This is an article about an oven roasted suckling pig ... but to get to the story of my first experience with roasting a piglet, I thought I should tell you about how I came up with the idea for this pig roast. Please bear with me.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the local shelter to help a friend find a cat. While walking past kennels of cats who either studiously ignored me or who endearingly reached between the bars to wave their paws in my direction, I came across a lone mini-Rex rabbit. The rabbit was huddled in a corner of a kennel lined with newspapers. A bowl of water and another bowl of grass pellets sat against the wall. There no hutch to accord the rabbit some privacy. There were no fresh vegetables. There was no fresh cut grass or hay which rabbits need in abundance to stay healthy.
When I asked about the rabbit, I was told that the bunny had been found abandoned in the local park. "Do you know anything about rabbits?" asked one of the employees. Her eyes lit up when I told her that I used to have rabbits many years ago. Although the municipal shelter typically charges $100 as pet adoption fees which include a pet license, medical treatment, and neutering or spaying, the shelter was so desperate to get rid of the rabbit that they let me have her for just $5.00.
I temporarily housed the rabbit in a large cage that used to be home to a guinea pig and ordered a hutch through Amazon.
Since rabbits are social creatures I began perusing Craig's List with the hope of finding Miss Bunny a friend and companion. Although I haven't yet been able to find a suitable rabbit, I did find a number of ads for re-homing "teacup" pigs.
Teacup pigs are an unfortunate fad that began when Hollywood celebrities began appearing with tiny pet pigs tucked under their arms. Vendors began selling "teacup" pigs to a naive public for hundreds and even thousands of dollars by claiming that these pigs had been bred to remain small. A few of the more unscrupulous vendors even claimed that by limiting their consumption of food, and deliberately starving these animals, these piglets could remain small. None of these claims have ever proven to be true.
The sad reality is that there is no such thing as a "teacup" pig. Most teacup pigs that are featured in pictures like the one above are actually 1-2 day old Vietnamese pot bellied piglets. Although full grown pot bellied pigs are small compared to an American Yorkshire pig which averages 200-350 pounds but can grow up to 500 lbs for a sow and 1,000 lbs for a boar, within six years the tiny "tea cup" piglets pictured above can grow into the 250 lb. pig pictured below.
Some vendors have pointed to the cat sized parents of an alleged tea cup piglet as "proof" regarding how big these pigs will grow. Consumers who don't do their due diligence have been deceived because immature pigs can begin breeding when they're just 6 months old.
What's even more sad is that although these pigs can live for up to 12-15 years, the moment they grow too large many irresponsible owners abruptly decide that they need to re-home their pigs. All too many of these people have turned to Craig's list with the hope of foisting their overly large pets on some gullible person. A few of these people have even tried to recoup at least part of their purchases by asking for a re-homing fee to supposedly ensure that the pig goes to a good home.
Shelters and animal sanctuaries across the United States are now filled to capacity with these cast off pets. Unwilling to provide for their long term care and being emotionally unable to take these pigs to a processing facility where they could be slaughtered for their meat, these people have developed the somewhat unrealistic expectation that someone else should now care for their unwanted pets.
Although I wanted no part in caring for someone else's pig, the thought of piglets got me to thinking about the pig roasts my father used to take the family to when I was a kid. Slow cooked over hot coals, these piglets had juicy tender flesh and crispy crackling skin. In Thailand they were served with heaping bowls of rice and to my way of thinking, there was no better way to spend a Saturday night than to go to a pig roast.
I googled "suckling pigs for sale" and got a list of vendors. #1 on the list was Dartangnan.com. I visited this site and tried ordering a frozen 10-20 lb. pig for $179 but found that when I went to check out, Dartangnan had issues with delivering to my area in rural Arizona. To process my order, the company asked for additional shipping information. Why they needed anything beyond my name, credit card information, physical mailing address, and phone number was beyond me. I opted out and tried #2 on the google list, which was tenderbelly.com (Berkshire suckling pig).
I never got past their home page. Tender Belly wanted a minimum of two weeks notice just to order a piglet. Spoiled by on-line shopping and reasonably quick delivery times of 1-2 days, I didn't want to wait for two weeks just to see what they had available and then another few weeks to have my order processed and shipped. I opted out and went for #3 on the google list.
The third company I visited was McReynold Farms. They're actually not that far from me and are located down in the Phoenix area. I only noticed this because when I went to shipping, I saw that they offered free local pickups. Since I didn't want to spend my Saturday on a 7 hour round trip to Phoenix, I opted to have the piglet shipped to me at my work address. Rather than have the piglet potentially sitting on my doorstep (albeit frozen and packed in an insulated box lined with frozen gel packs), I thought it would be better to have the pig sent to my Culinary Arts kitchen.
The order was shipped last Wednesday and it arrived on Thursday.
Unwilling to upset any of my more tenderhearted students, I immediately stored this box on the bottom shelf of a commercial refrigerator. Given how big the box was, I was really glad that I chose to have it shipped to my work address because the package would have been too large to fit in my home refrigerator.
After work when all of the students had gone, I locked the kitchen doors and opened. the box. I wasn't quite sure what to expect and was surprised to see the edge of a black bag sticking up from under the insulated top. I later found out from one of the owners that all of their pigs are concealed in these black bags because there had been instances where an unsuspecting person had opened the box only to be startled by the sight of a frozen carcass.
Nestled within the black plastic bag was the piglet pictured below. Although it arrived mid-morning on a warm spring day (78°F) and had then spent the next six hours in a refrigerator, it was still frozen. The styrofoam sides and the use of frozen gel packs had kept the piglet well out of the temperature danger zone.
I took the piglet out of the shipping box and put it on a sheet pan. The sheet pan went back into the bottom of the refrigerator for overnight defrosting.
When I returned to work some 13 hours later, the piglet was only partially defrosted. I took it out of the plastic bag, placed it in a sink, and ran cold water over it for about an hour. By 6 AM the piglet was ready to be brined.
After transferring the piglet to a deep hotel pan, I made a brining solution by heating 2 cups of salt in 4 cups of water. Once the salt was dissolved, I added in 12 more cups of cold water and 16 cups of cold cranberry juice. I also threw in some chopped onions, grated ginger, crushed garlic, star anise, and a cup of soy sauce.
Since conventional wisdom says that meat should be brined for 1 hour per pound, by 5 PM the pig was ready to come out of the brine. I decided to rinse the brine out of the carcass partially because I was concerned about the salt but also because I didn't want any sugar residue from the cranberry juice to cause the piglet to burn once I put it in the oven.
Having rinsed off the pig, I left it in the sink and poured a stock pot of boiling water over it. The boiling water made the skin nice and taut. I dried off the piglet with a kitchen towel, put it in a clean hotel pan, and took it home where it was refrigerated overnight.
Prior to roasting it in my oven on Saturday morning, I preheated the oven to 275°F. I put a rack in the bottom of the hotel pan and covered the ears of the piglet with aluminum foil (to hopefully keep them from burning). I also stuck the probe from a thermocuple thermometer into the thick meaty shoulder.
I set the thermometer to beep an alarm when the internal temperature registered 160°F.
The alarm went off about 3 hours later. This is what the pig looked like.
Since I wanted some nice cracklings, I cranked the temperature up to 500 degrees. There was only one problem. At 500 degrees the piglet's snout (resting against the interior side of the hotel pan) began to blacken and smoke. Despite the use of a vent exhaust fan, the smoke detector by the front door went off. I had to turn off the oven and open the front and back doors of the house to air out the smoke.
This unfortunate experience left me with a fully cooked piglet with skin that was less than crispy.
My solution for this was to remove the skin which came off in two large pieces per side. I put the skin in a deep fryer at 325°F and cooked the skin (pictured below) until it was nice and crispy.
The meat itself was incredibly juicy and it was so tender that I could have pulled the flesh off of the carcass with my bare fingers. One thing that surprised me about this experience was the relative absence of any grease at the bottom of the pan. In reading about this online I saw that a 12 lb. piglet will only yield about 1/4 of a cup of grease due to the thickness of the animal's skin. If I had to do this again, I would have roasted the piglet on a half sheet pan instead of putting it in a hotel pan.
I plated my meal with steamed white rice and fresh asparagus. Although the entire pig was moist and juicy, the most succulent pieces seem to be the cheeks and the pork belly which were both incredibly tender and delicious.
In retrospect, the brining solution could also have used a lot more aromatics. Although I think that the pig absorbed some of the sweetness of the cranberry juice, I couldn't really taste the ginger, garlic, or star anise ... which was just as well. Since I like giving food to colleagues by way of saying thank you for various things they've helped me with, I decided to plate 3 portions to take to work.
In deference to the fact that two of these people were from west Texas, instead of plating their portions with steamed white rice and asparagus, I made some cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes with country gravy, and fried apples. I wouldn't have done this if the piglet had a stronger Asiatic flavor.
After picking whatever meat I could off the bones, I used the carcass to make a stock. On Sunday morning I used this stock to make a hearty bean soup that I garnished with garlic croutons and strips of ham.
If I had to do this again, in addition to placing a rack on a half sheet pan instead of inside a hotel pan, I would have purchased a 20 lb. piglet. In corresponding with one of the owners, Barbara McReynolds correctly pointed out that a 10 lb. piglet wasn't very large. She also suggested up to 1.5 pounds of meat per guest. Since it was just me, I opted to go with the smallest size available.
In retrospect, a 20 lb. piglet would have been about the same length as the piglet I purchased but it would have been a lot meatier. With this being said I still had a lot of fun with this experience and I'm definitely looking forward to my next pig roast.
I am now debating whether or not I really want to spend over $300 on a La Caja Asadora Roasting Box. This type of equipment is used for charcoal cooking pigs especially if they're over 20 pounds and are too big to fit inside a conventional oven.
I will have to think about this. In the meanwhile, I'm having bean soup with crusty wholewheat bread for lunch and left over suckling pig for dinner. Would it be a terrible pun for me to say that I'm in "hog heaven"?