About 2 months ago Kim and I set out to accomplish a long-held goal: to build a roasting spit in our backyard and spend no money doing it. The inauguration of our successful endeavor occurred Memorial Day weekend. Here’s how we did it.
Building the spit:
A spit is little more than a stone-lined hole in the ground. Some dig straight down (as for a Luau or a New England Clambake, some are dug into the hillside. We chose the latter because our backyard is a long gentle slope. If yours isn’t, you may have some extra digging to do and/or you may need to bring in some fill dirt. In any case, what’s desired here is a strong earthen support for the bricks that make up the back of the spit. This back wall helps direct the heat, making the roasting process more even and efficient.
Our goal was a 5-foot-wide spit, plenty big enough for a pig or a lamb (though not for a calf or a hog). Kim did a quick search on Freecycle.com, and turns out bricks are a popular thing to give away in east-central Iowa. Lucky us. 20 minutes of driving and an hour of loading and unloading (allowing us to skip our workout that day!) and we had us a brickload.
I dug into the hillside to create a flat space, 6 feet wide by 3 feet deep, creating a dirt pile on the uphill side, which I used to backfill behind the brick wall as each row was placed. I used a basic carpenters level to make sure the base was truly flat. Even a very slight angle could affect the lifespan of the structure gravity is very persistent.
Mortar might have been a problem, I thought, since I’m no union bricklayer or anything, so I set each row of bricks a half-inch back of the previous row, creating a slant of about 10 degrees off vertical. This way the heat would still be directed well, but the wall would be supported by the earth behind it. This also helped facilitate the sides’ stairstep design which would further direct the heat while allowing easy access for the rotisserie and the animal on it.
As you can see it was a gradual but simple process, which would have been much faster if I didn’t have to remove old mortar from virtually every brick (that part was very tedious). For the floor I simply lined them up and tapped them snuggly into place with a rubber mallet. Step one complete.
A brief search of the internets revealed that buying a rotisserie was out of the que$tion, and along with not being a bricklayer I am also not a welder. Fortunately some friends at the nearby Scattergood Friends School had built one, also out of found objects, and agreed to let us borrow it for the inaugural run. The main rod is made from a piece of household water pipe; the racks are from an old weight bench; the legs are rebar from a fence one of their sows had knocked down; and the simple hand crank used to be part of a commercial kitchen can opener – the kind that mounts to the edge of a counter.
With the rotisserie in place it was time to turn our attention the piece of resistance – the lamb.
Finding and Preparing the Lamb
Our lamb was provided by Pavelka’s Point, a farm neat Mt. Vernon, Iowa that I would link you to but they don’t have so much as a Facebook account. Blithely unencumbered by such things, they have more time to raise some truly tasty livestock. Lois Pavelka and Bill Ellison also raise some cattle and hogs, but the lamb is their main focus. We’d been buying it for Devotay for years, but this was the first time they had raised a whole animal just for us.
It was processed by one of Iowa’s best small lockers, Ruzicka’s in Solon (also sans website, but there’s a little info about them here), for about $55.00. The dressed weight of the lamb was a hair over 60 pounds, and Lois charged us a discounted $5 per pound for it because she loves us.
If you aren’t lucky enough to live within an easy drive of the Solon-Mt.Vernon metropolis, and don’t already know a good lamb farmer in your area, then turn to LocalHarvest.org, where all you need to do is plug in your zip code and the word “lamb” to find the sustainably-raised livestock near you.
When I got it home I gave it a quick rinse and pat dry with paper towels, then rubbed it down thoroughly, inside and out, with generous amounts of kosher salt and cracked black pepper, and then refrigerated it. A good point here: if you don’t have a spare fridge that will fit the lamb (I had to take all the shelves out of mine), then you’ll either need to pick it up and cook it the same day, or invest in a tub, lots of ice, and a way to keep your dog away from it.
The Day Arrives
Wanting to feed my guests by about 5pm, and figuring on needing at least 8 hours to cook, I arose at 6am to get the fire started. A mostly-mild winter here this past year left me with more than enough split oak logs to do the trick – total amount by the end of the day was about ¼ cord. It might have been less though, if Mother Nature hadn’t decided to let loose a deluge about 8:30am, right when my fire was all-glowing-coals-perfect. We made a makeshift attempt to shelter the fire, but to no avail. Note to self: invest in a couple of sheets of corrugated tin.
The newly rekindled fire was glowing just fine two hours later, which in the end was good because it took me a while to stuff and truss the lamb. Using brackets and u-bolts, we attached the lamb to the middle of the 8-foot rod at the animal’s spine. We then filled the cavity with a salt-and-peppered mix of mire poix, lemons, fennel and garlic, and trussed the cavity closed with a darning needle and cotton butcher’s twine.
However, no matter how much we tightened those u-bolts, it would not have been sufficient because the weigh of the lamb would have cause the rod to simply spin inside. So in addition to the bolts, we attached fairly heavy (but bendable) wire through a hole in the rod and around the back ankles of the lamb, then around the whole animal to the foreshanks, though another drilled hole in that end and then back once more. It worked nearly perfectly.
After a procession with the lamb that was worthy of the soundtrack from a Charlton Heston movie, it was mounted on the rack about 20 inches from the coals, which were pushed back against the back wall of the spit (you don’t want them directly under the meat). Cranking it for hours seemed like a daunting task at first, but the ability to move it slightly, lock it there, wait a couple minutes do it again, etc., coupled with working in shifts made it quite easy. The key was to keep it even and only rotate in one direction, lest the aforementioned wires unwind.
As coals burned down more wood was added, and we put a small stainless steel bowl underneath it to catch the drippings. We moved it a few times as drips came from other parts. Toward the end of cooking, because the whole animal shrinks as it cooks, the trussed-up cavity came open a little bit and some of the veggies spilled out, but not enough to make much of a difference.
In only 6.5 hours a meat thermometer thrust into the legs and should showed a near perfect 130 degrees f., so we pulled it off the fire and laid it out to rest under foil for about 30 more minutes. Dinner was served on time despite the rain, thanks to the lamb taking less time than I had thought I would. Our 60-pound lamb was devoured by about 70 people in about 90 minutes, while circling buzzards wondered if we would leave it alone for them. (Hint: No.)
The carcass is now in my freezer, where it will remain until the weekend and then be used to make a big batch of lamb demi-glaze.
Come August we’re doing another one, this time with a pig. Will post differences and similarities here as well.