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While the default Christmas dinner option for many people is a golden-brown roast turkey, it is perhaps a strange dish to have imprinted on the national psyche.
Ed Charles

14 Dec 2010 - 10:45 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Now, cooks are escaping the mid-summer kitchen heat and taking to the outdoors, ramping up the traditional barbecue by roasting whole lambs, pigs and goats, which are the ideal size for the backyard. They provide a real 'wow" factor, being roasted on the spit and presented whole on the table.

Twitter food adventurer Anna Vincent, who isn’t a turkey fan, is planning to roast a whole 12-14kg lamb over open flames. She says that Christmas is a good time to roast a whole lamb – lamb being an Aussie staple – and doesn’t understand why people don’t do it more often, especially when they have a dozen or so people to feed. 'It doesn’t involve cooking inside. It’s so hot in the kitchen at that time of year," she says.

As you’d expect, SBS Food blogger Phil Lees has plenty of experience cooking whole beasts. This year, he plans to roast a whole kid goat using the in-laws’ pizza oven, once the embers die down towards the end of the day. Lees has experimented with plenty of beasts. 'When you cook a whole animal, it is extremely difficult to cook evenly. It’s a challenge to get a balance between tender on the inside and crispy outside." Lees admits he's never roasted goat in a pizza oven before. His contingency plan if it doesn’t work is to joint it and cook the individual pieces.

David Tsirekas, of the Greek restaurant Perama, prefers his lamb young, weighing about 12-14kg. 'Generally, I like to keep lambs smaller than normal. You’re going to find the meat a lot more tender and tastier," he says. He doesn’t marinate the meat, but, instead, rubs the exterior with salt and pepper, 24 hours prior to roasting, and inserts slices of garlic and lemon in small incisions into the flesh. Inside the body cavity, he does the same, inserting garlic, lemon and sometimes rosemary before stitching it up.

His main tip is to keep smoke from touching the meat, which means keeping herbs, fat and oil from touching the coals, so it doesn’t discolour, yet maintains a crisp golden-brown skin. He says to use oregano only after cooking, as it adds bitterness.

Craig Macindoe from Mumu Grill in Sydney says that his best tip is to cook lamb slowly. For a 20-25kg animal, he would roast it for over 7 hours, slowly, over white-hot coals. When he cooks whole lambs in the oven, he never allows the temperature to go over 200°C. His tip for keeping the flesh moist? Brine the meat overnight in apple juice for a pig, or with salt water, herbs and spices for lamb.

One thing to watch out for with a spit roast is to ensure that the weight is evenly distributed. If not, it will strain the spit roast motor and possibly turn unevenly, quicker on one side and slower on the other, which leads to the meat being undercooked on one side and overcooked on the other.

Lees says that, on a spit roast, it’s quite easy to set up a counterweight to overcome this problem. But he also warns that larger beasts are a problem, such as whole pigs and lambs, which can weigh 60kg plus, and are almost as difficult to manoeuvre as a drunken relative.

Lees recalls one whole lamb: 'We just lost it and the spine split completely." He was left with two halves of an animal dangling from the spit.

Spit-roasting tips

  • Order your whole beast in plenty of time.
  • Hire a proper spit roast to make the job easier. You can choose from gas or charcoal. Book well ahead of time.
  • Marinate the beast and baste it every 40 minutes or so. Make the baste with minimal oil, lemon, salt, pepper, white wine, chilli, and a little oregano.
  • Stuff the animal to help it go further. But don’t overstuff it as it may burst while roasting.
  • A charcoal barbecue will give the animal more flavour than a gas one. Add fresh herbs such as rosemary, bay leaves or smoked chicory to the fire before you put the animal on. Avoid smoke as this will discolour lamb.
  • Use a meat thermometer to establish when the meat is cooked. As a guide, it should be about 55°C when rare, 60°C when medium rare and 70°C when well done. If you’re lucky, you’ll manage a graduate of temperature and have different cuts cooked to everybody’s tastes.
  • Ensure the spit is correctly balanced to ensure even turning and cooking. Use counterweights if necessary.
  • Allow adequate cooking time: A 60kg pig will take about eight hours; 45kg about six hours; and 25kg about five hours. A 14kg lamb will take near four hours. As with everything, it depends on the barbecue temperature.
  • Don’t roast it too hot. However, if you’re looking for a crisp skin, leave on high heat (easy on a gas spit) for 30-60 minutes at the start, depending on the size of the beast.
  • Get the correct-sized spit for the beast. A lamb or kid goat may be about 12kg, while an older animal may be 60kg. A whole ox would weigh possibly 500kg plus, and has enough meat to feed a whole showground. On average, allow about 200g of meat per person, but be aware that only just over half the carcass is meat, the remainder being sinew and bones.