Warning: To all my vegetarian and vegan friends and otherwise sensitive viewers, this post is probably not for you. There are vivid photos of our experience “harvesting” a hog last November. Please know that I do respect you equally and hold you just as reverently as I do meat eaters!
Completely inspired by authors like Pollan and Kingsolver, films like Food Inc., my limited studies and complete awe of the Cherokee and other Native Americans, and chefs and foodies like Bourdain and the restaurants that cook nose to tail, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at slaughtering our own hog last year. It took a little convincing to get my husband to agree with me.
He knew it would be a big job, me … not so much. I totally idealized the situation, dreaming of our own bacon and hams, sausages, and bean soups; thinking about how noble of an eater I was being and the lessons I was teaching my daughter. Once I started looking online at the process, though, I began to realize exactly what I’d gotten ourselves into. Me? Start small? Never.
We’re lucky that one of our close friends is the daughter of a pig farmer and so we had easy access to our goal. Her husband helped us with the entire ordeal by planning practically all of it, and giving us the workspace to do the job. For a little bit of money and two and half days work, we got half a hog for our little family. Now, that’s not enough to get us through the year the way we eat. Perhaps we could make an entire hog last a year, but that would require either dry curing or a larger freezer.
What we did get out of our half of a hog was impressive. We weren’t as brave as we thought and we didn’t get as much du cochon as I’d hoped. There was more waste than I imagined simply because we were exhausted and hadn’t planned well enough. And then there was the mistake we made early on thanks to my suggestion. Because we didn’t have a tub of hot water to remove the hair and clean the hog, I suggested to burn it off. Bad idea. Reeeeeally bad idea. It ruined the skin because the smell soaked into it, so we had no chicharrones. If the lard hadn’t accidentally burned in the next mishap, it would’ve tasted like burned hair as well. So, we learned a very important lesson. Boiling water is a good thing. We also learned that 10 bags of ice is the very minimum you need if winter weather does not cooperate. In the South, weather rarely cooperates.
Most of the information you can find on youtube or elsewhere on the internet. I’ll give you some suggestions here of things to keep in mind, and the things I actually recall from our experience.
Most handy equipment:
- Hack saw
- Boning knives
- Paring knife
- Chefs knives (be sure all of your blades are freshly sharpened and honed)
- Lots of old towels
- At least one change of clothes
- KitchenAid (Pro is preferential because of the motor and bowl sizes)
- Meat grinder or attachment for KitchenAid
- Food processor
- Lots of large and medium mixing bowls
- Kitchen scale
- Freezer paper and tape
- Containers/Lexans or Ziplocks to cure bacon and ham
- At least three large coolers and an empty freezer
- Terrines for pate
- 4 5-gallon buckets for collecting blood, 2 for organs, and one for head. Keep all on ice.
- Bleach and soap for cleaning
- Scrub brush to wash exterior of hog
- A smoker
- Fruit, mesquite, oak, or hickory woods for smoking.
- Sausage stuffer
Ingredients you’ll be interested in:
- Pink salt or substitute for curing bacon
- Proper size casings for sausages
- Bread crumbs, crackers, or other binders
- Two boxes of kosher salt
- Dark brown sugar
- Maple syrup
- Dijon mustard
- Fennel seed
- Chili powders
- Cayenne pepper
- Brandy or port
- Good drinking wine
Now I’m not going to teach how to butcher a pig. That wasn’t my job, and one experience does not an expert make, but I will point out a few head scratchers we did or almost did encounter.
- Have all of your recipes planned for in advance. Thumb wrestling at the last-minute over whether or not to make maple syrup or brown sugar bacon allows the rest of your meat to warm up if it’s not in a cooler.
- How to remove the intestines and reproductive organs from the exterior of the body without cutting them. The last thing you want to do is to penetrate the intestines! Have a second person use a sharp knife to cut carefully around the anus and exterior reproductive organs.You may find inserting something to strengthen the walls makes it easier to cut around. I know, it sounds really wrong, but it helped a lot.
- Be prepared to trim a lot of fat. That was my special job. It actually would’ve been much easier to skin the hog first and remove the fat later, but the weather really didn’t account for all of the meat exposed to the warm air while we worked on butchering. Much of the fat will go into ground meat or sausages, the rest can make lard.
- Try to get your animal to urinate and defecate prior to the butchering process, especially if you plan on saving the blood, intestines, or bladder.
- Plan for a backup date if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
- Definitely have mise en place – or all of your equipment ready, including your ingredients. It doesn’t hurt to have someone designated as an errand runner “just in case” or to have extras of anything.
- Look through several different videos, websites, recipe books, and butchering books to get as much advice and as many ideas as possible.
So, just how much bacon did we bring home from a half hog?
- Liver (for pate)
- Bacon (about 10 pounds)
- Ham (back leg)
- Picnic ham and shoulder (front leg)
- 4 Trotters for soup
- Loin/tenderloins (about 8 pounds)
- Tons of sausage: breakfast, garlic, Italian, and “bloodless” blood sausage (see above)
What we didn’t bring home:
- The head
- Caul fat
- Half of the sausages, ribs, bacon, pate,
- Lungs, et al (trash)
- Stomach (trash)
- Intestines (trash)
- Reproductive organs (trash)
- Skin (trash)
- Lard (trash)
- A few bones (trash)
- I’m still kicking myself about the waste. We just weren’t prepared for the amount that we lost. Next time we’ll be in the know and ready for anything
Great resources for recipes and butchering:
Last but not least, don’t forget a good helper.
You can find Jennifer at Unearthing this Life where she blargs about life in rural Tennessee. She’s also been featured at Rhythm of the Home. Mostly she’s just a mom, a homeschooler, and keeper of critters.