Photos by Donna
Pig weekend, actually, my effort to ensure I never have to buy that crap in the grocery store when I want pork.  This pig is a Berkshire that was hand-raised a couple hours south of us, humanely raised, humanely slaughtered.  I may be reading too much into this, but I like to think that the faint trace of a smile on this pig’s head attests to this fact.  Pig_blog0076_2
But the actual work of breaking it all down, storing it properly, labeling it, using everything—roasting the bones for stock, curing the bellies and one of the two hams, all the shoulder and trim for sausage and pate, let me tell you, it’s exhausting work and no good on the back.  My young cousin Ryan, 6’5” and an athletic 225 pounds easy, put his back out and was forced to suffer through another Browns loss horizontally and sans sausage the day after wrestling with the hog.  I considered this a starter pig, 180 pounds hanging weight, which at a guess would be in the neighborhood of 250 pound live weight, which we split between three families.  I really wanted some chops but without a band saw to cut through the chine bone, bone-in chops take some effort (and can frighten onlookers).  But there’s really no match for fresh pork belly, even from younger pigs (thinner and leaner).  That’s what I’m removing here, below right.  Made about 20 pounds of sausage yesterday, including this 2.5 pound soppresatta, bottom pix.  Pig_blog0177
We bought this for $1.65/pound ($297 plus $40 for dressing and transport fees).  All in all, we’ll be paying a good deal less than we would were we to buy everything from the grocery store, but it’s very labor intensive (a good two- to three-day affair).  We could have had a butcher break it all down but that would have added more to the cost and detracted from the satisfying work and also the lessons breaking down a whole animal provides.  I wish everyone did this, though I know it’s simply not practical.  But I can hope that more people who care about good food, good farmers, humane animal husbandry, eating locally, eating less meat of better quality, will consider finding farmers in their state who raise pigs and support them.
    Question for readers: Who does not have access to hand-raised pigs, or rather, how many people live more than three hours from a farm that raises hogs?  I’m betting my mom in West Palm would have a hard time locating a hog she could buy anywhere in her state.  But what about Marlies in OK, Carri in AK, Elise in CA?  How reasonable is it to ask more people to eat this way?



Update 12/10:  Thanks for all these excellent comments. (Adam, take the skin off to make pancetta.  I would confit or braise the skin till tender, then scrape the fat, slice it and fry till crispy.  Or add to stock for its amazing gelatin.)  Can't respond to every comment but I truly understand the three main road blocks most people have here.  Space, time and knowledge.  It does require space, which is why you need to share or have a big freezer.  It requires a helluva lot of time.  I'm still working.  Made a couple gallons of stock yesterday, overhauled the bacon, renedered the fat (I got some extra ears to confit!  they're curing too).  Need to get to that head today.  Froze meat and liver for pate over the holidays.  Thank you, former butcher, for your good comments on the difficulty of good butchering even by those who do it for a living.  Butchering is a craft and some practice it well, others less so.  You only learn that by doing.  But to save time and money, try to source people who will break down the hog into manageable cuts, as ntsc does.  Storage is critical.  You don't want to wind up with freezer burn.
This stuff will keep for months (with not too much compromise) if
properly stored.  I recommend a Food Saver — air is the main enemy in the freezer,
followed by other odors and light.  Otherwise double wrap in plastic, then in foil if
you wish to keep light out. Please label and date it—don't think for a minute you'll remember what's inside.

Again, all your comments make this a great discussion and help a lot of people, I hope, to consider how to eat not for as little money and time spent as possible but instead how to eat well.  How and what we eat shapes our lives and our world.  When did this stop being obvious?


120 Wonderful responses to “Pig Day”

  • matt wright

    My favorite post on your blog so far, and that is saying something.

    I am lucky. Really very lucky. Living in Seattle, I have access to the incredible Sea Breeze Farms, just 7 miles away – all incredibly humanely raised, humanely slaughted. Heck, the owner personally tried different organic feeds, before he got a custom one made for his animals that need it.

    I would love to do this (breaking down a pig). Split between a few families, this makes complete sense. You get great meat, at a good price – in my mind, good meat freezes really well, bad meat doesn’t (I am guessing something to do with water content, and the water in the tissues expanding when frozen).

    I certainly don’t think this is something for a single person, or one of faint heart. Certainly best tackled in a large space, with a group of friends – preferably one who is a butcher! I would hate to see an animal go to waste at the hands of careless hacking.

  • Michael Obertone


  • Lamar

    We face an odd disparity where I live. On one hand, there are countless wild pigs that people trap, kill, and eat regularly. On the other, there are the factory-produced, ambiguous packages available in the local supermarkets (“pork for stir-fry” for instance…what the hell cut is that?!

    It’s not that uncommon for me to be preparing my smoker on a saturday for some store-bought pork shoulder, and then to hear the shrieking sound of a pig getting it’s throat cut at my neighbor’s place. Those buggers know it’s coming, let me tell you.

    I just wish there were some middle-man who could connect trappers and farmers (preferrably the latter…wild pigs can be kind of dangerous cooked to anything less than 180 deg. F) to eager customers.

  • Lauren Schneider

    My local farmer does the butchering for a very small price, and I deal with any curing/smoking/sausage making myself. Takes little more time than buying poorly raised product from the mega store, gives me a far superior product, and supports sustainable food production and the local economy.

    If you don’t want to do it, don’t. But don’t lead others to believe it’s prohibitively expensive or impossible – it’s not.

  • Eilish

    My husband shot a 350 pound pig last week which left us with around 200 lbs of meat. We did the butchering ourselves for the first time. We have had it sent out in the past, but wanted to try it ourselves. It was quartered by the time he and his friend got home and then it took us about 5 hours or so with three people to get the rest in the fridge or the freezer. The hams went in the brine on Wednesday and I’m very excited to see how they turn out. All in all, it was well worth the time just in money saved and fun to do with friends. (We’ll half the meat with them, so it will go pretty fast.) We live in Southern CA, and there are lots of farms in San Bernardino County, where we are, but there are also lots of places within a days drive to hunt feral pig and it’s super cheap. The meat does have to be cooked differently, but I like the extra flavor. Also, hands down, the best tamale meat ever is wild pig! The flavor in combination with good masa is unbelievable!

  • Kirk

    I checked with my favorite farmer and supplier of amazing pork at the farmers’ market about a whole hog. They have pigs from 60 lbs to 200 lbs depending on breed and age and can provide larger hogs with advanced notice. A whole hog would cost $3.00 per pound. They say they use a USDA approved processor so they cannot provide the blood and offal. However they could sell me a live hog for $1.50/lb and I could find someone to slaughter it myself. 2009 may be the year I do that.

  • milo

    For Howard and anyone else in Chicago or nearby, I have been extremely happy with the meat I have been buying from Arnold’s farm (www.arnoldsfarm.com).

    Top quality pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and grass fed (as well as some grain finished) beef. He is out west near Galena but delivers to Chicago and suburbs every couple months. Butchering is done at a place near him (I’ve visited it) and they flash freeze. I’d be curious if he’d do a whole unbutchered pig if you made the arrangements to pick it up.

    Personally it wouldn’t be practical for me to do my own butchering so I just pay the extra fee to have it done, but it’s still a pretty damn good deal for the quality of meat if you buy a side or split side.

    As for whether slaughter can ever be completely humane, I would think we can all agree that some methods are more humane than others. And while there is only so much that can be done with the actual killing, it’s much more palatable when the rest of the animal’s life has been as humane as possible.

  • GastroGirls

    Fantabulous! Unfortch, for those of us living in a small one bedroom apartment in NYC, this kind of fun is not to be had (sad face). This is a great and informative endeavor and I hope that one day I can be lucky enough to own greater pastures where I, a 5′ 2″ woman with a sassy passion for food, can one day own and break down a whole hog.

    Merci Michael for an enchanting essay.


  • Liz

    You are looking at this from a cost perspective on the pig only, but my costs are going to be very different from yours.

    I don’t have a chest freezer. I don’t own a Food Saver. Sure, the set-up costs are one-time expenses, but I would still have to buy all that stuff – that’s $275 for the freezer and $150 for the Food Saver. So, we’ve added $425 to my upfront costs for that pig. (Our total is now $765.)

    Then there is the three days off work. Let’s say one makes $100 a day. Two people have to take three days off from work or three days of vacation – $600.

    Now the total is $1365 for that pig and storage. The true cost isn’t $1.65, but rather around $7.60 per pound. Plus, you can take a tax deduction on all that stuff because it’s your work. The rest of us aren’t that lucky ;>

  • Rebecca T. of HonestMeat

    Michael- I’m sure you can’t answer every question, but we are curing some pig jowls in our garage right now from 10 pigs we grew ourselves. How do you know when guanciale is done? They have been hanging for 3 weeks now and have begun to get a splotchy white mold on them. Is this white mold good? Also, when the guanciale is done, what is the best way to store it- in the fridge, freeze it, or at room temp?

  • Aaron Silverman

    I’m going wild boar hunting next month. In the past the butchers I’ve used really ‘butchered’ my pigs so this time I’ll do it all myself. I have a few questions and they mostly revolve around the skin. I read online that in Italy you can tell a wild boar prosciutto by the hair still on the hanging leg.And so it begs the question–do I skin my boar and then prepare the legs for prosciutto and the bellies for pancetta or do I quarter up my meat and when I get home pour boiling water over the hair and scrape it? These boar will be 180 to 300 pounds and feed on acorns and grain at the gates to Yosemite. They are very mild and absolutely excellent to eat with a fair amount of fat. And finally the last question is that I’ll be making goose prosciutto based on your duck recipe in your Charcuterie book. The only difference is that I’ll be using wild goose breasts. Should I handle this anyway differently that you specify in your book? Obviously the big difference is that my meat will have much less fat. Thanks in advance for your help.

  • S. Heydemann

    This has been a great series of posts to read. On December 27, my 22-year old daughter and I drove out to West Virginia to participate in the slaughter and processing of a hog that a local farmer had raised for me. A friend’s nephew made connections with the farmer, and arranged for some friends of his to help out – one is a hunter who butchers his own game, the other contributed the use of his tractor with a fork lift and a stainless steel table that could be disinfected for butchering.

    It was an amazing experience, one that felt absolutely normal at the time. The hog weighed close to 300 pounds, based on the guesstimate of the farmer who raised it for us. It was a Yorkshire, the breed most often raised commercially, but had a much thicker layer of fat all around than anything I’ve seen when I’ve bought pork belly at the local Korean grocery for pancetta.

    We started at 8:00 am and finished at about 1:30 pm. At the end, I had two hams that are to become prosciutto that weighed about 22 pounds each. There was about 30 pounds of trimmings for sausage, about 10-15 pounds of trimmings that are mostly fat that I will render into lard to coat the prosciutto when that time arrives. There are shoulder roasts, picnic hams, butts, hocks, loins and ribs. The loins were beautiful, though less marbled than I’d like. I left both loins whole rather than do chops – just a preference – but next time I will do a combination of both. The bellies are beautiful, too, about 2.5-3.0 inches with thick, white fat throughout. They are so much larger and better looking than the ones I’ve purchased. Together they must weigh 25 pounds or so. I didn’t weigh all the meat we took back, but it must be over 100 pounds. I did not keep any of the organs, head, or ears, though I did keep the jowels, (and could use a nice pictoral walk through of how to trim them properly to remove gladular segments before curing). I captured some blood as the hog was bleeding out, but am a little worried about it. It has clotted and I’m not sure how to preserve it properly. This is one bit of information that doesn’t seem to be available on the web, or in your book on Charcuterie. How should blood be stored?

    I now have one 22-pound ham salted and in the fridge. I am using the recipe from Charcuterie, but have found half a dozen others on the web — all of which call for the use of ingredients other than salt in the cure. But I am sticking with just kosher salt, nothing else (no garlic paste, pepper, paprika, etc.).

    Everything else I vacuum sealed with a food saver — a great device — and put into the freezer. Space considerations mean I can’t process both hams at once – no room in the fridge. So as soon as the first one is done I will slow-thaw the second and get going on it. As it is, the meat now takes up about 2/3rds of the space in our spare freezer. Without that, to buy me time to manage the processing in a leisurely way, I am not sure this project would have been practical.

    I look forward this winter to trying my first attempt at making sausage. I will use recipes from Charcuterie, of course.

    This experience leads me to think I need to add some additional equipment to the household, like a small fridge I can use for curing, and a smoker. I am still shopping for a good meat grinder, as well. Any ideas?

    If there’s interest, I can post a link to a Picassa photo album with shots of the processing of the hog.

    All told this has been an amazing adventure. Makes me want to learn more. I wish there were classes in butchering near me in the DC area. Haven’t found any.

    All 3 of the great guys who helped me on the 27th now want to have pigs raised for them, as well. The sow of the farmer we worked with had a litter just a few weeks back, and 11-12 of the piglets survived (out of 20!). Because they were born so late in the year, the farmer is thinking about raising them until this time in 2009, which would mean they’d be a full year old and probably over 300 pounds at slaughter. Typically, he takes his hogs to the local slaughter house at 7-8 months, so this would be a nice bit of extra time.

    Something very much worth doing. When the bacons and pancettas are ready, I’m going to drive back out to the farm and give some to all the folks who helped on the 27th.

    Best for the new year to all.

  • Bruce King

    I run a small farm near Seattle, in everett. If folks are interested in doing the whole hog, I’ve got both the pigs and the space where you can do your own breakdown. It’s a lot easier if you have a 4×8 table, gambrel and a a dozen knives you can use; skinning, boning, cleaver, etc. You can scald and scrape or skin. I sell lots of pigs to folks who want to process their own.

    I did a “kill your own thanksgiving turkey ” processing class earlier this year. Pics and details on the blog — ebeyfarm.blogspot.com

  • truenorthern

    For the chops try taking the chine off with a reciprocating saw.

  • Gregg Smith

    I would go to my friend’s grandmother’s house in West Tennessee for the annual hog slaughter. This brings back good memories.

    FWIW, the organic farm we have access to in Memphis is actually in East Tennessee. They are offering whole Berkshire hogs butchered for $5 per pound plus deliver charges.

    There is also a farmer in North Mississippi who used to grow pork for Dan Latham and L&M Salumeria in Oxford. I need to contact him.

    I enjoy the blog.

  • lisa kazek

    the hog you have a picture of there is not a berkshire hog just have a look at their web site, berkshires are mostly black. I raise a few mix breed feeder hogs from the amish around me. Modern farmers raise them to 250lb live wieght but I find a much taistier product at the 300lb mark the marbeling in the meat increaces the flavor.
    lisa Browns fan

  • mdmnm

    Late comment, but anyway- in central New Mexico Isleta Feeds will sell you a whole dressed & scraped pig (slaughtered that same day) pretty reasonably.

    Also, with respect to our host’s comment regarding a Foodsaver, while they are tops for freezing fish and birds, for meat I’ve had much better success wrapping tightly with Saran and then a generous and tight wrapping of butcher’s paper. I cut my own elk and take one about every other year, on average, and keeping meat in a chest freezer for two years with no freezer burn is not problem. A discussion of how best to wrap meat for freezing by guys with lots of experience can be found here:

  • Carolyn

    I live in Sacramento, near Elise–and can tell you that the lovely gent at the X Street farmer’s market will sell you a whole pig, no problem. He grass-raises them about 10 minutes from downtown and has them slaughtered by an old-school butcher. Best pork I’ve ever had.