I turned 40 earlier this week and to celebrate I wanted to throw a big backyard bash. Everyone loves parties, but since I was leveling up to a new decade I figured I needed to do something special. A pig roast seemed like a fun idea so I set out to research how it’s done.
There’s basically four ways to roast a pig: The hawaiian way, by filling a deep hole with hot rocks and burying it with the pig; turning the pig on a spit over an open fire; renting a Caja China box or roasting the pig over a grill pit.
I was planning on hosting 50-70 people, and guidelines I’ve found suggested getting 1.5 pounds of pig per person, so I’d need something around 80 pounds. The Caja China box doesn’t seem to handle pigs much bigger than 30 pounds, I wasn’t interested in renting a spit or trying to manage the turning and I also didn’t want to sacrifice my backyard lawn to a big pit, so the grill pit method would be the solution.
From a couple days of surfing the web I found that grill pits are pretty much a regular thing through out the Caribbean, but I couldn’t find much documentation–except for Three Guys From Miami which became my guide (and great read too!). As you’ll see, building a grill pit is not difficult and sets up a great show for the party.
Getting The Stuff
I knew I’d need a lot of charcoal to keep the fire going, so I thought I’d try something other than standard briquettes. Chicago has a charcoal wholesaler, Berger Brothers, that sells the stuff wholesale (cash only!). Set up on the Goose Island industrial district, it was pretty cool to pick up my charcoal and to walk through three small warehouses full of nothing but charcoal. I got 80-pounds of lump charcoal for $43, which seemed like a pretty good deal to me.
Since I was looking for a 80-pound pig, I needed to go somewhere other than the average chain grocery store. Chicago has string of wholesale butchers on West Randolph Street, when I called them for pricing they mostly suggested it would cost $2.50-$3.00/pound and would need a week’s notice to get it ready.
Fortuitously, I later ran into one of the owners of my neighborhood (awesome!) grocery store, HarvesTime Foods, and told him about my plans. Excited, he told me that he roasts lamb every Greek Easter for his family and would be happy to help out.
On the day of the roast, I went over to HarvesTime at about 8:00 a.m. to pick up the pig, an 82-pounder, which was already gutted and prepped when I arrived. The guys were kind enough to let use their butcher shop, where they then cut the ribs along the spine on both sides so I could butterfly the pig. I then salted the heck out of the animal, covering every last surface. You cannot use too much salt various cooks told me, since there’s a ton of meat anyway.
Some cooks will use a mojo, dry rub or inject something into the flesh, but since this was my first time I opted for staying simple with just salt.
To round things out, I also bought crate of corn, 48 ears, to roast in the fire after the pig was done. Pig prices fluctuate with the market, but the HarvesTime guys gave me a great deal: $1.95 a pound. I felt like I got a steal when you added in their awesome service!
Building The Pit
Following The Miami Guys instructions, I started building it out on my gravel driveway (unlike most Chicagoans I don’t have a garage). Asphalt and grass are bad foundations, since the former will melt and the latter will cook under the coals, smelling up the food.
Since I knew would be roasting all day the day of the roast, I built out my grill pit the day before. First I spent some time leveling out the gravel foundation with a rake (although not to my architect-wife’s standards!). A flat beginning surface is key as the structure gets taller.
After I built out two levels, I added an aluminum foil lining to the sides and bottom to increase heat reflection. I bought a roll of “food service grade” from Costco, which was thicker than the usual stuff for about $20.
Next I assembled my grill to hold the pig. The Miami Guys talk about a number of different methods, but I opted with the simplest: making a steel rebar ladder. There’s a great diagram here on how to do it. I got all my parts from Home Depot. Rebar, rebar ties and some uncoated, thick gauge copper wire to lash the two parts together. All told, my grill parts cost me $170.
It’s crucial to not use galvanized steel, since the galvanized part will burn off in the fire and poison the food. While the Miami Guys call from 8-foot poles crossed by 3.5-foot poles, Home Depot had 10-foot in place of the 8-foot poles. That actually worked better for me, since it gave more distance from the heat when the time came for turning the pig.
Cooking The Pig
After I had picked up the pig, on Roast Day, I fired up the grill at about 9:00 a.m. by piling about 20-pounds of charcoal and then spraying about half a bottle of lighter fluid. Setting off the thing was like the movies, where I lit a match and tossed it into the pile: Foom!
After about 20 minutes the coals were white hot. I then divided the pile with a rake, pushed them to either side of the pit and added a few more handfuls of charcoal. The idea is to create an indirect heat to roast the pig, not to really grill it.
While the fire was getting ready, my wife Teresa and I set the pig up on the rack. We set one of the lower grill pieces on a table, put the pig on it, and then put the second grill piece on top. Then, we lashed them together with some thick copper wire, using pliers to twist the pieces together. We then used a few rebar ties to tie the hooves to the rebar. We also covered the head with foil, since it would end up directly over the flame, we wanted to give it some protection so it didn’t turn into total char.
One mistake we made was to not make sure the ladder pieces of rebar were not under all the thickest, heaviest parts of the pig. This led to a minor problem later on…
Finally, we got the pig on the pit by about 9:30 a.m. I figured we’d flip the pig in four hours, and every 45 minutes or so I’d add more charcoal to the fire and stoke it was a garden hoe.
After the pig was on the grill, we covered it with aluminum foil, then set bricks and rocks on top to keep it from blowing away. The foil created an oven affect, and kept the heat inside. I had bought a grill thermometer to measure the heat, since I was aiming for about 250-degrees. But I was pretty sure the thermometer, which read about 200-degrees most of the time, wasn’t getting a true reading of the heat below the pig where it was cooking. In hindsight, I think it was about 75-degrees too cool and I had stoked the fire too much.
Another point is that throughout most of the morning we were getting a steady, light rain. This really had no impact on the fire, and once I had the pig on the grill under the foil the rain made no difference at all. The forecast said things would clear up around 5:00 p.m., so I figured that would be just in time for our party guests to arrive and eat.
By 1:00 p.m. a group of friends arrived to help flip the pig on the grill. We mostly sat around and drank beer, but when the time came for lunch, I had a special treat, as I had stowed away a few bratwurst in the cavity of the pig to slowly roast. After we flipped things, we had a pretty tasty lunch.
Flipping the pig was a delicate operation. It weighted somewhere between 80-100 pounds, was hot and dripped grease. Each of us took a corner and moved slowly. After we were done, we rolled foil back over the pig and went back to adding charcoal every 45 minutes.
As I mentioned before, I think we kept the fire a bit too hot and we didn’t position the rebar to hold up the thickest parts of the pig. At one point when adding charcoal, after flipping the pig, I noticed that a chunk of hind-quarters had fallen to the floor of the pit. Fortunately the fire was on either side, so we opened up the pit side and pulled out the sizable chunk from the pit. The pork was still good, so we took it inside the house and put it in our oven at 200-degrees until it was time to serve.
By 5:45 we decided that the pig was ready! By now our backyard was full of guests, excited to see what was going on. Lots of folks were checking out the grill pit, smelling the pork-goodness.
We lifted the pig off the grill and moved it to a table covered with foil. We rolled the pig off the rack and set up knives and forks around the pig plates, sauces and bread for rolls. Guests came and picked off the parts of pig they wanted most and in about two hours the whole thing was picked clean by about 50 people.
After the pig was off the grill, we set a BBQ grill rack over the fire to roast hot dogs for kids and put whole, unshucked ears of corn on the coals for roasting, which worked pretty well. At this point the party was a total success. A great time and now that I’ve got the grill parts, I think I’ll do it again in another year or two!