Chef Don Schoenburg shares his long experience, expertise and enthusiasm for cooking whole animals.
Some things you will need to choose before cooking the animal are the method and the cooking vessel. Let’s talk about your options.
If you cook a whole pig, the first thing you need to decide is what to cook it in. Consider the size of the pig. An average sized pig (100 lbs) will not fit in a standard oven, but there are other ways. I prefer an open pit. This is how they cook jerk chicken in Jamaica and brisket in Texas. Just as it sounds, an open pit is four walls constructed of bricks, usually about 36 inches high. The wood/charcoal is placed at the bottom with the fire fed to maintain the temperature between 225 ” 260 degrees. The wood/charcoal is placed off to one side or in a corner so there is no direct heat under the meat. Think of it as a huge wood-fired oven with smoke added.
On a side note, Jamaicans do not actually add wood to the fire, they use flavored wood in place of the grill and set the food directly on the wood.
Now let’s talk about flavor and seasoning. There are an infinite number of options as there are spices. I prefer to brine my pig overnight. When it’s removed, try applying a light rub and then let it hang for 24 hours to allow a nice pellicle. The pellicle, a thin layer that forms on the skin as it dries, allows the smoke and seasoning to stick better. If you are not a fan of injecting meat, you can get the same flavor by using the brine.
Let’s not forget about the smoke. For optimum flavor, add small amounts of flavored wood chunks throughout the entire cooking process. You can use a mix of different woods to achieve the specific flavor profile you are looking for. I suggest playing around and thinking about the type of woods you are using and how the flavors will complement the meat. For example, apples go well with pork so it is safe to assume that apple wood is a good choice for smoking pork. Wood is not the only thing that can be used for imparting flavor. Try pecan shells to add a nice nutty flavor.
Now that you have prepared your meat and planned your flavors, you have to cook. Remember that BBQ is all about low temperature for long periods of time. I like to place a pan of water or fruit juice next to the coals to maintain the moisture level in the smoker. It is very important to keep the meat from drying out. I also recommend basting the product every hour. This technique gives you a reason to check the product and heat so you roast the perfect pork. You can tell when it’s done by feeling it and checking the juices.
Remember that BBQ does not mean that you can start and walk away. Constantly monitor your pit and know you get out what you put in. The more love and care the better the result.
You can serve your pork with anything. Salsa, tortillas and black beans are welcomed accompaniments but coleslaw and ranch style beans are great too. I save the pig feet to use in the beans after they’ve been smoked. You can fry the ears and usually make wonderful head cheese from the head and jowls.