Although pork is known as “the other white meat”, there is no denying America’s love affair with pork. It may be third in consumption under beef at number one and chicken making the rise to number two, but pork still manages to find a beloved spot in our kitchens. We still love our bacon, baby back ribs, and pork chops. Question is: do you know where they come from?
Now if any of you read my last cutting post, let me apologize for being ultra-winded. A beef carcass is a huge thing, made up of many different parts, and is no small task to cut up. Hence it required much explanation. I promise in advance, processing of a hog is much less complicated.
Well the processing of a hog all starts out through that “process in which shall not be named” (he he, any Harry Potter fans..?) and the hog carcass comes through the back door of our shop looking like this:
Ta-da! Now before I go any further, let me explain some things to you. First of all, this hog shown has been skinned. Now some of you may be saying, well aren’t all hogs skinned? And the answer to that is no. Hogs can also be scalded causing all of the hair to fall out leaving the skin intact. And in order to do this, it requires a large piece of equipment called a scalder (wow, who would have guessed..?). Since we run a mobile slaughter truck which is unable to house a scalder, all of our hogs are skinned. Now what’s the advantage of skin vs. no skin…. None really as far as we are concerned. It just all depends on what you plan to do with your hog. Cooking a successful roaster hog (whole hog) requires the skin intact whereas cut and wrap for your freezer, skin off hogs save our butchers a little bit of time because each cut does not need to be skinned. But it also requires more time on the slaughter end of it through the skinning process. Most large plants scald their hogs probably due to the fact that it is more cost effective and efficient. Aging is not a critical process in the production, as is with beef carcasses. We try to let our hogs hang about a week before we process them, but they can be cut sooner without any effects to the meat. According to an article from The Pig Site, this is due to the fact that, “pork tenderness increases rapidly in the first 48 hours post-mortem. In leg nearly 100% of the ageing occurs within 4 days post slaughter. In loin, 80 per cent of the total increase in tenderness occurs within 4 days, and 90 per cent within 6 days.” So there is no need to age pork like we do beef. For more information on aging pork, check out the article: http://www.thepigsite.com/articles/6/production-and-management/2364/ageing-and-the-impact-on-meat-quality
Our hogs come in whole, so before we are ready to process them, we must cut them in half. Kudos to any meatheads that can name that saw, go!!
After our hog is cut in half, one half is brought up on the meat cutter’s block. The head is removed and discarded (unless the customer specifies otherwise) and the leaf lard is pulled. Leaf lard is the fat that surrounds the hogs organs, namely the kidneys. It is revered as the highest grade of lard and is supposedly excellent for baking. Once rendered, it boasts some of the flakiest and best tasting crusts ever for pies, doughnuts, and fried chicken.
After the leaf lard is pulled, it exposes where the loin and hind leg meet. The hind leg is removed with the hock attached. The leg is trimmed up, cured, and later smoked (all with the hock on) for ham. The curing and smoking of hams is an intense process and deserving of its own blog post, so stay tuned for that! Now this may seem like a no-brainer but it is a question posed to me quite often: you only get two hams off one hog. One hind leg from each half of the hog, that’s it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the hog (minus the hind leg) is moved over to the band saw for further breaking into primal cuts. First the shoulder, consisting of both the blade and arm with the hock attached, are removed from the loin. The loin is then cut horizontally removing it from the belly with ribs attached. The breaking of the hog differs from the beef in that the loin is not broken down the middle. Instead the loin (consisting of both the rib end as well as the sirloin end) is left intact and becomes its own primal cut.
What is left of the “front quarter” so to speak, is what is called the shoulder in pork. In a beef, these cuts make up the chuck and the arm. In pork, these cuts are called the picnic and the boston butt. The picnic (with the hock attached) was traditionally smoked for ham and is very popular in New England cooking. Same with hind legs for ham, you only get two picnics from one hog, one from each side. The picnic ham, at least in our area, has lost popularity and now most people we process hogs for choose to make the picnic into a boneless, rolled, and tied roast, exactly the same to an arm roast on a beef. The roast can also be left bone-in for something like pulled pork or carnitas which is usually cooked bone-in. And I don’t blame our customers for wanting the roast. The uses for a pork roast are endless and if you haven’t discovered the beauty of a pork roast, do it. Same as with the beef arm roast, the shoulder roast can tend to be tough and requires a slow method of cooking with moisture.
Now you may be wondering why on earth this next cut of meat is called a boston butt. It is a traditional term that is extremely misleading to customers. According to the National Pork Council, the boston butt got its name during pre-revolutionary New England, “some pork cuts (not those highly valued, or “high on the hog,” like loin and ham) were packed into casks or barrels (also known as “butts”) for storage and shipment. The way the hog shoulder was cut in the Boston area became known in other regions as “Boston Butt.” And the name has continued on into today, often called a shoulder butt as well. The shoulder butt tends to be well marbled making it an extremely versatile cut. We offer two standard options: the shoulder butt can be boned, trimmed up, and cut for country style ribs or it can be left bone-in and cut for pork steaks. Country style ribs are boneless, super meaty strips (like ribs) which can be bbq’ed or roasted. Pork steaks (also known as blade steaks) are flavorful because they are rich in marbling, which keeps them tender during cooking on the bbq or roasting like a pork chop. Some other uses for the boston butt include leaving it whole and bone-in to use for pulled pork or carnitas. It can also be boned out, cured, and smoked for cottage bacon. Since cottage bacon is coming from the shoulder rather than the belly, it tends to fry up a little more like ham and tends to be more lean. And of course, as with all cuts, it can be boned and ground for sausage. In fact, it is this exact cut that we use for the majority of the pork that goes into our sausage we sell. But again, that will be a blog post in itself. I also wanted to point out that on a whole hog, there is only two shoulder butt as well. So if you wanted to do a mixture of cuts, remember you’ve only got two to work with!
The loin. Arguably, besides the bacon, the most coveted cut of meat on the hog. We offer essential two versions of cutting the loin. The first version is the most common and standard version, which is simply trimming up the bone-in loin and cutting it into chops. Our standard thickness for pork chops is 5/8” thick but I like my pork chops nice and juicy and don’t mind cooking them a little longer so I tend to lean towards the ¾ to 1” thickness. Yum!
Now one of the most commonly asked questions I get once someone gives me their cutting order and then proceeds to pick up their meat is, “where are my baby back ribs?” Our style of processing, baby back ribs is not included as a standard cut. People tend to think that baby back ribs are like spare ribs and are removed and they get to enjoy them along with their pork chops. Baby back ribs are located ON your pork loin. So it’s kind of a catch-22 here for pork lovers… You must make a sacrifice, either baby back ribs or bone-in pork chops. As you can see in the photo, the ribs are pulled leaving the loin boneless. If you read my beef post, hopefully, you will put two and two together and see the tenderloin in that photo as well! The tenderloin on a hog is cut essentially the same as on a beef. For people wanting standard bone-in chops, the tenderloin is cut up and left attached to the chops. Or for those people wanting boneless loin, the tenderloin is removed and rather than cut into steaks, it is left whole and packaged that way. So we have the tenderloin is pulled and left whole, the baby back ribs are removed from the loin, leaving a boneless loin. This boneless loin can either be left as a roast (my favorite for cooking) or can be cut into boneless chops. So if you walk away with anything from this post, please let it be that you know where baby back ribs come from!
Ah, the grand daddy. The belly. It is no secret that everyone who eats meat loves bacon. In fact, we even acknowledge this by selling shirts that claim, “Bacon makes everything better”, because let’s face it, it does. But bacon does not simply come off the hog looking like it does in the store. Making bacon is actually a long process and it begins looking like this. The belly with the ribs attached is first removed from the loin. The ribs are then removed (or scooped) off the belly and the belly is then trimmed up for bacon. The belly then enters into the curing process, much the same as ham. It is smoked and then later on cut for bacon. As mentioned earlier, the curing process will be a blog post in itself so sorry! Cliff hanger, I know! Now bacon isn’t the only thing we can make out of the belly, the belly can be left fresh and sliced in the same manner as bacon. This is called fresh side and from what I know, is fried up much like bacon. My love affair with bacon is so intense that I’ve never strayed into the arms of fresh side. But, now I will have to experiment.
The ribs that are removed from the belly are called spare ribs. These ribs tend to be the least meaty of ribs off the hog, but still maintain that great flavor. They are also larger and heavier than back ribs are, meaning you will get more spare ribs than you will back ribs off your hog. And as a consumer, this also means that if you are feeding a lot of people, it will take less spare ribs than it will back ribs to feed them. Often times you hear the term St. Louis style ribs spareribs. St. Louis-style spareribs have the sternum, cartilage, and skirt meat removed, essentially making them the most rectangular you can get them, but there is also more loss in this method.
As the same with the beef, whatever is left over or whatever cuts have been boned out. It is what is made into sausage. Anything that is good quality that cannot make a roast or chop, will be boned out and used for sausage. And the same principle applies to pork as it does beef, if there was something you didn’t use, but you use the sausage, grind it. Anything can be made into sausage, but we recommend the shoulders or legs for grinding for more sausage. Our standard cut offers your choice of two different flavors of bulk breakfast sausage to choose from. The trim is weighed up and seasoned. It is then ground much like hamburger except the plate we use produces a more coarse grind (about a ¼” plate). The sausage is then sent through the grinder once more and then put into bulk 1 lb. packages. Other sausage flavors are available, but are best dealt with on an individual basis.
Now I wasn’t as nice to you all with this post as I was with the beef post. I don’t have the nitty gritty numbers. But our pork customers usually aren’t as concerned in net weights as our beef customers are. If you are interesting in yields on pork here are some links to check out: www.uky.edu/Ag/KyMeat/pubs/web_pork_cutout.xls
Interesting in how to cook some of the things mentioned here? These websites are great for finding recipes on how to cook pork products:
As always if you have any questions, do not hestitate to either leave a comment or send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) Thank you for taking the time to be an informed consumer and hopefully you can share this information with your family and friends so they can be informed consumers as well!