these dear friends will respect your knives. This is the voice of hard learned experience speaking.

As serving time approaches, announce that it is time to bring out all the side dishes that the guests should have brought. Traditional sides are baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, three bean salad, and bread. You should also provide at least one type of barbecue sauce. Sauce recipes like rubs are as unique as their creators, and the recipes are as closely guarded. There are regional biases about barbecue sauce, and people will hotly contest the validity of a sauce that does not meet the prejudices they grew up with. There are four distinct sauce regions in South Carolina, from mustard based to vinegar based to tomato based to combinations. My sauce recipe here has its roots in the low country mustard sauce, but the blend of ingredients seems to be unique to the Barnwell County area where I grew up. Unless you have contracted to cater the whole affair, the sides are not your responsibility, but organizing the serving line may well fall on you as the capo di capi in the day's food prep pecking order. With luck, someone will have remembered to bring plates, utensils and napkins or paper towels. Get it all laid out, announce that serving can commence and stand back to accept the accolades of an appreciative crowd.

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