Chicken Slaughter

 

(This piece contains descriptions of killing and processing chickens.  Photos are mostly harmless, but fair warning.)

In addition to the pigs we normally get, our farmer friend Olek also raises a variety of other animals including a large flock of chickens.  These chickens are raised as meat animals, and this past weekend the time came to cull the flock.

We arrived at the farm early in the morning prepared for dirty work.  All of the processing was to happen outside for reasons that will shortly become clear; it had rained the day before and the ground was damp and squishy.  Olek had corralled the chickens in to mobile hoop pens the day before, and some of them began to crow as we drove in.

The chickens we were about to dispatch lived just about as good a life as a chicken can, with ample fields to roam and peck and freely available organic feed.  They were culled at 13 weeks, a remarkably old age for meat chickens – commercial broilers are usually harvested at about 6 weeks.

Time for chicken slaughter

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The first step, of course, is to catch a chicken.  This is easier said than done, even inside the pen; chickens do not want to be caught and they’re surprisingly quick.  Once you have captured the chicken, you can move it by grasping both legs in your hand and holding the bird upside down.

Killing the birds is accomplished with a quick draw of a sharp knife across the neck.  Since we were working with a lot of birds, Olek had built a frame with several cones nailed to the cross bar; each chicken was inserted in to a cone upside down both to immobilize it and to allow the blood to drain.  After death, the carcasses will continue to spasm for several minutes; the cones keep them in place until they completely stop moving.

Step one

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There is a variety of wasp in our area that is attracted to the chicken blood.  Spreading lye on the ground helped neutralize the blood and dissuade the wasps from stopping by.

After the bird has completely stopped moving, it’s time to start plucking.  We utilized a wet plucking method which involves scalding the whole carcass to loosen the feathers from the skin.  Bring a large pot of water to 150 F; holding the carcass by the feet, dip and swirl it in the hot water for a minute or two until the wing feathers can be plucked by hand with only a small amount of resistance.  If the water is too hot or the bird is left in the water for too long, it’s possible to weaken the skin and cause it to tear.

Scalding

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Out of everything, scalding definitely had the most unpleasant smell associated with it.  Blood, dirt, and feces come off of the bird and mix with the hot water to produce an odor redolent of a dirty butcher case full of meat nearing its expiration.  You may want to avoid doing this indoors if you can avoid it.  Avoid overfilling the pots, too; as we found out (and probably should have realized ahead of time), dropping a chicken in to a mostly full pot displaces a significant amount of water, and we were struggling with repeatedly extinguishing the burners as the pots overflowed.

With the feathers loosened from the scalding, it is time to pluck them.  We used an automatic plucker – The Featherman – which looks vaguely like a washing machine drum fitted with a set of rubber fingers.  The base of the drum rotates, bouncing the carcass against the fingers; the fingers grab the feathers and a hose mounted around the top of the drum spray the carcass to remove any loosened feathers.  The feathers are then washed down the sides of the drum and out a spout.

The Featherman saved a lot of physical labor but wasn’t a perfect solution.  The birds’ feet frequently got caught between the rotating base and the wall of the drum, jamming the machine.  Sometimes the carcasses simply didn’t tumble as well as they should have, which meant either the backs or the breasts would not get plucked.  The machine also sprays water and feathers everywhere, and I found it useful to have a pair of safety glasses while operating it.  As the water poured out of the plucker, it soaked in to the already damp ground to make a substantial mud hole.  Waterproof boots proved to be vital.

We set up a couple of people downstream of the plucking machine to pull any feathers that the machine missed.  Properly scalded, the feathers are very easy to remove by hand.

Plucking

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With the bird killed, scalded, and plucked, it is finally time to trim and eviscerate the carcass.  Very little knife work is required here, but a sharp paring or boning knife will be required.  A cleaver can be helpful to remove the neck, but it’s not required.

The evisceration station

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Removing the feet is a similar process to parting a roast chicken.  Take the foot and bend it, looking for the joint with the rest of the leg.  Using a sharp knife, slice around the joint to expose it and sever the tendon.  With the joint visible, you can either twist the foot and pop it off or work a knife in to the joint to dislocate it.  Feet can be cooked but need to be skinned first; we decided this was more effort than it was worth, so they were discarded.

To remove the head, start at the killing cut in the neck and trace around the whole thing down to the bone.  Twist and remove, or take a cleaver and chop through the neck.  Discard the head.

Place the carcass on its back with the neck facing you.  Pinch the skin towards the base of the neck and make a cut about 1-2 inches wide; reach in to the cut and pull the neck through.  The trachea and esophagus are attached to the neck with a membrane and look like translucent rubbery tubes; pull these away from the neck, and then chop off the neck as close to the breasts as practical.

The esophagus leads to the crop, essentially an expanded section of the esophagus used to store food before digestion.  With the carcass in the same position as before, it is attached to the top of the right breast with a membrane.  Follow the esophagus to find it, and then slide your fingers under it to remove it from the breast.

Turn the bird around so it is breast up and facing away from you.  Pinch the skin about an inch above the cloaca and make a cut.  There is a gray membrane covering a layer of fat just below the skin; cut through both of these to reveal the body cavity.  Be careful not to cut too deep during this process, as you want to avoid puncturing the digestive system.  With the cavity open, cut all the way around the cloaca to release it from the body.  You can now reach in and start removing organs.

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A person with some experience can remove the interior of the carcass in one motion, but the rest of us require a little bit more time.  Position a bucket on the ground in front of you, grasp some of the intestines, and carefully pull them out of the body cavity.  Drop the end of the intestines in to the bucket – this will keep things away from the carcass as you work, avoiding contamination if any of the digestive system breaks open.  Continue to reach deeper in to the body cavity and pull organs out; trim the gizzard and liver off as you extract them.  Carefully pinch or cut off the dark green bile duct attached to the liver to avoid spilling its contents and discard it.  Pull out the heart and retain.  The lungs are a bright pink and firmly attached to the walls of the body cavity; scrape them out with your fingers and discard.  If the trachea, esophagus, and crop did not come out with the rest of the guts then pull those out and discard.

While eviscerating the carcass, you may learn how chickens make noise.  The trachea flaps much like the throat of a whoopee cushion, and if you remove the neck properly and press the guts in just the right way the carcass may gobble at you.  The first time you witness this could be a little disconcerting.

With the guts removed, trim up and loose skin and excess fat around the openings at the top and bottom of the carcass.  With the back of the chicken facing up, you can optionally trim off the oil gland found at the base of the tail (the “Pope’s nose”).  The gland can produce bitter flavors if left on the chicken.

Just like from the supermarket

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The end product looks just like a whole chicken you would pick up at the supermarket.  The processed chickens were kept on ice until we finished with the whole flock and then were bagged and brought home.

Cooking fresh killed chickens should happen either immediately after evisceration or several days later.  While rigor mortis is set in, cooking the bird will yield tough meat so it’s important to get the chicken in the oven either before or after rigor.  This timing is less vital if the goal is to stew or braise the bird.

We processed a total of 52 birds, yielding coolers full of carcasses; bags of livers, hearts, gizzards, and necks; buckets of entrails, feet, and heads; and piles of feathers.  The waste was collected and buried in a horse manure compost pile – the high temperatures in manure compost will break down the animal parts and keep away scavengers and rot.

The work is messy and tiring.  Compared to butchering a slaughtered and prepped half pig, processing chickens is dirtier and literally much more visceral.  Parting out what is essentially a large piece of meat feels very different at a gut level than starting with a small live animal and turning it in to dinner.  However, there is something satisfying in both experiences to understand and come to terms with the source of your food.

Olek is moving away, and this year’s pig will be our last unless we can find another farmer interested in raising animals for us.  It’s been an excellent opportunity to learn about meat processing and come out of it with some top quality product at the same time.

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Egg Salad

Egg salad isn’t something that I eat frequently.  It wasn’t something that we ever really ate when I was a child, so it’s never really been on my radar.  However, a recent Cooking email digest from the New York Times made me start thinking about eggs and how to make a really satisfying sandwich.

Egg salad requires, at a minimum, three components – hard cooked eggs, mayonnaise, and some sort of pickle or vinegar.  From that basic assemblage, you can add just about anything you like as long as the resulting salad holds together at the end.

My biggest complaint about these sandwich spread salads – be it egg, tuna, ham, or whatever – is that many variations combine large chunks of protein with a minimal amount of dressing.  It may yield a lighter filling, but the sandwich always ends up falling apart.  My goal here was to produce a more homogeneous egg salad to make something spreadable and more cohesive, so here I use “sieved” eggs.  After hard cooking the eggs, simply run them through a food mill (as I did) or sieve, or grate them on a box grater.  The result is a pile of fine hard-cooked egg crumbs which will stay bound to the mayonnaise.

Pickles provide a little bit of texture as well as some acid to brighten up the dish.  I use some naturally fermented dill pickles here, but vinegar pickles, capers, or other pickled vegetables would work well.  I would probably avoid anything too sweet, though; bread and butter pickles won’t really provide the needed punch.

Mayonnaise is the thing that will hold all of this mess together.  Julia Child has a method for “sauce tartare,” a mayonnaise made with hard cooked egg yolk rather than raw; I thought this might be an interesting method to increase the shelf life of the egg salad sandwich.  However, I simply could not get the oil to emulsify using the hard cooked egg.  More experimentation will be needed; in the meantime, I whipped up a traditional mayo so that I could actually eat something.

To round out the egg salad, I raided the garden for fresh herbs.  To add just a little hint of spice, I threw in a couple teaspoons of curry powder.  Do your own thing here, though – other spices, diced sauteed mushrooms, anchovies(?!), whatever else you like!  Here, I’ve added some homemade pickled cherry peppers.

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Herbed Egg Salad

4 whole eggs plus one egg yolk
1 tbsp prepared mustard
1 tsp lemon juice
1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup minced pickle
1/4 cup minced herbs (here, equal parts parsley, dill, and chive)
2 tbsp curry powder
salt and pepper

Make the mayonnaise: whisk the egg yolk until runny, then whisk in mustard and lemon juice.  Slowly add the vegetable oil, whisking constantly – start by adding drops at a time, and gradually increase the rate as the mayo emulsifies.  When about 1/3 of the oil has been incorporated, the rest of the oil can be added in larger batches.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Hard cook the eggs: Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, then carefully add cold eggs directly to the boiling water by lowering them in with slotted spoon or a sieve.  Cover, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 11 minutes.  Drain and cool the eggs under cold running tap water.

Place the eggs in a food mill set over a bowl and crank until they pass completely through.  Add in the minced herbs, pickle, and curry powder.  Add enough mayo to fully combine all of the ingredients, about 1/2 cup.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve on crusty bread.

Sufferin’ Succotash

It’s getting to be that time of summer when the corn and the beans all start ripening and the grocery store is almost paying you to take them somewhere, anywhere, just get them out of here!  That makes it a perfect opportunity to load up on fresh produce and make succotash.

Just don’t do what I did and go looking for ingredients weeks before they’re actually ripe.

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Nicoise

I am a terrible gardener.

We have friends who have gardens, and they always seem to grow bushels of beautiful vegetables.  “Just throw some seeds in the ground,” they say.  “Stuff just grows all over the place!”

My harvest always seems to be dwarfed by the amount of effort and care I put in to the garden.  The amount of time and money put in to one tiny zucchini can be very dispiriting.  However, there is one plant that I can grow reliably every year, that will tolerate my inattentiveness and ignorance.

Green beans.

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Ragu – Chuck Yeah!

Screw Bolognese sauce.  If you want a ton of flavor on pasta (or chickpeas, or polenta, or…), then ragu is the way to do.  This isn’t canned pasta sauce – it’s a rich, hearty meat dish cooked low and slow in flavorful stock and wine.  It takes a ton of time but little prep work, so if you have a half hour to focus on dinner and then need to do something else, make a ragu.

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More Farmers Market Finds

We have a mushroom guy at our farmers market.  I love mushrooms, and he usually has something interesting that we can’t get at the grocery stores.  This trip, he had some chestnut mushrooms.  “Just trim the dirty ends off and saute them whole,” he instructed me.  So I did, and then added them back in to a sauce cooked with the mushroom fond.  With some greens from the farmers market and a nice hunk of pork from the butcher’s Meat Club, this meal was about as “local” as possible.

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Pork rib roast with broccoli rabe and mushroom sauce

1 pork rib roast (1 bone per person)1/2 lb broccoli rabe
1/4 pint chestnut mushrooms
1/2 shallot
1 clove garlic
1/4-1/2 cup pork stock
~2 tbp white wine
2-3 tbp butter
parsley
salt and pepper
parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 450F. Rub the whole roast with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and place in a roasting pan bones down. Place in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the fat cap is nicely browned and crisp. Reduce the heat to 350F and cook until done. I aimed for 150 in the fattest part, but I’d probably go even lower next time – 140 probably. Good pork can be a little pink on the inside.

Mince the shallots and garlic.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Trim the broccoli rabe, removing woody stems. Blanche in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes and drain. Remove as much water as possible! In a medium-high skillet, add about 1/4 of the shallot with a little olive oil and saute briefly until just starting to brown, and then throw in about 1/4 of the garlic until just fragrant. Add the rabe and saute for about 5 minutes, until it browns slightly. Remove from the heat but leave it in the pan.

To make the sauce, first trim the mushrooms of any dirty bits on the bottom. Heat about a tablespoon of butter in a pan and saute the mushrooms until well browned, then remove the mushrooms from the pan. Add the remaining shallots and saute until brown, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the stock and wine (I also threw in a splash of brandy), and simmer until reduced by about 1/3. Add in a few tablespoons of butter, small chunks at a time, but putting the pan over low-ish heat and swirling the pan until each chunk is melted and emulsified. Add butter until the sauce is the thickness you like. Mix the mushrooms back in to the sauce.

Just before serving, sprinkle shredded parm over the rabe and place the pan in the oven until the cheese browns unevenly. Place a heap of rabe on each plate. Slice the roast so in to general pork chop size (each person should get one bone) and plate. Spoon the mushrooms and sauce over the pork and rabe, and then sprinkle minced parsley.

Farmers Market Finds

It is currently the height of summer in New England, and the heat and longer days are finally, quite literally, yielding fruit.  The shorter growing season in the northeast limits the kinds of fresh produce we can enjoy and when it is available, so it becomes that much more exciting when the farmers markets suddenly replace their regular offerings of potatoes and beets with brightly colored greens, radishes, and cucumbers.

Our local farmers market operates year-round, snuggling indoors at the Armory when the temperatures drop and reemerging like new shoots after Memorial Day.  Our local vegetable farmers, too, seem to hibernate for the winter, with one or two stalwarts persevering to provide the neighborhood with potatoes, apples, and other hearty storage crops.  Tables once heaped with greens are taken over by livestock farmers, fishermen, bakers, and chocolatiers.

With the market back out in its place in the sun, the fruit and vegetable sellers dominate once again.  Here is where the home cook can find the ingredients that can change an everyday dish in to something new and novel.

One of the major factors that distinguishes a meal at a fine restaurant from a something prepared at home is the variety of ingredients.  At a recent visit to a local wine bar, we ordered a radish salad – a very simple dish on its own, but the chef utilized three different kinds of radish, each prepared in a unique way and combined on one plate in a way that both accentuated the differences of each radish and melded in to a unified experience.  On our next trip to the grocery store, I looked around the produce department interested in what kinds of radish I might be able to pick up, only to find the common red-skinned golf ball as the only option.

The farmers market, however, has radishes.  French breakfast, watermelon, pink ones, white ones, even black ones that almost look like truffles.  The farmers market has these, along with a multitude of squashes and tomatoes and greens, because they may be too delicate to survive our long food logistics chain, or they are not produced in sufficient quantities to interest the grocery stores, or the farmer felt like it would be interesting to try a new crop.  The farmers market opens up the opportunity to experiment.

The simplest way to punch up a home-cooked meal is to make simple substitutions, because there is pleasure in novelty.  All those fancy adjectives that restaurant menus charge extra for can become the domain of the home cook when a simple tomato salad becomes an heirloom tomato salad or grilled zucchini becomes grilled Cousa squash.  A small change of ingredients requires no additional cooking knowledge beyond the understanding that varietals all will handle cooking in largely the same way.

And if you find something that you really don’t know what to do with?  There’s a qualified expert standing right there, ready to answer all of your questions about the produce that their farm (possibly even their own hands) grew, harvested, and laid out on the table you are in front of.

I had no real goal at our last trip to the farmers market, but I immediately eyed the pints of multicolored cherry tomatoes at one stall and knew what had to be done.  One of our favorite summertime meals is a simple “deconstructed caprese,” a dish of fresh garden tomatoes and gooey buratta, sprinkled with basil and fancy olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Here, I decided to turn that into something more of a traditional green salad after buying some lettuce on a whim.  When it came time to prepare this meal, I also had a leftover end of bread (also purchased from the farmers market) – I sliced this up and toasted it for croutons, but you could also cube and lightly brown a whole loaf and convert this salad in to a fattoush.

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Caprese-inspired tomato salad from the farmers market

1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
1 small Bibb lettuce
1/2 bunch basil (about 1 cup)
8 oz mozzarella
~4 oz bread (this was leftover sourdough)
Good olive oil and balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425F. Cut the bread in to small pieces (these are about crouton sized). Toss with some plain old olive oil and salt, then spread on a sheet tray and pop in the oven until toasted, about 5-7 minutes.

Halve the tomatoes, chop the lettuce. Remove basil leaves from the stems and chiffonade. Cut mozzarella in to ~1/2 inch chunks. Toss all of this in a bowl.

To serve, place salad in plates or shallow bowls. Drizzle with olive oil (you know, the good stuff) and balsamic vinegar (you know, the good stuff) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place croutons artistically on top.

Fattoush variant – drastically increase the bread and tomatoes (maybe a good half loaf of bread and a pint of tomatoes). Cut bread in to ~1/2 inch cubes and only lightly toast, just enough to give it a little color.

 

 

A Use For Berries

Cooking, lately, has been less about meal planning and more about improvisation.  Our butcher offers a monthly “meat club” and the farmers markets are in full swing, which means I tend to collect a random assortment of meat and vegetables without any real idea of what to do with them.  I’ve decided to start keeping track of the meals I make with the ingredient grab bag – partly to share with you, dear reader, but mostly because I can’t remember what I did ten minutes ago without writing it down.

This past weekend, we embarked on our annual SufferFest up at Russell Orchards.  SufferFest occurs in late July when, if the weather cooperates and the stars align, the blueberries are beginning to ripen, the raspberries are in full swing, the currants are just winding down, and the blackberries are just barely reaching maturity.  The last week of July is also usually the hottest week of the year in New England, and the farm is conveniently sited right next to a small creek and marsh (a perfect habitat for mosquitoes) and the beach (where the greenhead flies wander in from).  SufferFest is a full day out in the blazing heat and sun, being eaten by bugs, in order to pick as many berries as possible before dying of heat stroke or blood loss.

Thankfully, this year the weather stayed a wonderfully moderate mid-70s with a breeze and some cloud cover, which only left the flies to do their damage to my exposed skin.  We picked about five pounds each of raspberries and blueberries, plus a pint each of red currants, black currants, and jostaberries.  The jostaberry is a black currant/gooseberry hybrid, producing a fruit similar in shape and color to a black currant but about twice as large.  While the currants were spoken for to make desserts and baked goods, the jostaberries were a bit of a wild card.

Sweet fruit sauces go well with heartier meats, but being summer I didn’t really want a very heavy meal.  Instead, I chose a boneless pork loin roast – lean on the inside but with a decent fat cap, the cut takes on a good sear but also benefits from some saucy enhancement.  Here, I took the basic idea of a Cumberland sauce and modified it for fresh jostaberries.

Cumberland sauce begins with port and is flavored with spices, sugar, citrus, and (traditionally) currant jelly with the addition of some fresh berries.  It’s very similar to American cranberry sauce (the whole berry kind, not the smooth canned stuff), and should be tart to offset the heaviness of the game or red meat it’s traditionally served with.  Here, I attempt to make the jelly in situ by cooking down the berries in a mixture of port and red wine, along with some extra sugar to cut the intense tartness of the jostaberries (some of them may have been a bit underripe).  I also wanted the sauce to flow a bit more than would be traditional, so it was served chilled but not fully set.

The choice of sides here was entirely influenced by what we had lying around in the kitchen.  I had just harvested some haricot verts from the garden, and while thinking about a starch I discovered a couple of red potatoes hiding in the produce basket.  With some time to kill and plenty of rendered fat from the pork, the choice seemed clear – fry these suckers.  Shallow frying potato chips is time consuming but entirely doable; red potatoes don’t seem to really color at all until they transition from crispy to burned, so be warned.  A more traditional frying potato would be a better choice if planning ahead.

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Roast loin of pork with jostaberry Cumberland sauce, haricot vert, and potato chips

1 boneless pork loin roast, 2 lbs or so
1/2 lb haricot vert (give or take, I harvested them from the garden)
2 red potatoes (or, you know, a good potato for frying)
1 pint of jostaberries (or currants, or cranberries…)
1/2 cup ruby port
1/2 cup red wine
1 lemon
dark brown sugar (I did not measure this)
1 tsp mustard powder
1/2 tsp ground ginger
pinch of ground clove
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper

To make the sauce:
Rinse the berries. Peel the skin off of the lemon and then juice it. Mix the port and red wine in a saucepan, add the spices and lemon peel, and simmer for about five minutes. Remove the lemon peel. Add in the berries and brown sugar (maybe… 1/4 cup?) and lightly simmer for about 15 minutes, until the berries pop and the sauce thickens a bit. The sauce should be tart but not overwhelmingly so; add a bit more brown sugar if it’s really puckering. Add salt to taste, then chill in the fridge.

Take the lemon juice, add 3 oz. gin, 1/4 oz. Maraschino, and 1/4 oz. creme de violette. Shake with ice and strain in to a cocktail glass garnished with a Maraschino cherry. Drink.

Everything else:
Preheat oven to 350. Rub the meat all over with salt and pepper. Sear the outside in a cast iron skillet over high heat, starting with the fat cap. Remove to a roasting pan, then put that in the oven until the meat reaches 135-140.

Stare at the skillet that is now full of pork fat. Run your gaze across the kitchen until you find two lonely red potatoes hiding in the produce basket. Decide that you have some time to kill until your wife gets home. Slice the potatoes 1/8″ thick with a mandoline, then cook in batches in the pork fat over medium-high heat until crispy but not burned; they probably won’t color much. Drain on a cooling rack set in a sheet pan, and sprinkle salt over them while still warm.

Reach for the pot to steam the haricot vert. Think forward to after the meal when there will be yet another pan to clean if you pull it out of the cupboard. See the pork fat shimmering on the stove top, beckoning. Close the cupboard and toss the beans in the hot oil instead. Cook 2-3 minutes until tender and just barely browned in spots.

Cut the pork into about 1/2″ slices, fan on the plate, and arrange the beans and chips artfully around it. Spoon sauce over the pork.

I butchered a pig

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.

Pigs!

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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.

Getting ready for pigs

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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.

Here we go

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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.

 

Trimming out some fat

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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.

 

Remove the head

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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.

Quartering

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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.

Quartered

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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.

 

Quarters

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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.

 

Splitting loin and belly

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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.

 

Removing spare ribs

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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.

 

Future bacon

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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.

Removing fatback

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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.

Removing spine, cutting roasts and chops

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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.

Chops

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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.

Removed hock and trotter, preparing ham

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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.

Processing one rear quarter. The other stayed as a whole ham.

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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.

Removing ribs and trotter from fore quarter

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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.

Hock and roast removed

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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.

And there's the pig.

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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.

Head cheese. From a pig head!

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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.