tasty lamb on a spit.
January 15, 2012 3:11 PM   Subscribe

How do I cook a whole lamb on a spit?

Lamb: check. Electric turning spit: check. BBQ coals: check. Okay now what?

I'm totally guessing here, I presume I light a nice bbq coal fire along the bed of the unit, let it get hot for half an hour or more, put the lamb on the spit on the rotating bit, plug it in and wait a few hours.

There's possibly more to it than that?

What about a baste? I was thinking a rosemary branch dipped in oil, garlic and honey could be nice. But that's basically from reading Asterix, quite possibly a stupid idea.

Whole roast lamb can hardly fail to be awesome, how do ensure basic awesomeness (no cockups), and push it to a higher level?

For bonus points, carving - what, how? I was thinking you basically start by hacking off the most cooked bits...

Extra bonus points - probably going a bit greek with this, was going to serve it with garlic yoghurt sauce on pita with greek salad and dips. Any further cuisine (salad recipes etc) advice?
posted by wilful to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There's possibly more to it than that?

See that you have some off-centre weights to correct eccentricity in the load.

For bonus points, carving - what, how? I was thinking you basically start by hacking off the most cooked bits...

There's no trick. It's like a kebab shop, but horizontal.

Don't put honey on it.
posted by pompomtom at 3:33 PM on January 15, 2012

I've done a whole lamb over a hardwood fire using a rotisserie, I rubbed it with spices, garlic, and some herbs, then basted it every once in a while with olive oil and salt. The legs sort of flop around a bit unless you truss the thing, it's a bit of work to balance a lamb on a spit but it'll make your life much easier if you do.

Carving is super easy, lop off the legs and cut the rest of the meat off the bones. Personally, I prefer Moroccan flavors for lamb than Greek but that's personal preference. I'd adding anything sweet (offer a sweet sauce if you must).
posted by foodgeek at 3:35 PM on January 15, 2012

Here's some common failure modes for lamb on a spit:
  • You don't have enough fuel, and are left with an undercooked lamb. Rules for estimating amount of fuel vary - something like twice as much charcoal as you have meat is reasonable. Getting some extra doesn't hurt - leftover fuel is a good excuse for your next barbeque.
  • You don't have enough time, and are bludgeoned to death by impatient, hungry guests. Expect to spend 4-5 hours at a minimum. Setting up the fire may take more time than you expect. Ditto for putting the lamb on the spit - best done on the day before if you can arrange storage. Timing the roast is not an exact science, do not promise to be done at any specific time. Provide snacks and alcohol for your guests in the meantime.
  • Halfway through the roasting process, the lamb starts to slip on the spit. This is bad, if it slips too much (or fails to rotate at all) it will cook unevenly or burn. Get a couple of those metal fasteners that go through the back of the beast ( may not be actually available where you are ) and/or plenty of wire and tie that sucker down.
  • The back area cooks too fast, and the spine comes apart. This may happen if you put too much charcoal around the midsection. The ribs don't have much meat on them, most of the heat should be concentrated around the front and the back of the animal.
As to carving, at some point you are going to want to take it off the fire. If you have the space for it, leave it on the spit and have everyone cut off their own portion with a big kinfe. There's not much carving to do on a properly roasted beast - if you do it right, it will come apart on its own. Get a couple of big metal trays, untie your fasteners and slide the lamb off the spit and on to the trays: you will know you have done a good job if you are left with a heap of delicious lamb goodness.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:36 PM on January 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

My Greek colleague did this with two lambs, it took 4 hours per, as Dr D says.

My other observation would be, they don't go as far as you might think. It was like locusts descending when they were declared cooked.
posted by biffa at 4:17 PM on January 15, 2012

The only time I experienced this treat we used our hands to tear flesh from beast.
posted by thylacine at 4:29 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Buy a meat thermometer if you don't already have one - Greek lamb.
posted by unliteral at 5:19 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've done this with pigs. I've found that using stainless steel wire to hold the animal to the spit quite effective. The spits I've used had holes in them so I could play porcine bondage and tie front and rear shins to the spit by going through the holes. Some people like to also wrap the beast in chicken wire to avoid the animal falling apart into the fire. I've not had this issue. I tried charcoal and for long cook outs, it's (IMHO) a waste of time. Hardwood firewood in an open pit works great. Concentrate two separate fires under the front end and rear end and move the coals to the center. Keep things hot enough so that your hand held about meat level above the flames can stand a 3 count before you pull it out.

Yes, it will take longer than you think. Yes, it will take more fuel than you think. Think about how much charcoal you use for burgers and that lasts, what, an hour? For 4-5 hours, that's a minimum of 5x, 8x to make sure you don't have to send someone out for an emergency run. For hardwood, you're looking at something like 4 splits per end per hour.

What I would do with a lamb is after it's on the spit, rub the inside liberally with olive oil, salt well, then put 4 whole heads of garlic and a big bouquet of rosemary. Stitch of the cavity with stainless steel wire. If all goes well, the whole animal will be redolent with rosemary and garlic and you will have several heads of roasted garlic to spread on bread and dunk into a mix of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar.
posted by plinth at 5:42 PM on January 15, 2012

The Moroccan way to make roast lamb is called mechoui, which is cooking it in a sealed rock/earthen oven - it preserves the tenderness of the meat.

Here's some info about it - it wouldn't be too hard to make something like this, I'd think. You'd just need something sturdy to hang the lamb on, and build a small oven (lamb sized, looks kind of like a large beehive) out of whatever rocks you have around, leaving a space at the bottom for muddling with the fire. It doesn't have to be built to last, since you only need it for cooking this one lamb. Season the lamb while the fire is burning. Then, once the flames have died down and your coals are nice and smoldering, hang your lamb down into the oven (hopefully you've made it somewhat taller than the lamb is long) and seal the whole thing up with some mud, leaving a one or two vents so the coals can get some oxygen to keep burning. You can put some flat metal over the top, that makes it easier to seal.

Here's a little video of how it's done.
posted by HopperFan at 6:12 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

If this is for Invasion Day, you might have time to pick up Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Meat book, which has a section on spit roasting. It should be available locally from any decent bookstore that hasn't closed down yet, or from specialist foodie stores that have a cookbook section. It's like the bible, koran & bhagavad gita of meat, all rolled into one.

I'll try to remember to summarise the tips for spit roasting when I get home.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:31 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

OK, there are about 6x A4 pages about spit roasting, but a lot of it is basically "what Dr Dracator said".

- Rump & shoulders are thicker & will take longer, so less heat in the middle of the animal.
- Slow & steady is the way to go, eg 6-7hrs for a 25-40kg lamb. Get it to room temperature beforehand, eg overnight.
- Embers should be to either side, not directly underneath. He's really big on this point (doesn't like the flames & sooty taste that come from fat dripping onto embers).
- Baste not really required; the animal will be slowly oozing fat anyway.
- You could stuff the cavity if you like, but it's a lot of work & you might screw up the cooking time.

That's the meat of it, but I'd recommend again buying the book.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:19 AM on January 16, 2012

Definitely go with the wire truss. The book I've got shows an insane amount of wide keeping the legs in the spit, as well as the body sealed up.

Get yourself a chimney starter. It's a quick way to get the beginning of the fire started, and you're going to need a lot of fuel. If it's in any way possible to do this in a covered grill, a grill thermometer would be a great deal of help. If you're doing it in an open grill, I'd definitely want a meat thermometer or two, one in a thick part, one in a thinner spot.

As for flavor, you could easily go with lemon, rosemary, salt and garlic, but there's always a nice blend of cumin, garlic and chilies just sitting there, ready to make your lamb, and the fire warmed pitas you serve it in, with grilled onions and roasted bell peppers, a truly transcendent experience.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:32 AM on January 16, 2012

Get yourself a chimney starter.

You can also make these easily, using a large tin - like a Coopers home brew can, or one of those Golden Circle or Berri juice tins.

The Aussie BBQ Forum has at least a few threads where members have posted info & photos of their spit roasting efforts - here's one example.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:48 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

thanks for all the input folks. Looking forward to doing it now (though pompomtom just volunteered himself i reckon).
posted by wilful at 2:27 PM on January 16, 2012

Well that was a bit of a disaster all round. First thing - the spit was gas powered. This was a slight disappointment at first, but soon became a very good thing.

I followed the recipe unliteral linked to, seemed good. Put the lamb on, all trussed up securely, we thought, but oh no. First the neck stuck out too much, had to get a power tool to chop it off. Then we couldn't balance it at all, tried and tried to retruss it, but after an hour or more of having it flop and bang around (and I think I broke the motor), we had to give up. Thankfully the unit had a lid on it so it was a bit like an oven, it mostly all cooked OK.

Then I left the 'carving' to a bunch of fools who hacked slabs off the beast inelegantly.

Then we ate lots of lamb and nobody complained. And I am still eating lamb sandwiches.
posted by wilful at 3:52 PM on January 29, 2012

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