Walter Jeffries and his wife Holly raise pastured pigs on Sugar Mountain Farm, their sustainable homestead in the mountains of Vermont. To improve their ability to get their pork to their customer’s fork they’re building their own on-farm USDA inspected butcher shop. Until May 15th they’re running a Kickstarting the Butcher Shop at Sugar Mountain Farm project to raise additional funds for equipment so they can open the butcher shop in summer 2012. In response to the Kickstarter project, several backers asked about the various cuts of pork, and this is Walter's reply, which will almost surely inform you and make you a better consumer:
Several people have asked about the cuts of pork, and this article will give you an introduction to what good is a pig, nose-to-tail.
We’ll refer to the Pork Cut Chart above time-to-time. (You can zoom in on the image here to read the small print.)
Reality of Economics and Social Justice
All of the pig is good, nose-to-tail, but some of the pig sells for a lot more than other parts. This is not a social injustice. This is simply an economic reality. There are only two tenderloins on a pig and 20 people want them. There is only so much bacon to a pig and virtually everybody wants that. You can’t buy a pig and ask for it to be all cut into chops and bacon — pigs just don’t work that way although I’m trying to get there through our selective breeding program.
Supply is limited, and the rest of the pig must be eaten too, in order to avoid waste. The people who are willing to pay the higher prices for the high demand cuts make the rest of the pig available at lower prices to the rest of us. Be thankful that the 1 percent likes and pays for tenderloin. Again, this is not social injustice — just economic reality.
Additionally, not all cultures make use of all of the pig, or not in the same way. We find very little market for heart and tongue — delicious as they both are. A few customers know this secret and buy them up, but it took years to develop that market. Nobody buys the balls, at least not here — a feast for our livestock guardian dogs.
There is next to no market for lungs and pig guts. One of the advantages of our forthcoming on-farm slaughter facility is the offal, literally the parts that fall off, will be used in feeding our chickens during the winter and our compost piles to recapture the chickens' nutrients for our farm’s soil to grow crops in the future. With on-farm slaughter, nothing goes to waste.
Selling All of the Pig
We work hard to use or sell every bit of the pig every week. It is a challenge. There is an old saying that it takes a village to eat a pig. We see this in the sales. Everyone wants the high-on-the-hog cuts. The middle-of-the-hog cuts also sell out with ease. But those low-on-the-hog portions can be a challenge some weeks. We price them accordingly. Sometimes those cuts will build up in the freezer for a few weeks before they sell. We work to sell these parts, through pricing, talking up recipes, trying recipes ourselves so we can talk about them, and getting the word about about using the lesser known cuts of the pig.
Chef A has hocks on her menu for the next four months, so those are taken care of. All winter Chef B has been making delicious stews that he thickens and flavors with trotters. Chef C takes all the tongues he can get for pickling and smoking and he’s now taking all the ears for a new recipe. Chef D took all the hearts, some tongues and a big load of ribs. Tails have been going to a researcher on fatty acids.
Through all of this, most of the pig, most weeks, gets eaten by our customers. What they don't eat goes to the farmer’s table or the livestock guardian dogs — they work hard and have to eat too. It takes a village — and its dogs — to eat a pig.
When we’re out of one high-demand cut, some weeks we’ve had people say, “Well, just butcher another pig.” But it isn’t that simple. Without a market for enough of the pig we don’t want to take another pig every week. That would be wasteful, take up freezer space, which uses energy, and would fail to encourage people to be more adventurous eaters. Sometimes we have to tell a new chef they’ll need to wait, they’ll need to work with us on this and earn seniority for picking the high demand cuts. The price of the high-on-the-hog cuts goes up and the low-on-the-hog goes down to adjust. This is economics. The process works, each week’s batch of pigs sells and we use the pigs nose-to-tail. For the most part.
Taking it From the Top
Let’s start at the top of the pig and work our way down to way beyond the cuts of the pig — everything is useful. Along the way we’ll discuss what is literally high-on-the-hog, middlin’ low-on-the-hog, sausage, oddments and other things. Refer to the chart above, you can drag it around the screen in its enlarged form or put it into another window by control-clicking it or right-clicking it.
High-on-the-Hog cuts that are literally high up on the hog, along the back. These start with the sirloin, tenderloin, loin roast, loin chops and the Boston Butt. Refer to the Pork Cut Chart and you’ll see what I mean – these high priced cuts all come from the back of the pig, high on the hog. It is the sale of these cuts of pork that pay for the piglet, for feed, for raising the pig and for slaughter & butchering. It is because folks will pay that extra dollar for these higher priced cuts that pigs are farmable from the economic point of view and thus produce a lot of other good meat for everyone else at a more economical price.
Why are these cuts expensive? Simple: limits of supply and high demand.
What are the High-on-the-Hog cuts?
Having Your Pork Chop and Eating Tenderloin?
Note that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. That is to say, in some cases, making a particular cut precludes making others.
For example, bone-in lower loin chops contain the tenderloin the way it is normally cut at the butcher. You could get a whole loin, preferably chine-off to make cutting easier, and then strip the tenderloin and have tenderloin as well as semi-bone in chops. But with normal pork chops the tenderloin is that little eye of meat so that makes it no longer available as a whole piece.
Likewise if you get bone-in pork chops from the loin then you miss out on baby-back ribs because they are the bone in the chops.
With meaty spare ribs you lose the chest bacon. Meaty spare ribs are wonderful, especially smoked, but if you cut your pig that way then it leaves just belly bacon.
Another example is Boston butt roast vs shoulder steaks. These are both cut from the same meat where three muscles at the top of the back come together layered with delicious fat. Some people want this for making pulled pork. Others for a roast. I love it for steaks. My absolute favorite cut of pork is the giant, flavorful, highly marbled Boston butt steaks off of an old sow or boar. A single steak may be two to four pounds. Enough to feed a family.
Middle-of-the-Hog cuts are next down in the economic tier and they literally come from the middle of the pig. Many of these are made into delicious, and very high priced, products through additional curing, brining, smoking, drying and other processing. Think bacon, hams, prosciutto, sausages, hot dogs, salami, etc.
Each of these requires some additional work to produce the final product. These steps result in loss of water and trim (shrinkage), cost time and money all of which drives the price up and concentrates the flavor. This uses portions of the pig that aren’t in high demand as cuts and turns them into delectable dining. Everyone loves bacon — vegans speak of it in fearful whispers, calling it “the gateway meat that tempts people back to the traditional, sustainable, omnivore diet.” Understandable.
What are the Middle-of-the-Hog cuts?
The cuts in the high and medium areas of the pig are what are familiar to most American shoppers. But there is a lot more to the pig. Rural folk often cook some parts which urbanites may raise an eyebrow at. It is all good eating, so keep going down the pig.
What are the Low-on-the-Hog cuts?
Where low-on-the-pig ends and oddments begins is all a matter of personal point of view. Generally the organs are considered fairly low on the hog. Feet are at the bottom so let’s start there.
What are the Oddments?
These are things that you typically can not get from a USDA inspected slaughter facility. They are in such low demand in our country that it is typically not worth the time, expense and effort for meat processors to do the necessary USDA HACCP/PR* requirements. If you want these look to custom slaughter at home.
What are the Offal?
Other Parts & Pieces
Well that’s not all of the pig! There’s more to be used even if you’re not planning to eat it.
What are the uses of a pig?
Every bit the pig is useful, during its life and beyond. Pigs were traditionally known as "mortgage lifters" back before modern factory farming. In the past they were kept on dairy farms and known as mortgage lifters because the sale of the pork saved the farm in hard times. The pigs ate any excess milk as well as the whey from butter and cheese-making. These pigs would then get made into hams, bacon and cuts which helped make the dairy profitable. This was back before the head of the USDA told farmers to specialize, “to get big or get out.”
With the advent of the large-scale grain farming in the Midwestern states, the problem became how to ship the calories to the cities efficiently. The grains were fed to pigs and cattle which were then shipped alive or processed into meats including hams and bacon. Thus the “pork belly” commodities market.
Having our own on-farm butcher shop will let us more easily do unusual specialty cuts. Check out our Order Form for a list of cuts the we do standard. You’ll notice how the pricing changes as you work your way down from the High-on-the-Hog cuts to the oddments. The most cost effective way to buy pork is to buy a whole pig all at once, and even cut it yourself as shown in the By-the-Pig section at the bottom of the order form.
If you are interested in the cutting your own meat, check out master butcher Cole Ward’s DVDs about meat cutting. We apprenticed with him for 18 months to learn the art of meat cutting. He is a delight to work with. Check out the trailer on YouTube.
Fresh vs Frozen vs Cured vs Smoked
One thing that causes some confusion is the term ‘Fresh’. Consumers tend to think of the dichotomy being ‘Fresh’ vs ‘Frozen’ but in pork it is ‘Fresh’ vs ‘Cured’. Curing is the application of salts and spices to the meat, typically in preparation for smoking.
As to fresh vs frozen, realize that most restaurants buy their pork, fish and other meats in frozen or immediately freeze it. This maintains quality when done properly. The best is the special blast freezers that butchers often have which will very rapidly cool and freeze the meat so that tiny micro ice crystals are formed rather than the longer ice crystals produced during a slow freeze. The longer crystals puncture the cell walls and release cellular fluid degrading the meat. Thus for the best results, have the butcher blast freeze the meat and then keep it at the lowest temperature possible.
Speaking of freezers, colder is better, chest freezers are better than upright freezers and automatic defrost is a no-no since it periodically thaws and melts the contents of the freezer damaging the food.
When thawing meat, do it slowly. Thawing in the refrigerator the night before is ideal. Never thaw in the microwave – unless you like to eat shoe leather.
Challenge yourself to eat a new part of the pig. Try the ultra-lean high protein heart thin sliced and fried with onions. Fry up some ears into crispy treats. Learn to make chicharones. There’s a lot more to a pig than tenderloin and pork chops. Learn to be an adventurous chef and eat like the farmer’s family.
You can see the Jeffries video and project at Kickstarter.
You may also like the article: Smoked Pork Products.
If you like smoked pork you may be interested in the topic of nitrates on NoWeirdStuff.org near the bottom.
Visit Sugar Mountain Farm's website and blog for more great farm-and-food related posts from Walter and Holly.
*HACCP/PR is the USDA’s protocol requirements that must be in place detailing every step of the process to ensure safe food. They stand for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points / Pathogen Reduction. This program was put in place in the late 1990s to protect the public’s health. Some say that in the process the FDA has made it difficult to have innovative solutions and limited creative products. Is it worth it? Certainly, at some levels. The further you are away from the source the more controls you need.