The indulgent meals come with the yuletide cheer, and for the Pinoy households, nothing screams celebration louder than a lechon! The image of whole roasted pork in the middle of the dinner table is reminiscent of many joyous reunions.
You can make lechon baboy at home but if you’re looking to do something different this year, why not try a whole pig? However, you do not have to spend on a full-grown pig on a spit to enjoy lechon this holiday season. If you are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and prefer to stay nestled with close family members only, you might only need a small lechon. If you need more servings than a tiny pork belly can provide, the smaller cochinillo or roast suckling pig might be the perfect size for you! It’s smaller than a full-sized lechon and makes just as great a centerpiece that you can plan your side dishes around.
What is a cochinillo?
A cochinillo is a piglet around three weeks old and has only been breastfed. Many attest that the cochinillo tastes buttery and milky. The meat is tender, and the layer of fat under the skin is very thin. Slicing the cochinillo with a plate has become a viral social media spectacle and made many netizens curious about how to recreate the experience.
Cochinillo Cooking Tips
If you too want to experience it but want to make the cochinillo from scratch, here are tips you’ll need to do it at home:
1 Choose the right size and age of piglet or suckling pig.
Make sure your piglet passes these specifications: it should be the right age, around 3 weeks old, has been breastfed, and weigh between 4.5 to 6 kilos. Young pigs have not developed large muscles yet, so the meat is very tender and full of collagen. Clean the pig, including all visible hair, by scorching these off using a culinary torch and trimming the hooves and claws. (You might want to ask your butcher or supplier if this is a task that can be done for you.)
2 Prep the pig properly by cutting it open correctly.
The butterfly method means cutting it open from the belly, allowing perfect cooking on all sides. Here’s how to do it: Lay the suckling pig on its back and, with the use of a cleaver, go into the cavity and cut the ribs to open it up. This can be physically challenging because of the spine bones. You can probably ask your butcher to do this. But with enough manual dexterity, you can do it, too.
3 Season the pig.
Flip the pig and season with salt and pepper. Brush with soy sauce or liquid seasoning. These ingredients help with the taste and give a dark hue to the pork. Poke the entire pig with a stainless meat tenderizer. These will help the meat absorb the seasoning and brine better as well as make the meat tender.
4 Brine the whole pig to keep it moist and to develop the flavor.
To make a brining solution, combine equal parts salt and sugar with vinegar and water. Instead of just putting lemongrass in the pig, consider extracting the lemongrass flavor by pounding the ends to release the flavor and aroma of the herb. Use a big cooler to brine the pig. It should be big enough that it can accommodate the whole pig. You should also put enough ice in the cooler to achieve the chiller temperature requirement. Check every few hours if needed to refill ice. Consider the ice volume in relation to your sugar, salt, and vinegar proportions to keep flavor integrity intact. At least 24 hours of brining is recommended. The long cooking process will dry out the meat, but the brining will help keep the pork moist while it cooks.
5 Prepare the baking tray.
Place the pig on a rack to elevate it from the fat and meat juices that will drip from the pig as it roasts. Use stainless bowls to elevate the meat away from the dripping should a rack be unavailable. Aromatics like garlic, lemongrass, or lemon are placed inside the pig cavity. Aluminum foil is placed over the animal’s ears and tail to keep it from burning. Put a potato in the piglet’s mouth. After roasting, remove the potato and replace it with an apple.
6 Preheat the oven.
Rub the inside of the pork with garlic, salt, and pepper and the skin with oil and salt. The salt is essential for skin crackling. You will be continually basting the cochinillo for the duration of the baking time of around 5 to 6 hours for crispy skin. Start with a temperature of around 290 degrees F or 140 degrees C until the pork is thoroughly cooked. As a guide, 9 kilos pork should take approximately 4 to 5 hours of roasting time.
7 Make the skin crisp.
For the last half-hour, raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees F or 232 degrees C, and roast until the skin gets crisp and even blistered, checking every 10 minutes. Use a meat thermometer deep into the neck or the fleshiest part to determine when the pig is ready; 160 degrees F or 70 degrees C internal is considered done. Allow for a 45-minute resting period before serving.
8 Use the drippings.
Lastly, collect all the drippings. Filling the cavity with vegetables and aromatics allows you to serve them as a side dish or use them together with the drippings to make a fabulous gravy.
One last thing: If you intend to stuff the pig, you can opt to boil the whole pig for roughly 45 minutes so you’re sure the pig will cook through. Add lemongrass, bay leaf, whole peppercorn, leeks, and celery to around 10 liters of water. Boiling shortens the baking time and makes sure the pork is cooked through. Pat the pork dry after boiling and rub a generous amount of oil on the skin before baking. Remember to observe the other cooking tips. Boiling replaces brining, and the resulting skin texture will be different. Boiling the pig will not have the crackling pork skin most enjoy.
Are you going to try making the cochinillo at home? If not, that’s okay! Here are places where you can order lechon, including the succulent cochinillo, for the New Year without breaking a sweat: