Cooking a suckling pig for a holiday or special occasion is decadent and impressive. It looks like something straight out of Game of Thrones, and I mean that in the best way. Suckling pig can be a bit intimidating — it is roasting an entire animal, after all, but once you try it, you’ll realize that with just a little prep, the process isn’t hard and is well worth the effort.
We’re going to cover what a suckling pig is, how to cook them, a few pro tips and best practices for nailing the perfect roast, and then leave you with a few fantastic options for buying the best suckling pig.
What is a suckling pig?
A suckling pig is a piglet that’s still feeding on its mother’s milk. In other words, it’s still a “suckling”. Suckling pigs are usually slaughtered between two and six weeks, but those windows don’t have to be exact.
Choosing when to slaughter a suckling pig is less about when the pig is weaned off milk and more about the size of the pig and the extent to which its muscles have developed. As long as the meat is still pale, tender, and high in collagen, then it’s fine. In general, any pig under 35-40 pounds or so will get you the tenderness you’re looking for.
Suckling pigs are popular all around the world. There’s lechon asado in Puerto Rico, cochon de lait in Louisiana and France, lechón in South America… you get the idea. If you’ve never had or tried to make a suckling pig, then it’s an experience you simply must have.
How to cook suckling pig
When it comes to cooking suckling pig, there are really only a few choices: oven roasting, smoking over a grill or dedicated smoker, and cooking directly over a fire.
Here’s how to do each:
1. Oven Roast
- Difficulty: ⅕
- Time Needed: 4-5 hours
Oven roasting a suckling pig is easy. It’s just prepping the pig, throwing it on a baking sheet, and roasting! There are few dishes that pack so much flavor for so little effort, and once you try roasting a suckling pig you will do it again and again.
The instructions below are inspired by My Kitchen:
- Make sure your pig can fit in your oven. Anything twenty pounds or under should fit in a conventional oven. If it’s too big, you may have to cut it in half or use two baking sheets.
- Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
- Clean your pig by removing any hair, black spots, the kidneys, and the eyes.
- Optional: Place marbles or aluminum foil in the eyes to make it look a little less gruesome.
- Season generously inside and out with salt and pepper.
- Fill various cavities with garlic, lemons, or any other combination of fruits and spices you desire.
- Place an apple or potato in the mouth to keep the mouth open during roasting.
- Place the pig back-side facing up (closest to the ceiling of the oven) if possible. Put it on its side if not. The idea is to increase surface area as you do with a spatchcocked chicken.
- Roast for around 15 minutes per pound, so around 4 hours for a 20-pound pig, or until the deepest joints and parts of the pig read 160 degrees.
- Blast the oven up to 500 or more and cook for 20-30 minutes or until the skin is clearly blistered and cracked.
- Let rest for 30 minutes.
- Gather the juices to serve over the meat and/or save the fat for future recipes.
2. Grill / Smoker
- Difficulty: ⅗
- Time Needed: 5+ hours
Smoking a suckling pig is a great way to get an extra layer of flavor from the wood chips or pellets you choose. You can cook a suckling pig in a regular grill with a spit attachment or use an actual smoker if it fits. This is our favorite way to make them!
The instructions below are inspired by How to BBQ Right:
- Thaw the pig if necessary for a few days in the fridge.
- Place the pig on a cutting surface back side down and use a sharp knife to cut through the breast bone, allowing the chest cavity to open. Press down gently on each side until the pig lays open.
- Trim away any excess fat, sinew, organs, or blood-colored areas from the cavity. Wipe the cavity and outer skin clean with a damp towel.
- Season the inside of the pig as you wish.
- Inject the pig’s hams, loins, and shoulders with apple juice or another flavorful liquid.
- Whisk pork injection and apple juice in a bowl to combine. Shoot the injection into the hams, loins, and shoulder areas of the pig.
- Place the pigs on a sheet pan in the running position and wipe any excess rub or moisture off the skin using a dry towel.
- Prepare smoker for indirect cooking at 225⁰ using cherry and hickory wood for smoke flavor.
- Arrange the pig on the cooking grate and protect the ears and snout with aluminum foil.
- Smoke at 225-250⁰ for 2.5 hours then apply a light coating of cooking spray on the skin.
- Continue to smoke until internal temperature registers 190 in the thickest part of the shoulder.
- Remove pig from smoker and rest for at least 30 minutes before serving.
3. Pit Fire
- Difficulty: ⅘
- Time Needed: 5+ hours
Pit fires are about as old school as they get, but roasting pigs in concrete boxes is also a popular variation of the pit fire if you want to blend modernity with the old school.
- Season the pig with any salt, pepper, butter, and any other spices you’d like.
- Add any fruits or vegetables inside the pig.
- Sew up the belly with twine. For a video on tying the twine and using a spit, go here.
- Build a fire in your boxed pit and wait until the fire is full of red coals.
- Optional: Use a rod and spit the pig through it.
- Slowly cook and turn as needed to avoid burns.
- Pull when the pig is at 180 degrees and the skin is the desired texture.
Best practices for cooking suckling pig
Here are a few tips from our chefs and butchers at U.S. Wellness Meats.
Make sure to clean the pig beforehand
Different butchers will give you the suckling pig in different conditions, but take a look for any hair and blackened spots and cut them off. You may have to get rid of the kidneys and eyes as well, and some people like to put aluminum foil or marble in the eye sockets to make it less gruesome.
Check that your suckling pig will fit your oven
Most pigs under twenty pounds can fit in a regular home oven, but make sure your oven can handle the pig! The last thing you want to do is drop a bit of cash on a pig you can’t cook.
Cover spots that are burning early as needed
Since you’ll be roasting for a few hours, when you check to see if the pig needs anything periodically, see if there are spots that are blackening faster than others. The ears and nose are the most susceptible to burning. If that’s the case, then just use some aluminum foil or rotate the pig to keep the roast even.
Aim for 15 minutes per pound of pig at 300°
This isn’t exact, and the best approach is to your nose and eyes, but this is a rough range you can rely on. So if you’re cooking a 15-pound suckling pig, you’ll need to roast it just shy of 4 hours.
Add water to keep the juices from burning
The juices are incredible for gravy and to pour over the top (especially if you add some citrus in the roasting process), and the last thing you want is to burn all of that goodness. So, if you see that the juices are reducing too much and getting close to burning, just hydrate it with a bit of water.
Finish the roast with a high-temperature blast
Some people do the skin crisping first, but I prefer to do it toward the end. When your pig is almost at temperature (around 160), boost the temperature up as high as it goes until the skin starts to split, looks crackly, and the pork reaches 180 degrees in the deepest parts.
Check if the pig is done by knocking on it
Just like tapping the bottom of a loaf of sourdough bread, hearing a hollow sound means your suckling pig is probably finished. This is because that sound indicates that the skin has sufficiently separated from the meat inside. Other signs include splitting skin — especially at places like the knuckles.
Let your pig rest before eating
I know it will look delicious, but letting your pig rest for thirty minutes before serving will mean more flavor, more moisture, and more deliciousness.
Where to buy the best suckling pigs
Unless you’re at an international market, chances are your local supermarket butcher won’t have it on hand. Custom ordering from a butcher is the only way to play with suckling pigs anyway, and we recommend working with reputable producers who avoid industrial pork practices. There are multiple reasons for this:
- Industrial farms use antibiotics on their pigs, which are ingested and then passed onto you. Remember: “You are what you eat, eats.”
- Pork fed with natural ingredients and allowed to live in natural environments taste better.
- Stress during an animal’s life can have substantial negative effects on taste and texture, and pigs raised in industrial environments are significantly more stressed than pigs raised in more humane environments. This is why slaughterhouses go to great lengths to make the slaughter as painless as possible, e.g. when they submerge birds in pools of ice water before slaughter.
Our heirloom breed, suckling whole pigs are perfect for roasting. They are 100% milk-fed, with absolutely NO antibiotics in their diet raised on small, sustainable farms. That means no added hormones, no pesticides, no herbicides, and no GMOs.
Get the best suckling pig for your roast, here.
You should also plan for at least 1 pound of dead weight per person. Possibly more if you have some big eaters or if it’s for a holiday dinner.
The bottom line on cooking suckling pig
Suckling pig is a crowd-pleaser. It’s tender, delicious, rich, and a ton of fun.
Make sure you buy the right pig, get creative with your spices, and don’t rush the process. It’s a lot of fun, and pairing it with some potatoes and citrus is always a safe choice.
Nathan Phelps is a writer, ethical foodie, and outdoors-aficionado hailing from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.