On a recent cold, gloomy New England morning, I found myself standing in a stranger’s driveway waiting for a truck full of dead pigs to arrive.
The pigs were from Olek, a college friend of my wife who had taken up farming as an alternative to software development. A group of us had gathered at the home of one of Olek’s friends, who had offered his garage as a place for us to turn these pigs in to something more resembling what you would find in the meat counter at your local supermarket.
Months ago, Olek had sent out the word – he had eight pigs, growing up nicely, ready to be slaughtered in January. Fresh, local meat would be available at a fairly reasonable price. The pigs, he said, were fed on a diet of vegetable waste from the local Whole Foods and acorns from the fields they hung out in. They were named after ancient Roman monarchs.
The slaughterhouse would be happy to butcher the hogs, he said, but the cheapest route is to do it yourself. So, we joined up with three other couples, bought a pig, and prepared ourselves for butchering day.
The pigs were brought to Blood Farm in Groton, Massachusetts a couple days before we received them. There, they were quickly killed, bled, and gutted before being split in half from nose to tail. This is how the butcher receives hogs, and this is how we would also receive them – wrapped in thin plastic bags and piled in the back of a pickup truck.
In order to butcher a hog, you will need tools. In addition to sharp knives, we brought saws, honing steels, aprons, tables, plastic sheeting, and tubs. You will need lots of tubs. More tubs and containers than you think you need, in fact. When you look at your pile of containers and think you have enough, add a few more because you’re going to need them.
Pig halves look like something out of a biology textbook. Meat-side up, you can easily see how bones and tendons connect to flesh. Flip it over, and a single startled-looking eye stares at you over a landscape of shaved skin dotted with the occasional “USDA Inspected” stamp. We started our morning looking in to the hog’s body cavity, ready to begin cutting.
The first step is to take the easily reachable cuts out of the cavity. The leaf fat hangs inside the cavity to protect the internal organs; it is removed with a couple of quick cuts of the knife. The leaf fat is particularly well suited for baking – pie crusts especially – so we set it aside to render it separately later. Behind it, the tenderloin requires a little bit of care to remove from the inside of the ribs. A sharp, flexible boning knife is used to trace around the ribs and release the tenderloin from the carcass. Once those large pieces are removed, the small pieces of fat and flesh are trimmed from the cavity; none of these scraps will be wasted.
The head is removed by cutting through the neck immediately behind the skull; the rear of the skull bone is used as a guide for the knife. The flesh is cut all the way to the spine, which makes it easy to grab the head and separate it fully with a quick twist. Saws are not necessary here, and the process is remarkably clean.
With the head removed, the rest of the carcass is “quartered”, which of course involves splitting it into three parts. The fore quarter is removed just aft of the sternum, and the rear quarter is cut off just past the last rib. The meat is cut and the spine is split the same way the head was removed, but now you are wrestling 80 pound slabs of pork around your work area.
It was at about this point where things started to get messy. Not from blood or gore spilling everywhere – the slaughterhouse took care of all of that for us. What happens is that the fat and grease from the carcass starts to collect on everything; even with temperatures near freezing, handling the meat and cutting in to it deposits layers of greasy buildup on hands, knives, and aprons. It gets difficult to hold things without them slipping out of your hands. Paper towels become essential for wiping off hands and knife handles.
We also began to appreciate our bins and tubs. As the pig is quartered and trimmed, our bins of scraps start to fill up. The quarters we are not actively working on need somewhere to be stored. Our tables are running out of space as we pile up our cuts.
With the fore and rear quarters out of the way, we focus our attention on the center section. It is time to start making decisions about how we want our cuts to look and what we want to do with them. We decide where to separate the loin from the belly – which determines the size of our pork chops and spare ribs – and make a long cut down the whole center section through the skin. With the tip of the boning knife, we punch through between the ribs, leaving a dotted trail on the meat side to trace with the knife. With the meat cut away, we use the bone saw (a glorified hack saw with a coarse blade) to cut through each rib.
The spare ribs are attached to the belly at this point, so we decide to remove them with a decent amount of meat in order to leave them in a good state for barbecuing. The separated belly is then trimmed and cut in to manageable hunks. As we work, we separate the scraps in to “lean”, “semi-lean”, and “fatty” bins. Later, we mix them as needed to achieve the proper fat percentage for good sausage.
Belly is the starting point for bacon, so we leave the belly pieces in whole sections for curing. It can also be used for pancetta, porchetta roasts, or anywhere else that a healthy amount of fat is needed.
With the spare ribs and belly removed, we cut off the spine with the bone saw. Everything is cold and sharp, and we scrape our knuckles and lose feeling in our fingertips while we work. The spine, along with the rest of the bones, will be used for stock.
Looking at the loin subprimal, you can notice a seam running down the center of the large fat cap on top of the chops. Between this seam and the skin is the fatback, a much harder fat than what is found elsewhere on the hog. It’s well suited for grinding in to a sausage mix or curing for lardo, so we separate it from the rest of the fat by jamming our fingers in to the seams and gently pulling it off the loin (with some aid from a knife when our fingers can’t do the job). The skin is trimmed off and retained for rendering with the rest of the scraps.
The rest of the loin consists of a series of chops and a boneless roast which can also be cut in to boneless chops. We decide to keep the roasts whole.
The bone-in chops are cut apart with a long breaker knife; the long knife allows the chops to be separated with a single draw of the blade to keep the faces of the chops looking clean and neat. Throughout the morning, we regularly clean and rehone the knives to keep them sharp. We try our best to keep the handles free of grease, but the fat covers everything and it gets difficult to hold the knives without them slipping.
With the center section complete, we haul out the rear quarters. We opt to keep one of them as a whole American-style ham and the other cut in to roasts; in both cases, we remove the hocks and trotters. To remove the trotters, we find where the leg bones join and cut through the tendons at the joint. With the meat and tendons cut away, the joint can be twisted apart. We cut the hock close to the folds in the skin where it joins the rump, and then saw through the leg bone to release it.
The aitch bone is the equivalent of the pelvic bone on a human, and has the socket half of the ball-and-socket hip joint. Turning the rump around, we carefully trace around it inside the ham with a boning knife to release it from the meat. At the ball-and-socket, the knife is used to expose the joint; with the aitch bone free, it is twisted and pulled to pop the joint out. For the whole ham, we cut the rest of the leg bone out of the meat. To cut roasts, we find where two muscles meet each other – a thin film of silverskin separates them – and separate them with a combination of knife work and pulling with fingers.
The fore quarters are treated similarly to the rears; we remove the hocks and trotters in the same way, and then the ribs and spine are removed in one piece similarly to the spare ribs. The scapula comes out similarly to the aitch bone, tracing around it and carefully cutting in to the meat with a boning knife. As we continue to cut up the carcass, we begin running out of bins; we put the head, fatback, and some of the scraps into trash bags.
The fore quarter contains the shoulder, which can be split in to the Boston butt (connecting to the spine and ribs) and the picnic shoulder (which connects to the leg). We decide to ignore this convention and split the shoulder in half down the leg bone, with the intention of smoking all of it for pulled pork.
The meat is bagged and labeled, and the tools and tables are cleaned and put away. Everything gets loaded in the car for the ride home. Before we leave, we are presented with a bag of organs that the slaughterhouse retained – tongue, heart, liver, and kidneys.
The butchering was only the first step in a weekend-long meat processing marathon. Returning home, we vacuum seal and distribute all the cuts, and then process all of the trimmings and “nasty bits”. Trimmed meat is ground and a portion of that made in to sausage. Fat and skin scraps are rendered in to lard. The trotters, head, and tongue are brined overnight and used for head cheese the following day. Bellies are cured for bacon. The ham is brined for eventual smoking. Bones are used for stock. Offal and ears are roasted and dried for dog treats.
Over two hundred pounds of meat started as two large pig halves and ended as a collection of easily cooked cuts, processed meats, and cooking ingredients. Nothing went to waste. It was an excellent way to learn how the shrink-wrapped foam trays end up in the supermarket cooler.