In previous postings, I wrote about raising and killing hogs. But there’s still one more hurdle to overcome to achieve food security as Joel Salatin defines it. In his book Folks, This Ain’t Normal – A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, he writes:
The defining characteristic of normal food, of secure food, is that it waits, in state, for us to call it from our kitchens.
After witnessing storm-related power outages decimate refrigerator and freezer sections at grocery stores city-wide, I knew Joel wasn’t just talking about pork chops. He mentioned a “larder” and “curing shed” in his explanation of hog killin’. As a fan of prosciutto, I had a vague notion of how to cure ham. That’s where my expertise ended. And despite lots of research, my fear that I would ruin all our meat, or poison someone, grew in direct proportion to our pigs’ waistlines. Matt and I considered taking classes, but the costs, including travel and time away from the farm, were prohibitive.
Seeking Out Butchering Help from Meredith Leigh
On a hopeful whim, I asked one of the presenters from the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville if we could hire her to help us. She was a tiny woman, with a big presence, named Meredith Leigh. In her “Introduction to Charcuterie,” we had watched her grind meat and stuff sausage, on stage, as she explained how ratios of salt, nitrates, liquid, lean meat, and fat made magic. She talked about whole muscle cures, fermentation, smoking, and aging. In that hour class, she taught basic meat preservation, but also hinted at the depth of information necessary to do it well – part art, part science, and entirely important to know. It was a five-hour round trip for her, happening near the release of her new book The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie & Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore, but incredibly, she said yes.
Meredith and I swapped emails and talked by phone to formalize expectations and finalize preparations. To be honest, she seemed so undaunted by the idea of converting four pigs into useful products in a single day, that I worried I hadn’t been clear about how little we knew. But then she sent me me her eBook, which I read in one sitting. Her words portrayed a deep relationship with pigs, bound tightly with her personal history, and I knew she was the right person to help us. In one of my favorite passages, she writes:
The pig cannot resist the land, and when the pig dies, we eat its body. If we’re really eating, we muse on whether the body is enough homage to the land. Whether we can taste the fog, and the seeds, and the fruit. For the better it tastes, and the better it feels, the better we know it lived…
We always talk of “terroir” in wine, but rarely in reference to other foods. Yet, this is precisely what’s missing from most of what we buy at the grocery store. We don’t know where it came from, what it ate, how it lived, how it died, or what happened to it after that. It may have been touched by a hundred hands before being picked from a shelf and served as supper. Surprisingly, the same people who use paper towels to open bathroom doors, and keep antibacterial gel at-the-ready, will allow anonymous food in to the most intimate parts of their bodies without a second thought. Food production, for all its importance in our lives, is something many of us leave up to others. As such, food with no terroir, and no tradition, must be heavily regulated because so much can go wrong along the way and there is very little accountability in the supply chain. For example, as I write this, the FDA has spent three weeks trying to track down the source of E. Coli O157 in Costco chicken salad with no results. Across 7 states, 19 people were infected and investigators can’t even identify the culprit.
As I read Meredith’s ode to pigs and land, and her later sections on butchering, curing, and food safety, my worries quieted. Her intimacy with food reminded me that my insecurities, which started this quest, stemmed from the lack of transparency in the industrial food system. I felt cut off from the skills necessary to ensure my own well-being. We weren’t trying to do rocket science, or even food science. We simply wanted to make our own wholesome pork preparations, full of terroir, and enjoyment of the process, like people have been doing at home since the beginning of civilization. Basic human stuff.
Reestablishing Responsibility for Our Food
Too often we are fooled into believing there are great mysteries behind food preparation that make it safer for us to let someone else more qualified handle it. By agreeing with this idea, we actually increase our risks because we become uneducated consumers, reliant on others to look out for our best interests. There are risks in home-butchered meat and Meredith explains some of them in her book. But there’s risk in falling down my front porch steps too. With a little awareness, risks can be minimized.
If you are new to butchering, I highly recommend that you read the guidelines for slaughtering, meat cutting and further processing, published by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. This manual is intended for use by professionals and supervisors in the meat industry. You can read it over a pot of tea or a glass of wine. What I took away was keep cutting surfaces and implements clean, chill your meat, and be really careful about transport. I combined that with Meredith’s “butcher shop rule” to keep stuff separate. Chicken, for example, has a higher potential for dangerous bacteria load than pork, so if you have chicken chilling in the fridge with your curing bacon, make sure there’s no chance of dripping or cross-contamination.
Now, you don’t need a professional to teach you how to butcher. And there are so many good books and blogs on butchering, written by people far more qualified than me, that I won’t try to cover it in detail here. But I do want to share a few experiences and lessons we learned that might help if you decide to have your own hog killin’.
Lesson 1 – Retail Butchering is Not the Same as Home Butchering
I knew what cuts I wanted… until we started cutting. Here was my “cut list” at the start:
Hams with 2-3 inch hocks, skin on; Boston butts cut to 3 pound roasts; feet and head with jowls (in brine); tenderloin – halved; baby back ribs – halved; 1 inch boneless pork chops; back fat cubed for sausage and lard; picnics cubed for sausage; bellies, whole, skin on, to cure for bacon; organs – liver (gall bladder removed), kidneys, heart for pâté.
With our giant pigs, lack of experience, and makeshift butcher stations this would have taken a week to cut. Luckily Meredith jumped in and made some recommendations that saved us time.
For the loin area, we discovered it’s not easy to cut through a rib cage with a hand saw, so we decided not to. We left the longer bones intact and just called them “ribs” (not cut to “baby back” uniformity). We turned the shorter bone sections into bone-in loin roasts. The bone adds great flavor and can be picked out when the meat is tender. We cut quite a few “porter house” chops which are family-sized chops that include the bone, rib meat, and residual tenderloin. We also cut our pork chops to about 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 inches thick because it made it easier to cut straight and meant less to cut.
For the Boston Butts, we cut larger roasts. Since our pigs got so big, some hunks were a foot thick and breaking that down into 3 lb. roasts would have required endless cutting and knife sharpening. This choice worked in our favor, because we get several meals from an 8 lb. roast, and I put some of the prepared meat back in the freezer to reheat when I feel lazy.
For the heads, Meredith suggested we only use two for head cheese and make jowl bacon with the other two. Two heads made over 10 pounds of head cheese. More actually, but I got tired of picking the meat and ran out of pans, so I packaged up seven pounds as dog food. Heads are often treated as waste, so it was eye-opening to discover how much delicious meat they make. And I am so glad Meredith talked us into jowl bacon. It may be even better than belly bacon.
Speaking of bellies, there’s an old adage that if you feed a pig too long, you’re raising fat. For most cuts, this didn’t prove true. But when it came to the bellies, it was right on. There was almost no meat with the belly fat. Meredith managed to salvage about 35 pounds of what turned out to be amazing bacon. But, since we hoped for 80 pounds, this was a reality check. If you want great bacon, you have to pick a breed that is known for meaty bellies and butcher them closer to the 250 pound range. More importantly though, we have to find ways to enjoy all parts of the pig. A little head cheese on morning toast or cracklings in your eggs can be as satisfying as a thick slice of farm bacon (well, almost).
After our experience, I still think it helps to relate familiar retail cuts with primal cuts before home butchering. There’s a simple representation available here to get you started: http://www.oda.state.ok.us/food/fs-hogweight.pdf. But I also suggest researching how the old-timers and people in other countries break down a pig. The mass-production of meat has created a very narrow view of what is edible, but cultures with strong culinary traditions and/or people living in less affluent conditions really know what to do with a whole hog.
Lesson 2 – Delicious is in the Details…
Since I learned to really eat, as Meredith describes it, by hanging out with European chefs, I was focused on end-products made with time-honored traditions. Visions of saucisson sec de Lowgap, prosciutto di Blue Ridge, and pâté de campagne de la région Surry County danced in my head. People warned us that we’d end up with more sausage meat than we could use. This may be true if you want breakfast sausage, but good fermented sausage like Spanish-style Chorizo or Soppressata comes “high on the hog.” It takes about 80-85% lean meat to 15-20% fat. And you have to trim the fat off your meat before you weigh to get your proportions right. This is too much work using meat scraps. So, we decided to sacrifice some prime meat including our “picnics” and any awkward shaped cuts from the loin, shoulder, and ham areas. We kept 120 pounds of lean meat for sausage since this was so important to us.
Making Fermented Sausages
To make the best use of Meredith’s time and expertise, we started with fermented sausages. Preparation-wise, there is not a lot of difference between a fresh (grilling) and fermented sausage (dry). Trim and cube the meat and fat to fit through your hopper, weigh and mix your ingredients, combine and grind. For fermented sausages, you have a few extra steps. Sprinkle starter culture (we used T-SPX) over the ground meat and spice mix. Meredith recommended we use about twice as much culture as the package called for to make sure we got it on all the meat. Then mix well again. Stuff your ground meat in the casings. Create link-sized sections by pinching, then twisting the casings twice around. Twist in opposite directions from link to link. This confused us, so Meredith demonstrated that if you alternate your direction, your links stay twisted, but if you go in the same direction, they unravel. You also tie both ends of the link rope with butcher twine, leaving one side longer to use to hang your sausage to ferment. After stuffing, prick the links all around with a safety pin or needle and roll the links in a shallow pan of Bactoform M-EK-4, a strain of Penicillium mixed with water that encourages protective white mold growth on the casings. Then ferment and age per your recipe directions.
I bristled at the idea of using cultures and nitrates, wanting to be “natural,” but Meredith convinced me that, for our first time, to control the output we had to control the input. Making fermented sausage by relying on native cultures is like making wine by relying on wild yeast. It might work, but it could taste terrible. Without encouraging good cultures to populate the meat, you’re leaving a lot of room for the stuff you don’t want. Also, once dry, fermented sausages can be your food security if your freezer goes down, so give them the best start possible using good cultures.
When working with sausage casings, humidity matters. As we stuffed outside in windy conditions, our casings kept busting. Out of frustration, we left some of our fermented sausages unsegmented which made it hard to get them in our “fermentation chamber” (an old fridge converted using a plug in temperature controller and a cool-mist humidifier with a control switch, explained in Meredith’s book). We thought the casings were bad. But later, I used them in the comfort of my kitchen with no problem. After experimentation, I confirmed that the wind and low humidity outside caused the natural casings to dry too fast. Next year, we’ll do the stuffing inside. The sausage also coils better on our smooth counter top than on our mega-picnic table.
Curing “Country Style” Hams
In our region, it’s still normal to hang fall-slaughtered hams in barns. Initial curing starts in cooler temperatures, but aging continues through our hot summers. We honored this regional tradition by making 5 hams “country style.” Here is an easy how-to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcwu6K4crHc. One ham was too big for the hanging-stocking, so we used an old pillow case as a substitute. So far it seems to be working. Another reason we opted for country hams over prosciutto is because cure ingredients were cheaper. For country hams, you rub the meat with cure and then wrap it in paper. With prosciutto, you bury the hams in salt. We are making two prosciutto hams, using re-purposed bee hive supers, but it took 75 pounds of salt to cover them.
On the country pâté front, we utterly failed. On Hog killin’ day, we put the organs in a bucket, set them aside, and… forgot to chill them. When we found them half way through cookin’ day, they smelled so bad we didn’t even give them to the chickens. Next time, I’m taking Joel’s advice. Organs go right into a pan. We won’t be using them for panhoss, but I’ll cook them up with onions, garlic, herbs, salt, and pepper, and run them through the food processor with a little port, and pack them in terrines to send home with all our helpers. It was still a good lesson – organs are best eaten fresh!
Potted Meat (I’m not talking about Spam)
Now, don’t run all those breakfast sausage worthy scraps through the grinder with sage just yet. Instead, cube them (without separating the fat from the meat) and brine them for 24 hours (outside – if cool, but not freezing). Pour off the brine and rinse the meat. Bake on low heat in deep turkey pans, with thyme and peppercorns. When the meat shreds easily, strain the fat from the meat and set aside. Whip the meat with a wooden spoon until kinda creamy. Add salt, pepper, and liquid fat to your taste and texture preference. Ladle the meat into pint jars. Then pour more of the fat over the meat to create a fat cap. In the US, we call this potted meat, which has sadly become associated with the likes of Spam and other unspeakables. But in France, this is called “rillette” – a sublime concoction that is given its proper respect among charcuterie products. Serve it up with fresh bread, a dab of mustard, and tiny pickles for breakfast, lunch, or a snack. This will keep for months in the fridge or cool storage area. Once you start eating from a jar, refrigerate it and finish it within 3 days. As a bonus, jar up the rest of the fat (lard) for use in any savory recipe or preparation that calls for butter in the pan.
Lesson 3 – Be Ready to Make Adjustments and Take Notes for Next Time
We had a lot of help on hog cookin’ day. So, we had three stations of people turning primal cuts into recognizable cuts and one large group working on cubing meat and fat for sausage. We had food grade buckets galore and lots of freezer storage bags, but no real plan for where to start. Luckily Meredith directed us. She had us work on front shoulder sections so we could get the picnic cuts to the sausage cubers. Then we moved on to the loin sections to get the fatback to the sausage crew.
We were all new to butchering, so it took time for Meredith to give us an orientation on the meat. But after she got a few of us cutting, we were able to show others and get them cutting too. Meredith then moved over to help the sausage crew until we got to the hams. Before we knew it, meat cuts started to pile up on our workstations. So, we distributed bags and Sharpies. But, we quickly learned that it’s impossible to write on a freezer bag after it’s been touched by a meat-juice covered hands. We then got a few people labeling bags first. The bagged meat was put in buckets and shuttled to the freezer. Also, not such a good idea as it took me hours to sort it all out later. Some bags were not fully closed, so we had icicles of blood to clean up from the bottom of the freezer too.
Streamlining the Butchering Process
Next time, we’ll put cuts into pre-labeled buckets, e.g. one bucket for pork chops, one for butt roasts, one for bellies and so on. We’ll run labels in advance and designate one person to do the bagging. We’ll give them lots of towels to keep their hands dry. Once bagged, the cuts will also be sorted into pre-labeled containers, and the entire container will go into the freezer. This should make it easier to find things later and keep mess to a minimum.
A Final Word on Food Security
When we asked Meredith to come help us, we wanted to learn how to do this for ourselves. But we also wanted to share the experience with as many people as possible through direct participation and writing about our experience. This was important to us because we know that true food security can only be assured when we are all involved in securing it at some level – either by growing, raising, and preserving food ourselves, or supporting farmers in our community by paying real prices for sustainably raised food. Besides, as Meredith puts it:
Cooking, and eating in general, should be one of the best things about our everyday existence. If it is truly just a chore, a necessity, then we have surely sold our souls.
Meat animals are just one way to approach food security. And I know this might not be the right path for everyone. But regardless of your food preferences and beliefs, I hope you will find ways grow your own food, get to know your farmers, and share your experiences with your community so we can all have a more secure future.
P.S. Thank you to all of you who have shared your comments and stories in response to this series. We have learned so much from you and have enjoyed sharing your experiences too. I also appreciate the non-meat perspective because we do need to continue contemplating these issues, particularly in the context of ensuring clean air, water, and secure food around the world. I believe all of us [Grow] Network readers are coming at this from the perspective of trying to figure out the right things to do, in a very complex world. I am glad we can respectfully engage the discussion and learn from each other.
This article is part 3 of a 3 part series called “Have You Ever Been to a Hog Killin’?” about raising, harvesting, and cooking pigs. You can read the rest of the series here:
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