Whole-animal cooking is a sure way to make a statement with your cookout. It’s also a great way to gather a big bunch of your friends together: Who’d decline an invite to a whole-beast party?
Cooking an entire animal might seem intimidating—that’s a lot of meat!—but don’t let a lack of experience deter you. Here’s how to go big in your backyard.
Don’t mess around when choosing a whole animal. To purchase one, go to a renowned butcher or one whom you have a solid relationship with. Ordering any whole animal will likely require about one week’s notice, so plan in advance. Ask your butcher to butterfly the beast so that it lies flat and requires less cooking time.
With whole-beast cookery, think pig or lamb. They’re manageable in size and have a nice percentage of fat to give you great results. For a pig, you’re looking at 50 to 125 pounds; for a lamb, shoot for 40 to 70 pounds. Plan on about 1 pound per person. That may sound like a lot, but after factoring in bone weight and moisture loss during cooking, you wouldn’t want less.
For fail-safe seasoning, rub generous amounts of salt and pepper on all surfaces of the beast and let sit overnight. You can store it overnight in a food-safe plastic bag in a large cooler with ice. Your dry rub can also include a bit of sugar, and any spices you like. Overnight marinades work well too.
Start early! Whether you’re hosting an afternoon cookout or a nighttime luau, it’s best to get your fire going as early as possible. The last thing you want is to have raw meat when guests arrive, because there’s no quick fix. Cooking times will vary based upon the method or vessel you choose, but 1 hour per 10 pounds of meat is a good guideline.
The Caja China is a great way to go if you’re planning on cooking a whole beast. It’s essentially a sturdy wooden box lined with aluminum on the inside. There’s a grate inside that clamps the whole butterflied beast in place. What’s cool about it is that coals are placed on top of the metal lid, so the meat cooks top-down. You’ll need to refresh the coals on top of the lid every 45 minutes to an hour, so plan to kick back with a few beers and some company during the cooking time.
If you’re feeling handy, you can build a box that’s similar to a Caja China as well. Another solid way to cook a whole animal is by spit roasting, which isn’t too labor intensive. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can wrap the beast in banana leaves, bury it in the ground, and load the top with wood or coals. This is a pretty intense method, but the results can be awesome.
Cook the beast skin side down until an hour before it’s ready. It’s better to have more direct heat toward the shoulders of the animal, because they won’t dry out. The hindquarter and loin are leaner parts of the animal, which could dry out with more heat and long cooking times.
To get crispy skin on a pig, flip it over about an hour before it’s done, so the heat is in more direct contact with the skin. You should add more coals at this point to get the skin cracklin’, but be careful not to burn the exterior.
And finally, don’t forget the beer! Again, it takes a long time to cook something this big, and bonding with your buds while the beast is cooking is a great way to pass the time. You’ve gone big with your pig (or lamb), so consider supersizing your beer also and getting a keg to keep things festive.
Scott Bridi is the founder of the charcuterie company Brooklyn Cured and a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education.