Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Goin' Whole Hog: How to Pull Off a Pig Pickin'

Whole hog roasting is an ancient tribal ritual around the world. There's a lot of meat in play so that means you don't undertake the exercise unless the whole tribe is coming.

There is no place on earth that takes hog cookery as seriously as the folks North Carolina through South Carolina, South Georgia, North Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. When you order "barbecue" in the Carolinas, you are often ordering chopped meat from a whole hog, and many joints in the Southeast feature a "Pig Pickin'", a sumptuous buffet featuring a whole hog. You just sidle up to the table and pluck of whatever you want. When lunch is over, there is nothing but a few bones. Even the skin is gone because, when it is cooked properly, this fabulously crisp "cracklins" are essential part of the feast.

If you want to cook a whole hog, you have several options:

1) Hire a pro
2) Rent a portable pit
3) Buy a commercial pit
4) Go Old School and build a pit

Nowadays many caterers and restaurants use special high tech cookers for hogs, but a handful of old timers, like Pete Jones of the Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC, still do it old school, on brick or concrete block pits, with log embers for heat.

myron mixon barbecue championOne of the world's leading authorities on whole hog cooking is Myron Mixon of Jack's Old South Competition Bar-B-Que Team from Unadilla, GA.

Mixon has won the Memphis in May competition thrice, an all pork event in which whole hog plays a major part of the scoring. For that event he uses a modern steel oven with a water pan on his famous "battle wagon". But he learned the art from his father, Jack Mixon, who cooked his hogs on concrete block pits that Myron still uses for special sessions of his popular cooking school.

Whole hog is extremely tricky to get right. Ask people if they've ever had meat from a roast pig it and if they have, their response usually is "Feh. Nothing special." That's because it was not cooked properly. And cooking it properly is tricky. There is a reason that whole hog was chosen by Mixon and producer John Markus for the finals of BBQ Pitmasters 2, a made for TV cooking competition with a $100,000 purse, the richest in the history of barbecue at the time, summer 2010. The concrete block pits used in that event were designed by Mixon and are similar to my plans.

The challenge with whole hog is that there are so many muscles of different thickness with different degrees of fat, sinew, and collagen. The hams, the large rump muscles on the rear legs are the thickest and most dense muscle group. They are best when cooked to about 175°F. The shoulders are slightly less thick, and they have large fatty deposits within. They are best when cooked to about 190°F. The loins are lean and tender, not nearly so thick, and they run alongside the spine, so they are easily overcooked. Just behind them are the tenderloins, thin tubes of the most tender meat on the hog. They are best at about 145°F. The curved ribs are on top of the loins, and they are heavy with fat and collagen and connective tissue. They're best at about 190°F. The belly, from which bacon is made, is mostly fat and it is a thin slab laying beneath the ends of the ribs when the carcass is laid out, skin side down. It can also go up to about 190°F.

Here's how you can have a pig pickin' by going Old School and building a pit, the way I like to cook it. Click the link for plans for building your own pit.

Now keep in mind, this is a recipe for a pig pickin', not for a competition hog. Competition hog is cooked differently on a special modern hog cooker. Before you get started, it would help if you familiarize yourself with the hog's anatomy.

Contact your butcher at least a week in advance to order your meat. Expect to pay about $2 per pound, dressed. A dressed (cleaned) hog is about 70% of its live weight. Mixon recommends you keep the dressed weight under 100 pounds because larger animals are hard to lift and flip, even with two people.

Actual edible meat yield is about 40 to 50% of the delivered weight, although smaller animals have a higher bone to meat ratio than large animals. A good rule of thumb is to order about 2 pounds per person, because after shrinkage and removal of the head, bones, fat, and other trimmings, you'll get about one pound of succulent, juicy meat. Order extra. The leftovers freeze nicely.

Use your butcher to make less work for you. Ask for the hog to be gutted and butterflied and confirm that the hair will be removed (it usually is), but have the butcher leave the skin on. Ask if it will arrive with head, feet, and tail. Most suppliers remove these, and that's good, they just get in the way, although cheeks (a.k.a. jowels) are considered delicacies. In some states it is illegal to sell a hog with the head attached. Besides, a lot of folks are squeamish about the head. You may also want to request the liver and heart on the side to make South Carolina hash, but that's another topic.

Ask your butcher to separate the shin and hip socket and split the spine and remove the spinal cord so you can splay the pig out flat. This is important.

If you aren't going to cook it immediately, make sure you have a spare refrigerator large enough for the whole carcass or an ice chest with plenty of ice. Here's what the well dressed hog looks like:


Yield. About 30 to 40 pounds of edible pork, enough to feed about 50 people depending on what else you are serving, average age, gender, time of day, and available alcohol
Advance prep time. 1 hour
Cooking time at about 225°F
75 pounds: 9 hours
100 pounds: 10 hours
125 pounds: 11 hours
It is ready when it is ready. The pig is in control, not you.
Carving time. 1 hour

1 whole hog, trimmed to about 75 pounds
1 quart cider vinegar
1 cup table salt
1 cup Meathead's Whole Hog Dust
2 pounds of bacon
1 quart of Lexington Dip
1 quart barbecue sauce, pick your fave, or have more than one on hand

Equipment needed
Concrete block hog pit
Large cooler or refrigerator
Stack of newspapers
Good digital meat thermometer and a good digital oven thermometer
1 table at least 5' long
1 plastic table cloth large enough for the table
Utility stapler and staples
Squirt gun
Plenty of beer
4 bags (18 pounds each) of charcoal
2 more bags just in case
Heat resistant gloves
Bear paws or large forks for pulling the meat
1 roll of heavy duty aluminum foil
1) Spread a new plastic tablecloth on a table. Lay the stretcher on the table. Lay the hog on the stretcher on the table, skin side down. Slit open any skin covering the hams and remove the part covering them so they will be exposed to heat. Trim off loose flaps of skin and fat. If the head is on, put a block of wood in the mouth about the size of an apple. You will replace it with an apple when it is done.

2) Put the fat you trimmed in a covered saucepan and, over medium heat, render at least 1 cup of liquid fat. Set aside for later.

whole hog hams for barbecue3) Now here's a trick I learned from Sun Wah Barbecue, a Chinese restaurant I love in Chicago. Pitmasters will say this is cheating, but I say, whatever works. With a sharp knife, put 2 to 4 cuts into the hams, about 4" long and 1" deep and about 2" apart. This will help them cook faster.

4) Prepare a mix of 4 tablespoons of Meathead's Whole Hog Dust and 1/2 cup apple juice and 2 cups of pork stock. Inject the hams and shoulders in half a dozen locations each with this internal marinade. Stick the needle in deep and slowly back it out, injecting as you go. Do not inject the loins.

5) Trim off any loose bone. Wash the cavity to remove bone dust and slivers using liberal quantities of cider vinegar.

6) Season the cavity liberally with Meathead's Whole Hog Dust and rub it in.

7) With the help of a friend, flip Porky skinside up, wet the skin thoroughly with water, sprinkle liberally with salt, and rub it in. Wet it again. You now want to make a heat shield for the loins so you need to tear off some heavy duty aluminum foil, fold it at least two layers thick the length of the hog from the base of the neck to the top of the hips, and about 10" wide. Now attach it to the hog right down the spine. You can use skewers, but I just use my utility stapler and long staples. Flip the hog on its back again and put a single layer of foil under the entire animal to protect the skin. Drink a beer.
8) Start the fire by crumpling about at least 6 sheets of newspaper and placing them in the bottom of the wheelbarrow, a steel drum, or kettle grill. Squirt some cooking oil on them, not charcoal fluid. Dump one 18 pound bag of charcoal on top and light the newspaper in several locations. After about 10 minutes, use your shovel to shuffle the coals around so they all light evenly. When the coals are covered with ash, shovel them into the four corners of the pit with a few more at the end where the hams will go. If you have a chimney, you can use that, but you'll probably need at least three loads.

9) Put a few disposable aluminum pans in the center of the pit under the area where the hog will go. Fill them with hot water.
10) Toss a fist size chunk of dry wood on each pile of coals. Do not use wet wood. It just steams and cools the coals. Place Porky skin side down on top of the foil on the rebar on the pit being careful not to rip off the foil. Make sure the handles of the stretcher are hanging outside the pit. Now stack another row of concrete blocks on top of the stretcher. Insert a meat thermometer probe into the deepest portion of one of the hams and run the cable outside the pit. Put another probe on the stretcher next to the hog to monitor oven temp. Working without good thermometers is like driving without a speedometer. Dangerous. Cover the pit with the lid. Try to stabilize the temp in the oven at 225 to 250°F. If it is too cool, open the dampers one at a time, a little bit at a time. Too hot, close them. Discard the contaminated table cloth. Drink a beer.

11) Keep a close eye on the proceedings. You do not want to leave the side of the pig for any longer than it takes to get a beer and make room for it. Dripping fat can cause a grease fire that can easily engulf the whole hog in moments. Don't believe me? Watch this video of a pig roast gone wrong. If you get flames, douse them with the squirt gun or watering can trying to keep ash from flying onto the meat when you squirt and trying to not extinguish the coals. Watch the skin. You want it dark golden, fried in its own fat.

12) After about 60 minutes, sooner if necessary, start another half bag of coals on the side and add the hot coals as needed before the temp starts to drop in the pit. You want to try to keep the temperature as steady as possible. That's tricky. Keep adding pre-lit coals around the carcass every hour or so as necessary. Don't add any more wood. You do not want too much smoke, it can ruin everything. When you open the lid, use a basting brush to mop the meat with the rendered fat you made when you trimmed the hog. If you prefer, you can baste with Lexington Dip, or do like I do, and alternate, fat and mop, every 60 minutes. Be efficient when you open the lid. Doing so lets out a lot of heat and moisture. So when you open the pit, mop, and replenish coals quickly. Have everything ready to go before you lift the lid. Treat it like a NASCAR pit stop.

13) Cook about 5 hours and remove the foil so the skin will crisp. Be careful, there will be grease in the foil. Cover the loins with strips of cold bacon and then cover them with foil. The bacon will flavorize and the melting fat will help cool the loins. The foil will help reflect heat from these delicate sections so they do not overcook while you're waiting for the hams to finish. Drink a beer. Stay awake.

14) Sauce. About 30 minutes from the end, if you wish, you can make the wole thing shine with a glaze of sauce. Makes it look pretty, but it just softens the crust and can overwhelm the flavor of the pork. I prefer to serve the meat nekkid and let people dip into sauce if they want.

15) When is it done? It will be ready when it is ready. The pig is calling the shots here, not you, especially until you get better at it. The exact time will depend on a lot of variables that take experience to manage: Size of the hog, amount of coals, distance of the meat from the coals, darkness of the inside of the pit, breed of hog, age of hog, weight of hog, size of the pit, type of lid, outside temp, wind, etc. Cook another 2 to 4 hours until the hams hit about 170°F, the loins about 145°F, the shoulders are about 185°F, and the skin is golden and crisp. Test the temp in several spots. Keep in mind the temp will rise about 5°F after it is removed from the heat. Chances you won't hit the mark on all three so you'll have to find a compromise. I use the hams as my guide. If necessary you can remove the loins and continue to cook.

16) When it is ready, put a layer or three of foil on the table. Don't use a plastic table cloth, it might melt. Move Miss Piggy to the table skin side down. Wipe off any ash. If you left the head on, remove the wood from the mouth and put in an apple, pop out the eyeballs with a spoon and insert grapes. You can try to sucker somebody into eating the eyeballs, but if you do, expect reprisals somewhere, someday.

I prefer to serve sauce on the side so people can taste the different meats unadorned and then add sauce if they wish. This way I can also offer several sauces. I serve the three classics: South Carolina Mustard Sauce, vinegarry Lexington Dip, and sweet tomato based Kansas City Classic. You can put out buns and slaw for sandwiches if you wish. In many places in the Southeast, barbecue sandwiches are served with a heap of creamy coleslaw on top whether you ask for it or not.

There are several ways to serve the meat.

1) Chop up the bacon and scatter it inside the cavity. Simply put the hog on display and let your guests dig in with forks or tongs, hence the name "Pig Pickin'". This way they can try different muscles and taste the differences.

2) Pull out all the bones including the ribs, shred the meat by hand or chop it with cleavers, mix the meat together with the chopped bacon, and put it on platters. Now scrape thick globs of fat off the skin and chop it fine, Rice Krispie size, and mix it in with the meat. Many Carolinians insist this is the best way to serve hog because you get all the different muscle flavors and textures mixed together and the crunchy unctuousness of the cracklins.

3) Another method is to remove the ribs and serve them from one platter, remove the loin meat, slice it and serve it from a another platter, ditto for the hams, shoulders, and other meat. Then sprinkle them with bacon and cracklins.

The cheeks are considered delicacies. Save them for someone special. Do not let the meat sit out at room temp for more than 2 hours.

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