Whether suckling pig or boar-sized beast, smoking a whole hog is the iconic, pièce de résistance of barbecue.
While it used to be true that high-quality smoked cuisine was available only at smokehouses or barbecue joints, now new fuels, tools, and technology have made it possible for home cooks to turn out professional-grade smoked foods in their own backyards and kitchens. Project Smoke by Steven Raichlen is your guide to doing the same. More than a cookbook, Project Smoke is also a step-by-step handbook through a huge variety of smoking techniques. It includes a rundown of the smokers available for purchase, of essential brines, rubs, marinades, and sauces, and of different smoking fuels, all while finding room for 100 new, mouthwatering recipes. These recipes—from classics like brisket to vegetables, cocktails, and desserts—were created after extensive research spanning 60 different countries. Raichlen traveled and studied the smoky flavors of foreign cuisines, and here he translates them to his American audience. From low-and-slow techniques in a homemade smokehouse to accessible, 10-minute infusions of flavor on a stovetop, Raichlen can show you how to smoke every mouthwatering food imaginable.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Project Smoke.
A whole hog is the apex of barbecue. As you climb the ladder of smoking enlightenment, at some point you’ll want to try one. There are too many variables (hog size, smoker design, weather, wood, and so on) to cover in a single recipe. Here are the basic guidelines.
The hog: Hogs range in size from 20-pound suckling pigs to 225-pound monsters. The first time you smoke a hog, I recommend a 50-pounder (that’s gutted weight, by the way, but with the head on). It’s small enough to handle by yourself, and it’ll cook in half a day—yet, it’s large enough to establish your smoking bona fides. You’ll need to order your hog ahead of time. As always, look for organic or heritage breeds from small farms. Ideally, you’ll pick it up the morning you plan to smoke it. (The butcher’s refrigerator is bigger than yours.) In a pinch, you can keep your hog chilled in a large insulated cooler or in a bathtub filled with ice. (When using the latter, do warn your spouse.)
The cut: Hogs smoked whole with legs tucked under the body are what you often see at barbecue competitions. But I prefer a butterflied hog—split through the belly to the backbone and opened up like a book. Why? When you smoke a whole hog, in effect you stew the meat in the skin. Yes, it comes out juicy and tender— but sometimes with a stewed quality. I like my pork with some crust and chew to it. When you smoke a butterflied hog, you expose more of the meat to the smoke and fire.
The smoker: You’ll need a serious smoker—especially for jumbo hogs. That puts you in competition rig territory: respected brands include Horizon, Yoder, Klose, Lang, Pitmaker, Pitt’s & Spitt’s, Backwoods, and Cookshack. One interesting alternative for pig roasting is the “Cajun microwave” or its Cuban analogue, the caja china (Chinese box). Picture a wooden or steel box with an indented metal top.
You pile lit charcoal on this metal lid, turning the box into an outdoor oven. The result: amazingly moist tender pork, but without a pronounced smoke flavor. Attach a smoke generator and you fix that, and get competition-quality barbecue, to boot. Note: You can also smoke a 50-pounder on a Weber Ranch grill or Big Green Egg XXXL.
The fuel: You can burn charcoal and pimp the smoke with wood chunks or chips. But for meat this big, I like a straight log fire. You’ll need at least an hour to get a good bed of embers. Add two or three logs an hour to maintain the heat and generate smoke. Texans use oak; southerners use hickory; midwesterners burn apple. Any seasoned hardwood will give you great results. Make sure you have good airflow so the smoke passes over the meat, instead of smothering it.
The temperature: There are many schools of thought here: low and slow in the style of traditional Southern barbecue or hot and fast in the style of Texas. The larger your hog, the lower the heat you need to cook it through without burning the exterior. I recommend a target temperature of 225 to 250 degrees F. For a suckling pig, you could go as high as 325 degrees F.
Timing: The time it takes to cook your hog depends on many factors: the size of the hog, the type and temperature of the pit, the weather, and even how much beer you and your crew have drunk. Your goal is an internal temperature of about 195 degrees F in the shoulders and about 175 degrees F in the deepest part of the hams (the upper hind leg). Another test for doneness is that the bones should pop loosely out of the meat. As a very rough guide, figure on 1 to 1-1/2 hours for every 10 pounds of hog. Thus a 50-pound hog will take 5 to 7 hours; a 180-pounder needs more like 18 hours. (Note: For a really small pig, you need to bump up the time—a 20-pound hog still needs 3-1/2 to 4 hours.)
Serving your hog: One of the ironies of going whole hog is that for all the effort you expend roasting and showing it off whole, serving it involves shredding or chopping it into tiny bits, then dousing it with vinegar sauce and piling it on a bun. Wearing insulated rubber gloves, pull large chunks of meat away from the bones, discarding the bones and any large lumps of fat. Set the skin aside for crisping (see below). Transfer the meat to a cutting board and chop it with heavy cleavers or shred it with meat claws.
Don’t forget the skin: During the smoking process, the skin will become tough and leathery (and richly infused with wood smoke). Pull it off with your (gloved) hands. Using a knife, scrape away and discard the excess fat, then tear or cut the skin into 5- or 6-inch squares. Direct grill it over a hot fire (starting fat side down) until crisp, or deep-fry it in hot oil or lard. Chop or break the crisp skin into bits and sprinkle them over the meat.
How many will it serve? Figure on 1-1/2 pounds raw meat or 6 to 8 ounces cooked meat per person (4 to 6 ounces if that pork is destined for sandwiches). Note: The larger the hog, the higher the overall yield. Thus, a 50-pound hog will serve about 30 people; a 225-pound hog will serve 150 people.