Backyard barbecuing is getting big. Literally.
With the deep-fried turkey fad long faded, a small but growing number of Americans hungering for new outdoor cooking adventures are investing many hours and dollars in a very old technique - roasting whole hogs, goats and lambs.
It's not for the meek. It takes an ambitious home cook, not to mention plenty of expensive and large equipment, to hoist a hundred pounds of meat over hot embers and carefully cook it, sometimes for 20 hours or more.
Yet plenty of people are trying. Or at least want other people to try for them.
That has turned roasts - praised for producing particularly smokey, tender meat - into a fast-growing business for many caterers, says Don McCullough, executive vice president of the National Barbecue Association. He credits the novelty of it.
"Doing a whole hog lends a festive atmosphere to things," he says. "Everybody wants to see it. It's like watching a wreck."
Outdoor whole-animal roasts are nothing new. The Carolinas have a long tradition of so-called pig pickings, while Hawaii has the luau, and roast goat and lamb are common in many immigrant communities.
But now the interest is more mainstream, thanks in part to television cooking shows popularizing barbecue competitions. And as more people spend more money on mammoth grills and outdoor kitchens, burgers and dogs somehow seem less satisfying, McCullough says.
"Folks just love to gather around the spit and watch it in awe and wait in anticipation," says Joe Tomas, who has organized annual hog roasts for the members of his motorcycle club since 2000. "The taste is succulent and it's just a wonderful smell."
The pig roast tradition began after the group's gatherings got unwieldy to feed, growing a few dozen people to 125. This year Tomas, a 54-year-old Pembroke, N.H., resident, hired a caterer to prepare a 135-pound pig. The cost? About $12 a person.
"Everyone walks away stuffed to the gills," he says.
Though increasingly popular, quantifying hog roasts - by far the most popular animal - is challenging, in part because the cottage nature of the industry has left restaurant and barbecue trade groups with little data.
Still, while roasts are unlikely to obtain the ubiquity of the deep-fried turkey, they are common enough for Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club to offer whole pigs by special order, and caterers say more customers are requesting them for events such as corporate functions and weddings.
"It's amazing the number of hogs that are cooked whole," says Mike Mills, owner of 17th Street Catering in Murphysboro, Ill., and author of the cookbook "Peace, Love & Barbecue." "There was a point in time that you hardly did any."
Traditional roasts were cooked over pits, but today serious cooks use professional roasters, massive barbecues, often mounted on trailers, that resemble oil tanks and offer far greater temperature control. Some even accommodate multiple hogs.
They aren't cheap. The fanciest models can cost tens of thousands of dollars. They also are in high demand.
Mike McGowan, owner of Backwoods Smoker Inc. in Dixie, La., has built roasters for a decade. Business is so good he is three months behind on orders, from both caterers and backyard enthusiasts. "Every year my business has doubled. The worst year I had it increased by 25 percent."
Though some consumer grill companies produce large barbecues that can handle very small pigs, getting the real pig roast experience - serving 100 or more people from the same pig - requires more serious gear.
Since few people can afford that, many party shops - and some enterprising slaughterhouses - rent the equipment.
Rick Lemay, who runs Lemay & Sons Beef in Goffstown, N.H., offers one-stop-shopping for pig roasts. In addition to selling pigs prepped for roasting (gutted, clean and stretched on a spit) he also rents the equipment and hires out cooking teams.
Lemay, who has catered roasts at graduations and baptisms - and Tomas' motorcycle gatherings - averages 30 pigs a weekend. He already has orders for more than 60 for Fourth of July roasts. Eight years ago, that number was about half.
Roasting whole animals, especially something as large as a pig, requires finesse. For example, federal safety guidelines say pork must reach an internal temperature of 160 F. That's not easy.
"There's more of an art to it than just throwing a hog in there and cooking it," says McGowan. "There's so many different thicknesses of meat up and down the hog, you have to really know what you're doing to keep from overcooking some and undercooking others."
How to best achieve that balance is a matter of debate. Barbecue purists argue for the low and slow method, which calls for cooking over indirect heat at about 225 F for as many as 20 hours (depending on the size of the pig).
Folks like Lemay prefer to crank it up a bit. Cooking at around 325 F, Lemay can finish a 100-pound pig in six to seven hours.
Then there is the basting. Or not.
During roasting, some cooks inject the hog with a sauce to "baste" it from the inside. Others "mop" it on from the outside. Still others do nothing, maintaining that because pigs are roasted with the skin intact, melting fat trapped beneath it naturally bastes the meat.
However basted, the carving is easy. When properly cooked, the meat on a roasted pig should almost fall from the bones. Of course, that isn't always a good thing. For some, watching the dismantling of a cooked carcass complete with head and feet triggers an ick factor.
Bill Eason, owner of The Little Red Pig Championship Barbecue in Marshville, N.C., loves roasting hogs, but says the sight of them is a turnoff to many of his customers. Most want the meat, but "don't want to see the animal," he says.
But for others, the spectacle is what sells. Though Mills, who roasts pigs as part of his catering business, thinks the popularity of roasts is undeserved, he says it is the experience more than the taste that brings customers in.
"To be honest with you, the perceived value is not there," he says. "You can buy other parts of the hog - preferably the shoulders - and have more meat. But they like the idea of cooking the whole animal and the appearance of it."
Planning a pig roast? Some things to consider
A few things to consider when planning a pig roast:
- To calculate the size pig you'll need, plan 1¼ pounds per guest. Most roasting pigs weigh between 60 pounds and 130 pounds "dressed" (which means gutted, but with the skin, bones, head and extremities intact).
- Determine ahead of time what temperature you want the hog cooked at, usually between 225 F and 325 F. A 60-pound pig cooked at 325 F will take about 4 hours. Lower temperatures or larger pigs can more than double that time.
- If you rent roasting equipment, you'll probably need a vehicle with a tow hook. Most barbecues are mounted on trailers.
- Large refrigeration space is essential for storing the pig until you are ready to roast. Barbecue experts suggest using the back of a pickup truck filled with ice.
- Roasting a 50-pound pig will require about 40 pounds of charcoal, plus several small hardwood logs (for smoke).