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Your First ‘Pig-Pickin’ - How to Cook a Pig
Submitted By: Donald Williamson Last Updated: 11/20/2004 4:46:15 PM

So you’ve planned the party, set the date, invited your family and friends, decided on the food, the weather forecast looks great, but now you’re stuck wondering …how am I going to cook the pig? I’ve never done that before!

Cooking a pig is a relatively easy thing to do and a great social event that everyone will remember for years to come. You just need the proper equipment, preparation and time. Even if you’ve never cooked a pig or seen one being cooked, you will have mastered the basics by the end of this article.

There are many ways that you can cook a pig – wood vs. gas vs. charcoal – and even the cooking style (Eastern BBQ where you cook the entire pig served with a vinegar sauce vs. Western BBQ where you cook shoulders served with a tomato based sauce, but I don’t have the time or energy to debate this one now).

We’re going to assume that you have decided on cooking a whole pig and you’re going to cook on a gas cooker.

So Where To Begin?

While there are many variations in cooking a pig, it basically comes down to this:
  1. Thoroughly season the meat side of the pig with salt
  2. Fire up the pig cooker to 225 degrees
  3. Place the pig on the grill, skin side up, and cook at 225 –250 degrees for about 5 - 6 hours
  4. Turn the pig over
  5. Season the meat with sauce
  6. Cook for another hour or two
  7. Enjoy!
Of course, this is the simplified version and there are several things you must take into account but is still basically comes down to the above. So let’s get started!

How Much Pig Do I Need?

The general rule of thumb is 1 ½ pounds of pre-cooked pig weight for every adult person. So if you were feeding 75 people, you would need to order a dressed pig (pig completely cleaned and head removed) that weighs about 112 lbs. This should give you about 45 lbs of cooked pork.

Of course you need to take into account how many kids will be there and the number of sides dishes and other food you will have. I’ve found that I normally need to figure about 1 pound for every person (I usually serve plenty of sides – baked beans, slaw, potato salad, etc).

I would generally recommend that you have food leftover instead of not having enough to feed your guests (and it freezes very well)!

Also of note is the size of the pig. I do not recommend ordering a pig under 70 pounds or over 125 pounds. The smaller pigs, to me, are too lean and pigs over 125 pounds start getting very tough and grainy (not to mention the difficulty of working with them).

If you need less than a 70-pound pig, I would recommend switching to pork shoulders instead. The cooking process is the same as below, just not quite as long. If you need a pig over 125 pounds, consider getting two smaller pigs or one pig and a couple of shoulders. The “ideal’ pig weight for me is around 85-90 pounds.

Ordering the Pig

If you happen to live in the Raleigh area, I always get my pig from Nahunta at the downtown State Farmer’s Market. Other options are contacting your local butcher or supermarket. Be sure to call them at least two weeks in advance to be sure they will have your pig ready.

No matter where you order it, be sure the head is removed (many guests do not like seeing a cooked head, including myself!). I also highly recommend that you have them split the pig lengthways into two halves. This makes it much easier to work with when flipping the pig.

The Pig Cooker

If you don’t have the luxury of owning a pig cooker (or have a friend that you can borrow one from), you will need to rent a cooker. Most rental places carry these, at least in the south!

Gas vs. Wood/Charcoal

If you have a choice, rent a gas cooker. These are much easier to work with and maintain a constant temperature. While cooking over wood or charcoal does add extra flavor, the amount of time and work trying to maintain, and not exceed, the required temperature is not worth the effort (for your first time cooking anyways). You will get excellent results with the gas cooker and your guests will not be able to tell the difference.

Final Preparations and Cooking Time

Your pig is ordered and you have the cooker. There are several other items you will need:
  1. Meat Thermometer - preferably a digital one with a temperature probe that you can leave in the meat. These are available at most food supply places.
  2. A very accurate Grill Thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the grill (available at BBQ shops or specialty food stores)
  3. 2 pairs of heavy heat-resistant gloves to turn the pig over (available at hardware stores)
  4. Basting Brush
  5. Chopping block
  6. Meat cleaver or large knife to chop or slice the meat
  7. Sauce for Basting
Another thing you need to take into account is what time you will need to start cooking the pig. A general cooking-time rule is as follows:

Weight of Pig Approximate Cooking Time
75 lbs 6-7 hours
100 lbs 7-8 hours
125 lbs 8-9 hours

You also need to factor in final food preparation time. You will need at least an additional 45 minutes to chop or slice the meat to serve to your guests.

So if you want to eat a 6:00 pm and have a 100 lb pig, you need to have the pig on the cooker no later than 9:15 am.

Cooking the Pig

The day has arrived. You’ve picked up your 100 lb pig and the cooker (and you have two new tanks of gas!) and you want to eat at 6:00 pm. Now it’s time to get down to business.

General Rules:
  1. While as tempting as it is for you and your cooking buddies, do not open the lid or take ‘peeks’ during the cooking time more than is absolutely necessary. Every time you raise that lid, you are adding an additional 15 minutes of cooking time!
  2. The ideal done temperature for the meat at its thickest point should be 170 degrees. Take the temperature in both the ham and shoulder and be careful not to touch the bone, as this will give a ‘false’ higher reading. I actually like to cook mine to about 180 degrees as this gives a more tender meat.
Time: 8:30 am
If the pig is not already split in half, take a knife and split it lengthways down the backbone. This will make it much easier to work with and flip.

Take the pig out of the cooler and very generously salt the meat side of the pig. Don’t skimp on the salt. Leave the pig out to start coming up to room temperature.

8:45 am
Fire up the cooker. Bring the temperature to 225 degrees, no more.

9:00 am
Have a friend help you put the pig on the grill. The pig must be placed on the grill skin-side up (the ribs will be on the bottom side facing the heat). Close the lid.

The temperature will come down on the cooker due to the coldness of the meat. Do not raise the temperature. Lower is better at this point in the cooking stage and I promise it will come back up.

IMPORTANT: The heat should not get any hotter than 225 degrees for at least two hours.

9:30 am
Verify that you are no hotter than 225 degrees

10:00 am
Verify that you are no hotter than 225 degrees

10:30 am
Verify that you are no hotter than 225 degrees

1:00 pm (4 hours into cooking time)
Raise the temperature to 250 degrees. For the next couple hours, you will start to smell it!

3:00 – 4:00 pm: Flipping Time! (6 - 7 hours into cooking time)
Now you can open the lid! It’s time to see if it’s ready to be flipped.

You can do this one of two ways:
  1. Check the internal temperature of the meat in the ham and/or shoulder. You should be close to, it not at or over 165 degrees. If you’re less than this temperature, raise the grill temperature to 275 degrees and check again in 30 minutes. You can leave your digital thermometer probe in the meat.
  2. The “look and hand ” test. Does the skin on the ham (butt) look brown and ‘crinkly’? Yes…good! Put on your gloves, place your hand on the ham and move your hand. Can you feel the skin start to separate from the meat? Good!
If you passed the test above, you’re ready to flip the pig. This is a ceremonious event!

You will need a friend for this. Put on your heat-resistant gloves and get on each end of the pig. You place your hand under the ham (butt) with the other hand on top and have your friend place their hand under the shoulder with other hand on top.

Now you’re gently going to ‘roll’ each side over.If you’ve cooked it right, this will be tough as it will try and break apart. Do the best you can and don’t worry if it splits (just means you did a great job cooking!).

Now dump some vinegar sauce in the rib cavity so it is about an inch deep and close the lid. You’re almost done!

5:00 pm (8 hours into cooking time)
Pig should be done at this point and should have an internal temperature of at least 170 degrees at the thickest part of the meat.

Turn off the heat, take a drink and pat yourself on the back for a job well done!

Chopping the Pork

Now that the pork is done, it’s time to prepare the meat for serving. You can either chop the pork, slice it, or leave it on the grill and have people ‘pull’ the pork off the grill. I prefer to chop it.

To begin:

Put your gloves back on and gently lift out the ribs. Now pull out the tenderloins (the ‘thick rope’ running down the backbones). Set these aside as they are prized possessions that need to reserved for the proud few!

Now pull out the ham. Use both hands and twist it out (you may have to do some cutting with the knife). Do the same on the shoulder and place them is a large pan or pot for chopping. Scrape out the ‘bacon’ or belly meat, as this is very tender, and add it to the rest of the meat.

Now it’s just a matter of pulling off pieces, placing them on your cutting board, and start chopping it with your cleaver into small pieces. Place these in your serving tray and add a dash of sauce. Repeat until you’re done.

Now, you can sit back, relax and enjoy. You’ve earned it for a job well done!

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?


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