May 3, 2024 - Things to Do

How to roast a pig underground: Desert edition

 A fire in a pit in the Utah desert with flames coming out of it

Kindling starts to burn in a makeshift underground oven near Hell Hole Swale, Utah. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

May's arrival means cookout season has begun and one ancient technique tops them all for juicy, tender pork: Bury it.

State of play: Chefs the world over have been roasting pork underground for about as long as they've had pigs and dirt.

  • But the prep time and lack of temperature control can make it daunting.

Here's how my family does it during our annual spring camping trip with friends in the Utah desert.

  • We use a pork shoulder around 28 lbs. — enough for at least 25 people.

The oven: Dig a pit about a foot bigger on each side than whatever you're roasting; you can line it with bricks or rocks for stability and to hold the heat evenly.

  • Ours is about 3'x4', including bricks, and 3' deep.

The fun/hard part: Fill your pit with fire and keep it going until you have a layer of coals at least a few inches deep.

  • We burn wood, which requires hourly stoking for 10 to 12 hours. We take shifts overnight to get the pit nice and hot by morning.
  • Some recipes say charcoal is faster, but you'll need a lot.

How it works: Two hours after the final stoking, the coals are ready for the piggy.

  • Season and wrap the meat. Foil is great; wet burlap or banana leaves are more traditional. Wrap again in chicken wire to hold it together; we place more wire over the coals to avoid direct contact with the roast.
  • Put a sturdy surface over the pit — we use a sheet of scrap metal supported by an old metal pole — and bury the cover with a couple of inches of soil to seal the oven.
A man scores a pork shoulder on foil.
A pig shoulder is readied for roasting. Image courtesy Craig Buschmann

Caveat: We use digital thermometer probes as a high-tech cheat.

  • 195-205° is ideal for shredding, but 180 is more than enough for safety. That usually takes about 10 hours.

Enjoy: Expect lots of drippings as you remove the meat; put it on a tray while wrapped, and mind curious pets.

The fine print: New fire pits are generally discouraged on public land, even if it's technically legal.

  • Our oven is near Wayne County's Hell Hole Swale, on land my friend Gavin bought for his kiln.

Yes, but: You can do this on a farm or ranch with the owner's permission.

  • Or use your backyard and become the most admired cookout host in town.
A cooked pork shoulder on foil, with people behind it waiting with tortillas.
Campers get ready for dinner as a pork roast is unwrapped. Image courtesy Craig Buschmann
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