May 18, 2022
By Lynn Burkhead
If you haven’t noticed, it’s barbecue season across the nation. In fact, May is National Barbecue Month!
And with a soon-to-arrive summertime season filled with holidays, starting with Memorial Day at the end of May to the mid-summer Fourth of July celebration and finally, a last hurrah on September’s Labor Day weekend, there is no shortage of opportunities to get the backyard ready, invite some guests over, and smoke some meat.
Now in Texas, where I’ve lived the bulk of my life, that means beef, and that means brisket. But growing up as a kid in the Memphis area, and with a few years also spent in southeastern Louisiana, I also like to live my smoked meat life high on the hog, so to speak. Because across the Mid-South and beyond, barbecue means pork, right?
To be sure, there are few things more delectable—or more crowd pleasing—than pulled pork barbecue cooked low-and-slow over an aromatic fire. And that includes a good old-fashioned southern pig roast in a big-cinder block pit.
Selecting Your Pork
To start this tasty journey, I’m going to admit that there are easier ways of getting a pork barbecue party going in your backyard-ready space, many of them already covered here. From famed bass angler Kevin VanDam’s Citrus Soda Ribs to my late father-in-law Pat Lovera’s “Pappy’s Lone Star Smoked Ribs” to Raschell Rule’s Crock-Pot BBQ Cola Wild Boar Recipe to Jessyca Sortillon’s barrel smoker ribs, there’s no shortage of great, easy pathways to pork barbecue greatness in the backyard.
But if you really want to go all out in impressing your guests this summer, then how about barbecuing a whole pig?
If that sounds like a promising idea, you’ll need to start with finding and buying a whole hog at a local butcher’s shop or meat supplier, a porker that has been scalded and scraped and is ready to put on your grill, pellet smoker, barrel smoker, or big backyard barbecue pit.
One such example, if you live in the Lexington, Ky. area, is Showalter's Country Meats, which specializes in supplying roasting pigs of assorted sizes. If you want a smaller suckling pig in the 50-pound (live weight) range—perfect for a backyard grill, a barrel smoker on the patio, or a Traeger-style pellet grill on the back deck—expect to pay about $250. As you go up in a pig’s live weight, the prices increase accordingly. And remember that in these inflationary times, prices are always subject to change depending on future supplies and where you live.
On the question of just how much meat you need to feed your guests, Michigan State University has a handy guide to “Planning a Roast Pig Barbecue” in which author Alden Booren gives the following recommendations:
"When carcass pigs are considered, estimate one pound carcass weight per serving. A 150-pound carcass will feed 150 people.
If boneless pork is roasted, you will get four small servings, three good servings or two liberal servings per pound. To be sure to have enough for hungry adults, figure two and one half servings per pound of boneless pork."
Incidentally, Booren’s MSU guide to a pig roast also gives some very good tips on how to select the right pig, the instructions you’ll want to give your butcher, how to prepare the pig for roasting, and what equipment you’ll need for cooking, cutting up, and serving fresh pork.
Also, if you have access to a hunting spot with a surplus of wild pigs, you can even choose to go that route by following the plan laid out by our good friends at Realtree in their guide on “How to Roast a Whole Wild Pig Part 1: Scalding and Prepping.”
In simplest terms, you’ll need a few knives, a cordless reciprocating saw or meat-style handsaw, a scraping blade, a large pot and burner for water to scald the pig, a propane torch to burn off hair, and some field-dressing gloves.
Once you’ve got your equipment in place, then it’s time to clean the wild hog, field-dress it, skin it or remove the hair (and the head and hocks if so desired), cool it down, and get it ready to experience the magic of low-and-slow cooking.
Preparing and Cooking Your Pig
When you’ve secured your pig roast pork supply, either by buying a whole pig or in settling the crosshairs on one in the woods, then it’s time to actually prepare it and cook it for your hungry guests.
For preparation, I come from the Texas school of keeping it simple with salt, pepper, and some hickory wood. Other barbecue gurus, like Waxahachie, Texas, BBQ chef extraordinaire Matt Pittman use special spice blends like the Meat Church Honey Hog BBQ rub to season the pig for cooking.
And in Part 2 of the Realtree guide noted above, Table 2 Timber blogger Michael Pendley uses either apple cider or peach juice to get the pork all juiced up and ready for the long, slow, hot ride ahead.
When it comes to actually smoking the pig, there are several methods available to the backyard connoisseur, including using fruit-wood pellets or hickory pellets to fuel a Traeger smoker. If that’s the route you choose—and it’s a good one for small piglets—the well-known wood-fired cooking company out of Utah has a wonderful step-by-step guide to cooking your pork on their cookers.
One word of warning, however, is that when the folks at Traeger say low and slow, they really mean it! That’s because according to their “How to Roast a Whole Pig on a Pellet Grill” tutorial, this wonderfully aromatic cooking process can take a while:
"Smoke that baby low and slow all day long, and let the hardwood smoke kiss every inch with delicious hardwood flavor. This pig roasting method takes about 36 hours, from prep to finish, so holler for your favorite friends and get the party started. The crowd will go wild for primal wood-fired pork."
Build Your Own?
In addition to the Traeger method for small pigs, custom-made barrel smokers are also an option here, using firewood like post oak or hickory. And if you’ve got access to a pig spit that rotates the pork over a cooking flame, that’s another way to cook a whole hog for your dinner guests.
A final way—and traditional way in the Deep South—is to build a fire pit in the backyard.
In this method, concrete blocks are used along with some sort of metal cooking platform that keeps the pig above a fire fueled by firewood or lump charcoal. You place the split pig over the fire, cook for the proper amount of time, flip it over when one side is crispy and done, and get ready for some great eating ahead thanks to a mountain of steaming pork!
How do you go about building such a pit? Well, there are several good online guides available, including one from Matt Pittman’s Meat Church website and another from the Texas A&M-maintained “Texas Barbecue” website. In both cases, you’ll need a few dozen 18” x 18” concrete or cinder blocks, some steel rebar or a metal mesh stand for the pig to sit upon as it roasts, and either corrugated roofing or a constructed roof to keep the heat and smoke inside the pit.
How do you build such a pit? To start with, you’ll want to find a good, out of the way spot for the pit to be constructed, clearing away potential fire hazards like leaves, twigs, and ground debris. You might even consider pouring a bottom layer of sand or small gravel, or putting concrete pavers down to line the bottom of the pit.
Then it’s time to build the pit’s walls, using the cinder blocks you’ve obtained. In the how-to guides noted above, one uses a double-wall system, the other a single-wall system, both being four blocks high and several blocks long and wide. Insert your steel rebar, wire, or metal cooking stands as noted in the pit building guides, and you’ve got your pork cooking platform ready to roll some smoke!
Food Safety and Serving It Up!
As with any type of cooking, and particularly when you’re having guests over, who are expecting to eat at a certain time, there are other considerations here.
One is the amount of time it will take to properly cook your pork to the correct internal temperatures. Author Jeff Savell gives a few thoughts on this topic in the Texas A&M treatise entitled “Whole Pig Cooking in Texas Barbecue”
"Ray Riley and I built the fire in one of the pans in the cinder-block pit around 6 am using split oak logs," he noted. "With the fire built and ready to go, we put the pig on around 7 am. We monitored the temperatures of the ham and shoulder using an iGrill connected to an iPad. Target temperatures were 190°F in the ham and shoulder.
"The pit temperature ranged from 250 to 300°F for most of the day. Very few logs had to be added during the day, but we had great weather to cook in (mid 70s). The pig was ready around 3:30 pm ahead of the 4 pm class."
Another key consideration is how to serve your pork—my vote is for the famed Mid-South pulled pork sandwich consisting of steaming meat piled high on hamburger buns, topped with cole slaw and barbecue sauce—but there are plenty of other options and potential side dishes as well.
In the end, perfecting the backyard pig roast is a hobby unto itself, one that many people across the country spend years trying to perfect. If you'd like to shorten your learning curve, there are numerous online guides available to help you through all of this wonderfully tasty and complex topic.
One final word, especially if you're a cookbook person—and I happen to know a certain outdoor writer who is—and that’s to consider a great resource from Afield cookbook author and Texas hunter, fisherman, and cook Jesse Griffiths.
A chef of delectable wild cuisine and co-owner of the Dai Due Butcher Shop & Supper Club and New School of Traditional Cookery in Austin, Texas, Griffiths is also author of a new pork cooking resource called The Hog Book.
That volume is described as the definitive book on hunting, preparing and cooking wild pigs. There's all kinds of great advice in this cookbook on hunting, butchering, cooking, and serving wild pork to your dinner guests. And it helps provide a safe, ethical and tasty means of addressing the scores of invasive wild pigs that are damaging the landscape across many portions of the country.
The bottom line here is that a pig roast is a wonderful way to celebrate barbecue season in your Backyard Ready space, and a chance to throw a party that your guests will remember for the rest of the year.
Make some plans, get the proper grub and gear for your pork celebration, and let the backyard smoking adventures begin!