It can be rather tempting to daydream of a freezer full of locally grown heritage breed pork, including all of the gnarly bits. We happen to live close to a large farmers’ market and a well-stocked Whole Foods, but cost can pose just as much of a barrier as access.
Growing up, we didn’t raise our own animals, but we lived near other farmers who did. I grew to recognize the pork was harvested seasonally (in the fall), but with the advent of freezers, it was pretty much available all year if you bought it at the right time. I also remember that families like ours looked to our freezers to sock away half animals to save money. In fact, it became quite a trend in my grandparent’s day to buy meat in bulk, so much so that it was even immortalized in an I Love Lucy episode.
If you aren’t familiar with the process, ordering your pig can be quite daunting. This animal is being processed specifically for you, so typically every aspect—from cuts to seasoning to packaging—is ordered custom. Have a big family? Get large packages. Live alone? Get chops packed by themselves. There is a lot to consider, so here are some tips:
Selecting a farmer
This is a very personal decision, especially when you think not just of this order but all of the potential future orders you might have. Yes, you want to look for good pork, and we will talk about that, but your relationship with the farmer is paramount. Not only do I like the pork my farmer produces, but everyone in their operation is incredibly warm and hard-working. If you don’t already know farmers in your area, and googling or going to the farmers’ market doesn’t give you any leads, one place to start is the closest Whole Foods. Regardless, don’t commit yourself to a large order until you try several of their cuts and can get a sense of their operation. Ideally, stop by and visit if you can. Most of them will sell standard cuts, frozen, during regular business hours.
We got out last pig from Thompson Farms in Dixie, Georgia. In addition to having delicious pork, they were able to give us cuts and packaging that worked just right.
Size and cost
Yes, you can even specify the size of the animal you’d like. At the small end, you get a suckling pig, or cochon lait, which is terrific for roasting whole. We haven’t ordered anything larger than 200 lbs. hanging weight, which gives you a nice balance between marbling and tenderness. It is this hanging weight is what drives your total, and being a natural product, you won’t know the exact total until you pick up your order. For that size animal, we pay $1.99 per pound, or around $200 for a half hog. Even factoring in the weight of the bones and pieces you can’t eat, that’s on a price per pound basis comparable to supermarket sausage for a premium product.
Whole or Half
I like the idea of getting a whole pig. There are some cuts (e.g., tongue, offal) that just can’t be divided, so if you want these and can’t get them by sweet talking the farmer or buying them separately, a whole animal may be your only shot. For most folks, whether you live alone, with some else, or even have a small family, a half pig will do just fine. I would wager a half lasts two adults around six months to finish everything, but obviously some cuts will be long gone by then.
Smoking, curing, and fresh
Before we get into cuts, you should also consider whether you want cuts fresh, smoked, or cured, if your farmer offers that. This will add to the cost and lead time of your order, but it can be worth it. For example, bacon that isn’t cured and smoked is just pork belly, delicious though that is. Aside from bacon, ham, shoulder, and even chops are all smoking candidates. Personally, I like all of these fresh so that they are more versatile for cooking or smoking myself.
Speaking of bacon and ham, both of these cuts can come with the rind on them. Ham is typically offered with the rind, which will become crackling, unless you ask them not to include it. Bacon is the opposite and won’t include rind unless you specify it. Why wouldn’t you want bacon with pork rinds attached? Try it, and if you don’t like, you can cut it off before you cook your bacon. (Tip: Cook rinded bacon on low heat until it is mostly cooked and then raise the heat to make the crackling pop.)
Aside from the smoking and rind question, you have to consider size. Even though there is only one of these in a half pig order, that’s more than enough. There is an old joke that the definition of eternity is two people and a ham, and we think it is true! We get it cut into thirds, which is still more than enough for two people and lots of leftovers. You will get two 3-4 lb. hams for a half animal. Alternatively you can ask for ham steaks, which are like they sound: big slabs of ham with the bone in weeknight-meal-sized portions. You will wind up with a lot of these though, and we never seem to crave them, which is why we stick to ham roasts lately. Then there is the hocks, which come from the end of the ham. Again, we had these cut into thirds and packaged.
After you decide about curing, smoking, and whether to get it with the rind, you are almost there. You just have to consider how thick you want it sliced and how big you’d like the packages. We usually ask for medium thickness and 1 lb. packages. You will get around 6 packages this way along with one package of bacon ends (seasoning heaven) for a half animal.
Shoulder (aka Boston Butt)
You Big Green Egg folks, listen up, this is your cut! Similar to the ham, we have them divide this into thirds and package it fresh. You will get three 2-3 lb. butts for a half animal, enough to have pulled pork for days.
The loin muscle has several different cuts. There’s the tenderloin (one per half), which we have packaged separately. It is more common for it to be include with pork chops, just like a T-bone, which they will likely do if you don’t mention it. We are all familiar with the center cut loin chops, but how far you go on either end of that is up to you. We go almost to the end and save rest for trimmings. The thickness of your chops really makes a difference in how many you get. You should figure on a loin without the sirloin end being about 2 feet long, so 1 inch thick chops will yield about two dozen chops. That is what we did last time in an effort to get more chops out of the order, and it might be cutting it a bit close. An inch and half might be ideal.
You can order these as baby back (trimmed) or country style (with spareribs attached). Unfortunately you only get one rack on a half pig, and they won’t last long. We ask for ours packaged in halves just to double the opportunity to have ribs.
There are many parts that aren’t commonly available in grocery stores but yours to turn down when order like this. Our philosophy is to try and use everything we can. After all, it is our half pig, and we already paid for it. We already mentioned the tongue and offal. Here are some other cuts. We will offer some suggested recipes for these cuts in subsequent posts:
Trimmings and Sausage
Last but not least you have the trimmings. This is also an opportunity to moderate how much sausage you like. We happen to love the sausage from our farmer, so we tend to ask for him to trim our cuts well to yield more sausage. For example, the sirloin end chops can be hard to cook and tend to stick around in our the freezer, so we lately get these ground up into sausage, yielding an extra three pounds. You have choices when it comes to sausage too: country or Italian?; mild, medium, or hot?; link or bulk?; how much per package? You get the drift. Even adding in the sirloin only gives you about 8 pounds total.
Packaging & Volume
Be sure to clarify how items will packaged. I don’t know too many butchers that put out frozen products in paper anymore. Avoid this if you can, as it won’t last as well as vacuum sealed portions. Unfortunately vacuum sealing doesn’t work as well on frozen items, and you won’t want to go through the hassle of doing it yourself anyway. Just be sure to ask. We use three coolers to get things home. A large cooler that you might use for fishing or hunting will be enough. You’d actually be surprised how much you are getting yet how little space it takes up. In freezer terms, you are likely to fill up almost all of the freezer in a standard refrigerator or four racks in a side-by-side. We have a small upright chest freezer, and a half pig takes up about half of that or a little less.
We recommend taking some time to discuss all of these cuts and what works best for you and those with whom you might be sharing this pig, see how much freezer space you have, and investigate a few local farms before you make your decision. Hopefully you find that not only is the process rewarding but you will appreciate you food and your farmer that much more.