It all started like most of my conversations with people. One night I was at my friends Mike and Ofelia’s house sitting around the kitchen chit-chatting about food. Mike, who has the job I only dream of (he’s a chef), and I talked through the night about different methods of cooking a whole pig. Before the night was over, permission to destroy the lawn was given by my lovely friend Ofelia and a deal was struck. We were going to try what everyone aspires to do one day: roast a whole pig. Well, at least everyone I know.
Valerie was soon on board with us and we set the date, invited some people to help eat, and started our research. This was new territory for me and Mike so a lot of books, blogs and friends were consulted. Many methods of cooking were available to us as we realized that people around the world have discovered incredible and diverse ways to cook pig. However, one of the first options we nixed was the “buried pig” method. A large fire is burned in a deep pit lined with lava rocks or bricks for hours, heating the earth. The fire is put out, the pig is lowered and the hole is covered and sealed completely, using the residual heat to cook the pig through. Because of a seeming lack of control over the heat (which is extremely important when it comes to barbeque) we decided that this was not the best option for beginners. Besides, I’m not sure how the neighbors would’ve felt about an enormous bonfire one yard over.
The Caja China, a pre-made wooden box that produces lechón-style pork, was recommended many times but after considering the cost, we decided to forego the investment– they’re not cheap. We decided to consider purchasing it if our first roast turned out well.
The third and best option for us was a cinder-block barbeque. A rectangular barbeque is built from cinder blocks and a sheet of expanded metal or grates holds the pig a few feet above the hot coals. It requires a bit of elbow grease and sweat, but as someone put it before, it “builds character.”
When it comes to determining the size of the pig you choose it depends on how many people you are going to feed. We planned for roughly 30 people coming so we got a 50 pound pig (after it’s been cleaned). Although, we had more guests arrive than planned for (about 45) and everyone was eager to eat so I would get a larger pig next time, about 70 pounds. I learned that at an all-day barbeque if you keep bringing out the pork, people will keep eating!
So, let’s get this process started, shall we?
Building the Pit
Start this process at least one day before the roast.
- 30 cinderblocks
- a shovel
- a level
- a sheet of expanded metal or metal grate about 36 by 54 inches*
- Optional: about 10 heat resistant bricks
*Do not use galvanized metal. The fumes it releases will make you and everyone who eats the food sick.
A few words on obtaining a sheet of expanded metal. After some research we found the best option (if you don’t already have some lying around) is to get one custom made from shops that make oil drum barbeques. Not only is it much cheaper but you can design the grate as you want. We decided here to get it reinforced and with handles attached. Since you can reuse it, the effort to find a place that can do this is worthwhile.
Clear a patch of land about the size of the barbeque pit (about 4 feet by 6 feet). Start by forming a rectangle of cinderblocks, 2 cinder blocks wide and 3 cinder blocks long. Lay this first row on it’s sides so air can run through this bottom layer, which helps the coals to continue burning. We used heat resistant bricks to line the inside of the length of the bottom row so that there wouldn’t be too much oxygen in the pit. However, you could seal up those holes using foil or any other barrier you can get your hands on.
Use a level tool to make sure the first row is even. If it isn’t each brick thereafter will be off making your whole barbeque unstable and rickety.
Then stack the rest of the rows on top of the barbeque with the solid sides facing out. Line the bottom of the barbeque with tin foil.
Prepping the Pig
Start this process the day before the roast.
If the idea of picking out a live animal that you will later eat creeps you out, I implore you to open your mind to this process. I too was reluctant about it, fearing that my love for meat would be stifled by the stark reality of being a human who kills living things for our consumption. However, after the process (in which Val was the brave one pointing the finger) I would say it made me, Mike, Ofelia and Val more conscientious consumers and more appreciative of the meat we eat.
- 1 50-pound pig, gutted and cleaned
- Kosher salt
- a box cutter
- latex gloves
- Ice and cooler
Wherever you are able to source a whole hog, ask the butcher to crack the spine and head for you. This allows the pig to splay out flat over the grill. You can do this yourself but you will need a hammer, a small ax, and very careful hands.
When you get your pig, rinse it off very well and place it on a large clean surface. We used sheet pans on a table, and this is where latex gloves come in handy! Carefully score the surface of the pig with a box cutter in large criss-crossing diagonals. Don’t cut past the skin and layer of fat into the flesh. On a younger pig the skin will be much thinner and easier to cut through and on larger pig the skin will be thicker and tougher to penetrate.
With heaping handfuls of kosher salt, rub generous amounts all over the pig. Don’t be concerned about over salting it; it is a lot of meat. We didn’t measure the amount we used but I would say roughly 2 cups of kosher salt was used.
Place it in a cooler with bags of ice over it to rest overnight. We left the ice in the bag so it wouldn’t melt and dilute the salt rub.
Starting the Grill
Start this early in the morning the day of the roast.
- 60 pounds of charcoal
- 1 coal chimney
- a small rake or shovel
- BBQ tongs
- meat thermometer (Use one that reads the external temperature as well as the meat temperature. Having this is absolutely critical to rookie BBQing!)
- 6-8 sheet pans or a large sheet of metal
*Optional: meat syringe, BBQ mop, more heat resistant bricks
Start with one 20-pound bag of charcoal spread in two even piles on both ends of the barbeque. Light this and let it burn down until the coals are ashy and glowing. For our pig, we lowered the grate so it was resting on top of the second layer of cinder blocks about 16 to 18 inches from the ground. Layer the third row of cinder blocks on top of the grate. This provides a short wall around the pig so a sheet of metal can be placed over the pig while it cooks, trapping in the heat.
It will take a while for the initial coals to burn down, so in the meantime get the pig out of the chest and patted dry. We injected ours with a mojo of fresh pineapple juice (which has enzymes that helps break down protein), Seville orange juice, chillies, garlic, oregano, cumin and salt. We had a bowl of this on the side that we occasionally basted the pig with.
Getting the temperature right at the beginning is really the hardest part. After you have your pig ready, it’s just about maintaining that temperature. Once the coals are ready, throw your pig on the grate belly-side down and stick your thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. Cover with a sheet of metal or in our case a carefully arrange layer of sheet pans.
Once your pig is on, reserve a few coals to start a full chimney of coals (about 5 pounds) so that they’re ready to add to the pit. From here it’s all about keeping an eye on the temperature. You generally want the “oven” temperature to stay around 225 to 250 degrees. After adding coals to each side, just have another chimney full of coals burning so that they’re ready any time you need them. It takes babysitting, but you can play cornhole in the meantime.
To add new coals, we just removed a couple of the corner cinder blocks and used a shovel and BBQ tongs to add to the pile. As ash starts to build up just push it carefully towards the center so that you’re not putting new coals over a pile of ash. Just do this gently so the ash doesn’t fly up all over the pig.
After about 1 hour (when the inside had gotten some good color on it) we flipped the pig onto its back and let it roast for another 2 hours or so before flipping it back onto its stomach again. We basted it a few times with the mojo we injected into it, but not a lot. We really wanted the results to be pure pork– just enhanced. It cooked the rest of the way like this until the internal temperature of the meat hit about 200 degrees and was served immediately.
There was one thing I would recommend doing differently. Get some oil on that skin– we thought there was enough fat to crisp up the skin, but while some parts were, others weren’t.
Eating the Pig
(I think this is pretty self-explanatory.)
Our group of friends is an adventuresome bunch so we decided to serve the pig as is, straight off the barbeque, and allow guests to pick what parts they wanted.
We made a finishing mojo with garlic slowly cooked in olive oil, Seville orange juice and spices to go with the pig. Rice, black beans, grilled plantains, grilled corn and a salad was a great way to finish off the meal!
Oh and a keg is of utmost importance.
By the end of the night not a single piece of meat was left, just bones. Even the face and ears were enjoyed, which was the proper way to pay homage to our pig.