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The Spin on Spit-Roasting

UP IN SMOKE
THE SPIN ON SPIT-ROASTING

It’s one of the oldest and most universal cooking methods on Planet Barbecue. And few sights make us hungrier than a duck, chicken, rib roast, pork shoulder, or even a whole suckling pig or lamb—fat glistening, exterior crusty—spinning slowly on a turnspit next to the fire.

Spit-roasting no doubt emerged as the third great grilling technology (after direct grilling and shish kebab) in prehistoric times. By the Middle Ages, massive joints of meat spit-roasted in baronial fireplaces sustained large households—turned by hand by young male servants called “spit jacks.” Later, power to spits was ingeniously supplied by dogs running on treadmills, steam, mechanical clockworks, and finally, by electricity.

Manually-turned spits remain quite common in the world’s grilling cultures. One practitioner is my friend Dietmar Brunk, who repeats the house rule: “In order for your drink to earn/you must the rotisserie spit earn.” (OK, it sounded more poetic in German.) Incidentally, Deitmar is the grillmeister who introduced me to one of the world’s greatest spit-roasted dishes: traditional German Spiessbraten—onion-stuffed, spit-roasted pork shoulder—at his home in Idar-Oberstein. (See recipe below.)

Spit-roasting rocks for many reasons:

  • The slow rotation of the meat (or vertical, in the case of gyros, Döner kebab or tacos al pastor) on the spit guarantees even browning and caramelization of the meat proteins.
  • Meat and poultry are self-basting as the melting fat and juices re-circulate through and over them as they cook.
  • Spit-roasted foods cook evenly.
  • Slow and gentle cooking yields tender, succulent meat.
  • You can spit-roast over charcoal, wood, gas, in a fireplace, or over a campfire.

Spit-roasting is a form of indirect grilling, usually done at medium-low to medium heat. (Though sometimes smaller items are spit-roasted over higher heat.) Spit-roasting is ideal for fatty or cylindrically shaped foods, like whole birds, boneless and bone-in rib roasts, pork loins and shoulders, lamb legs, and of course whole lambs, goats, and hogs. What you may not realize is that you can also spit roast whole vegetables such as onions and cabbages and fruit, such as pineapples, like they do in Brazil.

One of our favorite techniques is spit-roasting over charcoal, because it’s easy to toss soaked wood chips or chunks on the coals to generate wood smoke. Rotisserie collar-motor kits for a Weber kettle, for example, are available through Amazon.

Many gas grills come with rotisserie mounts; some even come with dedicated rear-mounted rotisserie burners. To speed up the cooking process, you can also light the outside burners, as you would for indirect grilling.

For wood fire and fireplace spit-roasting equipment, check out Spitjack.com, run by our friend Bruce Frankel. (Bruce designed “The Beast”—the industrial strength rotisserie we used to roast Greek-Style Whole Hog With Greek-Style Herbs in Episode 209 of Primal Grill.) My advice is to buy a kit with the sturdiest motor you can afford.

Among spit-roasting accessories, we like rotisserie grilling baskets, which can hold chicken wings, vegetables, and other foods too small to skewer. There are even flat baskets that hold whole fish or other thin foods in place as the rotisserie spins. Several models are sold on Amazon.com.

Before you are ready to spit-roast, make the food as compact and cylindrical as possible. Tie roasts, truss poultry, bind legs, etc. Flopping parts will not only throw off the rotisserie’s balance, but may jam against the grate or come too close to the fire.

When loading the spit, first put one fork on with the prongs facing the center of the spit. (We’ve all forgotten to do this at some point.) Thread the food on the spit through the center, then put the remaining fork on the spit and secure the food. Be sure the load is centered and well-balanced on the spit, making any necessary adjustments, then tighten the screws on both prongs. (The tines of a dinner fork work well for this.) Sometimes, you’ll need to use wire to secure whole animals or larger pieces of meat to the spit.

If grilling on a charcoal grill, set it up for indirect grilling with a drip pan directly underneath the spit. Put the end of the spit into the motor socket. Adjust the load or counterweight to ensure the food spins evenly, then switch on the motor. Add coals every hour as needed.

When spit-roasting over a campfire—and only do this where it’s allowed, please—rake the embers into a lateral pile behind the axis where the spit will rotate. (You can also rake them into a pile in front if you want more heat.) Place drip pans directly underneath where the food will cook. Put the supports and spit in place. Replenish the coals as needed.

Here are two of our favorite rotisserie recipes to get you started—“cooked to a turn”—yes, that’s the origin of the popular phrase.


ONION-STUFFED, SPIT-ROASTED PORK SHOULDER
SPIESSBRATEN
Adapted from Planet Barbecue (Workman Publishing, 2010)

Method: Spit-roasting

Serves: 8

1 boneless pork loin (about 2-1/2 pounds)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, thinly sliced crosswise
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (optional)

You’ll also need: butcher’s string; a rotisserie; beech wood logs, chunks or chips (about 2 cups of the latter)

Butterfly the pork—that is, make a lengthwise cut through one side almost to but not through the other side, holding the knife blade parallel to the cutting board. Open up the pork loin as you would a book. Using the side of a heavy cleaver, a scaloppini pounder, or a rolling pin, lightly flatten the butterflied pork.

Generously season the inside of the pork with salt and pepper. Arrange the onion slices on top of one side. Arrange the garlic, if using, on top. Fold the other side over the pork to return it to its original cylindrical shape. Using butcher’s string looped over crosswise, tie the roast into a tight cylinder.

Set up your grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium (350 degrees F). Toss the soaked wood chips on the coals or place in the smoker box or a smoker pouch if using a gas grill. Cook the pork until crusty and browned on the outside and the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees F, about 1-1/2 hours.

Transfer the Spiessbraten to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Remove the butcher’s string and carve the roast crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices.

ROTISSERIE CHICKEN MEDITERRANEAN STYLE
(WITH OLIVE CAPER SALSA)
This simple dish is a staple at the Raichlen household. Note what may be a new technique for you: spitting the chicken through the side, not from front to back (a technique, incidentally used around Planet Barbecue). The bird browns better and stays juicier this way.

Serves 2

1 whole chicken, (3-1/2 to 4 pounds)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons Best of Barbecue Mediterranean Herb Rub (available from Grilling4All.com), herbes de Provence, or your favorite Mediterranean-style herb rub
Olive Caper Salsa (see recipe below)

You’ll also need: Butcher’s string; a rotisserie

Wash and dry the chicken (removing the giblets from the cavity). Season the front and main cavities of the bird with 1 tablespoon rub. Truss the bird with butcher’s string (for step by step instructions, see page 000 in How to Grill) so the wings and legs don’t flop during cooking.

Brush or rub the outside of the bird with olive oil and thickly season with the remaining rub.

Set up the grill for spit-roasting and preheat the grill to medium. When ready to cook, thread the chicken onto the rotisserie spit through the side. Make sure it’s balanced.

Spit-roast the chicken until the skin is well browned and the meat is cooked through, 1 to 1-1/4 hours. Use an instant-read meat thermometer to test for doneness, inserting it into the thickest part of a thigh, but not so that it touches a bone. The internal temperature should be about 170 degrees F.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and remove and discard the trussing string and skewer. Let rest for about 5 minutes before carving. Serve with the Caper Olive Salsa below.

OLIVE CAPER SALSA
1 ripe beefsteak tomato or 2 to 3 Roma tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 scallion, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/4 cup pitted diced kalamata or black olives
1 tablespoon drained capers
2 fresh basil leaves, slivered
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus lemon wedges for serving (optional)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the tomato, scallion, olives, capers, basil, oil, and lemon juice in a nonreactive mixing bowl. Right before serving, toss to mix, adding salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste.

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

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