Davila’s BBQ
Photo Credit: Davila’s BBQ

In 2024, there’s a “national holiday” for everything. July is National Picnic Month, for example; June features Yo-Yo Day; and Alien Day is just around the corner on April 26. Some of these national observances may seem silly, but they give us all small things to celebrate when there’s more than enough bad news to go around.

Another such “holiday” is National Food Month, commemorated annually in April as the time to indulge in your favorite foods or try new tastes you’ve been curious about. This month-long event grants permission for barbeque aficionados and pork lovers across the country to satiate their taste buds with an array of delectable dishes. And one such delicacy is whole-hog asado, proudly prepared by Adrian Davila, founder of Davila’s BBQ in Seguin, Texas, and author of Cowboy Barbecue: Fire & Smoke from the Original Texas Vaqueros. There’s a whole history behind this cooking technique, and National Food Month is the perfect time to explore it.

The Delicious History of Whole-Hog Cooking

Whether smoked in the ground over coals and rocks, roasted above the ground, wrapped in coals, or smoked with heat, whole-animal cooking is and always will be a big event. This cooking style takes significant time and effort, and whole-hog diners enjoy the aromas all day long as the animal’s fat renders and its meat cooks through.

From a practical standpoint, roasting a whole pig is a low-maintenance way to feed large crowds, which may have contributed to its popularity over the decades. Although different styles are used worldwide, the whole-hog roast is a well-known tradition everywhere, from Filipino Christmas celebrations to special occasions in Cuba. Even in China, a pig was traditionally sacrificed to ward off evil in return for success.

Specific recipes often come down to what’s available in that region of the world, whether it’s the type of wood used for the fire or the supporting ingredients. For example, Puerto Rican barbecue uses lots of readily available citrus. Cuban cooks often don’t season the meat before cooking because they believe the heat burns the seasoning off; instead, they season after cooking with achiote and salt. In Davila’s case, the variety of chiles found in Mexico are incorporated into his recipes.

Asado-Style BBQ

The word “asado” has several meanings, one of the most prominent being “barbecue.” But it also refers to a cut of meat and even, according to Pick Up the Fork, a type of gathering. A traditional asado involves cooking over an open flame. From there, cultural nuances abound.

Traditional Argentine asado is perhaps the most well-known. In this style, all animal parts are used, making asado a very environmentally friendly and cost-effective cooking approach. An experienced “asador,” or pitmaster, will tend to the flames all day, says Worldclass, ensuring that each part of the animal is properly cooked without over- or undercooking any sections of the meat. Dishes are served hot off the fire.

Davila himself cooks whole-hog feasts mainly when catering for large gatherings. His favorite cooking method is Cuban, where the hog is cooked directly over coals. This method requires a bit more finesse than using a smoker, and the hot flame renders the fat more quickly as opposed to the low-and-slow method of smoking. Asado-style pork is less fatty, yet the meat retains a tender texture.

Adrian Davila
Photo Credit: Adrian Davila

Whole-Hog Asado at Home

Although whole-hog asado requires much labor, you can replicate the technique at home. Follow Davila’s steps to prep and prime your pig and fire for the best chances of success.

Step 1: Prepare the Pig

Three days before you want to cook, select a pig in the 50- to 60-pound range. The best pigs for roasting on a spit are under 90 pounds. At this weight, the meat will be extremely gelatinous and the flesh practically melts. Larger, older pigs have tougher fat, which can be more dry. You can buy a whole pig at your local butcher shop. The pig’s head and feet will be attached. Ask for the pig to be butterflied with all internal organs removed.

A 50-pound pig will not fit in the average refrigerator to defrost, so you must purchase a large, heavy-duty, “Texas-size” cooler. Make sure the pig is laid on its side inside the cooler. It will take one day in the cooler for the whole pig to start to defrost. After two days, the pig will begin to thaw. On this day, place 20 pounds of ice inside the chest/abdomen cavity of the pig. On the third day, the pig will be thawed enough to start seasoning. Do not allow the internal temperature of the pig to exceed 40°F.

Step 2: Build the Fire

Use briquettes, as hardwood burns too fast and too hot, making it difficult to obtain an even, slow-roast heat level. You will need one pound of coals per 10 pounds of pig. Ensure you have an extra 25 pounds on hand—you won’t want to run out of coals during your roasting process.

The fire for the pig is typically made in a metal oil barrel, a 55-gallon drum that’s been split in half so that it’s about 24 by 32 inches and filled with hardwood charcoal briquettes. Use a chimney starter; it’s the easiest way to get those coals lit!

The spit is a tried-and-true way of cooking by exposing the whole animal to the heat. Have baling wire ready to secure the pig to the spit. Grab a set of long tongs to arrange the coals under the roasting pig.

Step 3: Season the Pig

Combine olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano in a large bowl. Mix well until it forms a paste. Rub only the inside cavity of the pig completely with the paste. Rubbing the outside of the pig with the paste will make it scorch and burn.

Step 4: Secure the Pig to the Spit

Securing it to the spit is one of the most important steps in preparing your pig. This pig will be heavy. It will make for a sloppy roast if it is not well-secured.

There are a few ways to secure the pig to the spit, but Davila prefers the “commercial spit” method, as it’s the most straightforward. Find a large, clean surface on which to lay the pig flat. Secure the spine to the spit for best results.

Slide the spikes into position around the pig’s jowls and right into the rear end, and lock the pig on by tightening the screws. Use a baling wire to secure the hooves to the secondary bar. Your pig will look as if it’s standing upright when secured correctly.

Step 5: Cook the Pig

Cooking the pig is one of the easiest parts of this process. All you need to do is sit back and relax and take turns constantly rotating the pig. You can purchase an electric spit that rotates independently, which is even less work but less fun. Roast your pig for 4 to 6 hours. You will know it’s fully cooked when the skin is crispy, crackly, and a mahogany color.

If the skin starts to be crispy within the first hour, you must move the coals lower or the pig higher, as it cooks too quickly.

When serving the meat, some people have “choice” parts they prefer to eat, such as cheek, backstrap (tenderloin), and loin, all of which are commonly sought after. The organs are usually reserved for sausages, soups, and other delicacies.

Conclusion

For BBQ lovers worldwide, the rich history of whole-hog asado is both fascinating and hunger-inducing. Gather your friends and family together and try your hand at a whole-hog feast this National Food Month.