For hundreds of years the problem of feeding a large crowd on high days and holidays was solved by spit-roasting a whole animal, and the operation itself became a focus of the celebration. Today, although whole carcasses are no longer so easy to come by, a return to informality even in large gatherings has brought about renewed interest in spit-roasting.
During his years in South Africa, Grant spit-roasted many an animal. Unfortunately he was not able to fit his spit-roaster into the container that brought his belongings to the United States (It was a close call as to whether his clothes OR the spit-roaster made it into the container). It was Grant’s passion for spit-roasting and Scott’s desire to own and use such a unique piece of cooking equipment, that led them down the path of designing and manufacturing the ultimate spit-roaster. An 800-pound monster that would spin a rhino effortlessly over a bed of hot coals.
Of course any kind of animal can (and should) be fair game for spit-roasting. Whatever the beast, it is normally a time consuming exercise and a screw up can be expensive! Perhaps to a greater degree than any other type of barbecuing or grilling, a spit-roast has the potential to be a great success, or an absolute disaster. It requires perfect planning right from the purchase of the carcass to its serving – and plenty of time for the roasting, and accompanying beer-drinking ritual! For the most part the rules of the game are fairly similar, but for purposes of illustration on this page we will focus on roasting pigs and sheep.
Spit-roasting may be done either with the carcass suspended over the coals on a horizontal spit which revolves to allow the meat to cook evenly, or on a cross spit which is stuck into the ground at an angle of 45 degrees. The latter method, perfected in the Argentine and known as ‘asado’, requires that the carcass be split open and impaled on an iron rod with the crossbar to which the hind legs of the beast are attached.
Manufactured spits are available in a number of different sizes, but if you wish you could devise your own, as we did.
For your basic horizontal spit you will need a round metal bar about 70 inches long onto which the carcass can be secured. This bar should have two metal cross-pieces, each about 28 inches long, to which the forelegs and hind legs can be attached if the carcass is roasted open-style. The crosspieces must be able to be secured tightly to the horizontal rod and also capable of moving up or down the rod to accommodate different sizes of animal. The two uprights, also metal, should stand firmly in the ground, be sturdy enough to support the carcass-bearing rod, and allow adjustment of the height of the spit above the coals.
For the asado spit, both metal rods required for the asado spit should be flat, rather than round, about 1 inch wide, and ¼ inch thick. The crossbar, about 28 inches long, is welded at right angles to the 70 inch vertical rod 4 inches from one end. The other end is sharpened so that the rod sticks firmly into the ground. A metal hook, to which each hind shank of the carcass is fastened, is then welded to either end of the crossbar. There is nothing worse than having your eagerly awaited roast collapse into the fire just as it is almost ready, so be sure that your spit, whether horizontal or asado is sturdy enough to bear the full weight of your beast!
As with barbecuing and grilling, successful spit-roasting depends on a well-made fire. We recommend using charcoal, remembering that the bed of coals required for spit-roasting must be considerably larger than that required for ordinary barbecuing and grilling. See the chart for approximate amounts of charcoal you will need depending on the size of your beast. Bear in mind that cooking times for spit-roasting are typically very long so you will need to continuously monitor and add fuel to your fire as you go. If you prefer to add pre-burned charcoal to your fire, you will need to keep an additional fire going to supply these fresh coals.
The choice of the carcass is of utmost importance if you want tasty and tender meat. Old, heavy carcasses not only take longer to cook than younger ones, but also turn out dry and tough. Make sure that one you select is that of a young, well-fed animal.
For best results, the dressed weight of a lamb carcass should range between 25 and 55 pounds. The most suitable weight for a pork carcass is between 30 and 50 pounds. Of course you are welcome to spit-roast a brontosaurus to feed your entire village, but the larger you go, the greater the margin for error and the likelihood that the overall end product will not be as tasty and tender. Often, it is hard to fit within these boundaries, as once your friends know you are having a spit-roast, they all want to come! This is mostly the case with us, and we normally end up cooking larger animals than we ourselves recommend. If you have a lot of people to feed, ideally you should cook two smaller animals, rather than one large one.
If possible, lamb should be ordered a few days in advance, so that your butcher has time to age the meat. With the advent of meat processing plants, this is becoming more and more difficult with many butchers now not geared up to store whole carcasses in their refrigeration units. Aging is regarded as the most effective method of tenderizing meat since it is a natural process and not only results in tenderness, but also develops flavor.
When purchasing a lamb carcass, ask the butcher to remove the head and neck, and the kidneys embedded in the suet. For an asado spit, however, leave the kidneys in place and let them roast with the rest of the carcass. Traditionally they are offered to the guest of honor before the meat is served to the other guests.
A pig’s carcass should be left with the head and tail on. Remember to remove the kidneys, and cook them separately if you wish.
The Bigness of the Beast
It is always hard to estimate the amount of food that you will need to feed your guests. Not having enough food for your guests is like a commercial aircraft running out of fuel in midair.
As a general rule a dressed animal will yield 50% of the dressed weight in cooked meat. You should allow ½ to 1/3 of a pound of meat per person, depending on how savage your friends are.
You can ‘stretch’ the yield of a beast by stuffing it either with traditional stuffing, or by buying additional cuts of the same meat and stuffing the belly with these whole cuts. (e.g. Stuff the stomach of a pig with extra Boston butts, rock salt and plenty of garlic. This also helps to make the cooking of the beast more even).
Preparing the Carcass
Calculate the amount of salt and pepper required for seasoning the whole carcass by allowing 1 teaspoon of salt and pinch of freshly ground black pepper, per kilogram. Mix the salt and pepper together and rub a quarter of the mixture on the inside of the stomach cavity, keeping the rest to season the beast towards the end of the cooking time.
If you plan on closing the stomach cavity for cooking, as opposed to roasting it open-style, make up the following mixture and rub this into the cavity of a lamb or pig before closing it.
3 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons cooking oil
6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons coarse salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
If you decide to stuff your beast, the type of stuffing you use, will depend on what you are cooking. Use your imagination, but to get you started here are a couple of recipes, which work well with pork or lamb.
Dried Fruit Stuffing
2 medium onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
3 pounds ground pork or veal
500 grams dried apricots, coarsely chopped
½ cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
½ cup chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the cooking oil in a pan and fry
the onion and garlic gently until the onion is translucent. Add the remaining
ingredients and mix lightly.
Pork and Rice Stuffing
8 cups cooked rice
3 cups sultanas, soaked in hot water or dry white wine, then drained
4 cloves garlic, chopped
6 eggs, beaten
Dash cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mix all the ingredients for the stuffing lightly but thoroughly.
Securing the Carcass to a Horizontal spit
|The beast can be attached to a horizontal spit in one of two ways: either ‘wrapped around’ (necessary if you plan to stuff the cavity), or ‘open-style’ with the hind legs and forelegs splayed out. If you are using a manufactured spit, follow the instructions that usually come with it for securing the carcass.|
Stuffing and ‘Wrapping’
To stuff and ‘wrap’ your beast around a homemade spit, lay the carcass on its side and push the spit through the tail end, guiding it so that the point emerges through the mouth. Secure the spine of the carcass to the spit rod using wire that is looped around the spine and the spit rod and then tightened, by twisting with pliers, so that there is minimum ‘play’ between the spine and the spit rod. Spoon the stuffing into the stomach cavity, but not too tightly since it expands during cooking and may cause the cavity to burst open. To make removal of the stuffing easier, line the cavity with foil (dull side facing you) before packing in the stuffing. Sew up the cavity with a trussing needle, making a few stitches at the tail end, and a few at the neck end. Then make individual stitches along the rest of the cavity at intervals of about 3 cm.
To keep the legs of the lamb or the pig's trotters out of the fire they must be secured to the spit. Loop a piece of thin stainless steel flexible wire around one of the hind feet, tighten the loop with pliers, then pass the wire around the other hind foot pull it close to the first. Twist the two ends of wire together tightly and cur off any excess. Truss the forefeet in the same way. Then pull the hind feed close to the spit and secure them to it with wire. Do the same with the front feet.
To attach a lamb or pig that is to be roasted ‘open-style’ to a horizontal spit, first lay the carcass on its back and force the breast open. With a sharp cleaver or axe, chop just through the rib bones at the backbone. Force the ribs flat, then turn the carcass over and, starting at the tail end, insert the spit between the backbone and the layer of connective tissue and fat that covers it. Push the spit along the length of the carcass until it emerges through the middle of the neck or, in the case of a pig, through the mouth. Once the carcass is in position on the spit, secure the hind legs to one of the crosspieces with wire and make sure that this crosspiece is tightly secured to the spit rod. Move the second crosspiece into position so that it will support the front legs, and tightly secure this to the spit rod. Then attach the forelegs to this crosspiece with wire.
If you have a very fatty pig, you might want to score the skin/rind with a sharp knife, since it will shrink and crack during the cooking process. Scoring will allow a lot of the fat to render out of the skin, producing very good crackling, and will make it easier to remove the crackling, prior to carving the meat.
Cover all the sensitive parts of your beast with tinfoil (shiny side out) to prevent them from burning. (e.g. Ears, snout, tail). Do this in such a way that you can easily remove the foil from these parts for the last hour or so of cooking. This will allow them to develop some color, closer to that of the overall beast when it is fully cooked.
Similarly, in the case of lamb which often have very thin ribs and not much meat between them, it is a good idea to cover the rib cage with tinfoil (shiny side out) for a good deal of the cooking time. This will ensure that people can actually eat the ribs, as opposed to them being totally dried out and inedible.
Make sure that any wire you use to secure the beast to the spit is tied very tightly as the meat will shrink during cooking and the wire will subsequently get looser. You do not want your pig falling into the fire before it is done. I have seen this happen, and it is not pretty!
Over the Fire
Position the horizontal rod between the two uprights. Move your coals so that they are below the legs and shoulders of the beast. These are the thickest parts and will take the longest to cook.
You might be eager to shorten the cooking time as much as possible. (Not sure why you would want to cut into beer-drinking time) but, BE WARNED, it is important that the carcass does not roast too rapidly at the beginning. This will result in the outside becoming hard, preventing the heat from penetrating to the interior. So, start off slowly and gradually turn the heat up. The most difficult part of pulling off a good spit-roast is getting the outside of the beast golden brown and nicely caramelized and at the same time getting the meat under the skin cooked all the way through to the bone. For the majority of the cooking duration you will want your fire to be at about 350 F (The fire is at 350 F if you can hold your hand at the cooking level for at least 8, but no more than 12 seconds).
If it looks as though certain parts of the beast are cooked before others, cover them with tinfoil (shiny side out).
Place a drip pan under the carcass so that dripping meat juices and fat may be collected and used for basting. This will also prevent the possibility of flare-ups, which in extreme cases can result in the entire animal catching fire (I kid you not!)
Basting your Beast
Basting your beast is a very satisfying thing for any spit-roaster! The advantages of doing this are primarily to keep the outer parts of the beast from drying out, which would not taste good, and also prevent heat from penetrating through the thicker parts of the meat. Basting also helps promote a rich golden color on your beast. Keep any baste warm next to your fire and apply using a large paintbrush.
Be as creative as you like with your baste, but at a minimum it should contain cooking oil, and I like to always have lemon juice as part of the base. This helps to break down a lot of the fat on the outside of the beast, and helps reduce a fatty flavor to the meat. From there you can add salt, pepper, garlic, fruit juices, herbs etc. Be careful not to use anything with a very high sugar content as this will burn on the skin.
When is the Meat Ready?
In spit-roasting like most other forms of cooking, the length of time the meat must cook depends on a number of factors: the size of the carcass; the heat of the fire; prevailing wind and weather conditions; and not least, the ability of the chef to control fire and beast. . See the chart for approximate cooking times depending on the size of your beast.
When your beast has been cooking for the suggested amount of time, insert an instant read meat thermometer into the thickest part of the hind leg. A pig should register about 170 F, and lamb about 140 F, to be done. If you don’t have a thermometer pierce the thickest part of the beast with a skewer or knife. The juices should run clear, without any trace of pink.
Cooking Time (hrs)
Place the spit, complete with the carcass, on a large table or giant-sized carving board, and remove the spit rod. If you have a beast with a head, you might want to dress it up at this point (This helps make the beast less scary for the kids to look at!). In any event, allow your beast to rest for about 30 minutes before beginning the carving process. This will allow the beast to cool down and make for easier carving, but will also allow the juices of the pig to draw back into the meat.
Remember to count all your fingers before and after carving your beast.
A Word about Crackling
There is no doubt that Pork Fat Rules! Nowadays pigs are being bred a lot leaner and there is less of this good stuff to go around. If however you are fortunate enough to get a pig that has a good concentration of fat under the back skin, you can seriously impress your guests by cooking the crackling to a salty crisp. This is easier said than done, but if done right, will be one of the talking points of your spit-roast.
Here are some tips for great crackling:
Note that when you are spit-roasting a pig, very often the cracking can be done to perfection while the rest of the meat requires further cooking. Simply remove the cracking and serve it as a snack, or keep it on one side and reheat it just before serving with the rest of the pork. If you decide to do this make sure you baste the ‘exposed’ meat while it continues cooking, or it will dry out on the outside.
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