Pig Butchery 101

Butchering lessons have been all the rage.  Selling out in minutes, the high demand means prices aren’t cheap.  Unfortunately, most classes in my area have been in Brooklyn and don’t usually coincide with my work schedule.  And if I’m spending all that money, I should be taking home the meat, instead of leaving it for them to sell.

So when I had the opportunity to attend a hog butchery class at Heritage Foods in the Essex Street Market courtesy of the NYU Food Studies program, there was no way I’d miss this chance.

IMG_1062Heritage sources its pigs and other meats from farms that raise endangered breeds.  That may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s not.  Breeds that are used for mass packaging to sell to grocery chains tend to be preferred, with these endangered varieties falling out of favor for raising and selling.  The point is to keep these farms in business so they continue to raise the breeds, so people keep eating them and they won’t disappear from our tables.  Since Heritage started in 2001, it has had much success in this area.  Not being entirely aware of the history of the company, I geared up for the class by grilling thick cut boneless chops for dinner the night before.  (Mass production and $3/lb.  Oops- but they were tasty and at least I supported a local market.)

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That coffee goes well with the pig head.

The chops were, of course, very different from what I’d just made.  The hog in question was a black-spotted Gloucestershire, fattier than your typical pig.  It was already prepped for us, beheaded and cut in half so that it was manageable for our group to view around the crowded butcher shop.

But this wasn’t just a watch and learn lesson.  It was an interactive butchery class, where we could take turns carving the hog into cuts of meat for the store to sell.

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A look of satisfaction with the lard removal.

The first part was easy: remove much of the lard under the skin that surrounds the meat.  The area underneath that is akin to a skirt steak on a cow, but not usually eaten on a pig as it cooks down to nothing from all the marbling.

Next we had to remove the shoulder section, which we would deal with later.  That was done by counting 5 ribs in and using a saw to cut through the bone.  There’s nothing like hand sawing through some meat…

IMG_1068After the shoulder was set aside, we separated the butt (ham) area, which went into the meat locker.

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That’s one cheek about to come off.

We then had to decide if we wanted to make chops or ribs.  Since this was a group class, chops were chosen so more would get an opportunity to do some cutting.  We went with Tomahawk chops, and this pig being fattier than others, you’ll see there’s a lot more marbling than you might see in a normal chop.

IMG_1075It’s important to cut the chops evenly for resale purposes.

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The woman from Heritage (who sadly didn’t introduce herself) cut the fat away from the chop so that it was ready for the meat case.

After taking turns cutting some chops, we then separated the spare rib section, sticking close to the bone.

IMG_1078Then we cut a boneless tenderloin and tied it.  (This part I’m familiar with from my annual New Year’s Day dinner.)

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Removing the bone to prep the loin.

For my turn, I worked on the Boston Butt portion, which is a misnomer for what is actually the top of the shoulder and neck.  I removed the neck bone, trying to stay as close to the bone as possible without cutting any fingers.  Then I separated some bones that could be used for stock with a meat cleaver and a mallet.  Very cool and empowering.  A good way to work out any latent anger.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures of this.

In our short time of under 2 hours, there was still plenty of hog left to butcher.  We certainly learned that it is hard work ,and to be respectful of the meat and how it is cut to get the most of it.  Every part can be used for something, be it fat for cooking, bones for stock or the offal craze.

After the class, I stopped by Roni-Sue’s for some pig candy (aka chocolate-covered bacon) and then made pulled pork over the weekend.  I think I’ve had my fill of pig… well, at least for this week.  When I’m ready for a thick chop, I will head down to Heritage and pick up a couple for $8/lb.  A little pricier, but worth it for a good cause.

Heritage is also celebrating “Goatober” and taking orders for the holidays, including Turducken, in case you have any interest.

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