[Editor’s Note: Apologies for the spotty posting this week; we’ve had internet issues but are now back in business.]
From here, the first task is to break each side down into primal cuts. Primal cuts are the five main divisions in each side, which are subdivided to yield retail cuts. These cuts are 1) the ham 2) the belly 3) the loin 4) the Boston butt, and 5) the picnic shoulder.
Many of the following cuts and butchering procedures are somewhat difficult to describe in text. I’ve found it’s helpful to have a diagram and/or video to refer to, especially where the cut is determined by the location of a particular bone or anatomic feature. For a very good intro video, I’m posting this link to Gregg Rentfrow’s excellent 45-minute clip on pork butchering. This is the video I learned from and the below text mostly follows his sequence of cuts with a few exceptions.
Making pork cuts is a fairly arbitrary process, depending largely on what your meat preferences are. Those who like bone-in pork chops and loin steaks are in for some tricky work with the bone saw; whereas conversely, it’s not inconceivable to turn an entire pig into sausage, if that pig is well past ideal slaughter weight.
When butchering, we work outdoors on a stainless steel food service table set up near our slaughter area. Our pork sides are hanging nearby, and it is easiest to work with the meat outdoors in late fall or winter in conditions where it will also (hopefully) stay cool until it is finally packaged or rubbed down with cure.
The first cuts I make are with the bone saw. I cut the feet off of both the front and hind legs. These cuts are made just above the knee joints. Pigs feet are not a delicacy we enjoy, so if we do save them, it is to later pick the meat off for sausage.
With the feet removed, I then turn to the ham. The ham is cut from the rest of the carcass after locating the aitch bone, which is part of the halved pelvic girdle. With the bone saw, I begin cutting two inches above the aitch bone (towards the loin) with the path of the saw running perpendicular to the shank, or extended leg, of the ham.
To visualize this cut, imagine the shank pointing straight up in the air if you were to set the cut face of the ham flat on a table. Once the saw is through the bone, I cut through the meat and skin below it with a sharp butcher knife. As a general rule, always use a knife to cut flesh and a saw (or hatchet or cleaver) to sever bone.
With the ham completely separated from the rest of the halved carcass, it can be cured or frozen, depending on preference. We make country ham or prosciutto with these cuts; both processes require curing in salt or cure mix and at least a year before the meat will be ready to eat, though I can definitely say the wait is worth it. I will cover the specifics of preparing country ham and prosciutto in the next post in this series.
Next, I separate the shoulder and Boston butt from the carcass. To do this, saw straight across the carcass from a point between the second and third rib. You will be cutting through bone almost the entire way: the backbone as well as the shoulder bone. When you get down to the skin and the fat, use a knife.
With these two cuts separated from the carcass, they can be further broken down. First though, the backbone and first two ribs should be removed by following the contours of the bones with a knife and separating them from the rest of the cut. With that out of the way, sever the shoulder from the Boston butt by finding the shoulder blade and cutting with a knife about an inch below it (toward the shoulder). When you hit bone, cut through it with a saw and then continue with a knife.
We generally use the shoulder for sausage though it can be cured and smoked like ham. The Boston butt can be cut down further into pork steaks or used for sausage, though we usually try to save most of this cut for slow-cooked pulled pork barbecue.
With the front and back ends of the side removed, the loin and belly remain. We cut the belly out in one or two large sections. The belly is the easy-to-identify boneless fatty section below the ribs. We cut this off following the bottom ribline with a sharp butcher knife or boning knife.
Because we usually have a group of friends present to help us with butchering, we try to remove the ham and bacon first, before making any other retail cuts. These need to be vigorously rubbed with cure and, in the case of bacon, sealed in plastic for the duration of the cure time. To expedite the work of butchering, it’s a good idea to have one or several friends or volunteers working on curing and packing bacon and ham while the other less labor-intensive (processing wise, anyway) cuts are still underway.
Now that the bacon/belly has been removed, we saw through the ribs, starting about two inches from the backbone on the front side of the carcass (where the Boston butt and picnic have been removed). Sawing straight across lengthwise will separate the spare ribs from the rest of the loin. The spare ribs can now be further broken down into meal-sized portions and packaged, removing any remaining cartilage or fatty tissue along the sternum end of the ribs.
With only the loin section left, we cut the layer of back fat away from the rest of the meat cuts, using a sharp but flexible boning knife. The goal is to avoid cutting into the rest of the loin meat while removing the dense layer of fat that is attached to the hide.
Next we cut out the sirloin, identified by the curvy bulge at one end of the loin section. The cut is made where the bulge tapers back into the rest of the loin section, starting between two vertebrae of the backbone and working downward parallel with the ribs. The sirloin is then further broken down into boneless sirloin chops by cutting away the bony section and slicing chops from the large remaining steak. We cut these about an inch thick. Scraps are saved for sausage.
With the rest of the loin, we separate the ribs using the same technique as the spare ribs: by running a sharp boning knife along the border between the ribs and the loin meat. With this cut made, we flip the loin over and make the same cut from the outside, but this time following the edge of the backbone. The ribs are connected to the backbone at about a 90-degree angle. With a bone saw and a knife, we then divide the ribs into meal or portion-sized cuts.
After removing the remaining blade bone and striated fatty section from the tubular loin section, the loin is broken down into pork chops or sausage. We enjoy sausage more than chops, and so tend to make only a few cuts for chops and/or larger loin roasts, and designate a greater proportion of the loin meat for sausage.
Any other scraps and remainders from earlier on in the process also make it into the sausage pile, where they will later be cut into about 1-in cubes and sorted according to whether they are primarily fat or lean.
In this post, I have attempted to outline our general process of making primal and retail cuts of pork, though I realize it is by no means a thorough or exhaustively technical description.
As previously noted, those who are interested in learning pork butchery would do well to also consult a video or book with many photos and diagrams, before attempting to break down a side of pork. Even better, enlist the help of an experienced butcher for your first pig slaughter, as we did during our first slaughter.
In the next installment of this series, I will cover the general process of curing and smoking ham and bacon and making sausage, as well as covering a few details on packaging and storing pork. At the end of that post, I will also provide a list of resources I have found helpful that pertain to all stages of slaughtering, butchering and processing pork.