There is perhaps no greater culinary spectacle than a whole animal turning on a spit over hot coals. Roasting the whole beast also makes it easy to feed a crowd. The flavors here are some of lamb’s favorites: rosemary, garlic, and lemon. The garlic and rosemary are inserted into slits in the meat to infuse the whole roast with their aromas. Plan to make a whole day out of the spit-roast. It takes a good hour or two to set up the spit-roaster, season the animal, and attach it to the spit-rod. Invite some friends over to help hoist the animal to and from the spit-roaster. After about 5 hours of slow roasting and tending the fire, you’ll all be feasting on some of the finest meat you’ve ever tasted.
Soak wood chips: 1 hour (optional)
Prep: 1½ hours
Grill: 5 to 5½ hours.
BBQ TOOLS AND EQUIPMENT
– Spit-roaster (see Tips)
– 60 pounds of charcoal, 5 hours’ worth of gas, or about a quarter cord of wood
– 16 cups (4 quarts) wood chunks or chips, preferably oak or hickory (optional)
– Wire (18 to 20 gauge)
– Wire cutters
– Heat-resistant grill mitts (preferably heatproof silicone)
– Long-handled basting brush.
– Order the lamb several weeks ahead of your planned roasting day. A good country butcher or a farmer who sells at farmers’ markets should be able to get you one. Order it dressed for spitroasting, which means it will be gutted and skinned with the head and feet removed. Try to buy a lamb that’s less than 30 pounds to keep it to a manageable size. If you can’t find one locally, Jamison Farm in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, raises some of the country’s best grass-fed lamb, and they ship small whole lambs year round.
– Let the lamb come to room temperature before firing up the spitroaster. Otherwise, you’ll waste some of your fuel just warming the meat up to room temperature. It may be easiest to get the lamb the day before you cook it.
– The lamb can be mounted on the spit with its fore and hind legs extended, as if the animal were flying through the air (as described in the recipe here). Or it can be positioned with the forelegs tucked under its chin and hind legs tucked up under its belly. This second position is a bit more dignified but less dramatic. Tell the butcher which way you want it, so the lamb can be positioned that way before rigor mortis sets in.
– Lambs have very thin ribs with very little meat. The shoulders and thighs are much thicker, which is why the heat is placed there (in the 4 piles of coals) and away from the rib cage. On the off chance that the rib cage begins to brown as much as the thighs and shoulders after only 1 to 2 hours of roasting, cover the rib cage with aluminum foil (shiny-side out) to help keep the rib meat from overcooking. Remove the foil during the last 30 minutes to 1 hour to finish cooking the ribs.
– You’ll need a large work surface for preparing and serving the lamb. A picnic table works nicely. Cover the table with foil, a plastic dropcloth, or another cloth to protect it.
– If you can borrow a spit-roaster, that’s the easiest way to go. Otherwise, you can rent one from a local all-purpose renter such as Taylor Rental. It’ll cost $75 to $100 for the day.
– The spit rods for some spit-roasters have holes drilled into them every 6 inches or so. These holes make it much easier to attach the animal to the rod – and to remove it. Large skewers are pushed through one side of the animal, then through the holes in the rod, and then out through the other side of the animal. If you can find a spit-roaster of this sort, it will save you the trouble of tying the animal’s backbone to the rod with wire and then removing the wire before serving.
– Some spit-roasters have skewers that mount onto the spit from the pointed end of the rod only. If that’s the case with your spitroaster, slide the rear skewer onto the rod before you push the rod through the lamb. After wiring the lamb to the rod, slide on the other skewer.
– Carving up the cooked whole lamb may seem like a daunting task, but it really isn’t. A meat cleaver or other heavy, sharp knife makes the job go pretty quickly. First, make a few primal cuts. Remove the hind legs and forelegs/shoulders by driving the knife right through the primary joints. Each leg will serve 2 to 3 people.
If you’d like to serve the ribs, cut them from the backbone by standing the lamb on its neck and driving the knife down as close to the backbone as possible to strip the ribs from the backbone. Cut each half of the rib cage into 2 or 3 sections before serving. There isn’t much meat on the ribs of a 25-pound lamb, but those who love to lick the bones clean will enjoy them. Next, scrape the meat from the loin, back, and shoulder areas. The meat will be embedded all along the backbone. Finally, if you’d like to make lamb stock, hack off the neck with your cleaver. It can be frozen for a month before you toss it into the stockpot.
Gas: Indirect, medium on a gas-fired spit roaster
Indirect, medium on a charcoal spit roaster,
charcoal bed split into 4 corners (about 2 dozen coals per corner)
Wood: Indirect, medium on a wood-fired spit roaster, coal bed split into 4 corners.
INGREDIENTS (MAKES 12 SERVINGS)
12 branches fresh rosemary
3 heads garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
1 small whole lamb, 25 pounds or so, dressed for spit-roasting
2 lemons, halved
½ cup olive oil, plus more if needed
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1½ tablespoons ground black pepper
3 scallions, roots trimmed.
1. Strip the leaves from 8 of the rosemary branches and put the leaves in a food processor, along with the peeled cloves from 2½ heads of garlic. Pulse until finely chopped. (Make and refrigerate up to 2 days ahead to get a jump on things.)
2. Put the lamb on a large work surface with the chest cavity up. Squeeze the juice from the lemons into a bowl, discarding the seeds but saving the rinds. Rub half of the lemon juice all over the inside of the lamb cavity and inner thighs. Rub the entire cavity with¼cup of the olive oil. Sprinkle the cavity with one-third of the garlic mixture, 1 tablespoon of the salt, and 2 teaspoons of the pepper. Put the scallions, remaining 4 branches rosemary, remaining peeled garlic cloves, and the spent lemon rinds into the cavity.
3. Push the spit rod through the lamb’s rear, along the cavity parallel to the backbone, and out through the neck or upper chest. Lay the lamb on its side with the cavity facing you so that you can wire the backbone to the spit rod. Position an 8-inch length of wire in the center of the cavity. Insert the wire through the inside of the lamb near the backbone and rod. When the wire pokes through the outside of the lamb, bend the wire around the outside of the backbone and push it back through the lamb so that the entire length of wire is wrapped around the backbone and rod. Use pliers to twist the two ends of the wire together, securing the wire very tightly around the spit rod. Repeat this process at roughly 4-inch intervals toward the rear and front of the animal until the backbone is securely fastened to the spit rod.
4. Slide the spit rod’s skewers over the front and rear ends of the rod. Push the skewers firmly into the shoulders and thighs or hips of the lamb, then tighten the skewers onto the rod.
5. Attach the hind legs and forelegs to the rod with wire, twisting the ends of the wire until secured. Attach the neck to the rod in the same way.
6. Wire the lamb cavity shut by sewing from one end to the other with one long piece of wire. Twist each end of the wire with pliers to secure it. (You could also sew the cavity shut with kitchen twine or heavy cotton string and a large needle.)
7. Make 20 to 30 small, ½-inch-deep slits all over the outside of the lamb, especially around the shoulders and legs. Use your fingers to stuff each slit with the remaining garlic mixture (be mindful of the sharp ends of the wire as you work). Rub the remaining lemon juice all over the outside of the lamb. Rub all over with the remaining¼cup olive oil, then sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons salt and 2½ teaspoons pepper.
8. If using wood chunks or chips, soak them in water for 1 hour. Heat the spit-roaster as directed. If using charcoal, light about 30 pounds (1½ large bags) of charcoal. When the coals are just ashed over, rake them into 4 piles near the 4 corners of the firebox. 9. Attach the spitted lamb to the roaster so that the lamb rests 1 to 2 feet above the coals. If necessary, re-rake the coals to position the 4 piles just outside the shoulders and thighs so that the lamb cooks by indirect heat.
10. Roast over indirect heat for 5 to 5½ hours, turning slowly but constantly. Add a few pounds of charcoal (about 2 dozen briquettes) to each pile when the old coals begin to burn low, about every hour, letting the charcoal ignite naturally. If using wood chunks or chips along with charcoal, add the soaked chunks to the hot coals every hour or so. After about 2 hours, re-rake the coals to position them directly beneath the lamb. Make 2 large piles beneath the shoulders and legs, connected by a shallow, narrow strip of coals beneath the ribs. During the last hour of cooking, if the lamb is not browning sufficiently, baste it all over with additional olive oil. When done, the meat should be well browned on the outside and tender inside, with some pink meat only near the bones. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest parts of the thighs and shoulders should register about 150° to 160°F.
11. Transfer the lamb to a large, clean work surface (see Tips) and let rest for 20 minutes. Using wire cutters and pliers, remove the wire from the legs and neck. Remove the wire that sewed the cavity shut and the wire from around the backbone (you may be able to cut it from outside the animal instead of inside). Remove the spit’s skewers, then pull out the spit rod. Be sure all of the wire is removed before serving.
12. Carve the meat from the bones, or scrape it off in chunks, and serve.
This technique is no doubt one of the earliest methods of cooking meat. The entire animal, or a large cut of it, is suspended over a fire and rotated to cook it evenly. It’s a convenient way to feed a crowd.
The trick with spit-roasting, as with any large roast, is to cook the meat through and brown the outside yet retain the flavorful juices inside the meat. It helps to think of these as two separate steps in the process. Each step requires a different type of heat. Browning the outside is best done over direct heat. Cooking the meat through to the bone, however, is best done by indirect heat to help prevent burning. Each step is simply a matter of managing the heat that reaches the animal. We prefer to cook whole animals slowly via indirect heat for at least half or, preferably, most of the cooking time. That means either (a) spreading out the coals so that the heat surrounds the animal instead of coming from directly beneath it, or (b) raising the animal high enough above the coals so that the meat heats slowly rather than quickly. When using charcoal or wood, we like to spread the coals so that the heat surrounds the animal. It’s just easier to move the heat than to move the meat.
A note on marinating and basting. We believe that both marinating and basting are naturally achieved when spit-roasting a well-seasoned animal. If you include some lemon juice or another acidic ingredient along with your seasonings, the roasting time is long enough that the seasonings rubbed into the animal’s surfaces penetrate and flavor the meat just as much as they would by marinating. So marinating is not strictly necessary. You could, for the sake of convenience, season the animal a day in advance of roasting it, and you may get a bit more flavor penetration that way.
As for basting, the animal should adequately baste itself on the spit. When turned steadily near the indirect heat of the coals, the animal’s outer layers of fat slowly melt and roll around the meat, basting the meat and keeping it moist. If you happen to notice any dry areas on the surface of the animal during the last half of cooking, drizzle a little oil over the area to ensure even browning.