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Pen to Pan

About 2 weeks ago we decided we’d had ENOUGH.

Enough problems with our remaining yearling sow.  She was eating all the feed, pushing the smaller pigs out of the way, and had been breaking out of and JUMPING over the fence.  Yes, jumping.  Over a 4 foot fence.  Trying to eat ME.  She was very confused; people eat pigs, not the other way around.

It all started when we started moving piglets out of the main piggie palace into the tiller tractors.  We moved the mama sow up into the top pen, then closed up the gates to the top pen, and the “no mans land” pen in the middle.  We then proceeded to move piglets out. As I was handing one of the little pigs over the fence, Taya and the twins were standing there waving their arms and shouting something.  I couldn’t hear a thing over the squeals, but they were pointing behind me with panicked looks on their faces.  I slung the piglet over the fence into the movable corral and looked behind me.  Mama sow was trying to get over the lower fence to me, I guess to “save” her piglet.  I got out of there. Fast.

Once things were calmed down a bit, they told me what all the shouting and waving was about.  Apparently the ear-splitting squeals of the piglet got the 300 pound sow’s attention, and she cleared the fence “like a deer” according to the twins.  They were trying to get me to hurry up before the sow got into the pen with me.  I have NEVER seen, nor heard of a pig that could jump like that.  This had me a little worried.  She was a good mama, very protective, hadn’t laid on top of any of her piglets.  We had hoped to keep her and raise another litter out of her,  but a jumping pig was a problem.  We decided to double the height of the fence, and see if she calmed down a bit.  We added a second layer, reinforced with some additional wire and fencing and hoped for the best.  But every time I came near her pen, she tried to go after me.  We couldn’t keep her.

So, we waited for a somewhat cool day, and got ready.  Since this would be for our family’s consumption, we would forgo a trip to the butcher, and do it ourselves.  We have had plenty of practice, so we hoped we could have the slaughtering and quartering done by early afternoon before it got too warm.  We started out nice and early; about 5:30.  First step is always to sharpen the knives.  I use 4 knives (and 1 cleaver) to do every part from start to finish.  Sticking knife, skinning knife, butcher knife and boning knife.  I use a little $5 sharpener from Lowes to keep a razor edge on all of the blades.  A dull knife is a dangerous knife.As soon as the sun was up enough to see, we did the deed.  I use a .22 LR to “stun” the pig, making sure to aim just off center of the “X” drawn from ear to eye.  This book describes the “X”, and is an excellent guide for slaughter and butcher of just about any animal.  I got it several years ago, and used it the very first time I ever butchered a pig; open on the hood of my truck as I went along – highly recommended.

After stunning, you have to “stick” the pig.  Basically you need to open a large blood vessel, causing major blood loss.  This; not the shot, is what actually kills the pig.  The old timers used to stick them thru the side, into the heart.  I’ve heard of people getting kicked or stabbed when attempting to stick them in the heart.  I prefer the neck, it’s just as effective, and less risky.

After the shooting and sticking, we cut 2 small slits in the rear “hocks” of the pig, where the big tendon is, and looped a piece of rope thru each one.  Tie a good tight, non-slipping knot in it, and loop them over whatever you’re going to hoist it up with.  We borrowed our neighbor’s tractor that has a lift on it, as my tractor won’t start right now (never ending to-do list…).  It was quite simple to lift the carcass up and over the fence, and haul it over to the slaughtering area.  Now it was time for the first washdown.

Cleanliness is THE top priority when you’re processing meat.  Any sort of contamination can spoil the flavor, and even worse – introduce bacteria and make everyone sick.  Wash your hands often.  I wear an apron once I get started cutting, and will usually wear nitrile gloves – I was out, so I made sure I kept my hands super clean.

After the first washdown, the next step is skinning.  If you’ve ever processed a deer, or a goat, or a cow; this part will be pretty familiar to you, although pigs have a pretty good layer of fat just under the skin.  You want to try and preserve as much of this as possible, to render down into lard.  Skinning usually takes at least an hour; you start at the rear legs, cut all the way around, then make a V-shaped cut towards the center, then draw a line down the belly, all the way to the head.  You only cut thru the skin, don’t cut into the meat.  This is where the skinning knife comes in handy, it’s curved so you can work your way under the skin without cutting the meat.

As you skin, you work your way from side to side, pulling the hide down over the carcass.  You want to keep your knife absolutely razor sharp, as well as clean.  If you get bristles (hair) into the meat you want to wash it off with clean water right away.  It’s fairly easy to do a good job if you go slow.  I learned long ago, if you hurry, you end up with bristles in the meat, and a big gash on your finger.  Band-aids aren’t a bad idea to keep on hand if you’ve never done this before.

Once you’ve got the carcass skinned up to the spot where you “stuck” the pig, I remove the head.  Take your big butcher knife, and cut thru the flesh all the way around, all the way to the spine.  You can then either use a saw on the spine, or just twist it off.  Both methods are equally as easy and effective.  At this point I handed the skinning knife off to Ian, and had him skin the head.  We always save the cheek meat for bacon, and the ears for the dog.  You can use the entire head if you like, but we were on a tight schedule, so we only skinned enough of the head to cleanly remove the cheek meat.

The next part was to gut the carcass.  It’s very much like gutting most other 4-legged animals.  If it’s a male, you have to cut around, and remove any of the genitals, and then cut around the anus or “bung”.  You want to be careful you don’t puncture any of the intestines, as this will contaminate the meat.  Carefully open the belly, then when you have enough space to stick your fingers inside, put the back of your hand up against the innards, push them inward, and slide the knife between your palm, and the inside of the skin on the belly.  You can then kind of “zip” your knife down, carefully and slowly without any risk of puncturing the entrails.  Go all the way to the breastbone.  Here is where I use the cleaver – to cut open the breastbone.  You can gently chip it, or use something to “baton” the blade thru the bone.  At this point, take a clean piece of string or baling twine, and tie it tightly around the anus, on the inside of the body.  Have a barrel, or tarp or something ready to catch the entrails.  You can then cut the rest of the way around the anus freeing it from the carcass.  This will allow you to pull the entrails free; but be careful – there’s some good parts in there you don’t want to throw out.  Liver, kidneys, pancreas are all edible.  In fact I think they’re delicious.  Be careful with the liver – don’t split the little green bile sac.  Cut carefully around it and get rid of it.  It’s extremely bitter.  Put all the organ meats in a big bowl with some cool water, and set it aside for a bit.  Once you have all the entrails removed, you can then cut thru the diaphram and expose the lungs and heart.  Some folks like the lungs or “lights”; I’m not really a fan, so they go into the bucket.  The heart is another really good organ meat.  Add it to the bowl of cold water, and take it inside for processing.  You can make scrapple, or whatever you like from these delicacies.

Cut out the windpipe, and any of the remaining large blood vessels, and now you’re ready to split the carcass into 2 pieces.  I’ve tried several different methods for this, the way I’ve decided works the best for me is to use a reciprocating saw (like a sawzall).  In the past I’ve used a manual meat saw; until I almost removed the tip of my thumb with the saw.  I’ve also attempted to use a cleaver to split the carcass.  That was an exercise in futility.  What I have worked out is this.  You use your butcher knife to cut thru the fat, and the meat, directly along the spine.  Cut right down to the bone, both on the back, and inside the carcass.  You don’t want to use a saw on meat – it tears it up and makes a mess.  Plus, by starting a line with the knife, you have a guideline to follow with the sawzall.  If you get too far off to the side, you mess up the tenderloin.  Put a large toothed blade in your saw, and start cutting.  Do your best to stay on the line you made with your knife.  When you’re done you should have 2 halves, each swinging from their own piece of rope.

It’s time for another good washdown.  You’re going to have a lot of bits of bone from the cutting that you want to make sure and get rid of.  I take my time and do a good job, I really hate enjoying a nice pork chop and getting a tiny bit of bone in there.  Use your fingers to rub the bone bits loose, or use a clean brush if you have one.  Flush it out with plenty of water.

The next part is going to take some muscle power, so have a couple of strong backs around.  Make sure you have a clean shirt/apron, whatever.  Grab a hold of the half that’s hanging, and have someone else cut the rope that is holding it up.  DON’T DROP IT.  You’re going to have 100 pounds or more come down very quickly, so be ready.

The next step in the process is quartering.  This is an important step to learn if you’re going to make pretty cuts of pork.  Until I watched the farmstead meatsmith video called On The Anatomy of Thrift, I was horrible at quartering a pig.  I had some really awful looking cuts of meat.  They tasted fine, they just looked, well… butchered.  I usually watch the video each and every time I butcher – I pick up something new each time, plus I just enjoy watching it.  We have a nice stainless steel table that we use to cut the pig into quarters.  You can use any flat surface, just so long as it’s sturdy and clean.  After quartering the first half, and getting the quarters into coolers with ice, do the second half.  There – now the race against the clock is not so urgent.  You can move inside at this point, you don’t have to worry so much about the heat.

While all of the slaughtering is going on outside, the ladies are inside preparing for us to bring in the quarters.  The kitchen is set up into different stations – boning, grinding, mixing, packaging.  Recipes are written up on the chalkboard.  Everyone settles into their job, and the work goes very quickly.  We make a lot of ground pork and sausage from each pig.  Normally we’ll grind 1 ham and 1 shoulder, along with the trim from the cuts. 

While the process gets started inside, there’s still some cleanup to do outside.  The hide and the entrails need to be taken care of.  We normally bury them deep in the compost pile.  They’ll break down fairly quickly, and won’t smell, as long as they’re buried deep enough.  The table and tractor needs a good washing.  The knives need cleaning and another sharpening.  Then it’s time to move inside and help with the butchery.

Bone bucket

I’m no expert butcher, but I can make fairly recognizable cuts of meat now.  Some of my first attempts were packages labeled “Roast??” and “I think these are chops”, and the nice generic “Meat”.  You can tell my chops are chops, tenderloins, ribs, and the best part……. BACON.   More on that later.  We use every scrap of meat, save the bones for stock, and try not to waste anything.  Lard gets bagged up and frozen, to be rendered later.  We’ve gotten very efficient at breaking down a pig, and this time set a record – everything in the freezer in about 4 hours.

Lovely lard

One of the last steps in putting up a pig, is to make the bacon.  Taya mixes up the cure, once I let her know how much belly and cheek meat there is.  Then I slather the cure on the pieces of meat, and tuck it away in cold storage for the next week.  Once the cure has had 7 days to work it’s magic, it’s time to soak the bacon.  This equalizes the salt levels, and washes off the excess cure.  It gets a soak in clean water for 24 hours.  Then another 24 hours drying time to allow a pellicle to form, so that the smoke will take.  Then the fire is lit, and the smoking process  begins.

Depending on how smokey you like your bacon, you can smoke it from 30 minutes to overnight.  We like it somewhere in between there.  Usually 2 hours is about perfect.  You want a very low, smokey fire, otherwise you’ll cook your bacon.  It’s still edible, but it’s kinda tough.

After smoking, there’s the all-important sampling step.  Before you package it up to put into the freezer, of course you have to try it.  Since there’s always some ugly pieces that need to be trimmed before packing, it’s your duty to cut them up and deposit them in a hot cast iron skillet.  Then of course they should promptly go straight into your mouth.  Painful, but delicious.  Now it’s safe to pack the bacon up into bags and freeze it.

There you have it.  From the pen, to the pan.  One pig.  Yes, she was a good pig; a great mama.  We’re a little sad that we couldn’t keep her for another year to allow her to have another littler of piglets, but she was just too aggressive, and aggressive animals aren’t gonna be allowed to stay around here.  We’re hopeful that one of her gilts will be as good a mother as she was, but not be so aggressive.  I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this little journey with us, and you’ve learned something from it.

Until next time…..

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