The Nasty Bits: How to Break Down a Pig
Deep Fried Pig's Tails, Revised
"It takes four cuts to break down a side of pig," Josh Applestone told me. "I can teach you how to do it in two hours, tops."
Josh made good on that promise on my third day at Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, NY when, toward closing time, we stood at the table with a half side of pig and started from the beginning.
First, a crash-course on the primals, a term used to refer to the largest subsections of the animal. Though the muscle groups on the cow, lamb, and pig are similar, industry terms corresponding to the particular animal vary. There are eight beef primals once the carcass has been split into sides (i.e., halves): shank, chuck, brisket, rib, loin, flank, plate, and round. There are four pork primals: shoulder, loin, belly (side), and leg (ham).
It's best if you get down on all fours and try to imagine how the parts correspond to that of our own bodies. Take a moment to imagine your spine—the way it extends from your neck and terminates near the pelvis. At the base of your spine on either side are your buttocks and then the legs: on a pig, this constitutes the primal that's referred to as the leg or ham. Take your finger and place it on your first rib nearest to your neck. Count five ribs down and trace the space between your fifth and sixth rib, starting in the middle at your sternum and ending all the way into the spine in your back. You've traced the primal that's referred to as the shoulder, made of up two smaller portions called the butt and the picnic (more on the difference later). Once you've reached your spine, imagine tunneling underneath the skin into the different layers—there's the fat underneath the skin, and then there are the ribs—on the pig, there are more bones extending out from the spine, such as the feather and chine bones, which hold the loin in place. Finally, your belly is not all that different from the pig's belly: a hardy layer of skin followed by a thick layer of fat, then more flesh marbled with fat.
Step One: Removing the Tenderloin
The tenderloin lies flat against the spine near the hindquarter of the pig; the only obstructions to its removal are the kidney and leaf lard. At the shop, the only offal still attached to the pig is the kidney, which is encased in leaf lard—a long, cylindrical mass of fat. To quickly remove the leaf lard and the kidney, you place both hands on the fat and give it a long, hard yank: the leaf lard will easily come away from the carcass in one whole piece.
The long strip of tenderloin terminates into two oval-shaped chunks of meat, which are buried deep into the part of the pig where the leg meets the loin. To remove the tenderloin without losing the nuggets at the end, you stick your fingertips into the junction between the loin and the leg and feel around until you locate the sinews that tether the tenderloin in place.
Doing so will give you a better idea of where to place the tip of your boning knife to cut those sinews. Even so, the rounded slash that you make, like a scythe reaping grain, is done by feel rather than sight. Tenderloins need a bit of manicuring to become the completely boneless, skinless tubes of meat you see at the store. The silverside—a thin silver wall of connective tissue—will be trimmed away, along with any other sinews that billow outwards from the tenderloin.
Step Two: Removing the Leg
Removing the leg is the most trying cut to make for a number of reasons. To begin with, the leg is terribly plump. The primal begins at the belly and ends at the loin, so the section spans multiple other primals. In order to see the leg properly, you make a cut in the belly where the leg begins, then peel away the corner of the belly to get better access to the leg.
The handsaw needs to penetrate the area between the aitch bone, a small, globular bone, and the ball-and-socket joint that connects to the leg bone. Ideally, the handsaw will enter the meeting point between the two bones on the first attempt, so that the cut is quick and clean.
The best way to get through the leg is long, steady strokes. I've seen Josh put a few strokes through with the handsaw, then finish the job by moving the leg to the edge of the table and snapping the joint out of place.
Lacking the upper body strength to pull this off, I stuck to the handsaw and laboriously pushed my way through the bone.
"No, tighten your waist and make the cuts like you're punching through," Josh said. "Like this."
I punch like a girl. Even when I focused on putting my entire body strength into the handsaw, the blade wobbled aimlessly from side to side; it may have taken me a full ten minutes just to saw through the joint.
After the aitch bone has been separated from the ball and socket joint, you still need to take the boning knife and carve into the massive sections of flesh to fully detach the leg—a demanding cut in itself since you don't want to lose any flesh by cutting too deeply into the leg.
Step Three: Removing the Shoulder
Conveniently for the butcher, pigs, cows, and lambs all have fourteen ribs (twenty-eight, if you count both sides). The shoulder of the pig is comprised of two sections: the butt—the part of the shoulder closer to the neck, and the picnic ham—the bottom half of the shoulder with the leg (sans hock and trotter) attached. In order to remove the full shoulder, the standard procedure is to count five ribs out starting from the very first rib—a small bone, but a rib nonetheless.
The first time I counted, Josh asked me, "Are you sure that's the fifth rib?" and of course I'd missed the first, smallest rib nearest to the neck. Then, holding your knife in the pistol grip, you plunge the knife into the space between the fifth and sixth rib. The tip of your knife will hit the cutting table. I cannot fully describe the pleasure I feel when the tip of the boning knife hits the wooden cutting table. The sensation is thrilling—the palm grips tightly around the handle of the knife, which is sunk deep into the carcass and only makes its exit out from the skin side of the animal.
Once the knife has hit the table, you lock your elbow at a right angle and use your own shoulder muscles to pivot your knife down the length of the pig. The movement is just one steady slash down the loin and belly, using your blade as if it were a gigantic pair of scissors cutting into a flimsy piece of paper. There's some resistance at the very end of the cut—just when the blade is about to fully make its way through the skin— so you push through with your last bit of energy for that cut and make the separation.
At this point, the only point of attachment is the spine. Again, either make an initial cut and then bring the pig to the edge of the table to snap the spine in two, or use the handsaw to make the entire incision.
Josh walked over to the cutting board and watched as I struggled with the handsaw.
"Let me see that for a second," he said, taking the handsaw from me. Then, removing the blade from its hinges, he reversed the direction of the handsaw so that the teeth, tiny glinting points of sharpness, were facing outwards.
The blood drained from my face.
"Are you f****ing kidding me?" I said. "I just sawed through my first pig with the blade on backwards?"
"Yep, you sure did!" he replied, walking away.
There's a right and a wrong time for blasphemy, and when you discover that you spent the last hour working with the dull side of a blade, a healthy dose of swearing helps to allay the frustration.
Step Four: Separating the Loin from the Belly
Once the front and back ends of the pig are off, the midsection is composed of the loin—the major section of meat near the spine where we find pork chops, and the belly—i.e., what we use for bacon. Since there are ribs running down the side, the handsaw needs to cut laterally through all remaining nine ribs. Baby back ribs, as the name suggests, are the cut of the ribs closest to the spine on the back; the St. Louis cut is the middle section of the ribs. Riblets or ribtips denote the end of the ribs lodged in the belly; with more fat than either the baby back or the St. Louis, rib tips are my favorite type of rib.
The first moment I took off the belly was revelatory. Though I'd seen the whole slabs of bacon before, it's a different experience to work with an entire half of a pig and break it down into more recognizable cuts. The first time I leaned down to look at the side of belly, the cross-section view of the belly look just like a giant slab of bacon—skin, then fat, then meat, then more fat.
How to Deep Fry Pig's Tails
Since a pig only has one tail to give, pig's tails really are a butcher's dinner. It's neither a sustainable cut nor something you're likely to find behind most counters, but if you manage to attain a few pounds worth of tails, you're going to want to deep-fry them. Trust me on this one. With a lot of connective tissue and bone, pig's tails are very good when braised or stewed, but to do a simple simmering would be to deny the tail its full potential as the perfect vehicle for crispy skin.
The last time I wrote about pig's tails I used a recipe that I truly love. It was a hazardous recipe, fraught with injuries and regrets. When the pigs' tails splattered out of control and missiles of hot oil hit what I presumed was my eyeball, I cowered at the thought of having to go through life with only the use of one good eye, lamenting that I'd never finished Joyce's Ulysses, dove deep into the Mediterranean, and most near and dear to my heart: that I'd never broken down a pig. So I'm ending today's post with a revisit to that recipe for deep-fried pigs' tails, despite the fact that it almost took my eye out.
I'd like to say that I've made major inroads in reducing the accident-prone nature of the recipe, but I've only made minor adjustments to assuage the effects. While coating the simmered tails in cornstarch or flour would certainly decrease the popping of the skin, doing so dramatically changes its texture. The deep-fried skin is best when it's plainly fried without any protective coating, so that it can be at its crispiest and thinnest. As such, the only adjustment I've made is to fry the tails in a deeper pot with more oil, so that the tails will sink slightly into the oil. Covering the tails for the first minute or so of deep-frying also helps, since much of the popping will subside after the initial contact with hot oil.
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.