Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Soft Pork, Mangalitsa Fat Quality and American Cured Products

Fat Quality

As experiments show, Mangalitsa produces incredible meat - arguably the best pork in the world.

Yet as the Mangalitsa produces so much fat (see above photo), producing high-quality fat is the primary job of a Mangalitsa producer. Given that it costs a lot more money to produce fat than protein, low-quality fat, in a Mangalitsa, represents a tremendous waste of feed.

In some parts of the world, the goal has been to produce hard, snow-white fat. Among other things, hard fat looks good and doesn't gum up machines like soft fat (also called "soft pork"). It has better mouthfeel.

In Austria, producers make hard, snow-white fat by (among other things) strictly controlling what the pigs eat in the last few months of their lives. Feeding pigs a low-fat diet causes them to synthesize fats, which are generally hard. If the diet contains fats, particularly polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) they'll store away those softer fats, potentially resulting in soft pork. Hence, Austrian advice is to avoid fattening pigs on feed with PUFA.

In Italy, for example, there are standards about the PUFA content of the raw material used to make their hams. PUFA must be below certain levels, or the pork is unsuitable. This is a ban on soft pork.

Barley is the typical base of a low-fat pig ration. That feed is common in Canada and Europe. In America, the base is corn, which contains high levels of PUFA. As mentioned in this article, the difference in feed explains why pork fat in Europe (and Canada) is typically harder than in America, where, if pigs are fed the typical corn-based diet, they produce softer fat.

Although most Americans seem happy with softer fat, it makes it hard for Americans to export pork to foreign markets, where people dislike soft pork. This isn't just a problem now; it has been a problem for more than a hundred years.

When pigs are outdoors, they typically find high-PUFA feed like plants, bugs or carrion, producing softer fat than pigs fed a special low-fat diet. For example, Christoph Wiesner told me that he's seen pigs from a confinement that had harder fat than his outdoor-fattened Mangalitsas. He said that even if he tries to feed his Mangalitsa the same ration as the special confinement pigs, his outside pigs find and eat things with PUFA in them, resulting in softer fat.

Fat quality isn't really on the American radar, but keeping pigs outdoors, as opposed to indoors, is. The general assumption is that outdoor pigs are always better than indoor pigs. To hear someone like Christoph Wiesner explain that the confined, non-Mangalitsa pigs produced superior fat is a real eye-opener, because Christoph lives off his fat quality.

Another eye opener: Christoph isn't romantic about keeping pigs outdoors. He views the pigs as machines that transform inputs like barley into fat, which he cures and sells. Of course, all pig producers want their pigs to be stress-free and happy - if only because that helps them grow and stay healthy.

Although plenty of people make romantic, non-scientific generalizations about happy pigs tasting better, feeding pigs ice cream, salmon, pizza and hamburgers (the sort of things pigs really want) and giving them backrubs all day would still produce completely awful and unsuitable pork. It would not only be soft and rancid-prone, but also fishy, from the salmon.

Historically, there has been a big bias against soft pork, and against hogs fattened outdoors on mast. Given the tremendous consumer embrace of acorn-finished hogs it is hard to understand why there'd be such a bias. Christoph Wiesner, for instance, agrees that his few acorn-finished Mangalitsa taste better than his grain-finished Mangalitsa.
Text not available
Journal By Royal Society of Arts (Great Britain)

But, if you look at old books, you'll see lawsuits involving "soft pork" and pigs finished on mast. You'll also see books that mention "soft pork" from mast-fed American hogs going to poor countries while harder pork from confined, grain-finished hogs went to richer countries.

Early in the 1900s, soft pork was a major problem. With the switch to soybeans, Americans ruined their pork. The soft pork from the South had some flavor (and likely better fatty acid composition), but the Northern stuff was just awful. You see a similar thing today, with overfeeding of DDGS.


What about high-MUFA (monounsaturated fatty acid) pork? It does tend to be softer - if only because the presence of MUFA in the pig's diet reduces SFA (saturated fatty acids), which reduces fat hardness.

Yet despite being soft, high-MUFA pork (in contrast to high-PUFA pork) is oxidatively stable (doesn't go rancid), tastes clean and light and smells better. For example, confined pigs fed MUFA-enhanced feed can produce better pork for processing.

Around the world, people pay a premium to eat soft, oily, acorn-fed cured products. I've eaten Iberico de Bellota in Europe - it was superior to all other pork I've eaten. It was also much better than imported Iberico products I've had in the USA (they don't import the best). That explains my tremendous enthusiasm for Red Mountain Farm's acorn-finished Mangalitsa pigs: the Mangalitsa is the only pig raised in America with the potential to produce world-class pork.

I'd like to see more information on high-MUFA pork versus the sort of pork that Austrians like Christoph Wiesner produce, with their barley and rye finishing diets.

Text not available
Bulletin of the Pan American Union By Pan American Union, Union of American Republics, International Union of American Republics

Soft Pork and the American Market

Soft Pork is a phenomenon with a long history in the USA. It is still important, and explains why most pork and pork products produced in the USA are below European standards, because the Europeans don't like soft pork.

Part of the issue is that high-PUFA soft pork is not only soft, but also rancid prone. High-PUFA pork also loses a lot of water when cooked, which people don't like.

In the past, American pork was so bad that it got exported to Ireland (because it was cheap), while the Irish exported their harder pork to Britain.

This issue is not merely historical. Right now, there are American producers who make an American version of prosciutto. This gives consumers an opportunity to make comparisons and see what they prefer.

As mentioned previously, the Italian have standards that regulate the hardness of the fat they use for prosciutti. In America, there are no such rules, and, as previously mentioned, the typical American fat is softer (and more rancid-prone) than that of Europe.

If you want to perform a test, go to Whole Foods and buy some La Quercia and buy some Italian Prosciutto, and compare the fats. See which fat is whiter, harder and tastier, and which one is yellower, softer and more "off" tasting. Some people think that La Quercia is as good as the Italian stuff. Based on America's historical acceptance of soft pork, most Americans won't detect much difference. If, on the other hand, you strongly prefer the Italian fat, you may want to explore things like Mangalitsa - because Mangalitsa producers necessarily manage their fat quality.


Jeff said...

Interesting. I have heard that the La Quercia stuff is really good but have not had any of if before. I generally love the Spanish hams above all. I have not had a Spanish ham in Spain but I can not imagine a ham better than the Iberico that I just snacked on (purchased locally Washington DC metro). Not a Bellota ham, but still amazing.

I have been playing around with curing and aging meat of my own. I have not had great success with pork. I have however had great luck with some really nice duck breasts. The key to my success was definitely in the fat. The duck had some really nice hard pure white fat that stayed that way and did not turn rancid at all, whereas when I have used pork my results have not been so good. I guess I just need to figure out how to get some Mangalitsa to work with!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have been wondering a very long time as to why such difference in taste. Having grown up in Serbia and Austria I almost stopped eating meat altogether after moving to US. To this day my pork consumption is minimal due to the taste and beef has been declining in quality and taste here since late 90s too.