We use cast iron skillets and Le Creuset pots for cooking every day. But ask me what turns me on most in my batterie de cuisine and I would have to say my electric Weber spit-roaster. It’s really just a metal ring that fits onto a standard Weber grill with a bracket to hold the electric motor that turns the spit. I’ve used it to cook just about everything, from whole chicken to pork loin to rib roast of beef to leg of lamb. Spit roasting has a long and proud history, with many mechanical devices invented before electricity to turn the meat over the coals. As you can see, the results are always spectacular. Here’s a piece I wrote about it some years ago for The Washington Post.
My parents’ solution to five kids was to bust a hole in the house and add a family room. We lost half the back yard, but gained a fireplace and a built-in rotisserie.
On Sunday afternoons, my Dad typically had a big roast of pork loin turning and sweating over the coals, filling the addition with signature aromas and notions of the great outdoors. Who knew Dad could cook?
In my own version of spit roasting, I imagined building something terribly elaborate out of brick on the back deck. As in ancient times, the meat would stand vertically before a crackling wood fire. Perhaps an antique clock works would turn the roast…
Fortunately for all concerned, there was a Plan B, involving a trip to a certain hardware store. Within an hour, my 3-year-old daughter and I had assembled one kettle grill and rotisserie from the pieces spread out on our living room floor. For my Weber grill, the rotisserie consists of a big round collar that sets into the grill opening. The collar has a slot on one side to support the handle end of a horizontal, 28-inch-long metal rod or skewer—the “spit.” On the opposite side of the collar is a bracket to mount the electric motor that turns the spit. The motor plugs into the nearest outdoor outlet or, in my case, an extension cord.
The first effort, a stuffed shoulder of lamb, turned out exquisitely, a glistening, deep mahogany color all around, basted in its own ample juices, with complex, multi-layered flavors of smoke and fire. Not too immodestly, I pictured a color photograph of this roast on the cover of a Time-Life cookbook entitled, say, “The Perfect Meat.”
All of which is to say that you, too, can be a spit roasting revivalist without too much trouble. After you buy the grill itself and an electric rotisserie attachment, you will need the following:
A charcoal chimney. You may have gathered I do not cook with gas. Gas is convenient. But for me, spit roasting is all about authentic hardwood charcoal and rustic flavors. (If you insist on gas, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for rotisserie cooking and perhaps add some wood chips for flavor.) To light the coals, you don’t need lighter fluid or an electric starter. The chimney is a tall metal cylinder with a handle. Fill it completely with coals and insert two pieces of crumpled newspaper underneath. A match is all the ignition required. The coals will be ready in about 30 minutes.
A grilling method. The grilling universe is divided into two immutable spheres: “direct” and “indirect” cooking. For spit roasting, use the “indirect” method. Carefully tip the hot coals out of the chimney in two equal piles at the bottom of the grill, on opposing sides of the area where the meat will be turning. Under the meat, in the middle of the grill, place an aluminum foil drip pan.
After the hot coals are in place, insert the meat on the spit into the rotisserie attachment. The motor will slowly turn the meat throughout the cooking process.
Keep the lid closed, the vents about two-thirds open. Temperatures inside the grill will average around 325 degrees at meat level.
Most roasts cook in 1 ½-2 hours. The coals need replenishing every hour. Thus, you need a place to re-light the chimney, such as a patch of concrete, a second grill if you have one, or a bare spot in the yard. Fill the chimney a bit more than halfway with charcoal. While adding the coals, remove the meat.
An instant-read thermometer. Most professional chefs have one in their jacket pocket. The long, stainless probe is topped by a small dial. Even better is the digital version: It’s more accurate and doesn’t need to be calibrated.
Taking accurate temperature readings is the best way to ensure the roast or fowl is cooked safely and to your taste. About a half-hour before the anticipated finish, take readings every 10 minutes or so. Stop the rotisserie and probe deeply in two or more places.
The internal temperature of the roast may continue to rise 5 or 10 degrees after it is removed from the fire. Time doneness to coincide with the end of cocktails, so you can parade your amazingly perfect roast on its spit in front of your admiring guests. Let it rest on a carving board, under some aluminum foil, for 15 minutes while you eat your salad.
Basic trussing and tying skills. Whether a roast chicken, duck, pork loin, or boneless leg of lamb, it’s important to create a neat, round package so the meat cooks evenly and doesn’t flop around on the spit. Learning how to tie a roast takes about a minute. I keep a lifetime-sized spool of butcher’s twine under my kitchen sink.
For fowl: take about 30 inches of string. With equal lengths of string in each hand, make a loop with a half-knot and slide it around the bird at the tail end, pulling it up and over the ends of the drumsticks. Pull the loop tightly closed. Pull the two remaining ends of string back along the breasts. Flip the bird over and wrap a loop around each wing securely above the elbow. Pull the ends of the string together and tie them off.
For a roast such as pork loin, if you do not know how to make a butcher’s knot, the easiest method for tying a roast is as follows: With a long piece of string, make a loop at one end of the roast and tighten with a slip-knot. Twist the string into a second loop and slip it onto the roast, an inch or two from the first, and continue looping string down the length of the roast, cinching each loop snugly as you go.
After tying the meat, insert the spit lengthwise through the center of the meat, or, in the case of fowl, through the cavity. Don’t be afraid to pull the rod out and repeat the process until the meat is reasonably centered.
It should be held steady with metal prongs—called forks–at either end. My rotisserie has a counterweight that screws onto the wooden handle of the spit to resolve imbalances. I’ve yet to suffer a serious imbalance.
Use bold flavors. Spit-roasted meats pair nicely with strong herbs, such as rosemary, mint, tarragon, oregano and marjoram, as well as dried and tropical fruits. Think chile peppers, salsas, chutneys; Szechuan stir fries, salt-roasted potatoes, rice pilafs; balsamic reductions, caramelized shallots, brown sugar, horseradish.
Let your taste buds run free. Spit roasting is fairly self-tending, leaving plenty of time to prepare side dishes and dessert.
Allow meats enough time out of the refrigerator to come up to room temperature before cooking. And remove the strings before carving the cooked roast.
Proper attire. Your neighbors will already assume you’re a throwback when they see you cooking on a rotisserie. Do not disappoint them with your ensemble. According to the 1956 edition of Better Homes and Gardens Barbecue Book, my ultimate and infallible source, the rules seem to be thus: loafers, sharply creased slacks and a Van Heusen-style shirt for men; a festive cotton dress, hemmed a few inches below the knee, some type of hair band and pearl earrings for women. A goofy apron completes the look.
Herbed Rotisserie Chicken
Cooking time: Approximately 1 ½ hours
About the simplest way to spit-roast a chicken is to stuff the cavity with sprigs of fresh herbs, truss it, and season the outside with salt and pepper. Alternatively, you can make a paste with chopped herbs and insert it between the skin and the meat over as much as the bird as possible. Either way, the meat is moist and fragrant, the skin brown and delectable.
1 5-pound roasting chicken (it can be smaller)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 sprigs fresh herbs, such as tarragon, sage, rosemary
1 lemon, cut into four pieces
About two hours before cooking, rinse chicken thoroughly under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels, inside and out. Season aggressively with salt and pepper, including cavity. Sqeeze lemon into cavity, then stuff with lemon pieces and herbs.
To truss the bird, take about 30 inches of string. With equal lengths of string in each hand, make a loop with a half knot and slide it around the bird at the tail end, pulling it up and over the ends of the drumsticks. Pull the loop tightly closed. Pull the two remaining ends of string back along the breasts. Flip the bird over and wrap a loop around each wing securely above the elbow. Pull the ends of the string together and tie them off.
Set bird aside to absorb flavors and come up to room temperature.
When it is time to cook the chicken, place one of the end prongs—or forks—on the spit. Place the spit through the cavity of the chicken, tail end first. Slide the other fork onto the spit and tighten it.
Grill the chicken with the lid closed and the vents about two-thirds open. (Temperatures inside the grill should average around 325 degrees at meat level.) The chicken is done when a thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the thigh, not touching the bone, reads 160 degrees, about 1 ½ hours.) You might need to replenish the coals after about an hour. Remove the meat while you distribute the fresh coals. You’ll know the bird is nearing doneness when the skin browns and begins to pull away from the ends of the drumsticks. Don’t be afraid to use your thermometer often: You don’t want to overcook your chicken.
When done, transfer the chicken to a cutting board, cover loosely with aluminum foil and set aside to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before removing it from the spit and carving.