Although it hardly is a beginner’s venture, cooking a pig requires surprisingly little culinary finesse, since minimal seasoning or maintenance is needed once the roasting is underway. As long as the internal temperature reads at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit from the thickest section, the hams, the pig is ready to eat.
Roasting a whole adult pig is neither for the solo nor the fainthearted cook. Not only does it take at least two people to haul around a 100-pound carcass but some of the prep work requires techniques not suitable for the squeamish. Since a porker typically needs to be ordered from a butcher or farm around a week in advance to allow time for hanging, cooks have plenty of time to source and assemble the required equipment. Grilling racks or spits usually can be rented, while an open fire pit is relatively straightforward to build from cinder blocks. Count on at least a pound of charcoal briquettes per pound of meat. A coal shovel and oven mitts are essential. Once home, the pig can be stored in an ice bath for up to a day.
A whole hog can weigh from 60 to 125 pounds, which yields roughly half the weight in edible pork. In barbecue hotbeds such as North Carolina, a traditional method is to split the pig down the backbone and place it butterflied on a heavy metal grill over a fire pit. The pig should be laid skin up; any excess fat should be removed to prevent it dripping down and causing a flare up. Cooks need to shovel hot coals beneath the grill, cover the whole pit with a thin metal panel and aim to maintain a temperature of around 250 degrees Fahrenheit by adding coals and opening air vents. A 130-pound pig should take roughly six or seven hours to cook. Turn the pig skin-side down for the last half hour to make crackling and baste the cavity with sauce.
Roasting a pig on a spit -- generally for hogs no more than 90 pounds -- begins with threading the larger metal beam in the spit-roast kit through the pig’s extreme orifices, binding it to the spinal column with metal wire and securing the trotters to the thinner beam with wire. Use a standard razor to shave off any bristles, and cover the ears and tail with aluminum foil. Two people need to lift the spit onto its supports and the coals should be heaped beneath the shoulders and hams -- which need temperatures of at least 200 degrees -- but left sparse beneath the belly section, which drips fat and needs only 145 degrees to cook through. Epicurious recommends one hour and 15 minutes of cooking time per 10 pounds, lowering the spit for the last hour to bubble and crisp the skin.
The least-demanding option is to choose a suckling pig, typically aged up to 6 weeks old and weighing no more than 40 pounds. Not only do these younger pigs have a wonderfully soft, gelatinous flesh full of collagen, but most fit comfortably inside an oven for roasting. Arrange the pig with the back exposed on a baking sheet or curl it up inside a roasting pan. Season the skin liberally with salt and stuff the cavity with garlic and other aromatics according to taste. Start roasting on a low heat, up to 300 degrees, until the internal temperature is 160 degrees -- roughly four hours for a 20-pound pig. To crisp the skin, raise the temperature to 500 degrees for half an hour, then remove the pig and leave it to rest, covered, for half an hour to seal in the juices.
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