Saturday, November 17, 2007

Basic Butcher Information - Whole Hog Skills

If you are serious about curing meat, you'll probably need to learn how to cut up a hog.

The reason is that the best cured products are made from older heritage-breed pigs, fattened on a special diet. Those pigs have more flavorful meat and fat; the composition of the fat changes as they get old, and the proper feed helps tremendously.

The problem is, such hogs are very special - you essentially have to contract for them with a farmer. They have no commodity value; if you try to sell such a hog at auction in America, you'll be heavily penalized. They are too big and fat.

Hence, you can't just go down to your neighborhood store and say, "hey, do you have any pork from a really fat hog, that got fattened on things like barley and fresh hay, or perhaps some acorns and chestnuts? I want absolutely no high-PUFA feed in the finishing diet. And it needs to be scalded. And oh, I just want a jowl and perhaps a raw ham, so I can cure it in my basement."

Similarly, if you are a restaurant, and you call me up to get the jowls and hams from my specially fattened pigs, you put me in a jam. How can I get those cut and delivered to you at a reasonable price? And what do I do with the rest of the meat? If I freeze it, it is no good for curing. So I have to sell it.

But how do I sell someone a hog missing his legs and jowls? Anybody who'd take that hog is probably skilled enough that he wants the legs and jowls, to make his own products. Rather than selling to you, I'm better off selling the whole hog to someone, even if I have to work harder or give a discount.

Also the people who want the best hogs have the skills to use the whole thing, or they have friends who will take the parts they don't want. Transporting a half costs as much as a whole, so there isn't much of a market for halves.

A hog for curing should be at least 275 lbs or so (9 months, 300 lbs live). The ones we are selling now to restaurants are over 320 lbs (12+ months, 420+ lbs live). If you buy that, you'd better know how to cut it up and use it. Just the size of it is intimidating - see Kevin Gillespie, of Spokane's Luna, dwarfed by half of his hog - there's another half a hog hidden somewhere in that kitchen.

There aren't very good materials on hog butchery in English. That's too bad - people who want the best meat need to learn how to do it.

There's a really great "Hausschlachten" by Aichwalder. It is available from and, and recommended highly by Austrians who make their living curing hogs on their small farms. The book covers all sorts of things: how to fatten a hog properly, how to slaughter it, divide it, wrap the meat for freezing, cure the meat, etc. If you read German, it is a great resource. There's nothing like it in English.

The book has more detailed info - that's just from the overview on the different methods, including wet curing, dry curing, mixed curing, various smoking methods, etc.

  • Here's Aichwalder on curing. I've include d a chart showing the Austrian cuts and their names.
  • Here are some photos from Marcel Kropf's very good book, "Spezialitaeten aus Flesich Selbstgemacht", showing how to cut up a hog. Marcel Kropf's is arguably the best butcher in Austria.
If you want to learn how to cut up a hog, I recommend you practice on a a piglet. You can learn a lot in one evening!

Also, wet curing, the way it is done in Austria, is a very neat process. Guys do it because it is foolproof and gives great results. American chefs seem to do more dry curing - but the older generation does the wet curing. There's not much information in the newer American books on it - so that summary above might be helpful.


Danielle said...

Thank you for posting the pdfs, they're wonderful! Are there any books on butchering a hog in English that you could recommend?

pdxer said...

The "glands" in the head and jowl area are the pig equivalent of lymph nodes. They'll be a different color then the surrounding fat, and in our case, they were yellowish and wetter, with their own membranes. There were several in the same areas.

I like to soak the kidneys in cold salted water, it works better then non-salted. I do several changes. They always smell like what they are, but it helps a lot.

Love your blog, wish it had been around when I first starting cutting up hogs!

Heath said...

Danielle: I don't know of a good English language book. Someone told me it costs a lot to make books with step-by-step photos. A great book on hog butchery can't have much appeal, can it?

Although America has a lot of hobby farmers, they don't tend to butcher and process their animals. Austria is different that way; small farmers can process and market meat easier than in the USA. Hence, the learn it to save money and time.

To get started, those PDFs are probably good enough. Just buy a piglet and have the butcher split it for you, so that you have a half.

pdxer: Yes, they are lymph nodes. I'm looking for a chart of where they are - if only so I can tell the USDA plant doing my bacon to cut them out of the jowls. Although they've been around for decades, it isn't something they know much about.

Thanks for the tip on salting the kidneys. You cut out all the ureters (white tissue), right? At least urine is supposed to be sterile.

Danielle said...

I think there's probably more of an audience for such a book than you'd think, especially nowadays.

Heath said...


Hopefully Leopold Stocker Verlag will translate their books into English.

Along with books on how to raise pigs and turn them into food, they've got books on making beer, cheese, cured products, bread, etc.

According to my Austrian contacts, their methods work. E.g. if you make bread using their bread book, you won't bake a bunch of inedible bricks. Also, if it is a recipe for a traditional product, you'll make a real version of a traditional product - not some modern approximation.

If I needed a book on what to feed cows to get the best milk to turn into cheese, I'd read them first. That's the sort of information they'd have.

Here's some of their neat books:

Andrew said...

Another very informative post-you note the possiblity of dry curing a ham in one's basement, which is what I want to do. Mine is cool enough, but the relative humidity is only about 40%-is that too dry?

Heath said...

andrew: Please look at the MeatCuring.pdf document. It should be 70%, right? That's what I'd go by.

Kevin Kossowan said...

Thanks again for the fantastic information. Very appreciated.

Heath said...

andrew: It looks like I blew it with my previous comment. It isn't a steady 70% humidity. The Aichwalder PDF says about lowering the humidity to 75% steadily over time.

I looked at my copy of "Rauchen, Poekeln, ..." at some of the recipes, and they talk about a steady 72% humidity.

With too low humidity, I believe you can run into serious problems - it will dry out on the outside and go bad on the inside.

I'm not the expert on this at all.

I think you can probably use a refrigerator to keep the temperature and humidity in the right zone. Have you heard of that trick?

Andrew said...

Yes, I think I've heard of using an old fridge for air-drying-if I recall, the trick is to put a pan of water in the bottom (heavily salted so no bugs grow) and that ususually does the trick for the humidity.

redman said...

Bertolli's book, Cooking by Hand, has detailed info about curing, including entire hams.

great pdf of butchering whole hogs!

I just did my first two hogs over the weekend- tremendous amount of work, 465# total. Got to point where I couldn't close my hand around the handle of my knife it was so tired.

There is not a lot of info in English; I looked.

You can get NAMP guide, and I had an old guide from culinary school showing where to make major cuts.

Major problem I had was my meat saw was old and blade dull, and I went to 2 hardware stores and couldn't find a replacement hacksaw blade that was 24" long. Had to use old blade, couldn't get through chine bone easily so just boned out whole loin as per the pdf you posted. Would have liked to have had bone-in chops, but will get sharper blade before I do it again.

Also, here is online directions in English for fabricating hog, though not super-detailed:

One thing I would like to have is a chart showing the names of the bones.

redman said...

I don't think that URL in my previous comment was complete.

Google "fabricating pork" and follow the first link- it's a pdf

Heath said...

redman: your URL was complete.

Also, I'm happy you found the Austrian PDFs helpful. But which one was it? Aichwalder or Kropf?

Also, doesn't it bug you that you can't get a proper guide in English, one of the most important languages in the world?

That's just so pathetic.

pdxer said...

Hmmm...charts telling them where the lymph nodes are. I wonder if that would be in any pig dissecting book? I know they do fetal pigs for dissecting. I'll check it out.

On kidneys, yes, I cut out the ureters and then soak in several changes of cold, very salted water. The smell of all the organs takes a little getting used to when they're fresh out of the pig. I found the kidney a lot easier to eat and enjoy then the spleen, to tell you the truth.

On books in English, there is a Mother Earth news section on butchering floating around out there. You can click on the image gallery for really low quality pictures.

There is also a section in the Foxfire Book on hog dressing (but not a whole hell of a lot of pictures after the gutting).

The best illustrated book in English (in my mind) is Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game by John J. Mettler, Jr, a vet. It's very basic but useful information on killing and butchering, with good (but basic) detailed line drawings to show you where to make the cuts.

I've used the Bertolli book for curing, some really nice recipes.

redman, you can buy a meat blade from butcher supply places and use a drill bit to score it down to the size you need if it's too big. It's what we did for blades that were too big for our hacksaw. I prefer not to use blades that aren't made for butchering, you don't know what's in those other alloys.

I found the easiest way to learn how to part out a pig was get it butchered into primals and then finish the job in our kitchen. It makes it easier to graduate to a whole animal.

Now that we're in the midwest we have a lot more butchering options, but damn it if you still can't get a scalded pig! Those jackasses skin them all. I find working with usda butchering places extremely frustrating, and I'm just a consumer.

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