Pig cooking too slow in La Caja China

Question: I need help please. I have La Caja China model #2 and I have now cooked two pigs with no great success.

The first pig was 100lbs and took me over 7 hours to cook on the hottest day of the summer, and I had to put the hams back in because they were still raw.  The second pig was 67lbs and, unfortunately had been covered with foil before the top of the box got put on.

I went about cooking and was surprised that I could not get my thermometer above 150. Then, after 5 hours, we uncovered to discover that the foil was on. Took the foil off, which lost a lot of heat. It then took another SIX hours and 8 20lb bags of Kingsford charcoal to reach my desired temperature of 170, and the skin didn’t crisp up that much.

Once cooked, it was delicious, but I can’t get it to cook in 4 hours or less as advertised.

What am I doing so wrong? I read that the meat has to be at room temperature, I think 70 degrees?

But what else can I do?

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My Response:

Hmmm, 160 pounds of charcoal, added over the course of 6 hours, is 26 pounds of charcoal per hour, roughly three times what the instructions call for (after the initial 18 pounds). Something’s not right with those figures…it’s practically a physical impossibility that that much coal would take that long to raise the temp from 150 to just 170.

That much coal should have not only cooked your pig, it should have incinerated it.

(After you’ve read the rest of my response, check out our step-by-step “How to roast a pig in La Caja China video, here.)

Strange.

What temp was the meat at, when you fired up the roaster?

Second, you’re right, the foil is a killer. I made this exact same mistake myself this summer, and the pig wasn’t done to my liking at all. Slow roasted meat has to hit a “sweet spot” temperature-wise, where it plateaus for anywhere from an hour or more, before it jumps up the the finished temperature you’re looking for.

That plateau is the window where the meat nearest the bone is cooking, and the collagen (hard fat) is chemically changing into the gelatin (soft fat) that creates tender, succulent meat. Foil reflects back a LOT of heat, and keeps the pig from cooking through that plateau (or, at least, taking a LOOOONG time to do so.)

My new policy to to add foil only if (and after) I start to smell something burning. This isn’t a bad thing, as a little char adds to the flavor, and won’t hurt the meat if caught in a reasonable time.

That said, here are only five other things, typically, that prolong cook-time on La Caja China:

1. Temp of the pig at start time. This is the #1 issue I’ve found with delayed cook times. You want the pig to be as close to room temp as you’re comfortable with. The colder the pig, the more heat it sucks out of the box, and the longer it takes for the internal temp of the box to reach it’s “sweet spot.” One of my first pigs still had ice crystals in the meat when I loaded it in the box…it took 12 hours to bring to 185.

2. Peeking. Lifting the lid from the box effectively removes all the cooking heat, and it takes a LONG time to build back up, as your pig is cooling at the same time. Use a remote probe thermometer, and (personal opinion a metal dust pan and scoop to remove the ashes, instead of removing the lid. NEVER lift the lid until your pig has reach “flipping temp”…which is your finished temperature, depending on what meat-consistency you’re shooting for.

3. Ambient temperature/wind chill. Keep the Caja out of the wind as much as possible. Set up on the “lee side” of the house or garage, or throw together a couple of sheets of plywood (at a safe distance) to block the wind. Cooking in extremely cold weather is just going to take longer, it can’t be helped, so plan ahead for it.

4. Ash build-up. Ashes are an extremely effective insulator. Even a 1/2 inch layer, between your coals and the pan, can cut the amount of heat going into the box drastically. La Caja China’s instructions call for removing ashes roughly every three hours, by lifting the lid and dumping. I like to do so more frequently, about every hour, using the method in #2, above.

5. Amount of charcoal used (especially at the start). Roberto did a lot of research and testing in coming up with the charcoal-to-cooktime ratios, and they should be adhered to exactly. For best results, use Kingsford brand charcoal, not lump, or an off brand (is it really worth risking that $200 pig, to save $10 on charcoal?) and add the exact proportions listed on the box. I’ve cooked any number of perfect pigs, simply following those instructions.

Any of this seem to fit?

-Perry

4 Comments

Filed under In The Box Recipes, Q & A, Technique

4 responses to “Pig cooking too slow in La Caja China

  1. Kelly Ryan

    Hi Perry –

    Thanks so much for this response. It is very helpful. By the way, I love your cookbook! The foil incident was misplaced consideration from a friend that was trying to keep flies off the pig since he knew I was trying to bring it to room temperature. When I got there, the top had been put on and charcoal loaded and they told me it was ready to go. I had no idea they had covered the pig with foil, and they forgot to take it off before putting the cover on. Said “friend” tried to let my husband take the fall for it and only fessed up after 2 or three divorce lawyers had been called in! This was for a huge barbeque competition held in Virginia every year in August called the COFAQUE. Check it out at http://www.cofaque.com some time. You might want to come out to Virginia some year and compete! It would be great to meet you.

    Anyway, I thought I had learned my lesson from the first pig and I didn’t start timing until the internal thermometer I was using read 70 degrees, because the pig still was at 42 degrees even though I left it in the cooler overnight with no ice. I guess my lesson there is to buy the pig 2 or 3 days ahead of time and throw it in the bathtub so that room temperature can be guaranteed! Next issue I think were the ashes. I didn’t remove them, and yes, 160 lbs of charcoals’ ashes are quite a force to contend with. Next time I will definitely use your trick to remove the ashes with a metal dust pan. Another thing I wondered about was the charcoal. Costco was selling Kingsford competition briquets this summer and that is what I used. Do you think that made a difference that it wasn’t the kingsford original? I took advantage of the labor day sale at Home Depot and loaded up on the Kingsford original briquets. So, if I make sure the pig (or any meat for that matter) is at room temperature at the start, remove the ashes every hour w/o opening the box and use the blue and white bag of kingsford charcoal, maybe I’ll enjoy success? These events have been heartbreaking. The first event was a big pig roast at my house, where I had visions of Bobby Flay’s throwdown, and that was a bust. Then, to not even be able to enter my pork into the competition and have to wait until 11:00 at night for it to be done when I had started at 10:30 a.m. – big blow to my enthusiasm.

    When I got home and washed the caja china, I noticed the water seeped out a little in one of the corners of the box. It made me wonder if heat was getting out that way too. I’ve though about sealing the corners with foil before putting the rack with meat on top, or am I overthinking it?

    Thank you Perry for providing this blog. I hope I can repost with a success story once I’ve taken the advice you provided.

  2. Kelly – For competition…ouch…I might not have fessed up at all, lol.

    Sounds like it was definitely a combination of a cold pig, and those darned ashes. I’ll bet, if you’d been able to check it, you’d have found that the internal temp of the box was less than 200d.

    Re: Kingsford competition charcoal, I was given a bag last summer and, based on that minimal exposure, it seems to burn hotter and faster (though with less ash) than the old fashioned stuff (I just came home with a truckload from Home Depot, too, lol.) I stick with the old stuff because thats what all of my recipe are based on.

    I don’t think a little moisture leak is something to worry about, or is causing much heat loss. But, yes, some heavy foil couldn’t hurt. Also, I’ve found that I need to go around the box about every 6 months or so and tighten the wingnuts. I think that they just work loose over time, due to moving teh box around, with the expansion and contraction of the plywood with changes in temp.

    Yes, I think that if you employ the changes you’ve listed above, you’ll see a significantly happier result!

    Keep us posted!

    -Perry

    PS – Thank you for your kind words, glad you enjoyed the books and the blog. That cookbook comes with 24/7/365 online support, lol, so feel free to ask all the questions you like! – P

  3. Kelly Ryan

    Thanks Perry. You rock. BTW, I just ordered the amaze-n smoker. Gonna take a break from the pigs before I try them again and cook a brisket and a couple of Turkeys. Will need to test those babies out before I make everyone wait until midnight for thanksgiving dinner!

    Any recommendations on where I can buy a large brisket for the caja? Costco’s don’t seem that big. Also, which wood pellets would you recommend for the smoker?

    I will get that pig right, dammit! And I know this will help in a huge way. Thanks again. I will be taking you up on your tech support offer…..

  4. That is a heck of a lot of coal! Something definitely amiss.

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