Using backward planning, I rolled out of bed at 4:15 a.m. Sunday morning. Chief Ann wanted the pig ready to eat at 4 pm. The pig weighed 90 lbs, and the rule of thumb for cooking is 1 hour cooking for every 10 pounds of carcass. Given 9 hours to cook, I needed it on the spit at 7 a.m. I figured it would take 2 hours to dress the pig onto the spit, so I needed to start work at 5 a.m. (I’ll talk about starting the charcoal later.) I gave myself a half hour margin (cocky!) and arrived at 4:30 a.m.
Around 2 a.m. there was a call for mutual assistance from another county – they wanted our company to have a fire truck on stand-by. After the crew was released, firefighter Doug Exline decided to hang around and give me a hand. I am very glad he did! While I would have hit my numbers, Doug’s assistance allowed me to get the pig on the fire at 6:30 a.m. with no pressure.
Once again, Thank You Doug!
The pit itself was constructed of stacked cinderblocks in an 8’x8’ cleared earth area. You want to clear away, or cover with sand and blocks any grass from your cooking pit. There are plenty of ways to season a pig, grass smoke is not one.
The blocks were stacked in 2 parallel walls, 3 blocks high. Another half dozen blocks should be on hand to position later.
The spit (mine is a solidly made and well equipped Spitjack P-80) consists of 2 tripods supporting a 5’ pole. One on tripod is a 4 rpm motor. Preparation includes lashing the pig to the pole. Again, the Spitjack system is well designed and sturdy. While the P-80 lists an 80 lb limit, I’d have no problem going to 120 lbs. My limiting factor would be the length of the dressed pig. Spitjack also makes a P-180, and I believe larger sizes might be available (ask Bruce Frankel, Spitjack’s very accessible owner).
Charcoal IS NOT placed directly under the pig. Dripping fat flares, plays havoc with the heat, and smokes in a less than pleasing fashion. Put a few aluminum oven pans under the pig to catch the drippings (I’ll estimate I collected 2 gallons of liquid.)
To start, charcoal should be placed on either side of the pig, against each wall. As cooking progresses you’ll arrange the hot coals to concentrate on the hams and shoulder. If conditions are warm enough, you can let one side of hot coals burn out.
To recap, an 8’x8’ area, 2 block walls arranged lengthwise to the spit, extra blocks for directing the heat, drip pans, and charcoal. Concrete patio pavers are good to have under the spit tripods. Also a couple 8’ sections of corrugated tin are useful for protecting from rain or intensifying heat.
Earlier I promised to revisit the fire, now’s the time. DO NOT use ‘match light’ briquettes. Just as grass doesn’t flavor a pig well, neither do the various binders and junk used in charcoal briquettes! I did cheat this time and I used briquettes to start the fire, but they were plain with no ‘match light’ additives (they were on sale – I couldn’t resist). For the remainder of the burn I used natural hardwood charcoal (cowboy charcoal). Compared to briquettes, natural charcoal burns hotter, lasts longer, makes less ash, and has no additives. Natural charcoal is more expensive (unless you make your own – another entry?), but it is NECESSARY. Plan on having more charcoal than pig (in pounds), with an extra 20 lb bag in reserve. If it’s cold, wet, or windy, you’ll need more. I won’t use plain firewood because of (1) smoke discoloration, (2) risk of off smoke flavors, and (3) unpredictability of burn.
There are lots of ways you can start the fire – lighter fluid, an initial batch of match light, diesel, etc. I prefer a roofer’s torch! The advantage of the roofers torch (also known as a weed dragon) is that it starts the coals faster, imparts no off-flavors, can be used after the pig is positioned, and is very manly. Time and ambient alcohol allowing, I’ll pass the torch honors to someone worthy; I’m always rewarded with a big smile.
Nothing. None. I hope you notice my warnings against grass, match light, and even firewood. Pig tastes good. The most sincere compliment I got Sunday was “this tastes like pig” (thank you Danny). If people want to have sauce handy, ok, let them. If you’re making pulled pork after the roast, then seasoning is essential. The only seasoning I suggest is getting a pastured pig; I believe that pigs which eat nothing but grain and antibiotics taste inferior.
When it’s Done
The last magic number for a pig roast is 160 degrees. That’s the minimum temperature you want to find when probing the pig. When the deepest part of the hams & shoulders reaches 160, you can eat.
For the next 9 hours I minded the coals, checked the temperature, and socialized. At about 10 a.m. I decided the pig was cooking too fast, and dialed the heat back a bit. Around 1:30 p.m. parts of the pig seemed ‘stuck’ at 140 degrees, so I increased the heat and used my corrugated tin. At 3 p.m. all readings were at least 160 degrees. (Note that Sunday reached 95 degrees.)
(Note from Sylvie: I sampled the meat myself, getting a little worried about all those “manly” references: a girl got to check!)
All seemed happy. (Sylvie: sure seemed that way. Leftovers tucked in the fridge fast disappeared too!)