Monday, October 24, 2011

October Kills its Pig

Everybody rejoices when November kills its pig.
-an inscription on the Münster Cathedral

Edmonton gets cold enough to butcher outdoors a bit sooner than Westphalia, so our version of the inscription would have October killing the hog.

This year Lisa and I bought a side of pork from Nature's Green Acres.  I cut up our meat at Kevin's, on what he and his family call Pig Day.  While the majority of the pork was wrapped and frozen, there was also some curing, smoking, and grinding, processes that have come to typify the season.


Processing a side of pork is made less daunting by the presence of a brine bucket.  Certain pieces can go straight from the cutting board to the brine, making for less wrapping, labelling, and freezer management.

There are two types of brines. The first contains only table salt and other flavours like brown sugar and herbs. Salt is absorbed into the meat so that it is seasoned throughout its mass, and not just on the outside. The meat will retain more moisture during cooking. I call this a "seasoning brine."  This is a relatively quick process: I might brine a thick pork chop for four hours before cooking it.

If sodium nitrite is added to the brine, some additional, complex chemical changes occur. The meat develops a vibrant pink colour and a piquant flavour. I call this a "curing brine," to contrast it with the seasoning brine explained above. The curing brine takes longer than the seasoning brine.

Seasoning brines are typically made the day that you cook the meat. Curing brines can be started the day that the pig is fabricated.  Cuts that are typically brine-cured include hocks, hams, eye of loin (Canadian bacon), and the tongue.


Other cuts are better cured in a dry rub.  This is especially true of fatty pieces like the jowl and the belly.  These cuts get mixed with the dry cure (salt, curing salt, sugar, herbs), then bagged and left in the fridge for a week, after which they are rinsed and either air-dried or hot-smoked.

Grinding Meat and Making Sausages

When I first started cutting my pig, I assumed that all the trim would supply ample meat and fat for grinding. This may be true of professional butcher shops that produce portion-controlled chops with clean bones, but when the pig is separated mostly into large roasts, there is actually very little trim.  A portion of the shoulder must be specially reserved for ground meat.  I shoot for a 3:1 ratio of meat to fat.

I store my ground meat in three forms. First there are one pound bags of ground pork, unseasoned, ready to be made into patties or pie filling.  I also find it handy to freeze some loose ground pork that has already been seasoned and spiced.  Finally there are sausages.

Making Stock

Even with many of the bones staying in roasts (the hocks, trotters, rib roast, hams...), there are still plenty left to make stock.  Sections of the backbone, as well as the riblets, skull, tailbone, shoulder blade, and arm bone are lightly smoked on the barbecue, thrown in a pot, covered with cold water, brought to a boil, then simmered for twenty four hours.  The next day I add the vegetables and simmer for an hour, then the herbs, which are simmered for fifteen minutes.

Finally the stock is strained and cooled, then frozen into ice cube trays so that it can be used a little at a time.

Rendering Fat to make Lard

We keep a lot of fat on the roasts and steaks, so we set aside a section of back fat especially for rendering.  There is also the leaf lard, the brittle fat around the kidneys, analogous to the suet in sheep and cows.  All the fat is thrown in a heavy stainless steel pot with bit of water and put over very, very low heat.  The water helps distribute the heat in the early stage of the rendering.  Eventually the water evaporates, but by that time enough fat has melted to serve the same function.  I typically leave my fat on the stove overnight.


  1. I have to say I find the idea of leaving fat rendering on the stove terrifying. Could you not use crock pots to good effect for something like this? They have newer ones that have temperature controls so you can set the temperature that you want as opposed to just low or high. I think it would be way safer and if you have a power outlet outside you could set it there to reduce, as you don't yet have an exhaust fan.
    How many lbs of lard would you say you get form your side of pork?

  2. I don't understand what you find terrifying about the fat on the stove.

    A temperature-controlled crock would work well. You would have to run it uncovered so that the moisture could escape.

    Since the majority of the quality back fat either stayed on roasts or was saved for ground meat, we only got a little more than a litre of lard from our side.

  3. That should make about ten pies.
    I find fat heating on the stove terrifying due to risk of grease fires. I realize you have figured out a setting that works without getting too high a temperature but controls do fail at times and can fail in on as easily as in off.
    I once attended a fire safety lecture where the instructor showed an ironing board that had burned. the point he made with us was that the iron had been turned OFF but left plugged in. The control failed, the iron overheated and it started a fire.
    Call me paranoid.

  4. Everybody rejoices when November kills its pig.
    -an inscription on the Münster Cathedral - isn't that is Zurich? I was there and missed reading this!! Great quote.
    As I write to you I have thawed an enormous pork belly (my half from the 1/2 pig we bought from Natures Green Acres) and Vanja is prepping 2/3rds of it in a brine and raving about what a beautiful piece of pork it is. We are taking it to the Budapest Deli tomorrow and they will smoke it for us. Vanja is absolutely wagging his little tail as he works today!
    The other 1/3 I had to beg for and am keeping small portions for making authentic Bolgonese Sauce which I learned how to do this fall in Bologna. I will then cure the rest Michael Ruhlman style and sous vide it - but in my oven - as it goes to 170 F... YUM
    Have also rendered my own lard. Have not done much of the rest. What do you use pork stock for? I have bones to make it - but for what?

  5. You might be thinking of the Grossmünster in Zürich. The word "Münster" actually just means "minster," or cathedral, so there are lots of churches called Münster.

    To complicate things, the one I'm talking about is actually in the town of Münster in Westphalia. There is a cathedral with a large clock that has twelve paintings of agricultural activities corresponding to the twelve months of the year. Each painting has a Latin inscription. "With joyous care, October gathers the laughing grapes." "Everybody rejoices when November kills its pig."

    We use pork stock for just about everything: soups, meat pies, braising cabbage and pheasant, and cooking starches like lentils and chickpeas, for instance.