The start of the pig roast. Photo by Joshua Kulp

Chefs Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp, among the growing legions who are making our food better and helping us to appreciate it more, call their moveable feast Sunday Dinner Club because it evoked a time when their families shared a long meal together.  Sharing meals with the people you love is far more important than I’d ever realized, a fact that deepens the more I cook, read, and listen to other cooks, both home cooks and professionals.  I love that spirit.

Sunday Dinner Club is an unusual Chicago-based business created in 2004.  What the chefs do is host dinner parties in their home and invite people on their mailing list to attend. The mailing list has been cultivated over the last six years by referral only which means that everyone that comes to the dinner club is connected in some way to them or another diner. The dinners are multi-course feasts, featuring the best of what is available from the good local and sustainable Midwest farmers at their fair city’s markets. The food they cook is the food they love to eat—seasonal, simple, clean, refined and thoughtfully prepared. They can also be found grilling fresh-ground burgers at Chicago’s Green City Market on Saturdays and catering smallish food-focused events—like whole pig roast parties for their friend, brewmaster Greg Hall, on Bastille Day.  The following post tracks how they thought about the pig roast, and how they went about it. Thanks Christine and Joshua for sharing your whole-animal know-how! —M.R.

by Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp

Gunthorp Farms, our source for responsible and tasty pork, usually delivers to us sometime after midnight. We had ordered two 40 pounders for Greg’s Bastille Day party. When we pried open the walk in, they were hard to miss – two clear-eyed piglets, slaughtered just the day before.

The plan was to spit roast them whole, in celebration of both the holiday and the pig. We chose small pigs as they are simpler to manage and have great collagen that when slowly melted results in succulent meat. Our first step was to set the pig in a position similar to the one it would ultimately be roasted in. In this case, we took the advice of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (British food writer of the River Cottage books series) and wrested the pigs into what he refers to as “laying dog” position. You will never look at Fido the same way again, but this position, especially with a small pig, helps even out the thickness of the animal and provides for a great presentation. Simply tuck the rear legs under the belly and bring the front legs under the head.

Next, we had to decide whether to brine, rub, marinate, or to leave the little guys alone.  Deciding that our beautiful piglets had been through enough, we opted to do very little.  48 hours before roasting, we made a puree of salt, pepper, orange peel, fennel fronds, fennel pollen, olive oil and garlic.  We love orange and pig and we’ve had transformational experiences with fennel rubbed porchetta.

Before rubbing down the pig with our puree, we had to prepare the skin.  We had two goals in mind – effectively getting the marinade to infuse the meat and creating the ideal conditions for crackling, crunchy skin.  We scored the skin with the best tool for the job – an adjustable box cutter or utility knife.  On a small pig this can be a very delicate job, the skin is still quite thin and the fat layer below is not fully realized. We scored the skin in parallel lines, about an inch apart, perpendicular to the spine from head to tail.  We then worked the marinade into all the crevices created by scoring as well as inside the pig.

When pig roast day arrived we pulled our pigs out of the cooler first thing in the morning. We wanted the pig at near room temperature before roasting to ensure even results and to save some time on the spit. We used a Big John Charcoal Rotisserie.

Wiring the pigs to the spit took close to an hour.  First, we ran the main skewer through the bottom of the pig, along under the spine and out the mouth – trying to use the natural holes the pigs came with, so as to avoid puncturing tasty meat.  Second, we secured the pigs to the spit so that it would not spin or flip while rotating.  We chose to use some heavy duty, but thin gauge wire to do the job. We started by wiring the legs together to keep them from swinging free. Then we carefully threaded wire in a loop through the back, around the spine, and under the skewer and twisted the wire tight to keep the pig in place. We tied the spine to the skewer in three places, near the rear, the center and the head.  This did the trick and we ran a couple of tests to ensure the stability of the pig.

Pig scored, rubbed, secured – time to roast!  We lit a fire using natural lump wood charcoal. Once the flames died down in the chimney, we set the pig into place on the spit and poured the coals. We carefully set up our fire underneath the pig.  Wanting to avoid having hot coal directly below the animal, as drippings might flare up and direct heat would leave the outside cooked faster than the inside, we placed foil pans underneath the pig itself, to delineate the area without coals and to catch any drippings.

 

The pig turning on the spit. Photo by Joshua Kulp

We did this for about 9 hours. Patience is a virtue. Every 30 minutes or so we rotated the pig 45 degrees. Slow and even is the mantra. We made sure to pile the coals a little fuller near the front and back of the pig as the shoulders and hams take a little more fuel to cook through than the mid section belly and loin. We plowed through about 150 pounds of charcoal over 8 hours for each pig, keeping a couple of chimneys full of fuel the entire day.

We started checking temps after several hours and brought our pigs up to about 145 degrees. Then the real fun started – cracklings!  We pulled the foil pans and arranged the hot coals directly under the pig.  We dumped some extra freshly lit coal right under the pigs and immediately the skin began rendering fat and bubbling. As soon as the skin bubbled up, we rotated the pigs a little to get the next section working and kept rotating until the pigs were covered in crunchy cracklings. We then pulled the pigs off the spits and found a nice table to let them rest.

The pig is nearly done roasting on the spit. Photo by Joshua Kulp

Resting let the juices settle and allowed the meat to relax. We carefully slid the pig from the skewer and used wire cutters to cut and remove all wires. Once rested, we removed the hams, the shoulders, the loins, the belly, the cheeks and set to work slicing the meat and chopping the cracklings.

A pig roast is a ton of work, but working with a whole animal truly allowed us to connect with our food. And those were some tasty pigs – a great combo of smoke, pork fat, crunchy skin and hints of fennel and garlic.

The pig is cooked wonderfully and ready to serve. Photo by Joshua Kulp

Whole Piglet Roast

Serves 20-30 as part of a Pig Roast with accompaniments

  • 1 whole piglet – 30-50 pounds, gutted and cleaned
  • 2 tablespoons fennel pollen (use toasted and ground fennel seeds if you can find pollen)
  • 3 heads of garlic
  • Zest of 3 oranges
  • 1 cup of fennel fronds
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons, fresh ground black pepper

Equipment

  • Spit
  • Natural lump wood Charcoal – at least 150lbs
  • Adjustable Box cutter
  • 2 Charcoal Chimneys
  • Lighter
  • Sturdy wire, not encased in plastic
  • Wire cutters
  • Grill brush, tongs, small shovel – a charcoal moving tool

Preparation

  1. 2 days ahead of roasting score the pig skin in one-inch parallel lines from head to tail.
  2. Puree fennel pollen, garlic, zest, fennel fronds, olive oil, salt, and black pepper in a food processor.
  3. Rub the pig inside and out with marinade

To Roast

  1. Securely affix the pig to the spit (Follow directions for your roaster).
  2. Spread a ring of charcoal underneath the pig and place drip pans directly below the pig.  Build the fire a little larger near the head and rear of the pig.
  3. Rotate pig 45 degrees every 20-30 minutes.
  4. When pig reaches an internal temp of 145 degrees, remove drip pans and push coals directly below the pig and carefully blister the skin with direct heat to generate crunchy cracklings.  Rotate pig until fully blistered.
  5. Remove pig from spit and let rest before carving.

 

If you liked this post on suckling roasted pig, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

 

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28 Wonderful responses to “How To Roast a Suckling Pig”

  • john v phipps

    Oh my! what a treat. This brings back memories of the evening of my last day in the Philippines (back in 1973) when the landlord of the place where most of my unit lived off base in San Miguel roasted a pig in the courtyard for the party. They basted it with Gin!. It was delicious.

  • Wilma de Soto

    I’m hungry! Would using a “Caja China” have been easier?

  • J.W. Hamner

    Wow, this is an amazing post. Love the detail you supplied about the process… especially since this is not likely to be something I ever attempt!

  • Jason Sandeman

    Oh, now that is legit! I love the care and attention you took, how you honored that piglet with the love you put into roasting it. I only had an opportunity to see a pig roast once, back in 2001. I still remember the two piglets sitting in the walk-in, rubbed and ready to go. I remember sending a server to get cream from the same walk-in, and laughed as she screamed her head off.
    She was serving a function where there was a pig roast, what did she expect? LOL.
    Are your rotisseries electric, or manual? I couldn’t tell. Also, if the pig was to constantly turn over the coals, what impact would that have?

  • Michael Massimino

    This is quite an achievement: both the cooking of the pig and the documentation. Suckling pig is one of the main reasons I built a wood fired oven in my backyard, this really gets me pumped up for it even more.

  • allen

    9 hours is a long time, this would have to be pretty good to invest that much time. Could not imagine what a full size pig would take, but this looks great and the crackling is the big seller. But I can’t get the little ones in my area so I’ll have to stick with the smaller cuts.

  • Brian Silvey

    It appears that the pig was not on a rotisserie and that they hand turned every 30 mins? Did I read that right? Very interesting. I roasted a whole pig last year and considered cooking it in the ground luau style, on a rotiserie or in a china box. I ended up choosing a home made china box as it was the least expensive option. Would really like to try it again. Biggest problem is finding enough people to eat it all.

    Brian

  • Joshua Kulp

    Thanks for all the comments and thanks Michael for sharing our pig roasting experience! To answer some of your questions: @wilma de soto – yep, a Caja China would probably be easier, but you don’t get to share the sight a whole pig roasting on a pit with a caja. @Brian Silvey and Jason Sandeman – the spit we used actually did have a motor, but we did not leaving the pig twirling endlessly. I found that I had more control over the cooking process by positioning the pig myself. I kept the thicker, longer cooking parts (Hams and shoulders) of the pig tilted towards the fire for slightly longer periods of time than the quicker cooking parts (loin or back). It helps to have a thermometer handy to evaluate how the pig is doing internally. Don’t poke too many holes though!
    Josh

    • Brian Silvey

      I didn’t mean to imply that caja china was better because it was cheaper. Just my budget at the time. Now that I’ve seen this can be done without rigging or renting a rotisserie it becomes a very viable option. Coul dry hardwood be used as effectively as lump charcoal?

      Your piglet makes me wish I lived in Chicago.

      Brian

  • Jeff Zeis

    The China roasting boxes look very appealing, have you ever used one or have any thoughts on them?

  • Bob Y

    This posting brings me back to the hilarious New Year’s eve party many years ago at which I decided to roast a whole (stuffed, no less) suckling pig in a small apartment kitchen. My friends went to a Puerto Rican marquetta in east Harlem and came back with a 40 lb monster. Somehow, I had thought of them as smaller. Well, between making enough stuffing to feed an army (or pig) and having to cut it in half so that it would fit in the oven, the pig wasn’t ready until 1:30 AM and everyone was too tired (and drunk) to eat. I gave away as much as I could and ate pig for what seemed like months. The irony of the situation was that the pig was truly delicious and my friends missed a wonderful dinner. Can’t blame them though .

  • James Rosse

    We’ve done whole pigs before, in the 120-140 pound range. One thing that I noticed, was that they didn’t have a hose nearby to put dinner out. As an adult pig roasts, the fat renders out, and the skin may behave like a wick. Not good eats, as it is said.

    We do our pig on a ~1.25″ diameter rotisserie, with a 3/4 horse motor to turn the bad boy. 1/4″ steel spikes through the shoulders and hips, and wrapped in chicken wire to keep it together. Takes about the same amount of time, but feeds a lot more folks. :)

    –Jim Rosse

    • Cali

      My family does the same thing for our bigger family reunions, chicken wire and all! We’ve never had a problem with setting the skin on fire, maybe because it’s constantly rotating about two feet above the coals, but we do have a hose with a sprayer/mister attachment at the ready. So far, we’ve only used it to mist the cooks as a spray bottle was enough to snuff out any fat blazes. Also, we roast the pigs over well-seasoned smaller cuts of oak, peach, walnut and pecan woods. We just toss it on the fire at the ends of the barbecue rig and push it toward the middle as it turns to coals.

      Everybody brings a side dish and a cooler full of their favorite beverages and ice. The reactions of the children are priceless– everything from screams of terror from the younger kids to mischievous flashes in the eyes of the eight to ten year-old boys who just want to stab it, preferably in the eyes. In the end we all just laze around on the deck in a very sated food coma and lick the sticky yumminess off our fingers.
      .

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    WoW!! if that pig tastes half as good as it looks in Joshua’s picture those people might have been just as lucky as those at El Bulli on its last nite….

  • Tucker Keene

    This here is an excellent example why I’m a vegan. I would not be able to eat something that looks like that. But the ingredients make it sound very tasty, and I fully support everyones right to enjoy tasty food like this probably is!

    BTW, this is an incredible blog, I just discovered it last night after it was mentioned on Iron Chef America, and spent the rest of my night reading through all 51 pages of posts.

    • ruhlman

      wow, thanks Tucker. Hope you keep reading. Glad to have an open-minded vegan reading! Perhaps I can change your mind, or you mine, or at least have fun trying.

  • Chappy

    Not sure I will be making a whole pig anytime soon, but the flavors sound awesome. Can anyone comment if fennel pollen is ‘worth it’ compared to simply using toasted fennel seed. It seems like fennel pollen is an expensive and hard-to-find spice, but I’d be willing to give a try if it is a superior product (and if it has a wide range of applications).

  • commiskaze

    Ohh god that does things to me that food probably shouldnt! I remember doing a benefit in Toronto where Michael Standtlander had a smoked suckling pig off of his farm, that crackling was delicious! Ohh and yes dude, if you can get your hands on fennel pollen its definitely a treat.

  • Evan D.

    Where would one acquire a rotisserie setup like this?

    I’ve not been able to find a way to locally source it and otherwise it seems like I’d have to have someone do the metal fabrication. Looking online the Aussies sell these things like we do regular grills as a common item, but nothing I can see for USA or specifically Central Florida.

    Evan

  • harmonious

    Man, that first photo looks like my dog (save for the head of course). Agggh!

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