There's nothing like roasting a whole hog, or having a pig pickin', as it's often called in the South, to bring people together. "It's a group bonding experience when you cook a whole animal," says FEED Co. Executive Chef Charlie Loomis, who's roasted at least 30 pigs in his lifetime and generously agreed to share a few tips with Chatter readers. In certain parts of the world — such as Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Brazil (where Loomis' mother grew up )— it's a traditional dish, often used for large celebrations like weddings, Christmas and New Year's. So, as the holidays approach, consider going whole hog for your next gathering.
Pig pickin' tips
How pigs are raised and what they're fed makes a difference in the taste. Loomis says he typically sources pigs from farmers around town, naming Sequatchie Cove as one local farm he's used several times in the past with good results. The farm's pigs are a heritage breed, Gloucestershire Old Spots, which live outside in pastures and the neighboring woods, foraging for acorns, walnuts and persimmons. The breed is known for its tender, flavorful meat, the result of greater moisture retention in the pigs' muscles, according to the website of the Gloucestershire Old Spots Pig Breeders' Club, of which Sequatchie Cove is a member. A good fat-to-lean ratio, with a lot of marbling throughout the muscles, is always good to have, says Loomis. You'll need to order your pig at least two weeks in advance.
Choose your wood
When he's smoking meats at FEED, Loomis says he likes to use a mix of cherry and apple wood; but since a whole pig doesn't pick up as much flavor from the wood, for that he'll use any aromatic wood that's not too overpowering, such as maple or pecan.
Find your method
There are several different ways to cook a whole hog, and everyone seems to have their own preferred method.
"The most important point is long low and slow — low heat for a long time lets the fat and the flavors meld into the meat, and the whole cooks in a way that creates a special eating experience," says Sequatchie Cove Farm owner Bill Keener.
The easiest method for beginners is the Caja roasting box, an old Chinese technique that Loomis uses when he roasts pigs on the patio at FEED Co. The box is the quickest method — a medium-sized pig takes about eight hours to roast, as opposed to 16-20 hours in a pit, says Loomis — and requires less supervision, as it builds heat quickly, evenly and does a good job of maintaining that heat. He explains that the method is similar to pressure-steaming, and is a very clean way to cook a pig that results in moist, juicy pork, though you won't get much of a smoky flavor.
Loomis says he also likes to roast pigs Cuban-style, which involves building a rectangular-shaped barbecue pit from cinder blocks and placing the pig on a grate a few feet above the embers, and a piece of sheet metal on top to trap in the heat.
You can also roast your pig over a spit, turning the pig to brown the skin evenly. This method is quicker than a cinder-block barbecue, but you get less flavor since you're roasting in the open air. The temperature is also more difficult to control, so if this is your first pig roast, you may want to try another method.
Fire it up
While the pig cooks, Loomis says he likes to sporadically sprinkle on a bit of apple cider vinegar. Probably the most difficult part of the process, he says, is knowing when your pig is done. "It's a lot of trial and error getting the time and temperature down," he says, adding that most people struggle the first few times they a roast pig. "Typically you can tell by testing the temperature at the joints, on the back half near the hip," he says. A temperature of 185-190 degrees should indicate your pig is tender and ready to eat.
Enjoy hog heaven
When he roasts pigs at FEED, Loomis likes to serve the tender pork on tacos. "I can't imagine anything better than fresh pulled pork on a corn tortilla with hot sauce [he uses locally made Hoff & Pepper], queso fresco, and maybe some radishes," he says.