What Good is a Pig: Cuts of Pork, Nose-to-Tail
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, proscuitto, 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 gate way meat that tempts people back to the traditional, sustainable, omnivore diet.” Understandable.
What are the Middle-of-the-Hog cuts?
- Ham – Hams are typically brined and smoked to get their distinctive flavor. I’ve always been a big fan of big hams, the rear leg of the pig. I grew up with ham being a special meal and love the left overs. It’s a long slow cook. I like to glaze ours with maple sugar. Brown sugar or honey are two other common glazes. If you’re intimidated by such a huge hunk of meat consider slicing it to steaks or just cutting it in half. The ham can be done boneless, semi-boneless where the hip is removed or bone-in. The first is the easiest to carve but the bone adds flavor and can be saved for making soup. We also offer ham cubes which are great for stir fry and other dishes. Lastly, when in doubt, grind the ham to make ground for sausage, meat balls, kielbasa or hot dogs. No discussion of ham is done without mentioning the highest priced hams, the prosciuttowhich is salted and dry aged.
- Picnic Shoulder – Roast bone-in or bone-out or made into pulled pork. It can also be treated much like the ham, ground for a variety of uses.
- Belly – Pork bellies are most often made into bacon through a brining or dry curing process and then smoking. Smoked protein, fat, sugar and salt – What’s not to like! Pork bellies can also be made into sausage, panchetta, pork sides as is popular here in Vermont, salt pork and many other things. It is a versatile mix of meat and fat. One of the most delicious things is to leave the bacon on the spare ribs, soak them in a tomato based sauce and then smoke them for BBQ meaty ribs.
- Ribs – There are three main different types of ribs: Spare Ribs which come two racks to a side of pork and baby back ribs which are in the pork chops when bone-in. For the ultimate ribs, try smoked BBQ meaty ribs mentioned above in the bacon.
- Sausage – The sausage tends to come from the middle of the hog. Sometimes as high as the butt, rarely higher. Mostly the sausage consists of meat from the hams, picnic shoulder and belly. If the demand for hock’s is low then the meat from them is available as well as jowl occasionally. We make Hot Italian, Sweet Italian, Breakfast Sage, Kielbasa and our famous all natural smoked hot dogs. In the future I would like to start making a breakfast maple sausage. Use high quality ingredients and keep the list short. We use real Vermont maple syrup from a farmer down the road for our hot dogs – delicious! For more about our sausages see this article.
- Ground – Ground is essentially sausage before spicing and linking. It is one of the most versatile meats. You can make your own sausage, spaghetti sauce, meat balls, shepherd’s pie, lasagna, tacos, enchiladas and so many other wonderful dishes.
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?
- Hocks – There is a surprising amount of meat on the hock which can go to sausage or be served roasted. They’re very good smoked. Excellent for soup and stew making.
- Jowl – The cheek of the pig is much like bacon. Smoke it. Many chefs use this slightly lower cost jowl bacon for flavoring chili and stews. Slightly different texture than belly. Jowl is also excellent in sausage both fresh and smoked.
- Neck Bones – Interestingly, different butchers call these by different names. Depending on the deboning skill of the meat cutter there may be more or less meat on these. I’ve known some butchers who call it “neck bones” all the way down into the base of Boston Butt. We call it neck bones for just the neck. Delicious eating stewed, souped, low roasted or in a tomato sauce long cooked and the meat can be put to ground too.
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?
- Trotters – Pig’s Feet – Pickled, smoked, stewed or roasted. Sliced and sauced is also nice. There is a lot of great cartilage in the foot which makes an excellent thickener for soups and stews. Smoked they add flavor. Try roasting them and then slow simmering in the soup or stew pot. I’m told that eating this cartilage is good for my own joints. They put it in pills so perhaps it is better to get it direct. I eat a lot of soups and stews all winter – warms the belly and the body.
- Caul Fat – Lacy fat found around the intestines. Rarely available. Use to moisten roasts.
- Leaf Fat – A high quality harder fat found around the kidney used for pies and pasteries.
- Back Fat – Render to lard for cooking or soap. Cut to strips for use on top of roasts. Make cracklin’s and chicharones.
- Heart – Heart is the leanest of meat and very heart healthy. It is delicious stir fried with onions, peppers, mushrooms and strips of back fat.
- Liver – Paté! I also like liver wrapped in bacon. Ah…
- Tongue – A delicacy smoked or pickled and then thin sliced for hor-de-vores.
- Bones – Soup and stew stock. Roast or smoke for the best flavor. Also great for carving. Try throwing knuckle bones for the original game of dice.
- Ears – Fry crisp as chips or thin slice for salads
- Head – Soup, stew, head cheese or roasted as a buffet center piece. Think of head cheese, also known as brawn, as solid stew that can be sliced and made into a sandwich.
- Brains – There are people who eat them. Personally, I wouldn’t as there is some question of viral, prion or other issues associated with brain tissue.
- Cartilage – The connective tissue, particularly in the feet, is an excellent stock thickener. This is also recoverable from the skin.
- Skin – The skin is edible and it is also made into non-food items. There are three ways of cleaning a pig of the bristles: skinning, burning or scald & scrape. The first is faster if you’re just doing one pig and don’t have the specialized equipment. The second works but is my least favorite. Scald and scrape is the best method if you have the time, hot water and equipment. This last method preserves the skin on the pig so that it protects the meat, you keep more of the fat, the bristles are recoverable and you can then make pork rinds, chicharones, jelly or leather. Scald and scrape is rather essential if you plan to do a pig roast.
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?
- Blood – Used in many sausage recipes as well as plant fertilizer. An excellent source of iron.
- Casings – Traditionally sausages were packed in natural casings made from the cleaned intestines. Many sausage today are done with artificial casings. Look on the sausage package to find out what type of casing was used. We use natural casings.
- Chitlins – Intestines of a pig.
- Stomach – Traditionally used like casings or for children’s balloons.
- Bladder – Used like stomaches.
- Balls – Rocky Mountain Oysters
- Lungs – Fried up in some parts of the world. Rarely available in the USA.