What Goes Around, Comes Around: Spit-Roasting and Rotisserie Grilling

When I wrote The Barbecue Bible back in the 1990s, spit roasting (also known as rotisserie grilling) seemed to be as out of fashion as Cadillacs with fins. When I was a kid in the 1960s, a rotisserie attachment was practically mandatory for suburban grillers: Not only did it play to guys’ innate need for gear, but it added a bit of theater to the ritual mating (usually on the weekends) of food and fire.

Maybe it’s thanks to all those new rotisserie chickens joints. Or maybe it’s the proliferation of churrascarias, protein-centric, Brazilian rotisserie restaurants, where spit-roasted meats (rodizio) rule. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased to report that rotisserie grilling is back.

Now, grillers are rediscovering the benefits of this ancient and universal cooking technique. Even Alain Ducasse, the intercontinental celebrity chef, installed a rotisserie at his Michelin 3-star restaurant—Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée in Paris. It’s a good sign.

Early on, man discovered he could impale meat on a green stick and roast it over an open fire. Suspending the stick between two sturdy Y-shaped supports relieved him of the responsibility of holding the stick himself, and he could more efficiently expose all sides of the meat to the heat. In his never-ending quest to save labor, he devised various ways of mechanically rotating the meat, most of them involving wind-up clockworks or scullery lads (or maids). One medieval manuscript I’ve seen shows the spit ingeniously being turned by a dog on a treadmill.

In many parts of the world, pit masters stand the rotisseries on their heads. Literally. Greek gyro, Turkish donner, and Middle Eastern shawarma are all cooked on vertical rotisseries with the heat source off to the side. Not that you have to travel that far, for Mexican tacos al pastor (shepherd style tacos) are available both in Mexico and in Tex-Mex communities in the U.S.

One low-tech method of vertically roasting rotating meat is still practiced in southern France: Called à la ficelle (“on a string”), the meat is trussed into a compact package and suspended from the ceiling or mantelpiece by a long piece of string. Like a yo-yo at its perigee, the meat rotates near the radiant heat of the fire, usually with only minimal aid. (This can also be rigged by a campfire using a long sturdy pole as a crane. Ask Nancy if you want to know more about this. She’s the staff camp cook. She attaches playing cards to the vertical string to catch the drafts.)

Horizontal or vertical, spit-roasting is a compelling grilling method for many reasons, and I’m glad it’s making a comeback.

Specifically, the slow rotation promotes steady, even browning and crusting (you know, the caramelization of those tasty meat proteins). The process is both mesmerizing and tantalizing. The fat is gently rendered, basting the meat as it turns. Meanwhile, the gentle motion continuously redistributes the internal juices. (In direct grilling, the juices are driven towards the center of the meat, which is why I always recommend letting meat rest for a few minutes before serving.)

Not only is spit-roasting the perfect method for larger cuts of meat—and even whole animals—but it is a distinctly social activity in a way that other grilling methods are not. In some cultures, this spit-sponsored conviviality is part of life—consider the spit-roasted lamb or pig in a noisy Greek taverna. Or a festive méchoui (spit-roasted lamb) in Morocco. Or the succulent babi gulig (spiced, spit-roasted hog) of Bali, Indonesia. Or even a beer and testosterone-fueled pig roast in an American backyard. Spit roasting makes meat the focal point, a reason unto itself for a party.

Other foods that lend themselves well to spit roasting are:

  • Fatty foods, like whole ducks, chickens, turkeys, or prime rib
  • Large, round, cylindrical foods, like turkey breasts, boneless leg of lamb, pork or beef roasts
  • Large whole fish (sometimes the rotisserie is used in tandem with an accessory like a flat wire basket)
  • Ribs (see How to Grill, page 144, for instructions)
  • Vegetables like artichokes, endives, radicchio, eggplant, peppers, onions, acorn squash, potatoes, etc. (again, positioned in a rotisserie basket)
  • Fruits such as whole pineapples (see recipe below)

The Specifics

For you gas grillers, in more expensive gas grills there’s usually a rear-mounted infrared burner with a spit apparatus mounted in front of it. Preheat to high, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Depending on the model, you may need to close the lid to keep in the heat.

Lacking that, how you set up for spit roasting will depend on the burner configuration: If you have three front to rear burners, light the rear burner only. On a grill with left, center, and right burners, light the outside burners and spit roast in the center (sort of indirect grilling with a twist).

If you are a charcoal griller, your grill manufacturer probably sells a rotisserie ring and motor as an add-on. For example, Weber makes one for its 22-1/2 inch kettle grills that retails for about $120 and is available through The ring puts distance between the grate and the food being barbecued (useful on its own, especially for grilling turkeys), and the motor, of course, keeps the spit rotating. Set up the grill as for indirect grilling.

Many rotisseries come with a counterbalance—useful if the roast or chicken is heavier on one side than the other.

If you’re really serious about rotisserie-style grilling, check out, an Internet-based business started a few years ago by former chef Bruce Frankel. His “Beast,” predictably, a unit big enough to cook whole hogs, is a way cool tool to add to your arsenal. He also sells special fireplace rotisseries for spit-roasting indoors, which I mentioned in the February issue of Up In Smoke.

Ever found yourself on the wrong end of a sharp rotisserie spit or prongs? E-Z Que, Inc. has designed a rotisserie that requires no stabbing or skewering. The “cradle” is a sort of linear wire basket (versions are available for some of the most popular grill models) that can be gently clasped around chickens and even whole hogs. The main advantage here is you don’t have to pierce the meat or secure it to a spit, a process that can—especially with larger pieces—involve wire and curse words. For more info, check out

Here are a few additional tips for spit-roasting:

  • Always use a drip pan underneath the roasting food to gather the juices. Unless they get contaminated by ash, you can use these juices for basting or sauces.
  • Never position food directly over a burner or flames unless you enjoy flare-ups or pyrotechnic shows and “Plan B” (bologna sandwiches instead of barbecue).
  • Remember to put the first set of prongs on the spit (prongs facing inward) before you put the food on. Believe me, this is a mistake we’ve all made.
  • Most prong screws have wide, flat heads. To tighten and loosen, slide the tines of a fork over them.
  • Before loading it with food, first oil the spit for easy removal of the food and hassle-free clean-up.
  • When spit roasting poultry, truss the bird tightly with butcher’s twine to keep the package balanced and compact and to prevent flopping wings or legs from jamming the motor.
  • When unloading food from the spit, be ever mindful of the fact that it—and the spit—is extremely hot; poultry and other whole animals will collect steaming juices in the cavity which will invariably spill out when you tilt the spit; Use our heat proof food gloves (the rubber ones) to help you get the food off the skewer (not to touch the hot metal).
  • For specific times for rotisserie cooking, please check page 20 in The Barbecue Bible.

Spit-Roasted Pork Loin with Bourbon and Cherry Glaze
Method: Rotisserie grilling
Serves: 6

1 center-cut piece of pork loin (3 pounds)

For the rub:

2 teaspoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sweet paprika

For the glaze:

1 cup cherry preserves
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup bourbon
2 teaspoons grated peeled fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced

For the stuffing:

1/4 cup Dijon-style mustard
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup cherry preserves
1 tablespoon bourbon

4 slices bacon

You’ll also need: Butcher’s string

1. Make the rub: Place the salt, sugar, pepper, and paprika in a bowl and stir to mix. (Actually, your fingers work better for mixing a rub than a spoon or whisk.) Set aside.

2. Make the glaze: Combine the cherry preserves, mustard, bourbon, grated ginger, and garlic in a large heavy nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking to mix. Reduce the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer until thick and flavorful, 5 to 8 minutes. Set the glaze aside but keep warm.

3. Butterfly the roast, making a long deep lengthwise incision from the top. Butterfly each half. Season the inside of the roast with 1/3 of the rub. Spread the pork with mustard, then sprinkle with brown sugar. Spread cherry preserves on top, and sprinkle with bourbon.

4. Cut four 12-inch pieces of butcher’s string. Position the pieces of string on the work surface so that they are parallel and roughly 2 inches apart. Place a slice of bacon across the strings so that it is perpendicular to and in the center of them.

5. Set the roast on top of the bacon, positioning its long side parallel to the bacon. Place a slice of bacon on top of the roast. Press the remaining 2 slices against the long sides of the roast. Tie each piece of string together around the roast so that they hold the slices of bacon against it.

6. Skewer the pork loin on the turnspit and season the meat all over with the rub, patting on with your fingertips. Season the outside of the roast with the remaining rub.

7. Set up the grill for rotisserie grilling, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and preheat to medium-high.

8. When ready to cook, attach the spit to the rotisserie mechanism by inserting the pointed end of the spit into the rotisserie motor socket. If your rotisserie spit has a counterweight, position it so that it counterbalances the pork. Turn on the motor. Cook the roast until cooked through, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. To test for doneness, insert an instant-read meat thermometer into the center of the roast: The internal temperature should be about 160 degrees F. Start basting the roast with the glaze after 30 minutes, and continue basting every 15 minutes. If you are using a charcoal grill and the pork is not done after 1 hour, you’ll need to add 12 fresh coals to each side.

9. Transfer the cooked roast, still on the spit, to a heatproof cutting board and let it rest for 5 minutes; carefully remove the spit. (Remember, the spit will be hot!) Then remove and discard the strings. Slice the roast crosswise and drizzle any remaining glaze over it or serve the glaze on the side.

Pineapple “Shawarma”
Method: Rotisserie grilling
Serves: 6 to 8

1 large ripe pineapple
1 cup Best of Barbeque Dessert Rub (or see Note below)

For the glaze:

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup heavy cream
Pinch of salt

Vanilla ice cream for serving

1. Cut the rind off the pineapple leaving the leafy crown intact. I find a serrated knife works best for this. Even after you’ve removed the rind, you’ll notice some diagonal rows of “eyes” (brown spots); cut these out, making long, diagonal, V-shaped cuts to give the pineapple an attractive spiral effect.

2. Make the glaze. Place the butter, brown sugar, brandy, cream, and a pinch of salt in a heavy saucepan and cook over high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until thick and syrupy, 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

3. Set up your grill for spit-roasting and preheat to high.

4. Using a long slender knife, make starter holes in the crown end and base of the pineapple, pushing the knife lengthwise through the center to facilitate inserting the spit. Working gently but firmly, insert the rotisserie spit through the pineapple. (Be sure to have the first set of prongs on already.) Tighten the prongs.

5. Evenly sprinkle the rub over the cut surfaces of the pineapple. Loosely cover the pineapple leaves with foil. Place the end of the spit in the rotisserie motor socket and turn on the motor.

6. Spit-roast the pineapple until golden brown and tender, about 1 hour, basting with glaze every 15 minutes. You should have about half the glaze leftover for serving.

7. To serve, carefully unspit the pineapple and remove the foil from the leaves. Show it off whole—then cut it crosswise into slices. Serve these over bowls of vanilla ice cream, with any leftover glaze spooned on top.

Note: Substitute, if desired, 1 cup turbinado sugar (also called Sugar in the Raw) mixed with 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon cardamom.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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