Friday, February 27, 2015

Lessons Learned - Observations of a Novice

So now that its over (or at least the butchery and initial curing is over), what do I think?  Was it all I dreamed it to be?

Well, I gotta admit that when I finally sat down that first night, I was WAY more tired than I expected.  I remember thinking that perhaps next time, I'd let the processor do it.  But after a day or two and lots of reflection, I came to the conclusion that there were lots of areas that could be done better now that I had some experience.  And if I could incorporate lessons learned, it would make the next time that much easier.

So what are the lessons learned?  In no meaningful order, I'd have to say that I learned the following and would advise anyone who was trying this for the first time to consider these:

- Work.  Its way more physical than I expected.  Muscles get used that don't normally get used.  And its a good thing that the parts get lighter and smaller as the day goes on.

- Help is a good thing.  That said, it should be purposeful help.  I had lots of help but I wasn't familiar enough with the process to set anyone to working on a task.  Next time, I'll have one person cubing the lard and another person vacuum sealing as we go.

- Prep.  Make your brines ahead of time.  Make your cure rubs ahead of time.  Mix your spices for sausage the day before.  Anything you can do ahead of time to avoid having to mess with it on the day of, the better.

- Work the Bugs out.  Meaning, get all your crap together.  Don't wait until you have a fridge full of brining hams and bacon to decide you need to defrost that fridge so it doesn't go belly up 15 days into the ham curing.  Familiarize yourself with any new processes and equipment.  Butcher day isn't that day for trying out your new FoodSaver.  Play with ahead of time.

- Bowls.  You don't have enough,  Trust me.  I know, you just went to Costco and got two new stainless steel bowls... big ones.  But, you'll need four.  If you have four, you'll need 5.  Its a universal law of the universe or something.

- Space.  See above.  You won't have enough.  Get the fridge cleaned out ahead of time.  Its going to fill up fast.  If your freezer is full of three year old pop-sicles and the person who is putting that pork in the freezer doesn't know it can be tossed, they're going to come back and tell you there is no room.  Now you have to wash up and go see.  So yeah, toss the ancient Stouffers stuff ahead of time... you shouldn't be eating that crap anyway!

- Bar towels.  You'll go through them like crazy.  Get a dozen more.  They are cheap at Sam's.

- Saw.  I need another one.  Maybe a shorter one with a less finer toothed blade.  Mine sucks.

- Knives.  If you are going to have someone else cutting up fat for lard while you make chops, then don't make them use the dull chef's knife in your drawer.  Get them something decent to use.  It'll be much cheaper than a trip to the ER because they were trying to do the right thing with the wrong tool.

- Be flexible.  Having watched a ton of different videos helped to give me the aforementioned analysis paralysis.  But, it also gave me enough knowledge to zig when I'd planned to zag.  You just have to know when to stop trying to force something to happen and punt!  In the end, you still wind up with pork.  And that's not a bad thing.

- Enjoy it.  You've spent some time, effort, and money to get to the moment where that hog is on the counter.  Take a moment to stop and smell the roses (err.. pork).  This is supposed to be enjoyable.

So will I do it again?  Yep - no doubt!  The longer I go the more it feels like Army basic training.  While you are in the middle of it, it seems a miserable experience.  But after you are done you think, "That wasn't so bad."  I don't mean to make this sound like it was a miserable experience at all.  But I think I'd built it up to be such a complicated monster of a process that it was like child-birth or something.  It was great fun and I learned SO much.

Next time, I'll take some of my own advice, streamline the process, do some different things to prepare, and have even more fun because it won't seem so foreign.

I highly recommend this journey to anyone who has a predisposition to wanting to know your meat as well as your possibly can (short of raising and slaughtering it yourself).

I hope these articles will be useful.  I tried to write them to be what I'd wished I'd been able to find when I was researching the process.

Second Day - Curing/Rendering/Sausage

After a much needed night's sleep, it was time to get down to the business of processing.  I gotta tell you, I was beat.  Once the cutting and such had been completed the night before, there was a great deal of clean up.  My wife had embraced the idea of the me butchering a hog on her counter.  It would have been unproductive to leave bone dust and fat scraps all over the counter and the floor.

But there were lots of bowls containing lots of pork parts in lots of places in several fridges.  I needed to get them "working".  After all, you can't EAT bacon until the bacon is done being made... and nobody else was going to make this bacon, but me!

*I actually didn't do all this on one day - some lard was done on one day and the rest the next.  Sausage was made on one day and then smoked the next - so technically, this entry encompasses two days for those of you who are paying too close attention.*

I started with the leaf fat.  I wasn't going to use any of that for sausage. Apparently it is too hard for sausage and doesn't work well being instead prized for biscuits and pie crusts.  So I diced it up into smallish chunks and tossed it into the crock pot.

Leaf fat in the slow cooker

Covering and setting the cooker on low will, over the coarse of the whole day, turn the fat into lard.  It helps to put 1/4 cup of water into the bottom so that as the initial fat starts to melt it doesn't start to scorch or burn first.  Once everything is starting the cook down and become liquid, cant the lid open a bit to let the moisture evaporate.
Floaty (is that a word?) bits

Here it is after several hours.  For what its worth, I removed the skin before I rendered this out.  What is floating around in there are essentially the "husks" of the above cubed fatty chunks.

Think of them like bacon.  You have the meaty part and the fatty part.  When you fry it up, the fatty part doesn't really disappear leaving you with a couple slivers of meaty parts.  It still holds some sort of structure.  These little bits are essentially the outside structure.

Strained floaty bits

Here are some of said floaty bits on a paper towel.  I'm not quite sure what to do with them.  Are they cracklin'?  I thought they were.  Some say that cracklin' is instead the skin that is left on when rendering lard.  I thought those were pork rinds.

Who the heck knows... I've got to do some research on this.
Hot rendered lard in canning jars.
 After the fat has rendered down, I killed the heat to the crockpot and strained it through a cheese cloth lined strainer and then put it into jars.

Make sure you don't skip the straining step.  Any little chunks and floaty bits that you leave in the liquid fat with cause it to go rancid that much sooner.

Let it cool on the counter and then put it into the freezer or fridge until ready to use.

Both types after cooling (left is back fat lard, right is leaf lard)

I repeated the process with the back fat.  I wound up with 4 pints of leaf lard and 2 pints of back fat lard.

To the right is a side by side comparison.  The whiter jar on the right is the leaf lard.  It should have much less pork flavor than the back fat lard on the right - which is why it is preferred for baking.

We used some leaf lard in some corn bread the other night and I have to say, it was excellent.

Getting some help mixing spices

Now it was time for the sausage.  I planned to do about 10 lbs of cold smoked kielbasa.  I had 5 lbs of grass fed beef round roast and about 4 lbs of pork trimmings and a pound of back fat.  After mixing up the spices.  The meat was ground, mixed, and stuffed into hog casings.

They dried in the fridge over night to develop a pellicle - which is the tacky sticky "film" that develops when meat starts to dry out.  This is what gets the smoke to adhere.  If you casings are still wet when you try to smoke them, you'll get bad results.

Getting smoke... 

I planned to cold smoke the kielbasa.  I understood this to be a way to get much more mellow and deep smoke flavor.  Since there was a curing salt in the sausage I wasn't worried about letting them sit in warm (55 degrees) Big Green Egg for 10 hours or so.

The Big Green Egg is a little tricky to convince to smoke without generating heat.  After all, I wanted to smoke the sausage, not cook it (I'd cook it later once I'd applied lots of smoke to it).  So, I used something called an A-Maze-N-Pellet Smoker.

A-Maze-N Pellet smoker in the bottom of the Big Green Egg

 Its a pretty slick little thing.  You fill it with your choice of wood pellets and light it.  Provided it has enough airflow, it creates a nice stream of steady smoke for more 12 hours (which was more than I needed).  AND, it generates about as much heat as a lit cigarette.

I hope to tinker with using it to smoke salmon and cheese at some point.  But for right now, I'm still in pork mode.

After 10 hours of cold smoke, the sausage went into the fridge to rest.  I see people say that this lets the sausage equalize the flavors and such.  For me, it was more that it was late and I was ready to hit the sack.

The next day it rained and so I just cooked the sausage in the oven to an internal temp of 150 degrees.  Cut it into sections and vacuum sealed it up.

Sadly, I have no pictures of brining the bacon or the ham.  The brine recipe comes from a well regarded source on The Smoking Meat Forum website.  It's called Pop's Brine and seems to yield good results and has a loyal following.

I injected the ham with a good bit of the brine and put it in a 5 gallon food safe bucket and covered it in two gallons of the brine, weighting it down with a big zip-lock filled with water to keep it under the brine.

For the three bacon sections, I put two of them in another bucket with the same brine (1 gallon) and weighted them down the same way.  The other section was rubbed down in a curing mix taken from Ruhlman's book "Charcuterie" that I mentioned in another post.  It is regarded as being overly salty but I had some guidance from a Facebook post (Thanks Mark!) to just use 4% of it based on weight.  So if the meat weighed 2000 grams (2 kilograms) then 4% of that would be 80 grams of basic cure mix to rub the meat down with.  Put it in a tightly sealed zip lock back and stick in the fridge.  It will draw moisture out and almost make a brine so be sure to flip it daily so that all sides get plenty of time in contact with the brine.  After 7 days, you pull it out, rinse it off and let it dry in the fridge (that pellicle thing again!) before you smoke it.

The cure-rubbed bacon after a week.

I realize I am fast forwarding a week here with this picture but here is the piece of bacon after it was rinsed and dried off.

It's sitting the fridge as I type this and will go into the cold smoker tomorrow morning for most of the day.  Hopefully it comes out well.  But if not, there's two more curing in a brine that will be ready in about another week.

The Pig Has Landed - Butcher Day! Primal Breakdown

It was a Thursday... like any other Thursday.  Except today there was going to be half a hog sitting on my kitchen counter.  I could imagine that years from now, people would come to me and beg to ask a  question.  I would indulge their curiosities and allow their inevitable question...  "Why did you decide to butcher a pig on your counter?"  I'd pause for dramatic effect, lean in closely, looking them in the eye and say, "Because it WAS THERE!"

I left early to head out to farm where I was to meet Josh who'd be bringing back the hog (my half of it at least) from the processor.  He'd delivered it to the processor in Carrollton GA the previous Monday.  My guess is that they slaughtered on Tuesday and hung it on Wednesday.

If I've not mentioned it before, Frolona Farm is a gorgeous place.  The picture on their front page doesn't do it justice.  Rolling hills, pastures, meadows... just really pretty.  When we'd visited before to meet Josh and see his pigs, my wife and I had been talking on the way about what it is that we visualized when we imagined the place we'd like to own someday.  After we left Josh's place, we both looked at each other and said, "That's what I had in my mind!"

It was cold on that day - like nearly 15 degrees (which is bitter for Georgia!).  Given the temperature, I'd not worried about getting any bags of ice to toss in the back of the truck for the ride home (about 75 minutes).  But had it been summer time, I'd have put a big box in the back of the mini-van, lined it with a tarp and tossed bags of ice in there to set the hog on.  Fortunately this wasn't a problem.

We carried it into the kitchen (somewhat awkwardly) and plopped it unceremoniously onto the counter.  I didn't want the carcass sitting at room temperature for any longer than it needed to so it was off to the races.

The counter got awfully small.

One of the things that caught me off guard was that that liver was intact.  I'd expected to possibly get the carcass with the kidney there but I didn't expect the liver.  Sadly, I wasn't prepared for it.  I'd been focused on everything else for so long that I didn't have a plan... no recipes for pate, no recipes for incorporating it into another dish... I panicked.  Into the trash it went.  In hindsight, it should have gone into the fridge until I could figure out whether to freeze or do something with it right then.  What a waste!  Goes against my stewardship sensibilities.

Initially, I removed the liver and the leaf fat which is the waxy hard fat contained within the body cavity surrounding the kidney's especially.  In the process the kidney came out and sadly went the way of the liver.  The leaf fat was put in a covered bowl in the fridge... it was a big bowl!

Now the actual cutting could start.  The plan was to first get the trotters off and remove the hocks  Out comes the bone saw.  I'd seen several different techniques and spots to make the cuts but in the end, I just picked a spot and took to sawing.

Sawing the trotters (feet) and hocks off.
Here was where I began to experience trouble (that didn't take long).  The bone saw just wouldn't get going.  It kept snagging and flexing and the blade kept turning under.  Maybe the blades coarseness was too much.  Finally I managed to get them all cut but it seemed much harder than I expected.  Sadly, this would be a recurring theme as the day went on.

Next was to separate the shoulder from the mid-section.  I was hoping to use the "Southern Method" shown in Danforth's book and as described in detail in Cole Wards exhaustively photographed electronic guide.  The idea being to crack (cut) through the first three or four ribs, then bone them away from the belly so as to fold them back towards the rear of the carcass.  At which time you can make your cut to remove the shoulder section and you don't wind up with part of your spare ribs being removed along with the shoulder.  Seemed easy enough.

The "Southern Method" to shoulder removal
 Here you can see, I've sawed through some of the ribs and am now boning them out by trimming the up off the belly (which lies below the ribs) and folding them back.

It was a little awkward with the 22 inch saw to get the geometry right so as not to cut into the belly or midsection with the far end of the saw.  During this part we realized how much longer this carcass was compared to what I'd seen in the videos etc...  We kept looking at the pictures and then looking back to the table and thinking, "Man, there are more ribs than there should be!"  In hindsight, I wish I'd done some measurements and counted ribs and vertebrae.

I've since come to understand that Large Black Hogs (this was a mulefoot/large black cross) are known for their longer loins.  I think Tamworth hogs might fall into this category too but I can't remember right this second.

You can also see my gnarly hock removal - I blame the saw!

Making the cut to remove the shoulder.

Now it was a matter of figuring out which rib I wanted to cut between and then running the saw through the spine and so forth.  The experts saw to ONLY use the saw for bone.  Once you are through the bone, always finish with the knife.  I'm sure there are other reasons but one good one is that the saw shreds the meat rather than slicing it.  Its pretty unsightly.

You can see in the picture that the cut has been made up into the ribs towards the spine.

Cutting the top part of the shoulder away from the midsection.

To the right you can see where I've cut through the spine and am finishing up through the back fat - and what majestic back fat it is!

Shoulder primal section

Those shoulder sections are heavier than you think.  It includes the picnic ham and the boston butt... but you already know this since you've read Danforth's book and watched all those videos I linked to in the earlier post, right?

Setting up the cut to remove the ham from the mid-section
Now its time to remove the ham from the mid-section.  At this point the tenderloin is still on.  You can see it to the right and up just a bit from my knife tip just below the backbone.

So the gist of this cut is to remove the ham while leaving as much of the sirloin section still on the loin.  I'm making a cut from what would essentially be the "arm-pit" of the hog's rear leg (if he had an arm-pit on his rear leg... would that be the groin?  Anyway...) straight up to about where the tenderloin ends and then angling out towards the tail (which got cut off just before this shot was taken).  

Finding the "armpit" requires a little touch and feel.  There is a point where the belly stops being the belly and the ham starts becoming the ham.  If you start by pinching the thickness of the belly and moving towards the ham you'll feel it.  Its pretty obvious once you know what to look for.  You'll need your bone saw for part of this job as well.

This is from the top looking down.  What you wind up with after this cut is the full rear leg (ham) with the aitch bone intact. 

Which one is the ham?  The one on the left of the one on the right?
Midsection - loin and belly

Somewhere in here, the midsection - which consists of the loin and the belly,  wound up on the porch (our "walk-out" cooler as it was so cold outside).  I think this must have been while I was trimming out the ham but I can't remember.  Either way its a good picture of the midsection.  You can see where that two angled cut was made to remove the ham on the left and also the spare ribs folded back on the right side from where the shoulder section was removed.  

I don't have a picture of when the belly got separated from the loin.  Suffice it to say, a saw was involved to cut through the remaining ribs, continuing along the same basic line that was made when I cracked the ribs to remove the shoulder - you can see them folded back onto the the rest of the ribs.

Boning out the belly
So then it was on to removing the remaining ribs that were attached to the belly.  The goal is to keep your knife as close to the ribs as you can as you remove them, this leave as much as meat on the belly as possible (after all, you don't want to rob yourself of bacon!).  It was pretty straightforward.

Slicing the belly into sections for bacon.

I trimmed off a section of the belly that was closest to the ham (or I guess, where the ham would have been had it not been removed).  Cole Ward's instructions were that this would used for salt pork. 

I've since learned that there is a difference in the composition of the fat in that area that is less suitable for bacon.  As such, I did as advised and packed it to make salt pork later.

Then I took what was left and cut it into three somewhat equal slabs.  One bound for a cure rub while the other two were bound for a brine.

Trimming some of the back fat off the loin.

Now I had the entire loin section to work with.  The sirloin end (I think this is also called the saddle end, maybe), the center cut section (or the middle part) and the rib end (which would be closer to the head.

I started removing the back fat from the whole part.  I'd seen many videos where the chops were just cut off from this point with the fat left on.  But it seemed like an OBSCENE amount of fat to leave on a bone-in chop.  Especially since I'd planned to render out lard and/or use for sausage.  

Making big chunks of fat into smaller chunks of fat.

I didn't think about it at the time but some of these slabs would have been good to use for lardo which is a cured back fat with spices and such.  I'd read about it in my trips through charcuterie books in the past when having surplus fat in large chunks like that wasn't really an option.  And now that I had lots of it around, I failed to connect the dots and set it aside for that purpose.  A missed opportunity but I guess, but I'll remember to reserve some for next time.

Breaking the loin down

Now what?

I struggled a bit with the loin.  I'd hoped to separate the chine (spine) bone from the loin and then bone out the baby back ribs.  But my saw just wouldn't get it done without a bunch of wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Might have been easier had I left the fat on for more leverage when trying to saw through it.

I would up making some boneless chops, a couple smallish loin roasts.  I'd planned to make a couple larger sirloin ham steaks but when I looked into the trim bowl to see how much I had in there for sausage, I changed my mind (besides, I was about done with that darn saw!) and into the sausage bowl it went.

Cutting down the shoulder.  

Boning out the picnic ham
Now it was back to the shoulder primal.  As I mentioned before, I wanted the Boston Butt for pulled pork BBQ (even though just about every sausage recipe seems to start with a 5 lb Boston Butt).  And I was going to brine the picnic shoulder into another ham.

I still seemed a bit short in the sausage bowl so I boned out the picnic ham for sausage.

I boned out the Butt roast (leaving the scapula intact) and then cut it in half to make two smaller butts.  Sadly, I forgot the scapula was still in there when I went to cut it in half and wound up with a couple not so pretty looking roasts.  But, (or Butt?), once they are covered in rub and smoked until perfection, nobody will notice.

While I'd had high hopes for the picnic ham, I was kind of target fixated on my sausage plans and didn't want to not have enough and have to overly rely on more beef roasts from the freezer or worse yet, have to go buy some pork from the store (which avoiding the store being one of the reasons I was doing this in the first place).

In hindsight, I might have been able to save the picnic and still have enough.  I'll watch a little closer next time and not make any impulsive decisions.  Honestly, by this point, I was getting pretty tuckered.  The anticipation had kept me up later than I'd wanted (like a kid on Christmas eve) and it had been a long day.  So I'm trying not to beat myself up for some for some of the detours I had to take and missed opportunities.

Trimming the skin off the ham.
Last task of the butchering process was to remove the skin from the ham and some of the excess fat.   I've seen lots of hams left with a little skin left on to roast for cracklin during the cooking process but honestly, I forgot (see previous paragraph on missed opportunities).

I think my though was that since it was going into the brine, the skin would restrict penetration of the cure into the meat.  And while I think that does apply, I was also going to inject brine into it which would probably mitigate that some.  Either way, too late now!

I'm going to close this article out.  In the next article, I'll talk about some of the second day processing that happened.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Needed Equipment - Tools of the Trade

I got a message from Josh letting me know that we were a go for the initial day I'd requested (he'd gotten another order so he could take more than one hog to the processor).

Now panic set it.  Was I ready?  Did I have a clue as to what I was doing?  Why am I doing this again?  Whose bright idea was this?  What the heck is a sirloin again and how do I remove an aitch bone?  I was sure I was going to mess this up.

I know.  The suspense is killing you.  Show us THE MEAT!

First lets talk about stuff that is needed to do this process.  Bear in mind that many people who have way more knowledge than I do might have many different ideas as to what you really need.  However, after all my research I felt like I wouldn't be a complete bozo for at least starting with the following (*Please note - this is what I bought - but that doesn't mean it was the best for the job - read the follow up to the process where I post observations on it all):

The Meat.  Yes - to butcher a pig it turns out, you need a pig.  Please see the previous posts about how I went about acquiring said pork.

Knives.  From what I've researched there are a couple "must haves" here.

The first being a boning knife.  The purpose of a boning knife is to get around all those weird angles when you are trying to remove a bone from a piece of meat.  It should be thinner and more slender than say a regular chef's knife.
There appear to be three categories of boning knives.  Flexible, semi-flexible, and stiff.  One manufacturer's idea of semi-flexible could very well be another manufacturer's idea of stiff.  There really isn't any general consensus here but I spoke with someone at and they said that the semi-flexible 7 inch models seemed to be the leading sellers in that category.  So... I chose a Mundial Mundigrip 6 inch semi-flexible stainless boning knife.

Secondly, I needed a larger butcher style knife for some of the larger cutting jobs.  I saw more than one video of someone doing an entire carcass with a boning knife but I figured there was a reason that the "butcher" knife moniker existed so who was I to try to get cocky and try to be an expert. There are several different style knives in this category - you'll see the words cimiter, breaking, splitting, and butcher used when referring to the blades for this type of work.  I went with something cheap - The Old Hickory 10 inch Butcher.  This knife is NOT stainless - which means it will tarnish over time and develop a patina (this is a good thing) and must be kept dry or it will rust.  I chose a high carbon steel blade instead of stainless due to the ease of keeping it sharp.  While they don't hold an edge as long as stainless blades, they are reportedly easier to keep sharp with a honing steel.  Speaking of which...

Bone saw.  You are going to have to saw through bones.  Now, if you have a meat table saw or are fine with using your Black and Decker table saw in your garage, you might be able to get away without one.  But everything I've read says that this is a must have.  So rather than try to reinvent the wheel, I bought this one.

Honing steel.  Keeping your blades sharp is critical.  The duller the knife the more likely you will cut yourself (and the harder it will be to cut).  If you don't already have one, then you need to get one.  I know, you have that cool ChefMate electric knife sharpener that makes all sorts of racket and sharpens like a banshee.  Well, you have to run a clean knife through that thing... and stopping to wash your blade off each time to want to sharpen it is probably not how you want to spend your time.  You can toss the steel in the dishwasher when you are done.  I bought this one.

Cleaver.  This is probably the first thing to go under the optional heading.  You can likely get away without one.  I went ahead and bought this one because it was cheap (are you seeing a pattern form here?).

Scraper.  This is also potentially optional.  The point of this is for scraping the fat and meat bits off your work surface.  Especially handy if you have wooden cutting surfaces.  I had one in the drawer (you can see it in the picture above) - I have no idea where I got it or what I got it for... but I've used it for oddball stuff over the years.

Other Stuff:

Cutting Boards/Work surface.  This might be an obvious item but you have to bear in mind that this carcass is going to be pretty long.  I had a couple larger maple cutting boards/chopping blocks already and my plan was to use those to cut on.  John Boos makes great stuff!

Bone Duster/Scraper.  There will be bone dust every time you use your saw.  It is unsightly, and from what I understand can hinder the long term storage quality while in your freezer.  Plus... nobody wants to eat it.  So, you'll need to scrape it off.  You can use towels, your hands, the aforementioned scraper, or you can buy one I did.

Sausage pricker.   I didn't have one of these for pricking sausages to punch holes.  So I bought one.  Optional - especially if you are not planning to case any of your sausage.

Recipe Ingredients.  Have your stuff already in the pantry.  Curing salt, regular salt, sugar, spices, charcoal (if applicable).  It be a certainty that if you wait to make sure that you have everything, you'll discover you don't on Sunday evening after everything is closed.  Just get it now... and don't forget to get your sausage casings - that's likely not something you can find at your local grocery store).

Bowls or containers.  As you are cutting this bad boy up, you are going to want to have a place to toss the fat, trimmings or miscellaneous cuts while they are waiting for final packaging or processing.  Also, if you are planning to brine you'll need some

Bar rags.  Something to wipe your hands off with or to wipe off the greasy knife handle with.  I suppose if you don't care about that shirt you are wearing you can always use that.

Freezing/wrapping.  You obviously can't leave this stuff sitting on the counter after you butcher it.  You are likely going to want to freeze some of it.  There are a couple options here.  You can get butcher paper and freezer paper.  Or, you can go the route of a vacuum sealer such as a food saver.  I initially wanted to go the butcher/freezer paper route but I wasn't sure how much I would need and the rolls weren't cheap (and neither were the dispensers - esp if ordering two  - one for freezer paper and one for butcher paper).  Since we could do other stuff with the food saver, we went that route and got a FoodSaver GameSaver Bronze and some extra bags.

A Word About Why... The Reason For The Madness!

Somewhere along this process, someone asked me, "Why?"  Why not just get pork from the store?  Why would I not just let the processor do it and just pick up all the stuff?  Why was I compelled to put all this work into this whole thing?  And why in the world would I want to make headcheese or use the trotters to make bone stock?  Isn't this whole thing kind of gross?

These were good questions and I realized that the answer wasn't really all that simple.  Some of this might have been touched on in previous posts but perhaps I can better articulate here in a more deliberate manner.


Used without permission from

I'm a Christian.  I believe that God gave man domain over the plants and animals.  And I believe that human life is more important than animal life or plant life and that at no time should we forget that.  But I also believe that if we are always mindful that these are gifts from God, not to be taken for granted, that we will do a good job of being proper stewards of the earth and its flora and fauna.  

To that end, I think we've become so far removed from our food supply, that we don't really see how we've failed at stewardship of God's blessing.  Our meat comes from animals that are raised in horrible conditions.  Our crops are sprayed with tons of stuff you would otherwise not put into your body.  If Smithfield's slaughterhouse/meat packing facilities had glass walls allowing people to see inside, we'd be a nation of vegans.  Frankly, there was a time when I even considered that route for myself.  And if every package of frozen veggies was required to list the chemicals that it was doused in, well... I don't know what America would eat then.  

So to me, part of this endeavor was to be closer to my food supply.  Some people talk about how they want food with a story... I get that.  I think I'm more interested in knowing that my food was raised in a way that's in keeping with good stewardship of God's blessing.  I don't really have a compulsion to know where my food comes from outright, but I DO care HOW it was raised or grown.  And to that end, the only way I can be sure that it is being done to my standards is to get closer to the producers.  This has tons of other benefits as well (such as our food having a "story" - which while not being my primary goal, is still pretty cool!) such as getting to know my farmers.  I really do think it fulfills them to see the happy faces of the people they feed.  I know it gives me a certain sense of peace.

This whole idea somehwat piggy-backs (HA!) into the next idea...


Used without permission from Full Circle Bison Ranch

Why not just get my pork from the grocery store?  Well, the previous section somewhat addresses that.  But I also think that when a farmer knows his customer he's more motivated to take care of the product he sells.  If you were making widgets in a factory in China and you messed up on one that might affect its quality or performance but you knew that it would pass QC and not come back to bite you, you might be inclined to let it go... buyer beware!  BUT, if you were directly selling that widget to the person who was going to be using it and knew that they might show back up next week with the busted item and look you in the eye, wanting to know why, you are more likely to do a better job. You become your own quality control at that point.  

Certainly there are lousy people out there - and farming doesn't have a monopoly on good people.  But the things that keeps lousy people honest is accountability.  And a pig farmer who is raising a bazillion hogs in confinement knows that his pork is going to be ground up with another farmer's bazillion hogs and made into highly processed sausage or SPAM.  He is more likely to let that one hog that just isn't right, head off to the slaughterhouse.  Not to say he's willfully putting people at risk (that's not just a lousy person, that's a psychopath!), but if he knows the meat will pass inspection, what does he care if its not the best meat he can raise?  He isn't out to provide the best... just to meet the standard of his buyer or the USDA inspector.

But, your local farmer, who you deal with personally, knows that his reputation is on the line when he sells you his hog.  He knows you can choose to go somewhere else next time.  He knows that you'll talk to your friends as well and they will go somewhere else.  When you buy pork from most grocers, you are buying from one of the large four or five meat suppliers.  Didn't like that Jimmy Dean sausage?  Want to buy Bob Evans sausage next time?  Odds have it, they came from the same industrial meat conglomerate (I'm just pulling two names out of my head there and have nothing to back that up - but you get my point) - so what does Smithfield care?

Furthermore, for those of us who are *ahem* perhaps a little bit budget conscious, provided that you can even find a local butcher who sells locally sourced and properly raised pork, odds have it, it won't meet with your price needs.  I live in a metro area where there are a few places that specialize in this kind of product... but they are serving customers who have a great deal more money to spend than I do.  Nothing against them... if anything, I'm glad they are making the stuff available.  Its just out of my price range.  So I HAVE to deal directly with a farmer - otherwise I couldn't afford it.



Had I let a processor do the butchering and processing, I would have gotten bacon the only way they make it (not good or bad, just "their" way).  The same for the ham.  They wouldn't give me the sausage options I want... my choices would have been mild or hot... and it would have come in a plastic tube like Jimmy Dean sausage with a little metal ring to close it up like what you see in the grocery store.  Doesn't make it bad per se - their breakfast sausage might be very good.  But I want to make my own.

Additionally, I don't really want to assume that all the trimmings and fat that they might wrap up for me for my own sausage recipe are from the hog that I bought.  For that matter, I guess its possible that the hog that I am delivered might not be the same hog that my farmer dropped off for me at the processor but that starts to get into outright fraud on behalf of the abattoir - and that is much different than one of the guys in the trim room just tossing a bunch of scraps from a couple different hogs into a bag.

The proccessor might not be terribly inclined to trim the spare ribs exactly the way I want them.  His idea of a Boston Butt roast might be a little different than mine.  His ham might have the aitch bone intact whereas I want mine removed.

I think you can see where I am heading here.  Besides, like a friend of mine from church said, if you do it yourself, you know how many times your meat hit the floor!

A Plan! So Just What IS My Plan?

So I'd finally gotten over my information saturation induced analysis paralysis mentioned in the last post by narrowing it down to one method and process and going from there.

I had decided to use the very detailed pdf  with photos and instructions contained on the CD included with Cole Ward's book, "The Gourmet Butcher's Guide to Meat".  He basically starts with a picture of the entire half hog carcass laying on the table and says, "First, we're going to cut here..." and goes from there to break down the primals (shoulder, belly, loin, and ham) into sub-primals, and the into actual retails cuts.  While his process goes so far as to bone out just about every cut, such as the ham, picnic shoulder, Boston Butt, etc... I'd planned to leave certain bones in based on what I wanted do with that cut.  Which I'll describe more in a sec.

I know I'd mentioned Adam Danforth's book as being the one book to own, and I still stand by that.  However, since one of the methods outlined in his book was the exact method that was shown in the electronic guide on Cole Ward's disc, I erred on the side of having lots of pictures to guide me.  I think that aside from that pdf, the content and "meat" (if you will) contained in Danforth's book is FAR superior to Cole Ward's.

So what was my plan?  Seems weird to even be typing this now... but at the time, it was kind of a big deal.  I was sweating the small stuff I guess.

Rather than give a play by play in advance - I'll wait and cover that later.  For now, it might be helpful to describe what it was I wanted out of the carcass from the standpoint of cuts and what I planned to do with them.

Hocks were to be removed and frozen with intent to cure and smoke later.  Trotters removed and frozen to be used for something later... maybe bone stock?  I figured I'd decide that once other projects had settled down.

I planned to brine the whole ham and make a "city ham".  This was partly contingent on how big the ham turned out to be and whether it would fit nicely in a 5 gallon bucket (my brining vessel).  If it was too monstrous to fit handily, I'd bone it out into some smaller roasts to brine separately.  The idea here was for lunch meat and sandwiches after the initial cooking.  I'd wanted to time it so that it would be ready for Easter Sunday but I gave up on that and decided to keep it simple and not complicate things with self subjected timelines.

I wanted the spare ribs left intact.  And if possible, I wanted the baby back ribs intact too, which meant boning them out from the sirloin.  Lots of sources used a table saw for that process (to remove the chine bone) and so I decided that if I couldn't do it, I'd revert to bone in loin chops.

The belly was going to be made into bacon and salt pork.  I had two techniques I wanted to try.  One a simple brine and the other a cure-rub.  But until I had the belly cut up, I wasn't sure how much I'd be doing for either method.  But the point was to do bacon with it.

The loin was going to be a mixture of boneless (or bone-in, see above) chops and roasts.  I'd just kind of eyeball it once it was on the table.

The shoulder was going to broken down into a bone-in Boston Butt for pulled pork BBQ and into a bone-in picnic ham to be cured in a method to be determined later (but frozen for now).

Leaf fat was for leaf lard and back fat for regular lard.  Skin was to be left on the bellies going into the brine but removed from the part getting the rub.  I'd make decisions on skin once I had it on the table and could see how well it'd been scalded and scraped as I didn't really want to stink my wife's kitchen by burning a bunch of hair off.

Trim meat and some back fat (leaf lard is less desirable for sausage to my understanding - and is MUCH better used rendered into lard for baking) were to be set aside for sausage.  I had no idea how much trim I'd wind up with so I was going to have to wing it in terms of how much sausage to plan for.  I'd also set a 5 pound beef round roast to thaw from the last grass-fed side of beef we'd got.  This way if I ran short on trim meat, I'd be able to supplement with some beef.  And since I'd planned on kielbasa as one of the sausage types I was planning for (andouille was the other - both to be cold smoked as well), that would work well since there were recipes abound that included both beef and pork.

While I would have loved to have the head available for headcheese or rillette, I think that was going to push my bride out of her comfort zone.  After all, she was letting me butcher a hog on her kitchen counter... no need to push my luck!

I'll get to the specifics of recipes and techniques for this stuff later... especially once I've had a chance to see how some of the initial stuff came out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Planning - Analysis Paralysis!

Now.  I realize that it may seem that I actually ordered (or started the ordering process) before I had a plan but that would be far from the truth.  Actually, in the several months it took to put together funding and find a source for the hog, I spent a great deal of time researching...  so much so that my wife can attest to the fact that it got a little out of hand.

Why did it take so long?  Well, I must confess that I'm a habitual researcher.  I get it honestly though as my Dad suffers from the same trait.  I think it is further exacerbated by the fact that I'm stingy and don't want to waste money making mistakes.

But honestly, there is a great deal to learn.  Bear in mind, that I have no expertise in butchery nor have I ever hunted and skinned deer or anything of the sort.  I had a basic understanding of where on a hog certain cuts from from and how you cook them.  I knew that muscles of locomotion tend to be tougher than support muscles and therefore benefit from a long and low temperature cooking technique.  I knew why you grilled a steak and braised chuck roast but beyond that, I couldn't tell you how you identified those cuts on a carcass and how you got them from there into your grill/dutch oven.

I started with some books and videos - some of which I'll list here:

The first one is probably what started the whole thing.  Its a series of videos by a guy named Brandon Sheard who is also known as the Farmstead Meatsmith.  I heard him on a podcast, and watched the videos immediately and I was hooked.  I started getting books on charcuterie (more on that later) and sausage making and I was off to the races.  There are three videos on this series and I can't reccomend them highly enough.  They really do capture the spirit of what it means to take animals for our own consumption.  He really captures the reverence for the animal that I think is lacking in our industrial food supply.

I'm not sure how to embed Vimeo clips into this blog - but please start with this link to:

Now - promise me that you watched the videos linked to above - then and only then can you go on to the next ones.

This one comes courtesy of the University of Kentucky.  This was the one I watched over and over.  Firstly because it had good camera work, sound, and was in high definition.  Secondly because it was pretty thorough (being about 40 minutes or so).  Its like getting a butcher lecture/demonstration.

This is a three part series courtesy of Food Farmer Earth.  Its thorough and worth several viewings.  The other two parts follow below. 

There are tons more videos out there and you'll find that the more you watch of them, the more comfortable you'll get with not only the process but also the planning that you'll need to do.  


There are a TON of books out there.  I'll start with this one.

Pick it up at Amazon here.

This is the one that was something of the gateway drug for me.  When I first got it from the library, I had no aspirations of butchering a hog - I just wanted to make bacon, sausage, and ham.  I got fascinated with charcuterie as part of my journey with meat.  Admittedly, I've only scratched a tiny surface of the art-form but I'm learning as I go.  One of the tenets of the book is to start with quality meat - which I guess is how I got derailed into butchering.

In the interest of full disclosure, the primary author of this book, Michael Ruhlman has taken quite a bit of heat for much of the info contained herein.  Experts in the food safety and charcuterie community say that he flies a little fast and lose with some of the best practices (and that some of his recipes are too heavy on the salt).  While I'm aware of those critiques, I don't really bother with them on the whole.  I think this book is largely responsible for the charcuterie Renaissance that is happening in this country.  It kind of started (or at least threw a big log on the fire) the whole movement.  There are a ton of people out there making their own bacon and salami who otherwise wouldn't be were it not for this book.  Yes, there are better books out there.  Yes, there are probably an error or two.  Yes, some of the recipes are on the salty side.  But I think unless you are already pretty heavy into the hobby, this is as good a place to start as any.

Now on to butchering:

Just go ahead and get this book.  Right now... there is a link right under the picture.  You need it.  Or... if you are cheap, see if your library has it.  Either way, start with this one!

Buy this one at Amazon here

This book is exhaustive.  It has sections on not only each animal but also of packaging, freezing, processing, food safety, slaughtering, sourcing... if you are only going to get one book, get this one.

If, however, you wish to get another book on the subject, try this one:

Available at Amazon here

Now, in full disclosure, I did not read much of the contents of this book.  HOWEVER, there was a CD-ROM included with the book (that I checked out from the library).  On that CD was a pdf that contained about 250 close up pictures of butchering a hog with step by step commentary.  I actually put the pdf on my iPad and used it on the counter when I was actually doing the butchering.  I found it incredibly useful!  

There are ton of other books out there but I think you score these three, you'll be more than armed and dangerous for the mission at hand.

Once you dive into all these sources, you will quickly notice that one source will show you one way and another will contradict that by doing it a completely different way.  The point is that there a ton of ways to break down the carcass and decisions you make with one cut can exclude you from other options later on down the line.  For instance, you don't get a boneless loin roast if you want to have bone in loin chops.  You can't smoke a boston butt on the grill if you've ground it all up for sausage.  Some of that may seem pretty obvious but as you go through your options you'll quickly realize just how many choices need to be made...

Before long, I experienced analysis paralysis.  Too many options... too many sources... to many ideas... too many wants...  I was reaching all over the place for the one source that would just tell me to DO IT THIS WAY!  I was literally losing sleep.  I'd wake up in the middle of the night going over primal cuts and brining techniques.  In a way, I knew TOO much.  I had this desire for this cut of meat; I wanted to cure this cut this way and that one another way.  I wanted to make this sausage and use this method but then another method with another sausage.  I wanted to try this method... on and on it went!

Finally, I expressed some of my frustrations to my wife and she helped me compartmentalize everything and get back on track.

If you find yourself in this situation, here is my advice.  STOP!  Have a good beer and stay calm.  Back up and realize what you are trying to achieve.  You are not trying to achieve culinary perfection and butchery excellence with this first venture.  You ARE trying to learn something by putting good meat in your freezer and on the table for your family.  Find one source and just do it the way they say do it.  They say separate the shoulder between these two ribs (but the other source says you get a longer coppa if you split between another pair of ribs... but then you wind up with less....  See?  This is what got you in this position in the first place), so do it that way!   Pick a recipe that seems to be fairly well regarded and go with it.  Quit splitting hairs... don't over complicate things.  You aren't going to "have it all" the first time out!  Well, maybe YOU can, but I couldn't!  

Once I got this reality check, I was SO much better off.  I chose to go as close to step by step as I could from pdf mentioned above with the book by Cole Ward.  I chose one brine recipe for the ham and some of the bacon (with an option to do a portion of the bacon another way if time permitted).  I finally just chose two sausage recipes for types I knew my family would use.  I tossed out that odd-ball exotic recipe that sounded so good and was the perfect compliment for risotto - we don't make risotto.  But, we DO make lots of beans and rice or sausage and cabbage... so andouille and kielbasa it was.  

I felt SO much better after that realization.  I hope you don't get to that point in the first place.  If you start with ONE book on pork processing and ONE book on hog butchery, you should be okay.  I got too overloaded with too much information.  I will admit though, that having exposed myself to lots of methods did help on butcher day.  When I hit a roadblock or two, I was able to switch gears and work around them much easier - but more on that later.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How Do I Order This Thing?

So through a contact provided me from a Facebook group called "Sausage Debauchery", I got hold a gentlemen named Josh Davis from Frolona Farm.  Josh raises pastured heritage breed hogs and grass fed cattle on a farm in Franklin, Georgia - east and a little south of Atlanta.  His family has owned the farm for a long time (1840s if I remember right?) and darned if it isn't prettiest plot of land I've seen in this state.

I'll admit to being most of the way sold on Josh's operation after seeing this video that was linked to from the farm's Facebook page.  That said, once I got into contact with him, he was very up front with what he did, why he did it and was very patient with my questions and inquiries.  At no point did I get the impression that he was being evasive (like I gotten elsewhere).  He told me why he bred the breeds he bred and what the goal of his breeding program was in the short-term and the long-term.  He was very accommodating of me and my family when we paid a visit to the farm.  His prices were right about in the middle of what I'd seen and met with my budget for the project.

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but there is something special about being able to shake the hand on the person who raised your food.  I've spent my whole life removed from my food, just buying whatever was on the shelf at Kroger or Publix.  I think as a consumer, there is something fulfilling to looking into the eyes of the person you are purchasing something from.  We've lost that in today's society.  I'm as loyal an Amazon customer as the next person and its been a long time since I could look at the face of the person who is selling me this DVD or that coffee maker.  But even before online sales, did we really have a connection to the store clerk at Best Buy who told us which TV to buy?  I didn't.  It was still pretty sterile and anonymous.  Frankly though, I don't think I "need" the same kind of connection with the salesperson at Haverty's when buying that new sofa; he didn't build the sofa.  And true, my dollars go towards his salary, but it takes many steps to get there.  When I pay Josh directly for a hog that he raised, the money stays between us.  And I think the farmer gets something out of that interaction too... sure, its his livelihood - but there's more there.  He's met my two kids.  My son played with his dog.  There is a direct link between the hog that he is raising and the family it will feed.  That "link" is a form of accountability...  Unless he's a psychopath and gets off on feeding people diseased meat, he's going to try to raise the best product he can.  That "link" ensures that.  And I think that "link" is missing with today's food supply.   I can't be the only person who believes that.  And I really do think that there is a whole higher level of job fulfillment for a farmer who gets to see the smiling faces who enjoy the fruits of his labor.  But, I digress (you'll find I do that a lot!).

Okay - back to the project.

When you buy your meat from a local provider, you are going to come in contact with terms such as hanging weight, processors, cut sheets, and probably a whole bunch of others that I've forgotten.

The processor is the facility that will slaughter the animal (also known as an abattoir.)  For normal folks who want their meat to be pre-cut and packaged, the processor is also likely to be the butcher too.  But for nutjobs like myself, who just want to carcass on the kitchen counter to butcher on our own, the processor is just the processor.  And they'll kill and eviscerate the hog, scald and scrape the hair off, remove the head, cut the carcass in half and hang it to chill.  After that, its on me.

Hanging weight refers to the weight of the carcass after evisceration (and usually without the head) as it hangs.  Most prices are going to be given based on hanging weight.  In my case, Josh's prices (in January of 2015) are $3.50 per lb. and most his hogs were weighing about 200-250lbs hanging.

Based on our conversations, I expected the my half (I was ordering a half hog - due to budget, freezer space, and first time jitters, I only wanted to try to manage a half) to weigh between 100-120lbs hanging weight.  So for the sake of my small math brain, 100lbs hanging weight would cost me $350 total.  Josh had figured his abattoir fees into that.  Some farmers had quoted me prices that were just for the hanging weight and then a price on top of that for processing (kill fee, butcher fee...).  Had I gone with them, I would have expected to pay less in processor fees since I was doing the butchering.

We agreed on the terms of the sale and then it was just a matter of waiting until the hogs were ready and we could match up schedules.  I requested a hog on a specific date.  Sadly, he was unable to "confirm" that date two weeks in advance.  Reason being that my order was the only order for a hog that he had for delivery that day.  Certainly there are transportation costs and such that figure into that but the primary reason is that he believes that transporting an animal alone to a strange place puts undue stress on the animal and he won't do it.  I can totally respect that.  And while I'd never thought about it, I actually prefer that approach... why go through the process of raising a top quality hog only to have the quality degraded by butchering a stressed animal?  I don't think for a moment that a pig has an awareness of impending slaughter - but I do think its capable of thinking, "Hey. what is that loud machine he wants to put me in?  Hey, what is this strange place?  Hey, where'd all my buddies go?  Hey, I don't like being alone!"

So... it was a matter of waiting until our schedules would sync up - but in the meantime, I needed to get ready...  But wait, wasn't this going to be easy?

A Hog is a Hog? Sourcing the Pork

Thanks to a loose lipped hog farmer who planted the idea of butchering it myself into my head as well as my overactive miser-glad, I'd decided that this was going to be my next project.  I was going to get a hog, butcher it myself, and do all the processing on my own (sausage, ham, lard, bacon, etc...).  Sounds easy right?

Obviously, the first thing I'd need was a source for the hog.  I wanted a heritage breed, raised locally on pasture.  The problem is that you can't just go to the store and ask for one.  The only place I'd encountered one was at the previously mentioned Farm to Table event put on by the good folks who do our CSA - and sadly Mike and Judy didn't have any that would be ready for my timeline (which was as soon as possible - that stuff was too good to wait for!).  I asked them if they could point me in the direction of another source and they were happy to do so.  That's a neat thing about your local farmer... these folks that are trying to keep things local.  Mike was more interested that I find someone who was active in the local food community and trying to raise their animals in a respectable way, than he was concerned about losing a sale to a "competitor".

Sadly, as with anything dealing with people, there are good ones and bad ones.  After numerous text messages, phone calls, voicemails, emails, websites that didn't work, I'd learned a few things; 

- a good hog farmer isn't necessarily a good business manager
- just because a hog farmer is local doesn't mean he's part of the "local food" movement
- one farmer's interpretation of pasture isn't always in line with what I thought it meant
- not all farmers believe that hogs should be raised on pasture and that this whole idea is bunk
- some farmers will tell you what you want to hear, even when it ain't true
- when you find someone on the up and up, give them your business so they'll be around next time

One farmer told me that his hogs were on pasture.  When I asked him what type of forage made up most of their diet, he said Brand X feed.  Turns out they were "confined" on pasture (meaning NOT on a hog-barn) and fed the same feed that we were trying to steer clear of.

 Used without permission from Mountain Creek Farm

One farmer told me that you can't raise hogs on pasture.  Another said that heritage breeds "ain't good for meat, just for fat".

Another said that he raised purebred Mulefoot hogs on pasture with minimal amounts of supplemental non-GMO organic feed.  His prices were lower than any I'd seen and he could deliver however much I wanted, whenever I wanted it, wherever I wanted it.  Sounded perfect - I asked him where he was located and he replied not too far from me and that he'd be happy to deliver for free if I ordered a certain amount or more.  When I mentioned that I might like to drop by and see his operation, having never seen a pastured hog farm before, the emails stopped.  No replies to my text messages either.  When I finally did get an answer, it was a terse one-liner that said, "Sorry, we don't have any more available."  Wow!  He sold out fast.  My guess is that his hogs were anything but what he claimed they were.

So after all that, here's my checklist - your potential supplier should meet most of this criteria:

- you should expect the farmer to be able to tell you what breeds they raise (not insist that what you are looking for is a bad idea)
- you should expect the farmer to be able to tell you what they feed their hogs and what their pasture is made up of
- you should expect them to tell you if they use hormones or anti-biotics in their herd at all and if they do, for what reasons
- you should be able to visit their farm (there ARE legitimate concerns with contamination and the spread of disease to a otherwise healthy herd and in those cases, you should be able to get some sort of third party confirmation on their claims).

So where do you start looking?  Word of mouth helps.  Get connected with like-minded folks.  Check out your local farmer's market if you have one.  Ask around.  Check with your local butcher shop (if you have one... most people are stuck with their grocer's meat department and those guys likely won't even know what you are looking for - no disrespect to them at all - just outside their scope).  Check with the breeder list at the Livestock Conservancy.

I contacted a couple of the better regarded local meat processors and abattoirs in the state and asked them who was raising the best meat.  Be careful here though as what you consider best may not be what the local 4H judges consider best.  Might be great meat by commercial standards but that's not what I was looking for.

Check with your Facebook contacts - there are several closed groups on Facebook that have been very helpful in my quest - in fact, the farmer I ended up using was referred to me by someone on the "Sausage Debauchery" Facebook group.  Check out Craigslist... 

Point being is that you'll know the right farmer when you find them - just trust your gut.  For what it was worth, the guy that Mike referred me to was willing but we couldn't make the logistics work.