"If you haven’t had bacon off of a whole hog, you haven’t lived,” enthuses Melissa Cookston, whose team is the reigning champion of the whole-hog category at the Memphis in May barbecue world championship. But, she adds, “whole hog is the most challenging because it’s not a cut.”
Part of the challenge with competition hogs (or pigs, the former weighs in at 30 pounds and more, the latter below that) is the over-night commitment to smoking and tending the meat. For the rest of us there is a less time-intensive method that—with a little prep and a good amount of patience—will render whole hog at home that will impress friends and influence appetites without your digging a hole in the yard. La Caja China is a nifty barbecuing box that will fix hog in four hours.
First, banish for the weekend anyone who still believes that meat does not come from animals. Then, find a good butcher and buy the pig (start with an 80-pounder, which yields 25 to 30 pounds of meat) already cleaned and butterflied. Season it over a large plastic tarp by injecting apple juice in the larger parts (shoulder and the ham) and rub garlic, salt and citrus inside the cavity, poking holes along the way to let them soak in. Rest the pig in your bathtub overnight wrapped tightly in plastic on ice to maintain 40°F. Take it off the ice two hours before you’re ready to cook.
Now comes the easy part. Put your pig in the Caja, or Chinese Box, the creation of Roberto Guerra, who was inspired by his father’s memory of seeing a similar cooker used in Havana’s Chinatown. The Caja ($250 for the original, $1,250 tricked out) works a lot like a Dutch oven with the coals on top. It also acts like a pit by trapping heat and allowing the juices inside the hog to steam and keep the meat moist. A “smoking pistol” accessory ($50) allows you to flavor the pig with smoke inside the box. Guerra asserts the Caja is “foolproof.”
You put the butterflied meat on a sort of cage and lower it into the box skin-side down with a probe thermometer inserted. This arrangement holds in the moisture. The frame allows you to flip the pig at the end of the process to crisp the skin. It should be ready in three to four hours, or when the meat temperature reaches 187°F. While it’s cooking, get the rum and dominoes, light the cigars and await your reward.
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