There's something primal about cooking a whole animal. It feels deeply human to rip into a head-on creature, not caring to butcher out the loin from the belly from the ribs, but just eating meat until there is nothing but bone. At home, it's easy enough to do this with chicken and fish, and the occasional holiday turkey, but most of us leave bigger animals to the pros. Which is a shame, because according to Christina Lecki, head chef at The Breslin, it's supremely easy to cook one of the most flavorful animals out there — suckling pig — at home.
Yes, roasting a 100-pound hog on a spit in your backyard is certainly a feat, but let's be real, that’s just not in everyone's future. A whole suckling pig on the other hand, with its crisped, golden skin and tender meat, is still an event to both serve and eat, without the hassle of building a pit or getting three friends to help you carve an adult hog. It's also pan-seasonal, working as well for a bone-warming winter feast as for a backyard summer party. The Breslin serves a large-format suckling pig dinner year-round, with different sides depending on what’s fresh. "There are just so many things to do, it's such a blank canvas," says Lecki. "You know it's going to have a ton of flavor, and it's pretty hard to not pair it properly. A cheese sauce might be a bad idea, but I can't think of anything else that wouldn’t work."
But before you start pairing it, let's talk about cooking. A suckling pig is any pig between 2-6 weeks old, and can weigh up to 50 pounds. They can be cooked on the grill or, if you have one, on a roasting spit, but also in any standard-sized oven, which is what Lecki does. First, you want to plan ahead. "You want to start with a pig no bigger than about 20 pounds," says Lecki, which'll serve around ten to twelve people. You'll most likely have to special order from your butcher, since most of them won't have a ton of suckling pigs just lying around. The benefit of this is that, since it's such a specialty product, the quality should be pretty high. Still, you should make sure it’s pretty pink, that the skin doesn't have any marks or bruising, and that there is no odor. You'll also need a standard, full-sized sheet tray, which measures 18" x 26", a rack for that tray, and an oven that can comfortably fit one of them. For the tray, Lecki suggests looking at restaurant supply stores instead of places like Williams-Sonoma, or you can just ask your local restaurant. "If there's a place you go to all the time, see if you can borrow a full sized tray and rack for a day." This is your daily reminder to be nice to your local restaurant staff.
The key to a flavorful suckling pig is "getting it in, drying it out, and making sure it’s properly salted." First, remove all the organs, which you can probably get your butcher to do. Lecki then scores the skin with a razor blade, not deep enough to pierce the skin, but enough to let the seasonings seep in and to let the air circulate. It's also "where you get that sexy, puffy skin at the end." Then, aggressively cover the pig in kosher salt, and leave it sitting at room temperature for 2-3 hours to draw out all the moisture. Afterwards, wipe off all the salt with a damp cloth, as the meat should be plenty seasoned by now.
You also want to protect some of the pig’s more delicate parts from burning. "You really don’t want to burn the ears," says Lecki. "You see so many of our customers who will rip an ear off right away, it's a really popular part. It's such a satisfying experience, and there’s only two of them." To protect both them and the snout, spray down some parchment paper with a nonstick spray or oil and cover the vulnerable parts, and then cover those in aluminum foil to keep them in place. You also want to spray down the sheet rack, to make sure the skin doesn’t stick. Lecki then roasts the suckling pig at 300 degrees for about three and a half hours in a convection oven, though it may take longer for a standard oven. Once it’s nearly done (the inner temperature should be around 145 degrees), take it out and let it rest while cranking the oven up to 500. When the oven is at temperature, put the pig back in, and cook it until the skin puffs. "That's where you get that magical, chicharron skin." Resist all attempts to tear off the skin immediately, though we understand if you want to rip off the ears and then tell your friends they "accidentally" got burned.
The sky's the limit when it comes to what to serve with the pig. Lecki does pork fat-fried potatoes, but remember, "Vegetables are super important. The meat is so rich and flavorful that it’s nice to have a green vegetable to balance that." You could also try keeping some of those organs you cleaned out earlier and pan searing the liver, heart and kidneys. "It's very British to serve that on toast with a little HP sauce," says Lecki, and it’ll all go well with everything from chimichurri to BBQ sauce. Finally, don’t be picky about which parts you eat. "It's such a small size, that you really end up eating the whole thing. I think all parts can be enjoyed equally." Just…not with cheese sauce.