Birthdays only come once a year, and milestone birthdays only happen once in a lifetime. It just so happens that I recently passed one of those milestone birthdays and ticked over into the big 30′s. Some people like to spend these occasions relaxing on a beach, or sulking about father time catching up with them, but I saw this as a prime opportunity to expand my barbecue horizons into a category of cooking that every great pitmaster must dabble in. So I treated myself to a pre-birthday present by purchasing a La Caja China roasting box and set out on my first pig roast!
The La Caja China roasting box is a fairly unique cooker, especially if you’re used to the traditional smokers and/or spit roasters. The best way to describe it is a giant Dutch Oven. It’s a large rectangular box that’s constructed out of aluminum lined plywood. A butterflied roasting pig gets sealed inside, and then a charcoal fire is lit on the racks sitting on top of the box. The heat from the fire presses down on our little piggy friend, cooking him to perfection in a mere 4 hours!!!
So, the first thing to do when planning a pig roast is to line up a supplier for your pig. I happen to have a connection to a Berkshire pork processor up in Iowa, so I made a call to my contact at Eden Farms. I let them know that I was looking for, and then 3 days before the big cook I had my very own Berkshire pig.
The pig arrived frozen solid, so I iced him down in our bath tub to slowly thaw out over the course of a couple days. (This is the part where I need to thank my wife. Needless to say she was a bit hesitant when I told her that I wanted to thaw a dead pig in our upstairs bathroom, but she understands my addiction and was more than willing to sacrifice our guest bathroom for the weekend.
The key to thawing the pig, especially in a bathtub for a couple days, is to keep him on fresh ice. He (for some reason I refer to the pig as a he) was wrapped in a large plastic bag, so I kept him inside the bag during the thaw. The ice was then packed around the outside of the wrapped pig, and I left the drain open to prevent any standing water from forming. The tub ended up holding the cold temps really well, so I didn’t go through near the amount of ice as I was planning. Every 6-8 hours I would check in and add more ice as needed.
The morning of the roast we took the pig out of the ice and carried him outside to get prepped for the cooker. To make sure he was good and clean, I gave the pig a good rinse with some water before putting him up on the prep table.
Once on the table he needed a little knife work before being ready for the box. In order to evenly cook inside the La Caja China, then pig needed to be butterflied to lay flat. To do this, we laid the pig on his back and the I used a large chefs knife and a rubber mallet to split the spine between the two front legs. The cut I made ran a majority of the length of the ribs, but I imagine this could vary depending on the size and anatomy of each animal. I also removed the membrane from the ribs and trimmed off any small hanging pieces of fat.
After trimming we injected him with approximately 1 gallon of my competition pork injection, focusing mainly on the shoulders, hams, and loin. All I had available was a few small hand injectors, so this took a little longer than I was planning. Before my next pig roast I will be investing in larger injector gun or one of those automatic injector pumps. This will save lots of time, and some hand cramps!
Once injected, I rubbed the entire pig with hefty coating of kosher salt following by a layer of Bad Byron’s Butt Rub all across the cavity. I chose to use this rub because it doesn’t contain any sugar, which I thought would burn under the high heat produced by the La Caja China.
Once the pig was fully seasoned, we wrapped him back up in plastic with ice bags on top and let him rest for another 4-6 hours to absorb the flavors of the injection and rub. 2 hours before the roast started, I pulled the ice bags off the pig to let him come to room temperature. It was a pretty hot that day, and I had my prep table setup in the garage, so it didn’t take long for the pig to come to room temperature. If you were doing this process in an air conditioned room, then you may need to let the pig sit a little longer.
In hindsight, this is the point at which I made a mistake. Before lowering the pig into the roasting box, you’re suppose to secure him inside of a wire rack to help keep him splayed out. Unbeknownst at the time, I had actually secured the racks upside down, which is why there is a bar running through the pig’s mouth in the above picture. Instead of the racks acting as a cage to hold the pig together, they act as risers to lift the pig 2-3 inches off of the drip pan. This then allows the hot air to circulate underneath the pig during the cooking process. This was definitely an important detail, so take note of this if you plan to do your own roast.
After sealing the pig inside the box, all you need to do is follow the simple instructions conveniently printed on the side. 16 pounds of charcoal were lit initially, and then more was added per the recommended timings. After 3 hours of roasting, the pig is then flipped to expose the skin side to direct heat. This makes it nice and crispy!
The flip is when I noticed that something wasn’t going as planned. This is the point in the process where you are supposed to score the skin with a knife. The instructions and YouTube videos showed this happening with relative ease. The first slit I made went great, but the skin near the center wasn’t quite as tender as I was expecting. I was able to cut through the skin, but it required a bit more umph than the edges. This was because the skin was in contact with the drip pan, so the heat wasn’t able to circulate under the pig.
To make up for the less than tender skin, I let the pig roast a little longer than the recommended time after the flip. After about another hour, the skin became nice and crispy and we were able hoist the golden brown pig from the roasting box and place him on the serving table.
The final product was moist and juicy, and the rendered pork fat flavor was unmatched! The only issued caused by my oversight with the rack was that the meat wasn’t quite as tender as I would have liked. It never reached the point of being able to pull the meat cleanly from the bone, so we mostly enjoyed sliced pork. Regardless, it was absolutely delicious! I was really surprised at how well the flavor of the rub penetrated the meat. The heat of the roaster really activated those flavors, and they were absorbed by the entire hog.
All in all, my first pig roast was a resounding success! I learned a few lessons along the way, and have a game-plan in place for making my next roast even better. Special thanks to everyone who came out for the birthday bash! I can’t think of a better way to spend my 30th birthday than cooking for 100 of my closest family and friends!