Ever wonder how to cook a whole pig?
Congratulations! You are about enjoy a ritual that mankind has been performing for tens of thousands of years. With this in mind you can understand that roasting a whole animal doesn’t have to be complicated nor does it necessarily require a bunch of specialty equipment. The process can be as simple or as complex as you please. Unlike our ancestors, however, you’re probably not doing this for subsistence so you (and your guests) want the finished product to be a good as possible. The tips below ought to help.
As we Texans like to say, “This is not our first rodeo.” Here at the ranch we’re roasting whole animals pretty regularly. The guide below is built from our experiences and experiments. To those who want a specific recipe I say: relax! There are too many variables to give a one-size-fits-all recipe. If you do search for a recipe you’re going to find that they are all different. That should tell you something. There is a tremendous amount of wiggle room here. So, use this guide as a foundation and change it as you need to fit your situation and whims. The only part that is non-negotiable is: have fun!
Find a Pig
This part is easy. You can order a whole wild boar here: Whole Wild Boar. Estimate about 1 lb of raw weight per person.
It is likely that your wild boar will arrive to you unfrozen or partially frozen. If your wild boar arrives to you frozen or partially frozen the first thing you must do is to thaw it completely. If you have refrigerated space available simply place the wild boar in the refrigerator and it should thaw within 24 to 72 hours (if frozen solid). If necessary the wild boar can also be thawed in a large cooler or other suitable container. Place ice in the bottom of the cooler then place the pig on top. Replenish ice as necessary to keep the temperature cool as the pig thaws.
An important step for roasting a whole pig is brining. This helps to season the meat but, more importantly, it adds moisture through osmosis that keeps the meat from drying out during the long cooking process. A large cooler works perfectly – I use a 120 qt cooler and have found it fits wild boar up to 50 lbs easily. Brine for at least 24 hours but 36 hours is preferable.
For a basic brine combine ¾ cup table salt per gallon of water or ½ cup pickling salt (dissolves easier) per gallon of water. I don’t recommend kosher salt for brining because the grains are too large and difficult to dissolve. You can keep it this simple or you can add additional flavors – sugar, herbs, citrus, etc. It’s fun to play with flavors at this point but know that anything you do here will be very subtle and if you add any smoke at all to the cooking process the flavors will likely be unnoticed. The main point of this step is to push salt and moisture deep into the muscles.
Here’s what I often do for a 30 – 50 lb pig using a 120 qt cooler:
4 gallons + 12 gallons water
8 cups pickling salt
6 oranges, halved
2 lemons, halved
2 bulbs garlic
A 30 – 50 lb pig fits nicely in a 120 qt cooler and needs about 16 gallons of water to cover it. In a large pot add 4 gallons of water plus the remaining ingredients. Squeeze the oranges and lemons as they go in. Put the pot over high heat and stir occasionally. Once salt is completely dissolved and the pot reaches a gentle simmer remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool. Place the pig in the cooler, add the concentrated brine, and then continue to add water until the pig is covered (about 12 more gallons). A little more or less water is ok. If the hocks are sticking out of the water don’t worry about that either. Relax. It’s a pig roast. Add a bag or two of ice and continue to periodically add ice as necessary to keep the water temperature cold. Keep the pig submerged in the brine for 24 to 36 hours.
Some additional helpful information:
A 4 lb box of pickling salt = 6 cups
A 10 lb bag of ice = 1.25 gallons of water
Another good way to push flavor into the meat is with injection. This can be done instead of brining if you don't have time or space. Or it can be in addition to brining as a way to put more seasonings into the meat. Many meat injection needles are available. Just make sure to get a sturdy one as it can be a little tough to push through the raw pig skin. There are many injection recipes to be found as well. A simple version is:
1 cup apple juice
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp salt
Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Pull the mix into the injection needle. Inject the mix into numerous places around the pig. Concentrate on the legs as well as the shoulders with a little along the back as well.
The pig roasting goal of many is moist meat and crispy skin. Brining can help with the first part. These next steps can help you become the pig roasting hero.
Once the pig has finished brining, drain the water and dry the pig with towels. In a small bowl mix ½ cup of baking powder and ¼ cup of kosher salt. Liberally sprinkle this mixture all over the skin then rub it in. The baking powder mixture will help to dehydrate the skin and help break down some of the skin’s proteins. The result is crispier skin.
Ideally, the pig can be left uncovered overnight in the refrigerator. This will allow the skin to dehydrate more and give the baking powder time to work its magic. If you do not have the space available the next best option is to dry the pig and apply the baking powder rub before cooking.
There are several methods available for cooking a whole wild boar each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
Caja China/Roasting Box - This is the simplest, quickest and most foolproof method. However, it does lack a little showmanship and requires a specialized piece of equipment. Information about the Caja China can be found here: www.lacajachina.com. Their website provides detailed instructions on using their box to cook a whole pig as well as other items. It takes about 4 hours of cooking time start to finish. (I don’t have any affiliation with Caja China. I just have good success using their product. If they sent me a new box I wouldn't say no, though!)
Spit Roasted - This is the one everyone wants to see and is the most interactive. You can make this a complex as you want or keep it simple. Remember that people have been successfully roasting whole animals for thousands of years without much technology. It takes a sturdy pole, a gentle fire, and patience. Friends and beer are also a nice addition.
Source a spit for roasting the pig. It can be homemade with pipe or you may be able to rent one from a local source. It can be turned manually or turned with a motor. If turning with a motor just be sure it has enough power to turn the pig. If turning manually you will want a way to lock the spit in different turn positions. A heavy block with a rope tied to the spit handle works well.
You will also need a place for cooking the pig. The most basic is to build a pit using cinder blocks stacked two to three courses high with a layer of sand poured on the ground. The cinder blocks help contain the embers but also help reflect the heat up towards the roasting pig. If you’re building a pit it should probably be done before roasting day.
Now it’s time to light the fire! Some like wood. Some like charcoal. Wood can burn hotter (not always good) but adds a nice smoke flavor. Charcoal burns more stable and is a little easier to control. I say use whatever you have. For charcoal you should plan on 30 lbs plus 10 lbs per hour of cooking, plus a little extra just in case. Whatever you use your goal is embers, not flames. You want the embers along the sides of the pit with no embers directly under where the spit will go. Low and slow, indirect cooking is used here. Not grilling.
While the fire is getting started it’s time to get the pig on the spit. Run the spit through the pelvis, down the spine and out through the mouth. Fasten the pig to the spit as tightly as possible using wire. Push a wire through the back of the pig near the spine. Loop it around the spit then push it back up on the opposite side of the spine. Twist the ends together using pliers to tighten it down. Make it tight. The pig will shrink as it cooks and create slack in this loop. You may need to retighten a time or two as it cooks. Repeat this process in a different place so you have at least two places tied around the spine and the spit. Next run a wire around the spit and down to the front legs. Cinch the legs as tight as possible to the spit. Do the same with the back legs. The goal is to get the pig’s center of gravity as close to the spit as possible. You want the weight balanced around the spit so that it turns easily.
Cooking time! Put the spit into place over the pit. Again, it should be getting indirect heat and not be placed directly over the embers. Try to keep a cooking temperature of 225°F - 250°F at the spit. This is best done by raising or lowering the spit as necessary while you continue to feed the fire to keep it gently burning. If using a manual spit then rotate it a quarter turn every 15 minutes. Cooking time can vary considerably based on many factors – pit type, fire temperature, ambient temperature, wind, pig size, it’s dinner time and everyone’s hungry, etc. A general rule of thumb is 1 hour and 15 minutes per 10 pounds of pig. However, the instant read thermometer will be the real test of doneness. Once the temperature reaches 145°F in the thickest parts of the pig (i.e. legs and shoulder) then it is safe to eat but it’s probably not where you want to stop. An internal temperature of 190°F - 200°F will give you the fall off the bone, pulled pork you really want. You may also want to baste the pig with a sauce as it cooks to add moisture and flavor. Some like a vinegar-based mop. I usually make a mix of olive oil, butter, herbs and any drippings I can catch from the pig as it cooks.
Once the pig reaches 190°F it’s time to crisp the skin. Stoke the fire and add wood to get it hot. Lower the pig closer to the fire (if necessary) and let the skin get good and blistered. Keep a close eye on things and rotate the pig frequently to keep it from burning. It’s like toasting a big marshmallow. With a head. And that tastes like pork.
Smoked/BBQ Pit - A third popular option is to cook the wild boar in a large smoker or BBQ pit. There are too many options and variations on this method to describe them all here. They’re all good. The basic process is to cook the pig slowly at a temperature of 225°F - 250°F until the internal temperature reaches 190°F - 200°F. Baste the pig periodically as it cooks with a mopping sauce. Here’s a good recipe source: http://bbq.about.com/od/moprecipes/.
Carving & Serving
With everything done it’s time to remove the pig from the heat. Allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes before cutting – you won’t be able to touch it much before then anyway. Allowing it to rest for an hour or more won’t hurt it much and it will stay plenty hot. The pig can be loosely tented with foil if you plan to let it rest more than 30 minutes.
For carving you will need a sharp knife, a table/counter, and the largest cutting board you can find. You probably won't be able to find a cutting board that is too large. Lay down some butcher paper or a plastic table cover on the table to set the cooked pig on.
There is no wrong way to cut up a cooked pig. Don’t be intimidated. Grab a leg and start cutting off meat. Do the same for the shoulder and everything in-between. As you chop big chunks of meat into smaller pieces try to cut across the grain for maximum tenderness. And try not to lick your fingers too many times in front of your guests.
One last tip: Start early. It will probably take longer to cook the pig and get it cut up than you think. No one ever complained when a pig was ready too early but the natives can get restless if the pig is done too late. A cooked pig will hold heat for a long time. Use that buffer to your advantage.