Half a hog, whole lot of work
You bought the pig, but does it make sense to butcher it yourself, and can you do the labor?
Chicago Tribune reporter Monica Eng bought and butchered a half hog, saving money--but definitely not time--in the process.
Back at home
In the ensuing week, I would spend most of my time outside of work and child rearing curing slabs of bacon, pancetta and coppa (an Italian neck cut), chopping and rendering and canning big pots of lard, and making three kinds of ground sausage patties. I'd planned to make smoked hocks, but gave up when I learned it required several days of brining and smoking. Instead, I braised them with five spice, star anise, garlic, ginger, rice wine, soy sauce and hoisin. Divine. The pate would have to wait for another day.
In between I outfitted a meat drying cave: an empty closet in a cold back bedroom where I would hang my raw cured meats for several weeks at 55 degrees and 65 percent relative humidity. I would smoke bacon on the grill after it had cured for five days. I would wash many, many dishes, towels, cutting boards, counters and knives that seemed perpetually coated in a lardy film. And I would try to slip cracklings (leftover from lard rendering) into every meal I could. At some point my family hit a pork limit.
Was it worth it?
I estimate that I have done about 60 hours of work on this half hog (meaning the savings on butchering average out to $1 an hour) — and I'm still tending my cured meats every day to make sure the cave conditions are just right. So money and time-wise this was not an oinking success.
But am I happy to have gained a closer and better appreciation for the work that goes into good butchering and fine cured meat? Absolutely. And do I have good stories to tell? You bet.
I do like having a shelf full of home rendered lard for future pies, omelets, beans, doughnuts and gifts. I also love that I am able to serve my family breakfast sausage that is spiced just the way we like it — with plenty of fresh thyme and sage — and made from local Berkshire pigs whose free-range life rooting, ranging and soaking up vitamin D we appreciate every time we visit the farm.
Still, a better option for most people would probably be to buy the half hog already butchered and packaged. Ask for an uncured belly if you want to make your own pancetta or bacon and use the ground pork to make your own Italian and breakfast patties.
There are books and several online tutorials that can teach you the basics of hog butchering. And several enterprising chefs, butchers and farmers offer hog butchery classes and demonstrations at restaurants and butcher shops. (A two-part workshop on butchering and cooking pastured pork will be presented at Buedel Fine Meats and Provisions in Bridgeview and The Centered Chef in the West Loop on Jan. 26 through redmeatmarket.com. Classes cost $150 per part. For information, call 855-411-6328.
But no matter how you study, do keep in mind that Ruhlman was right. Taking on a half hog is a huge amount of work — even if you do have a plan. And my plan next time will probably be to recruit more friends, get more freezer space and take a few days of vacation to turn the beautiful pastured hog into meat products worthy of such an animal.
Hoof weight: 155 pounds x $2.65 = $410.75
Chilling fees: $22.40
Final product (without head or kidneys): 110 pounds of packaged meat and organs for $4.25 per pound
Price if Snyder's processing house had done all the butchering, smoking, curing and packing: $4.80 pound
Savings for doing my own work: $60