Thus came the warning from food writer Michael Ruhlman when I told him that, inspired by his new book, I planned to buy and butcher my first half hog.
Days before interviewing the "Salumi" authors I'd, coincidentally, ordered my first half hog from farmer Kim Snyder of Faith's Farm near Kankakee.
Could she deliver it intact? "Yes," she said, noting that I would save some money on butchering fees. Snyder also knew a Chicago chef, Bernie Laskowski, who would help me through process. I signed on immediately.
Meanwhile skeptical friends warned me that this escapade would likely result in disaster, not to mention digit loss. "There's a reason why we have professional butchers," one said, "because this isn't something you can just decide to do yourself."
But Ruhlman and Polcyn's words echoed in my ears: Americans, they said, have lost touch with many of our hands-on food traditions and culinary skills — skills that were commonplace only a few generations ago. Butchering and curing one's own meat, they argue, could bring folks back in touch with some of those traditions, give them a better appreciation for their meat and even save some money.
I planned to test all of these assumptions when I met up with Snyder, Laskowski and the half hog in the kitchen of Cuzins Tavern & Pizza in Tinley Park on a recent frigid morning for a crash course in hog butchering.
Breaking it down
Over the years I'd heard macho chefs brag about breaking down a half a pig in 30 minutes flat. Based on these tales, I'd assumed that a neophyte like me could do it in three hours or so, right?
Well, not exactly. Nine hours after I'd arrived in the quiet kitchen, I was still elbow-deep in fluffy mounds of ground pork and slimy slices of liver. I would use them to make breakfast sausage, Italian sausage and pate campagne when I got home. But before I could do that, I'd have to get through a butchering process that felt like it was going on forever.
Those hours were spent sawing through slippery hog spine to make chops, slicing off hunks of ham, trimming ribs, and peeling gray glands and silver skin from bright pink slabs of meat. The sure-handed Laskowski, who is working to open the new restaurant Madison Street Kitchen, gallantly took over trickier tasks like deboning the ham and hacking through the harder chops.
I learned the proper way to cube and freeze meat and fat before running it through the grinder and how to handle a scimitar (curved butchering knife), boning knife and hack saw. I also learned why whole communities traditionally worked together on hog-slaughter projects. It's a mountain of work — and this pig didn't even arrive alive.
Even with Laskowski and Snyder's help, the process took all day (including a brief break for lunch) to break down all the cuts, grind the scraps and pack it all into zip-close and vacuum-sealed bags. The half hog carcass weighed in at 112 pounds (without a head and trotters), and I went home with 110 pounds of meat and fat and organs.
Proud that we'd thrown away less than 2 pounds in gristle, bone, glands, silver skin and sinew during the butchering, I didn't feel so bad about leaving the head for Laskowski as a gift. Plus, after nine hours of kitchen work, I'd lost the energy to stay another few hours to dissemble the noggin and boil it into headcheese.
Instead I'd take my groaning cooler bags stuffed with pork belly, leaf lard, shoulder roasts, ham steaks, chops, loin, neck, chop steaks, hocks, jowl, grind, liver, heart and tongue, pack them in my car and head home. But not before paying the bill.
As I watched Snyder calculate the hoof weight (155 pounds), slaughter fees ($35) and chilling fee ($22.40), I was sure that this would be the moment when all the hard work would make sense. Not having a butcher to cut, trim, cure, smoke, grind and package all my meat would certainly translate into major savings, right? Well, not really.
"Wow, you only saved about $60 by doing this yourself," Snyder announced. "Butchering and packaging it doesn't really save you much money at all."
After a moment of incredulous silence, Laskowski put things in perspective.
"You may not have saved much money," he said. "But you did something more important. You saved traditions."
Back at home
Although I'd emptied my freezer the night before, I still didn't have enough room to freeze all the meat. A neighbor lent me half of his freezer, and I chucked the rest in the fridge. With the meat finally put away, I collapsed on the couch and breathed a sigh of relief — in blissful ignorance about how much work was left to be done.
In the ensuing week, I would spend most of my time outside of work and child rearing curing slabs of bacon, pancetta and coppa (an Italian neck cut), chopping and rendering and canning big pots of lard, and making three kinds of ground sausage patties. I'd planned to make smoked hocks, but gave up when I learned it required several days of brining and smoking. Instead, I braised them with five spice, star anise, garlic, ginger, rice wine, soy sauce and hoisin. Divine. The pate would have to wait for another day.
In between I outfitted a meat drying cave: an empty closet in a cold back bedroom where I would hang my raw cured meats for several weeks at 55 degrees and 65 percent relative humidity. I would smoke bacon on the grill after it had cured for five days. I would wash many, many dishes, towels, cutting boards, counters and knives that seemed perpetually coated in a lardy film. And I would try to slip cracklings (leftover from lard rendering) into every meal I could. At some point my family hit a pork limit.
Was it worth it?
I estimate that I have done about 60 hours of work on this half hog (meaning the savings on butchering average out to $1 an hour) — and I'm still tending my cured meats every day to make sure the cave conditions are just right. So money and time-wise this was not an oinking success.
But am I happy to have gained a closer and better appreciation for the work that goes into good butchering and fine cured meat? Absolutely. And do I have good stories to tell? You bet.
I do like having a shelf full of home rendered lard for future pies, omelets, beans, doughnuts and gifts. I also love that I am able to serve my family breakfast sausage that is spiced just the way we like it — with plenty of fresh thyme and sage — and made from local Berkshire pigs whose free-range life rooting, ranging and soaking up vitamin D we appreciate every time we visit the farm.
Still, a better option for most people would probably be to buy the half hog already butchered and packaged. Ask for an uncured belly if you want to make your own pancetta or bacon and use the ground pork to make your own Italian and breakfast patties.
There are books and several online tutorials that can teach you the basics of hog butchering. And several enterprising chefs, butchers and farmers offer hog butchery classes and demonstrations at restaurants and butcher shops. (A two-part workshop on butchering and cooking pastured pork will be presented at Buedel Fine Meats and Provisions in Bridgeview and The Centered Chef in the West Loop on Jan. 26 through redmeatmarket.com. Classes cost $150 per part. For information, call 855-411-6328.
But no matter how you study, do keep in mind that Ruhlman was right. Taking on a half hog is a huge amount of work — even if you do have a plan. And my plan next time will probably be to recruit more friends, get more freezer space and take a few days of vacation to turn the beautiful pastured hog into meat products worthy of such an animal.
Hoof weight: 155 pounds x $2.65 = $410.75
Chilling fees: $22.40
Final product (without head or kidneys): 110 pounds of packaged meat and organs for $4.25 per pound
Price if Snyder's processing house had done all the butchering, smoking, curing and packing: $4.80 pound
Savings for doing my own work: $60
How much Faith's Farm butchered, cured and wrapped pork cuts costs when bought piecemeal at $10 per pound: $1,100 for 110 pounds of meat
Savings for buying a half hog (packaged, cured and smoked) rather than one piece at a time: $572Extras
Zip-close bags and or vacuum seal machine: $30 for zip-seal bags; $150-$180 for a vacuum seal machine plus extra roll of bags, $12
Butchering knife set from Cabela's: $59.99 (you can also probably use large butcher knives and boning knives you already own and simply add a meat hack saw for $39.99)
Meat grinders, from hand-cranked to electric on amazon.com: $20 to $200
Curing salts, pepper, spices and herbs: $20
Prep: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Chill: 1 hour
Makes: 16 patties
Note: If you want to wow your guests or family during your next weekend brunch, prepare you own breakfast sausage following this recipe adapted from a FoodNetwork.com recipe by Alton Brown.
2 pounds pork butt, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 pound fat back, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage leaves
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine diced pork with all other ingredients; chill, 1 hour. (Or place in the freezer, about 20 minutes) Using the fine blade of a meat grinder, grind the pork. You can also start with 80 percent lean ground pork (from the best source you can find) and mix it thoroughly with the spices kneading it with your hands. Form into 1-inch rounds. Refrigerate and use within 1 week or freeze up to 3 months. For immediate use, cook patties over medium-low heat in a nonstick skillet until browned and cooked through, 10-15 minutes.
Per serving: 163 calories, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 263 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.