One early morning on the way to a turkey hunt, I saw a group of young wild hogs running across our tail lights as my hunting partner and I drove to the woods before sunrise. I was blurry-eyed still, sucking in hot coffee when I saw them and blurted out, "Those look good."
It was an instinct, a voice that spoke without my help. In the dark morning, those small hogs didn't look like hairy four-legged creatures to me; rather, like running sausages. In the years since then, I have had many colorful hog hunts, some riding on the back of an ATV chasing them along the banks of the Mississippi; then settling into the birthplace of the Delta Blues, with a cigar and scotch at dusk, and a barrel smoker transforming a whole hog into something otherworldly.
There's one question that I get quite often as a chef who hunts: "What is your favorite wild game dish?" I always describe a whole hog, smoked for up to 12 hours, blanketed in layers of bacon and molasses, its juices dripping down into a tray of apples peppered with cinnamon. From the first moment I tasted it in the heart of the Delta, it earned a special place in the crevices of my mind.
Preparation, Aging, and Cleaning
Every animal tastes better if it is aged first. Aging is a change in the activity of muscle enzymes. At death, the enzymes begin to deteriorate cell molecules indiscriminately. Large flavorless molecules become smaller, flavorful segments; proteins become savory amino acids; glycogen becomes sweet glucose; fats become aromatic.
All of this deterioration and breakdown of the cell molecules creates intense flavor, which improves further upon cooking, particularly slow cooking. This shift in enzyme activity also tenderizes the meat by weakening the proteins that hold things in their place.
The collagen in connective tissue also begins to weaken, causing it to dissolve into gelatin during cooking and helping it retain moisture. With wild hogs, aging is optional, but tenderness increases rapidly in the first 48 hours postmortem.
I recommend it before marinating the meat if you have the time. Unlike domestic animals, wild ones have that rich, variable flavor, because they are often older at death, exercise freely, and enjoy a mixed diet.
The wild flavors that result from cooking these animals are often described as "gamey," and so two to three days of bleeding/soaking and/or five days of dry cooling will make the final dish taste that much better.
While aging is optional, what is essential for successfully cooking a whole hog is how the animal was killed — that it was shot cleanly, preferably in the head, and killed quickly to prevent adrenaline from pumping through its veins. It also needs to be dressed and cleaned in an impeccable way.
Cleanliness can be helped with a good marinade that includes a lot of acid in the form of vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, and orange juice, in any combination. The size of your hog will vary, and so you have to rely on intuition when it comes to how much marinade to use.
You can marinate the hog for one to eight days, and the acid will clean it and also impart flavor. You can marinate it in an ice chest if your hog is up to about 80 pounds on the hoof or 45 pounds cleaned.
Or you could use a garbage bag. It is ideal to have a walk-in cooler or large refrigeration system available.
Marinades have been used since the Renaissance, when their primary purpose was to reduce spoilage. They are made with an acidic liquid, such as vinegar, wine, citrus juice, buttermilk, or yogurt, and today serve two different functions: as a tenderizer and as a flavor enhancer.
Once the meat is fully immersed, the acid breaks down the fibrous proteins and increases its ability to retain moisture. The addition of salt will allow it to retain moisture further.
Meat should always be marinated in the refrigerator to prevent bacterial growth at room temperature, and unless you are cooking with it, all used marinade should be discarded once the meat is removed. If you do want to serve some of the marinade with the meat, set an amount aside before bringing it in contact with the meat.
A good marinade will have a balance of ingredients so that the outer surface of the meat does not become too sour from the acid. Once a piece of meat has been marinated, it is best not to freeze it, as the outer layer will become mushy.
Cooking and Smoking
The smoking time with a whole hog varies, depending on the size of the animal. It could be six hours, it could be twelve. The temperature in your smoker should never go above 250° F; I suggest a probe-style meat thermometer, as it is the most accurate for testing wild game. Other thermometers can read high (especially with smaller game). When it is finished, the densest, deepest part of your hog will be 160° F.
In order to create an even radiant heat, it is best to heat the coals to a uniform temperature before you put in the hog. What smoker should you use? There are many large smokers on the market (I have used The Good-One with a lot of success), or if you want to be particularly traditional, you can dig a pit, create hot coals, lay the hog in, cover it, and smoke the hog in the ground in the Italian or Hawaiian fashion.
Although you can use charcoal, pecan wood is best if you have it in your region of the woods, or you can use a tree indigenous to your area. In the Southwest it is mesquite, in Washington State it is apple wood, and in the Midwest it is hickory.
The presentation may be the best part of cooking a whole hog. Lay it on a large wooden cutting board and serve it alongside the roasted apples in this recipe that have been catching the drippings of the hog for many hours. When carved, the meat will fall off the bone in an intoxicating kind of way.
I recommend baked beans and crusty bread to soak up the juices. And a cigar and scotch post-dinner, of course.
1 whole hog, dressed, skinned, head and hooves removed
1 to 2 cups Worcestershire sauce
1/4 to 1/2 cup Cajun salt seasoning
3 to 4 onions, peeled and cut in half
10 to 20 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
5 to 8 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 to 2 cups white vinegar
1 to 2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 to 6 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
Combine all the marinade ingredients in a large cooler or new garbage bag and let sit for 1 to 8 days, turning the hog every 12 hours so it evenly marinates.
A hog that is 80 pounds on the hoof, 45 pounds cleaned, will fit well in a standard cooler.
6 to 10 Granny Smith apples, cored and cut in half
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
20 to 30 bacon strips
3 to 4 cups molasses
When ready to smoke, bring your wood coals of choice to no more than 250° F in a large smoker. Let the coals become nice and uniform so that you have an even radiant heat.
Smoke the hog for 6 to 12 hours, depending on its size. Once the densest part of the hog reaches 140° F, add a pan of apples to the bottom of the smoker, sprinkle with the cinnamon, and let them steam up under the hog.
At this point, also blanket the back of the hog with bacon and pour on 3 to 4 cups of molasses. Be generous with it and pour most of it in the area where it will drip down into the pan of apples.
The hog is ready to serve when the densest, deepest part is 160° F; under the front shoulder is usually the coolest part to test. Serve
immediately tableside as your piÃ¨ce de résistance.