Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Another Whole Pig (in 52 pieces)

Image from http://upperstatestreet.org/visit/?p=657
We gotz a whole pig.  This is our third pig and the second one we've bought from A Little Hope Farm

When I tell people that we got a pig a lot of times they will look at me like I'm crazy.  When we talk about it, they often will say that they could never get a whole pig because they wouldn't know what to do with it! But I think that if they understood that a whole pig is not really that hard to manage and there are plenty of easy things you can do with it, then maybe they would be more willing to give it a try. 

As my new blog project, I'm going to blog about all the great things you can do with a whole pig.  The recipes and mysteries of using a whole animal will be what I write about.

Four Requirements to Pig

Let's start with what is required for getting and storing a whole pig.

First, you must have a freezer large enough to hold all of it.  Our pig takes up almost all the space in an upright freezer. That's about 13 cubic feet of space. If you have a chest freezer, make sure it's big enough, otherwise you'll be overflowing into your refrigerator and cooking up some big meals right away!

Second, you also must have some willingness to explore the magical world of pork cookery. If you don't have the time or the interest, then getting a whole animal probably isn't for you. There will definitely be some parts that you need to figure out what to do with.

Third, you'll need about a year's worth of time.  It takes our family about a year to eat a whole pig.  We don't eat pork every week and some of the larger cuts sit for a long time waiting for an occasion to use them.

The fourth requirement is the willingness to spend the money. By the time the pig arrives at your freezer, it could cost anywhere between $500 and $900, depending on the size.  Remember, you're buying a big supply of meat. Usually these we'd spend just as much throughout the year, but in smaller chunks as we buy little pieces one at a time.  Not so with a large animal.You pay for it all up front. But, hopefully, our monthly food bill will be that much less going forward.

For most people a good place to start is with a half an animal. Half gives you all the variety of cuts but with less cost and time and space required. Then, when you've cooked the last chop of your side of pork, you'll be ready to go on to the whole beast.

Beyond the requirements, I like getting a whole animal because it gives me a lot to work with. I like to cook, so 235 lbs of pork is a freezer full of fun for me.  Also, it keeps money in the local economy, we get a better quality product, have more insight and input on my food supply, support entrepreneurship, appreciate variety, and generally be a little more intentional about what my family eats. Also getting a locally grown whole animal is a great way to NOT support industrialized meat.  Those are my reasons, at least.
Here is my pig, happily eating dirt with her sisters.  A Little Hope Farm hand mixes the grains and meals that the pigs eat, ensuring a healthy, hormone free diet.

The Pig in My Freezer

There is a 235 lbs. (hanging weight) Berkshire-cross sow in my freezer. It’s not a full carcass. It's cut and ground and wrapped into 52 neat packages. It's waiting for the pot and the grill and the oven and the smoker and the plate.  It's got almost all the parts--the chops and the roasts and the sides and the skin and the heart and the liver and the hams and the trotters.  It's missing some pieces that I didn't want to use again--no head and no offal (except the heart and liver). I tried the head before. Once was enough.
A half a pig with most of the pieces in their places.  Two hams and the sides kept whole are like the English style.

This pig will have some challenges. Things are little different than pigs in the past. Mostly it’s the cuts that have changed.  Normally I like the American style cuts. They lend themselves to pig pieces that go long and slow on the smoker.  But this time we've got something closer to an English style cut, which means things will be a little bit different.  The big shoulder roasts are cut into "country style ribs".  The spareribs are not separated from the belly. We got four smaller hams rather than 2 big ones. I didn't talk directly to the butcher this time, so some of the cuts were different than I expected.  That's okay.  I'll figure it out and it will still be delicious. 

Some Notes on Buying a Whole Animal

If you are thinking about buying a whole animal, here are some extra notes.
English cuts (top), 
American cuts (middle)
 and French cuts (bottom).
From Larousse Gastronomique

Buying a whole animal certainly has some parts that require a little more thought than others. But most of these are pretty easy to solve.  For instance, most people have no idea how to make bacon out of the belly.  Really bacon is actually pretty  simple to do. However, if you're just not into it, most butchers offer to make the bacon for you. Same with hams and other smoked or cured meats.

If you get a whole animal from a farm, it's a good idea to take a few minutes to learn the basics about the cuts. They’re not complicated and it will help you understand better what you are getting. All butchers have a "standard" family style cut, but each one does it a bit different.  So if you want something specific, its best to tell the butcher directly. 

"Hanging weight" is the total weight of the animal after it has been slaughtered but before it is processed.  This is the whole carcass without the guts. Imaging sides hanging in a meat locker. The price of the meat after it has been chopped up into parts (like at the store) is called the "cut weight". 

When you buy whole animals from a farm, they normally charge you based on the hanging weight. Normally a pig carcass hangs for just a few days. Beef hangs longer, and the longer it hangs the more expensive it becomes.  This is what "naturally aged" or "dry aged" means. Aging the meat is good because it allows some of the water to evaporate out of the meat and condenses the flavor.  Also, some of the edges will be trimmed off in the butchering process. So the actual pounds of meat you take home will be less than the hanging weight which makes your effective price per pound higher.

The cost that is a shocker is usually the "cut and wrap" fee.  This is the fee the butcher charges to actually cut up and wrap the meat.  It can be expensive ($0.50 per pound) , but its necessary and well wrapped meat will last a long time in the freezer.

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