Making the Pig Perfect

In the backyard-barbecue arena, burgers, hot dogs, and chicken breasts don’t have a chance against the perfectly cooked pig. Cook a whole pig, and a summer backyard morphs into an authentic Southern ’cue joint, unleashing the inner carnivore.

By: Sheila F. Buckmaster

Photo courtesy of La Caja China

In the backyard-barbecue arena, burgers, hot dogs, and chicken breasts don’t have a chance against the perfectly cooked pig. Cook a whole pig, and a summer backyard morphs into an authentic Southern ’cue joint, unleashing the inner carnivore.

But how to arrive at the perfectly cooked pig?

Rotisserie cooking, even on a fancy Grand Turbo, often results in burnt offerings because the fat from the pig drips down on the grill, causing little fires that scorch the meat.

I saw the light when I discovered the Caja China, a roasting box developed by Miami-based Cubans two decades ago. In parts of Latin America, to call something Chinese is to deem it clever.

The Caja China—basically a Dutch oven on steroids—looks like a cross between a wheelbarrow and a small steamer trunk. It provides consistent, indirect heat that causes the fat to bathe the meat.

Campers and explorers have cooked this way for centuries. Unlike the food at clambakes and luaus—which sits in a hole in the ground above the heat source—the pig rests inside the Caja China, with charcoal in a shallow tray on top of the box, heating from above.

The pig—butterflied and sandwiched between two grates—is placed ribs up in the aluminum-lined box. The tray above, actually the top of the box, is kept stoked with charcoal as the pig inside cooks cleanly and evenly, self-basting in its own fat.

The finished product, which takes about five hours, rivals anything you’d find in North Carolina, with moist, succulent meat and crackling, golden-brown skin.

It’s best to have a big board at the ready for hacking it up—I’ve created a three-by-four-foot cutting board for these occasions. Once the smell of slow-roasted pig penetrates the house, a carnival-like atmosphere takes over, with people descending on the meat and claiming ribs, hams, tenderloin, and crisp skin.

A whole roasted pig sounds daunting? The box can cook 16 to 18 whole chickens, four to six turkeys, or a slew of pork butts all at once. Now that I’ve been converted, I wouldn’t try to get through summer without it.

The Caja China, $329.99 at lacajachina.com, comes unassembled and takes two people about two hours to get up and running.