Every tailgate grill master dreams of tackling the holy grail of low-and-slow at some point —the whole hog. And it is indeed a mighty feat. “It’s one of the hardest things to do. There’s a lot of science and tender loving care in it. But not to deter people, you can do this in your backyard,” says Brooke Orrison-Lewis, 2018 World Grand Champion at Memphis in May with a first place in Whole Hog.
She should know. And can prove it. Along with her brother, Brad, Orrison-Lewis co-founded The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, 17 years ago while still in college. “We opened it on a shoestring budget without a shoestring,” she says. Their barbecue took off and expanded into sales of sauces and rubs on 8,000 shelves around the U.S., a competition barbecue team, plus endless national TV appearances, including a six-part TV series called “The Shed” on the Food Network.
This marks the third time The Shed team has dominated the Whole Hog championship at Memphis in May. “This competition is one of the four major staples in the Memphis Barbeque Network (MBN),” explains Orrison-Lewis. “It’s all about the hog. It’s the Super Bowl of swine.”
So for those of us pining to master the pig, Orrison-Lewis is freely sharing her trophy-winning insights on slow-smoking a whole hog. “In the grilling and barbecue world, we’re fierce competitors,” she says, “but we’re really, really fierce friends. Everybody’s an open book.”
1. It starts with the pig. “We always use a Duroc hog—a heritage-breed,” she says. “Try to understand where your protein comes from. If you reach out to a local farmer, you end up with a happy hog. There’s a 110 percent difference in a happy hog.” Stressed commodity hogs tense up in the final days, making that meat tougher. Heritage hogs also eat better quality feed and tend to be heftier. “So you get some beautiful marbling,” she explains. “You’re going to end up with a superior product, period.”
2. Size. “Ours average about 240 pounds apiece,” she says, but suggests backyard and tailgating smokers take on a more reasonable 80-pounder.
3. Temperature. The Shed smokes at 225–250oF. “We’re using charcoal for heat, and we’re using our dampers for the air flow. That’s your heat factor,” she explains.
4. Positioning. The Shed invented and patented a device called the Robohog, which holds the pig in an upright stance in the smoker. “The hog is in essence butterflied and basically standing upright, like you’d see a pig in a field,” Orrison-Lewis says. They custom build the gadget to order, if you’d like to get one yourself. “Two of the three final hogs this year were on a Robohog,” she adds.
Most people butterfly the hog and lay it flat—belly-side down or up. Orrison-Lewis has friends in Carolina who do it belly up, then line the tenderloin area inside with bacon and sausage (released from its casing). The fatty proteins protect the loin during the long cook, keeping the moisture in. “What’s great about that is that the cavity is building up with those juices while it’s cooking. It’s a beautiful thing,” she sighs. “You can take those juices and continue to baste the inside, or strain them and use them as a secondary injection into the ham and the shoulders midway through your cook to add moisture.”
5. Prep. Split the hog down the center, clean it, shave it (if needed), and rub it.
6. Flavors. “A lot of people like to use rubs, sauces and injections,” she says. “If you’re going to use three different areas of flavor, make sure that those three complement each other, whatever flavor that may be.”
7. Moisture. Fill a pan with butter, aromatics and water. “The tenderloins sit right on top of that pan in the Robohog, keeping moisture pushed up into that tenderloin,” Orrison-Lewis says. “That’s the first piece to dry out, so we have a pan that continues to steam as the hog cooks. We like to flavor the humidity.”
Their aromatics include large chunks of onion, carrots, celery and some sage and thyme in broth water. “It’s just what you’d like have in your grandma’s soup. Who’s to say it doesn’t also add that next layer of flavor?” she says, as if to all the doubters who use plain water (and haven’t won major competitions). “It’s keeping moisture in your smoker. It’s super important,” she explains. On a smaller smoker, set the water pan next to your coals underneath your grate.
8. Smoking for color. “Wood gives you the color factor. Charcoal gives you the heat factor,” stresses Orrison-Lewis. After proteins reach 140oF, they will not accept any more internal smoke. “Once you get the smoke in there and the color right, cut back on the wood and use your charcoal for the heat.”
9. Wood choice. Use hardwoods for smoke, for flavor and for color. “We always start with pecan. It’s native to our area, and it’s a white, sweet smoke. Then we start building,” she says. After pecan, comes maple, maybe a little bit of hickory, “but we prefer the fruit woods—peach, apple. All those flavors just build.” For a much quicker, darker color, try black cherry. “Color is a visual thing,” she says. “When you get to the color you like, tent it.”
10. Now wrap it. “If you don’t want it to continue to get darker, tent it or wrap it with foil and cut back on your smoke,” she says. “We like that mahogany color, and that all depends on the amount of smoke you’re putting out and understanding your wood.”
11. Timing. “It just depends. We’re talking a 16 to 20-hour cook,” estimates Orrison-Lewis. Use a multiple probe thermometer. Put one in the shoulder and one in the ham. “Those are the largest cuts, so that’s typically what you’re temping. When those are done, it’s done,” she says. “We pull at a bit higher temp, around 198o to 205o. That’s when you know that shoulder and that ham are going to fall apart.”
12. Rest. “When baby is complete, cut the heat off. Sit back and have another cold beer, and let her rest,” sums up Orrison-Lewis. “That rest is going to hold heat for hours. The big girls we cook, we let be for two or three hours. For a smaller hog, maybe an hour.” She shakes her head at people who pull any meat off the grill and immediately cut it. “They say, ‘Look how juicy it is?’ But by bite three or four, it’s not juicy anymore.”