by Marnie Record, workforce specialist, Value Added Local Foods program, Lincoln Land Community College
I recently drove 700 miles with a car full of bacon, pork chops and a slew of other carefully selected cuts of a sustainably raised pig. The friend I was visiting greeted me with rose petals gently and lovingly tossed on the walkway that led from the trunk of my car to the entrance of their house. In the excitement of finally arriving, sharing hugs and unloading the car, I naturally assumed that my friend was extra excited to see me. Turns out the extravagant greeting was for the pork.
Area farmer Chase Sanert of Sugar Grove Family Farms said that a customer once asked him if a whole pig could be processed into bacon. Every bacon lover’s dream. Alas, bacon comes from the side and belly of the pig, with the exception of jowl bacon. Sanert sells whole pigs from his farm in Greenview and notes that one of the biggest challenges customers face in buying a whole animal is not knowing what cuts of meat come from which parts of the animal. For this reason he walks new buyers through the process giving them multiple choices for each section of the pig.
Another challenge of purchasing the whole animal can be a lack of freezer space. This is where friends come in handy. I purchased my first pig last year with three other people. It was the perfect amount to fill my single small freezer. In addition, we marveled at how much we would have paid for each of the cuts individually compared to the bargain received for buying it all at once. A whole pig typically yields 120 pounds of meat or more. Cost depends on the cuts chosen and its weight, but one can expect to save 15 to 40 percent. Farmers are willing to sell the whole pig for less than its parts to save on marketing dollars. The added benefit I didn’t anticipate was my friends and I regularly got together for pig feasts, each of us cooking different dishes.
LLCC instructor Greg Christian thinks of buying a whole animal as “an opportunity to expand one’s cooking horizons by trying new cuts of meat and new techniques.” You could try your hand at making soup stock with the bones, roasting a country ham, or testing out a new braised rib recipe.
What we also gain in purchasing the whole animal is a deeper connection to our food and a greater power to improve our health. I’ve been studying the growing and preparation of food for most of my life, but my eyes opened to the world of animal processing through the purchase of a whole pig. I learned that no two butchers are alike. The varied packaging affects the freezer life and the price of the product. The butchers’ secret family spice recipe produces differing flavors. And some butchers are better than others at following the cut specifications laid out by the farmer. We wanted to get the head back, but the butcher missed that notation. “If you find a pork product you like, make sure you ask the farmer what butcher they use and stick with it,” Chad Wallace of Oak Tree Farm cautions buyers. He has known people to be disappointed when they get back a whole pig from a butcher who uses different recipes from the one they like.
Pork is divided into four main primal cuts – shoulder, loin, leg and belly – from which the various retail cuts are made. Different butchers may offer different selections of cuts, but following are some common cuts for each section:
Shoulder: Roasts such as pork butt and shoulder with bone-in or boneless, picnic ham, and Boston butt, ground pork and sausages
Best cooking methods: Roasting, braising, general slow cooking is best; The Boston butt is “everyone’s favorite for smoking” according to Sanert.
Loin: pork loin, blade chop, rib chop, center-cut chop, sirloin roast, baby back ribs, country-style ribs, blade-end roast, center-cut rib roast, tenderloin
Best cooking methods: grilling, sautéing, pan frying, barbequing
Leg: ham shank, spiral-sliced bone-in half ham, country ham, ground pork and sausages
Best cooking method: roasting
Belly: spareribs, pork belly
Best cooking methods: braising, baking, sautéing
To give you an idea of what cuts can come from a typical half hog, the following list outlines a common choice among buyers:
- 1 pound tenderloin
- 12-14 pounds of pork chops
- 1-2 packages of spare ribs
- 3 shoulder roasts or steaks
- 2 hocks
- 6-10 pounds ground pork and/or sausage
- 1 ham
- 8-10 pounds bacon
- 4 pounds lard
- Miscellaneous parts such as feet, neck bones, jowl and liver
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.