A suckling pig is a very young piglet, usually no more than six weeks old, that has been butchered for the purpose of consumption. Chefs refer to these piglets as suckling because farmers butcher the piglets when they still are young enough to suckle the mother sow's nipples. Suckling pigs are to pigs what veal is to cattle. They are valued for the meat's tenderness, and its small size provides a dramatic meal presentation.
Some suppliers, restaurants and other vendors call piglets "suckling" even if the piglet is older than six weeks. These piglets remain on a liquid diet, usually eating from a bottle after being weaned from the sow. By definition, these are not true suckling pigs.
Traditionally, suckling pigs are sold and prepared whole, minus the entrails. True suckling pigs usually are not more than 20 pounds (9.07 kg) and therefore can fit in a large oven. Chefs usually roast suckling pigs using a pit and working rotisserie. An advantage of cooking a suckling pig on a rotisserie is that the meat is able to cook more evenly as it rotates, with the fat and juices from the suckling pig naturally basting the meat before dripping away. This turns the skin crispy, sealing moisture and flavor into the meat.
Pigs young enough to be classified as suckling pigs are large enough to feed five to eight individuals. This makes them good choices for small gatherings. Those who want to feed more people may find that a faux suckling pig, one that has been raised up to ten weeks through suckling and bottle feeding, is better. These pigs can be up to 40 pounds (18.14 kg), but they also are leaner and therefore lack much of the tenderness and flavor of the smaller piglets.
Some farmers do not provide suckling pigs because they can sell an adult pig, which weighs much more, for more money. This means that the number of suckling pigs available for butchering is not as high as it could be. Subsequently, suckling pigs tend to be expensive to buy. People generally consider them a treat and delicacy, using them only for very special occasions.
People who use suckling pigs often make the pig the highlight of a feast due to the effort and expense involved in the pig's preparation. They present the pig on a platter in most cases and carve it in front of the guests. Depending on the chef's preference, a conglomeration of fruits or vegetables usually surrounds the piglet. Sometimes these are purely for presentation, with the true side dishes served separately. The classic representation of a suckling pig involves the piglet having a small apple in its mouth.
Pigs have been domesticated for centuries. As a result, different cultures have had plenty of time to put their own spin on suckling pig recipes. Regional spices and herbs have had some control over the direction of recipe development.