Anatomy of a Hog
Part of this blog is a kind of running commentary about how our business came to be and continues to grow. As many of you know, I have been my own butcher since we opened our shop almost a year ago. A few months ago we added Michael to our roster and he has way more experience as a butcher at 21 than I do at. . . well, more than 21. But I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have trained myself to be a serviceable butcher. I’ve had a lot of help along the way, most notably from Dave the Butcher of Marina Meats in SF. But sometimes you just have to take a big ‘ol chunk of meat and start hacking away to really learn how things are put together. So that’s what I did this week.
We did a big BBQ this weekend and part of that was a butchering demo on half a hog. That left, you guessed it, half a hog for me to work on. I have watched Dave do plenty of demos, but until you do it yourself you really don’t know how it will go. We don’t have a lot of room in our shop, but I managed to get it into the basic cuts without too much trouble.
There are basically 4 sections to a hog; hind leg (hams), short loin (tenderloin, chops, spare ribs), rib section (babybacks, loin chops/roast) and front shoulder (pork butt, picnic ham, country ribs). So for starters, I broke the hog into sections. The four main sections are shown to the right. Also in the picture is the flank. It isn’t a section we save on a hog very often because it just isn’t big enough to do much with. I turned it into fajitas in this case, along with the skirts.
You know that old saying “eating/living high on the hog”? Well, this is where it comes from! The most tender, and thus most expensive cuts come from the highest point on the pig. Here is what I did with that section. Starting at 9 o’clock you have a boneless loin roast tied with rosemary, trim for sausage, a sirloin roast and a Petit Chateau. The Petit Chateau is the tenderloin folded over and tied into the most tender little roast ever. This is a great trick when you have a cut that is too small or uneven in thickness to cook properly. By making it uniform in size you now have pork tenderloin that will cook evenly throughout!
Here are the most common cuts that everyone will recognize: That bone in rib roast is the equivalent of a beef prime rib. It can be roasted or smoked whole. If I take the roast off the bone, I can still make a great roast and I have a rack of baby backs. Personally, I always prefer to cook meat on the bone, as it cooks more evenly and stays more moist. Of course, the other application here is to cut in between the ribs and make bone-in, skin-on pork chops.
Also from this section, I got Spare Ribs, and Pork Belly. The belly is usually made into bacon, but Diana put together a great Roast Pork Belly recipe last week. If I’m going to make a batch of ribs, I always go with spare ribs. More meat than babybacks and the additional fat means more flavor too! Squaring that rack off makes the spare ribs into St. Louis Ribs. Great for presentation, but not necessary if you’re doing it yourself.
The back leg is where ham comes from, but there are a lot of things besides ham we can do here. It can be slow roasted as is for a super juicy roast that will feed any size group. We also thinly slice pork leg each week for scallopini. If you don’t know the magic of scallopini, check it out here. It’s great to keep on hand for a really quick meal that will make everyone think you cooked all afternoon. You can also slice the back leg into nice, thick steaks that are awesome grilled.
Finally there is the pork shoulder or front leg. This is actually my favorite part of the pig. There is crazy flavor hiding in there. Pulled Pork, Carnitas, Shoulder Chops, and Country Ribs are just a few dishes that come from this section. For clarification’s sake, the lower half of the shoulder is called the Picnic and the upper half is Pork Butt or Boston Butt. It is called that because, before the Revolutionary War, the lesser cuts of pork were stored in casks called “butts” (thanks Wikipedia!) We generally use the Picnic for sausage or stew and the Butt for roasts.
There are many, many variations on what can be done with every cut I just described. Leave the ribs whole on that bone-in loin roast and they can be frenched to make a Crown Rack of Pork or Frenched Chops. Take the feet off and pickle them, or boil them in salt water for a few hours and pull the meat off. I have a new sausage I’m working on called Walkin’ the Hog that uses Trotter meat. The possibilities are endless!
The reason for posting this is that we get asked all the time about selling these bigger cuts (called primals). The answer is yes! Hopefully this give those of you who want to try your hand at some home butchery some confidence to order a big piece and cut it the way you want. We are always happy to make suggestions and help with directions. I figure that if it is described to you by someone that is just learning it may be more “amateur friendly”. Feel free to ask questions in the comment section or stop by the shop. Now get those knives sharpened!