While summer often conjures up mouth-watering thoughts of pig roasts, if you’re actually contemplating tackling this culinary feat, some homework is in order. And that includes some homework about food safety. You certainly don’t want to sicken your guests, which can be avoided if you play it safe.
When you roast a whole pig, your first thought may be that since you’ll be cooking the heck out of it, surely you’ll also be killing any bacteria such as Salmonella or E. coli that might be on the meat. But that isn’t always the case since some parts of the pig will cook more quickly than others, so a simple jab of the meat thermometer in just one part of the pig isn’t going to tell you the whole story.
As with any type of cooking, what you do before and after preparing the roast is also important.
But first, some information gleaned from an Internet search: A very young pig (a suckling pig, for example) won’t have the full flavor or marbling (fat) of a larger pig of about 45 or more pounds. And the reason why a whole pig is often laid out on a platter with an apple in its mouth is that the mouth should be kept open during roasting to help let the heat into the interior cavity. (And you thought that apple was just a last-minute decorative flourish.)
Ways to roast a whole pig
There are all manner of methods to roast a whole pig, among them burying it in a pit, boiling it in oil, cooking it over coals in a pit above ground, and using an electric rotisserie.
The first of these, which originated in Hawaii, brings up thoughts of idyllic celebrations: A wild boar is wrapped in banana leaves and buried in a pit of hot lava stones. Many people who cook whole pigs in a pit have adapted this basic practice but use other “backyard” techniques that involve digging a pit and burning wood in it to build up a bed of coals. This method takes a lot of time, anywhere up to 12 hours in cooking time alone, not to mention the many hours (and often beers) it takes to build up that bed of coals.
Building a pit above ground, usually of cinder blocks, is another popular method, with the pig turned every now and then. But care needs to be taken so the coals don’t flare up and touch the meat and that the equipment you’re using isn’t made of galvanized metal, which can exude toxic fumes. This takes care and diligence on the part of the person cooking the pig. (Important note: The temperature noted in the magazine article cited in the first sentence of this paragraph is lower than the pros in this article advise.)
Perhaps the most popular method is using a rotisserie, which SpitJack prefers. The Massachusetts company specializes in “cooking-with-fire” equipment, not only because it’s “the easiest or tastiest way” to go, but also because it represents ‘the most authentic and entertaining way” to do it.
“There is nothing like watching a whole hog turn slowly over several hours, slowly browning and transforming into a delicious meal,” states SpitJack’s website. The site also refers to roasting a whole pig as “a great American tradition” that has come to symbolize “the essence of the community cookout and the shared work and pleasure that is involved.”
Of course, this is not only an American culinary favorite. Chefs and backyard cooks around the globe also like to cook whole pigs this way.
But, as those who have done it already know, it is not a simple or easy task and, as the SpitJack site notes, “there is much to be considered if everyone is to enjoy the feast.”
In a sometimes humorous article about his experience roasting a whole pig, “Do Not Go Gently into That Pig Roast,” Ryan Tate warns of how “messy and inelegant it can get.”
He also offers this advice: “Finally, remember that no enormous cooking project will be as simple as you imagine. You see a whole pig, and you imagine the roasting, and the eating, and the joy and camaraderie that goes along with it. But don’t forget the transportation, the setup, the fuel management, stray sparks and coal and ash, grease, estimating cooking progress and correcting your schedule, and of course the cleanup.”
A generous helping of food safety
Food safety must be kept in mind from start to finish, say those who roast whole pigs professionally or sell meat-roasting equipment. A good example of why this is so important can be seen in a recent press release from the Washington State Department of Health about an investigation into at least 56 Salmonella infections that department officials say “appear to be linked to eating pork.”
The same release notes that the investigation “shows a potential exposure source of several cases was whole roasted pigs, cooked and served at private events.” (Important note: The temperature noted in the state’s press release is much lower than the temperature advised by the pros interviewed in this article.)
Salmonellosis, the illness caused by Salmonella infection, can cause severe and even bloody diarrhea, fever, chills, abdominal discomfort, and vomiting. Serious bloodstream infections may also occur.
That’s definitely not anything you want at your barbecue.
SpitJack’s Bruce Frankel, a former chef/restauranteur, knows only too well how many mistakes can be made along the way, especially when people don’t follow basic food-safety practices. But he said that when roasted to the right temperature and served properly, a whole pig is perfectly safe to eat.
But he warns that roasting a whole pig is not like cooking a pork roast that you put in the refrigerator until it’s time to cook in the oven. To begin with, a whole pig is usually roasted for a lot more people than would be at a family meal.
“If you’re serving a lot of people, logistics demand more care,” he told Food Safety News. “The bigger the event, the more care needs to be taken.”
He said that the cook should actually be thinking like a caterer and be well-versed in the food-safety practices that caterers are required to follow.
The person or group doing the cooking needs to come into the venture well-prepared. To start with, the quality of the meat needs to be good, whether it’s bought from a farm or a butcher shop. It also needs to be kept cold at the site. Even the USDA stamp can’t ensure that it has been kept at the right temperature. That’s something that needs to be verified.
In most cases, the slaughtered whole pig is picked up and taken home. Being such a large “piece of meat,” means you’re going to have to have something to carry it in, Frankel said. His company sells “transport bags,” which he likens to “body bags.” They can be closed up so bloody water doesn’t drip all over the car. You’ll also need some bags of ice to keep the meat cold.
Where do you put the pig when you get home? Certainly not in the refrigerator; it’s far too large for that. And most coolers aren’t large enough either. “A large enough cooler is not easy to find,” said Frankel.
First things first, though. Hose the pig off and salt it down to help prevent bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli from growing on the surface. You can also wipe it down with towels soaked in a strong salt solution.
Frankel said a common home practice is to put the pig in a bathtub with a lot of ice. Of course, the tub should be cleaned with a bleach solution once the pig is taken out.
Leaving it out on the porch with a cover over it to keep the flies off won’t work since the pig not only needs to be kept clean but also cold. And you don’t want a dog to come along and gnaw off part of a leg.
When it’s time to get the cooking apparatus ready, Frankel advises using food-grade stainless steel (304 0r 316) for the spit. He warned that carbon steel can impart off-flavors to the meat. In addition, galvanized metal can leach toxic zinc and should not be used as a rotisserie spit.
And forget using that old rusty galvanized pipe lying around out in the yard. “You don’t want to poison the meat,” he said, adding, “The entire system needs to be food-safe.”
Cooking the meat
Temperature, of course, is critical — not just the temperature of the meat but also the temperature of the air around the meat. Frankel advised keeping the air temperature around the meat to 225-250 degrees F and cooking the meat to 195 degrees F.
“There’s a culinary reason for that,” he explained. “When meat is cooked this way, it becomes soft and pullable — fork-tender.”
While some federal and state agencies recommend cooking the meat to 165 or 170 degrees F, Frankel said at that temperature you’ll get some bloody meat and blood at the joints.
Barbecuing a whole pig is an entirely different way to cook pork,” he said. “Every part of the animal should be at least 180 degrees.” He also said that at 195 degrees F, there will be no food-safety problems with the meat, at least in the cooking process.
When roasting a whole pig, Frankel said you need to keep an eye on what the temperature is in various parts of the pig since different sections, such as the shoulders and legs, are much thicker than other parts, such as the ribs, which means that some parts will take longer to cook.
That’s why his company offers a package of three thermometers. Two provide not only a constant reading for the leg or shoulder but also a good indication of the ambient, or cooking, temperature. The third thermometer, an instant read thermometer, provides a quick read for any part of the roast.
Frankel emphasized that someone needs to watch that the temperature is OK — at least 175 degrees F. — all the way through the cooking process.
When using a smoker, he recommends cooking the whole animal to beyond the safe temperature.
As for cooking a whole pig in a pit, he warns that there are a lot of variables in this method. “It’s an ancient practice and can be a bit dangerous,” Frankel said.
Serving the meat
For food safety’s sake, the meat shouldn’t go below 140 degrees F for any length of time once it comes off the spit. Frankel recommends quickly cutting up the meat and putting the pieces into containers placed over chafing dishes to keep it warm.
“It’s nice to have hot meat to serve,” he said, pointing out that not only is the meat tastier that way, but it’s also safer.
There’s no need to let the meat “rest” before serving it because it’s been cooking the entire time at a reasonable temperature.
Leftovers should be cooled down and packaged with ice for people to take home.
Challenging, but satisfying
Frankel describes cooking a whole pig as “a tricky thing” and not for the faint of heart.
“But when it’s done right, it’s very satisfying,” he said. “It’s a great show to see the meat turning on the spit and a great feeling to know that you’ve done it right.”
He also said that providing people with the proper information about food safety pertaining to cooking a whole pig is an important issue that needs to be pursued.
“People should know how to make sure it’s safe all the way through — until the last leftover has been eaten,” Frankel said.
Another vote for food safety
Lance Anderson of Marv’s Marvlus Pit BBQ Catering also can’t stress enough the importance of food safety.
“It’s our number-one priority,” he told Food Safety News.
It’s important not to make people sick, plus a company’s reputation is based on word of mouth.
“It can go two ways,” Anderson said. “Really good and customers will tell other people and you get more customers, or really bad and you can lose your business.”
He said that roasting a whole pig to the proper temperature is standard practice for his business. “Our business model is to cook the fresh pork on site and serve it,” he said.
Pointing out that Salmonella can’t live at temperatures higher than 160-165 degrees F, Anderson said that Marv’s cooks whole pigs they bring to a site to 200-205 degrees F.
“We go way above and beyond,” he said, adding that if people want them to cook the pig to a lower temperature, they won’t go. “There’s just too much risk involved,” Anderson said.
Marv’s also provides coolers with ice. And they won’t leave the leftovers behind unless they know the people will use the ice to keep it cold.
“Most people are good about it,” he said, “although we rarely have leftovers.”
Summing up some of the principles his company follows, Anderson said that using the proper equipment, making sure the cooking and serving temperatures are right, and working in a clean environment are critical.
“The risks can be severe, especially for older people and children,” he said, referring to foodborne illnesses such as Salmonella and E. coli.
Anderson compared the know-how required when roasting a whole pig to services that other companies provide.
“If your car needs to get fixed, you take it to a mechanic,” he said. “If you want a haircut, you go to a barber. Roasting a whole pig is similar — sometimes it’s better to leave it to the professionals.”
Some physical safety tips
When a pig is being cooked, it’s a jacket of hot fat, Frankel noted. This is why it’s so important to have a drip pan or sand for the drippings to fall into so the coals won’t flare up into flames.
“It’s like a bomb when a pig catches fire,” he said. “It explodes. That’s why you need to have a fire extinguisher for grease fires handy.”
In addition, since you’ll be working with very hot objects, you shouldn’t wear loose clothing that can catch on fire or shoes that are not fire-safe. Long, heavy leather gloves are also advised when handling hot objects and food-safe gloves for processing or transporting the meat.
If you’re using an electric motor, make sure the power cord is away from the fire and that any extension cord used is properly rated and secured.
Frankel also said that there should be nothing near the rotisserie that people can trip over and to make sure that kids are kept at a safe distance.
It’s also important that the operator doesn’t drink alcohol. “If you’re managing an open fire, you should be sober,” he said.
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