Easy Whole Roast Pig
Step 1 – Order a La Caja China
Jeff and I were watching an informercial late one evening several years ago. I have no idea why, except that it was mesmerizing. It featured a Cuban family in their back yard around THE MOST INCREDIBLE roast pig you’ve ever seen. I swear you could smell it right through the TV. The family was literally swooning about the pig, referring to the crispy crackly skin as ‘pig candy’. The meat was succulent and clearly delicious. (It was a REALLY GOOD infomercial).
It featured a large box, called a La Caja China, in which the amazing pig had just been cooked. La Caja China, they helpfully explained, means “Magic Pig Box”, and judging from the Cuban family’s reaction to the resulting roast, it most certainly WAS a magic pig box.
The next morning when I awoke, all I could think of was “I need to get me one of those.” On the theory that insomnia loves company, I said to my possibly still asleep husband, “Hey. You awake?” His reply: “Yep. Just laying here thinking ‘I gotta get me one of those!” And the fait became accompli. Here is our wonderful magic pig box.
You can use the link in the button below if you decide you’d like one too. (If you do, thank you! It will sure help off-set the costs of the getting the site up and going). We’ve used our magic pig box at least 8 times to the delight of all present.
One more La Caja China story before we move on. We roasted a pig in the La Caja China for 17 young women for a church Girls Camp several years ago. By the time we were ready to pull the pig from the magic box, the amazing aroma wafting out from the cracks had literally attracted every person in the camp, including all 17 teenage girls. Upon seeing the pig (snout, ears, tail and all) emerge from the box, we were greeted with a soprano chorus of “EEEEEWWW. It’s a pig!!!” (Not quite sure what they actually thought was in there…) Followed by, “I’m not going to eat THAT!!!” accompanied with copious eye rolling all round.
Finally, one brave young woman, Gabby, couldn’t stand it any longer and hesitantly reached out and snatched a rib covered with the most amazing smelling and looking pork you’ve ever seen.
Slowly she took a bite, closed her eyes and pronounced, “I have NEVER eaten better meat!”
The following young women’s feeding frenzy put sharks to shame.
Step 2. Determine Size of Pig Needed
You’ll need to figure out what size pig you need for your event. You’ll order your pig by live weight or hang weight. The hang weight (the weight of the butchered pig) is about 80% of live weight. I typically order by hang weight.
- A 40 pound live pig = 32 pound hang weight (serves approx. 15 – 20)
- A 55 to 60 pound live pig = 44 to 47 pound hang weight (serves approx. 20 – 25)
- A 72 pound live pig = 58 pound hang weight (serves 30 – 35)
- An 80 pound live pig = 65 pound hang weight (serves approx. 60 – 80). We cooked 2 of these for our 140 person luau. We served A TON of other food AND we also served Huli Huli Chicken. Given all that, 2 (65 lb hang weight) pigs were sufficient for 140 people.
- The maximum size pig that should be cooked in the La Caja China is a 70 lb hang weight pig. An 85 pound hang weight pig is WAY TOO BIG and will take 5 – 6 hours to cook and will require modification of the links between the 2 racks of a 48 x 24 x 20 La Caja China cooking box. Don’t do it.
Step 3. Call the Butcher
- Tell butcher the date you need to pick up the pig (this should be the night before the event).
- NOTE: THE BUTCHER CAN LIKELY PROCURE THE PIG FOR YOU. HAVE HIM DO THAT. Otherwise YOU will have to procure, pick-up and deliver the VERY LIVE pig (per FDA requirements) to the butcher. Just. Don’t. Go. There.
- Cost of pig is approximately $65 – $95
- Cost of butchering is approximately $75
- Instruct the butcher to remove bristles, split jaw bone and butterfly pig. Have him tuck legs into small slits in skin. Tell the butcher you are using the La Caja China. He is probably familiar with the preparations necessary for this.
- If necessary, send him a link to this page so he can see the pictures.
- Make arrangements to pick up pig late in the day, the evening before event to allow time to marinate the pig.
Step 4. Marinate the Pig
Equipment needed to marinate pig
The La Caja China comes with a marinading syringe. You’ll also need a rather large cooler to hold the pig while it’s marinading. I use this one.
Day Before Pig Roast
Morning of the day prior to the pig roast – make the marinade:
3 heads of garlic
1 quart water
1 quart pineapple juice
1 tablespoon liquid smoke
13 ounces table salt
Instructions to Make Marinade
- Peel the 3 garlic heads and thoroughly crush the garlic cloves. No need to peel. Add all ingredients to a medium stock pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Set side to cool to room temperature.
Mid-day of the day prior to the pig roast – pick up pig from butcher and keep on ice.
Evening of the day prior to the pig roast – marinate pig:
- Strain marinade and discard solids. Set marinade aside.
- Unwrap pig and lay on work surface, skin side down.
- Inject marinade into pig, being careful not to pierce pig’s skin. (Or your own for that matter.)
- Continue injecting pig until all meaty areas have been injected.
- Rub kosher salt or sea salt over the pig skin.
- Re-wrap pig and put in the cooler.
- Put 1 bag ice in with pig.
- Allow the pig to marinate overnight.
Step 5. Pre-weigh Charcoal
The La Caja China cooks by radiant heat, just like your oven. For that reason it’s very important to add the correct amount of charcoal at the designated times. Pre-weighing the charcoal and placing it in buckets or paper bags labeled #1, #2, #3 and #4 will reduce the likelihood that the wrong amount of charcoal is added. There’s a lot going on during a party and the last thing you need is last minute stress trying to get the charcoal weighed.
To do this you’ll need:
4 Bags of Kingsford Charcoal. Do NOT use instant charcoal.
Digital scale to weigh charcoal
4 buckets or paper grocery bags to hold pre-weighed charcoal
You will want to weigh out the following amounts of charcoal.
Bag #1 – 14 pounds of charcoal
Bag #2 – 10 pounds of charcoal
Bag #3 – 10 pounds of charcoal
Bag #4 – 6 pounds of charcoal
Step 6. Prep Pig and Assemble Pig Cooking Equipment
First thing the morning of cooking, remove ice from cooler and allow the pig to come to room temperature. Brush the skin lightly with liquid smoke then rub lightly with coarse sea salt. If you’re a barbecue ‘pro’ you’re probably cringing slightly at the mention of the liquid smoke, but trust me that’s what they use in Hawaii and it’s wonderful!
You’ll want the following equipment for a successful pig roast. Gathering it in advance saves any last minute issues.
Set-up Pig Cooking Station
La Caja China pig cooking box
La Caja China 2 racks and 4 hooks
4 bags or buckets of pre-weighed charcoal
Chimney Charcoal Starter
Paper to start fire
Lighter or matches
Cultivator, Rake or Hoe (to rake coals)
Wheel Barrow (or place to dump coals)
Hose or bucket of water standing by (for grass fire from dropped hot coals)
Knife to score skin and carve pig
½ C Kosher Salt
- Set the La Caja China near the action of the party area (this is a featured attraction of your party, so you want it where everyone can see – and smell!). Make sure you set it on a LEVEL SURFACE (very important – otherwise the drippings run out of the bottom catch box).
- Set all other items near La Caja China.
Set-up Pig Carving Station
4 foot x 8 foot sheet of Plywood (this is big enough for 2 pigs so cut it down if you prefer to 4 x 5)
2 sawhorses – set the plywood on the sawhorses
Plastic table cloth (very important) – I staple it to the plywood.
Several carving knives
2 – 4 Large aluminum disposable pans
1 pair heavy hot meat gloves
Step 7. Roast the pig
Plan to start 5 hours, 45 minutes prior to serving. In this example, the pig will be served at approximately 5:45 – 6:00. (It takes 3 ½ hours actual cook time). HAVE YOUR GUESTS ARRIVE AT 5:00!!
A note on the pig cooking timing:
LIKE PRIME RIB – THE GUESTS WAIT FOR THE PIG. THE PIG DOES NOT WAIT FOR THE GUESTS.
For a 44 – 57 lb hang weight pig, the following times get the pig on the table at about 6:45. The difference in these 2 size pigs did NOT effect cooking time. They both finished at the same time. Guests should be told to arrive at 5:00 so they can watch the pig coming out of the box and being carved. It’s one of the highlights of your party!
My 44 lb hang weight pig cooked perfectly in 3 ½ hours starting when the coals looked like step 6. My 58 lb hang weight pig also cooked perfectly in 3 1/2 hours. The total time is listed at 5 hours to allow for prepping, pig resting and carving.
The pig needs to be completely thawed and as close to room temperature as you’re comfortable with, before you start cooking. Start with as much charcoal as the instructions say. Don’t vary from the required amounts.
At 12:15 pm
- place pig between the racks and secure using the 4 S-Hooks.
- Make sure you do not cut or poke holes on the skin side.
- Make sure the rack’s handle (at each end of rack) are facing away from the pig. (See picture below)
- Place the Drip Pan inside the box.
- Place pig inside the box skin side down. Insert instant read thermometer into one of the hams, parallel to the length of the pig. Do not hit a bone.
- Cover box with the ash pan and charcoal grid. If there are guests, this whole process will take about 15 minutes for the “oh, it’s a pig” photo opportunities, etc. If there are no guests, this shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes.
No sooner than 12:40 pm
- Put as much of the 14 pounds of charcoal in bag #1 as will fit in the chimney starter (a standard Weber charcoal chimney holds almost exactly 7 pounds of Kingsford briquettes. Light and let heat up until most of the coals become white, approximately 20 minutes
- Once the coals in the chimney starter are mostly white, spread these evenly across the charcoal grid and evenly spread the remainder of the charcoal from bag #1 on top of the hot coals. Do NOT pile the hot coals in a heap, trying to catch the remaining non-white coals. Having all the hot coals in a heap will cause your pig to burn in that spot. Instead, spread the hot white charcoal and the black charcoal out evenly and the black charcoal will begin to burn on its own. (See picture below)
It is very, very important not to use more of the recommend charcoal, this will only delay the cooking time because it will create more ashes, insulating the box and reducing the amount of heat going into the box.
The cooking time starts right now when the charcoal looks like this.
- After 1 hour (1st hour) – add 10 lbs. of charcoal and spread evenly. Pig temp should be approx. 90 degrees
- After 1 hour (2nd hour) – add 10 lbs. of charcoal and spread evenly
Pig temp should be approx. 123 – 129 degrees
- After 1⁄2 hour – add 6 lbs. of charcoal and spread evenly
Pig temp should be approx. 140 – 143 degrees
IMPORTANT: DO NOT OPEN THE BOX BEFORE STEP # 9. The pig will start smelling REALLY GOOD and it will be tempting, but don’t let anyone open the box or you’ll lose the heat you’ve built up in the box and mess up the cooking time.
- After another 1⁄2 hour (3rd hour) – open the box, to flip the Pig. Pig temp should be approx. 143 – 148 degrees at this point.
Remove the ashes by lifting the charcoal grid (shake well) place it on top of the long handles to temporarily RESERVE CHARCOAL
GENTLY BLOW ANY REMAINING ASHES FROM AROUND LIP OF BOX LID otherwise they can fall on the pig
Carefully remove the ash pan from the box and dispose of the ashes in the wheel barrow. Or if you dispose of them on the ground, make sure you water down the ashes on the ground, they WILL START a fire. ALSO IF ANY COALS FALL ONTO THE GRASS, REMOVE AND WATER DOWN THAT SPOT – OR IT WILL START A FIRE !!!
Now flip the pig over, to crisp the skin of the pig. This is easily done using by grabbing the end of the rack. Lift and slide as you pull upward, using the other hand grab the opposite end of the bottom rack and flip. This is a FUN part of the whole pig roast and the first time your guests get to see the Star of the Show (the same Star who’s been generating an OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD aroma for the past little while). I always like to put on a fun tune (Hot, Hot, Hot or the Hawaiian War Chant) for the pig flipping and invite the guests over to watch. Everyone LOVES it.
Score the skin using a knife, this helps to remove the fat and crisp the skin. Sprinkle about 1/2 CUP of the Kosher salt all over the pig skin.
Cover the box again with the ash pan and the charcoal grid; do not add more charcoal at this time. It should be about 5:00
At about 4:30ish – Pig should be done, or close to being done.
- About 15 minutes after flipping the pig (5:15 in our example) take a peek by lifting the charcoal pan by one end only. You will continue doing this every 10 minutes until the skin is crispy to your liking. Cover any area of the pig that is at the correct done-ness with aluminum foil to prevent burning. Your pig is done when the temperature is minimum of 140 degrees and no more than 150 degrees. Using the hot oven mitts, remove the top from the La Caja China and set it on the handles to rest (keep the kids away as it will be very hot). The pig will need to rest and can remain in the un-covered La Caja China box. While it’s resting it will increase a couple degrees in temperature, due to carry-over effect, reaching a peak of approximately 145 degrees. We like to let the pig rest a full hour.
Make the Pig Sauce
When the pig is about 15 minutes from completing its resting period, combine the following ingredients in a medium size pot and heat until hot. Mix the sauce in with the meat before serving.
1/4 cup liquid smoke
2 tablespoons seasoned salt
3 cups hot water
1 cup pineapple juice
1/2 cup fat from the La Caja China drip tray (hey, it’s a luau and you’re not doing this every weekend. And remember, fat = flavor)
- Let pig rest. Your pig should rest a minimum of 45 minutes and should rest 60 minutes to allow juices to redistribute. The pig should be ready for carving at approximately 5:30.
At approximately 5:30 Carve Pig
- Remove the pig to carving station, which should have been set up in the middle of the party area earlier in the day. Begin carving. Serve small bits (including the ribs and the skin once it’s scraped of the fat off the back) to guests during carving. (This is the best part of the whole process) This takes about 15 minutes, and the pig should be on the serving table at approximately 5:45 – 6:00.
At approximately 6:00 Serve Pig
Your pig should be ready to serve at about 5:45 – 6:00 depending on how long you let it rest and how long it takes you to carve it. Serve pig in the large disposable aluminum trays and treat your guests to some of the most delicious
pork meat they’ve ever eaten!.
By the way –
The story goes that in the mid-19th century approximately 150,000 Chinese workers made their way to Cuba. Once there, they often cooked using very ingenious roasting boxes, referred to in Spanish as “La Caja Asadora”. Legend has it that the Cubans were fascinated with the method used by the laborers to roast their meals after a long days work. The men would build fires on the top of makeshift wooden boxes. This approach was very effective for roasting whole pigs. The meat emerged incredibly tender and cooked in far less time than over an open fire.
The story may or may not be true. Another theory for the name is that the term “china (or “chino”) was often used within the Cuban culture as a slang describing something clever, mysterious, or exotic. So given that, “La Caja China” really does translate to “the magic box.”
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