Picking your pig and preparing your workstations
For home use purposes, you will probably want to select a young gilt (female pig) or a castrated male that weighs from 180 to 250 lbs. A smaller pig is not as economical, and a much larger pig will have a higher percentage of body weight in fat and be less manageable for home slaughter. I have slaughtered animals up to 300 lbs with good results, but the returns from feed do diminish when they get to this stage.
All you need to know on butchering your own pig, from preparing your workstations through slaughtering, dehairing and hanging to butchering, preserving and rendering to curing, cooking, smoking, air drying and freezing.
Judging livestock is fairly complex, can take years to learn to do properly, but here are some of the basics you can start with. Look for an animal that is broad in the back, more flat and firm than rounded, as this indicates less waste backfat. If you could balance a tea-tray on the pig’s back without it wobbling, this is a desirable animal. A good wide stance is another hint that there is some solid muscle present; a pig that stands with its hind legs too close together is a less desirable animal.
The shape of the ham, the curve of the buttock and the hind leg, is something else to look at closely. A good, full, round curve means plenty of meat on the animal. A lean, angular, slanted jut to the leg and butt means that the ham is less muscular and lower yielding.
Before slaughter, pigs should be given free access to water but be denied food for at least 12 and preferably 24 hours in order to help purge the digestive system. They should not be crowded, exposed to high temperatures or unnecessarily stressed. Just before slaughter, they can be hosed clean, or scrubbed by hand if they will tolerate handling without becoming stressed. It is not only cruel to stress animals and to cause them unnecessary pain, it results in a poorer meat product.
Preparing your workstations:
You will need (ideally) three workstations and a slaughter area. You should have all these set up before the animal is hosed clean and transported to the slaughter area.
An instructional manual that includes some good visual diagrams is a very good idea to have available at your first butchering. Guides to raising and harvesting home livestock are available at farm supply stores and some large bookstores, and if you do your own slaughter, one of these is essential for the diagrams on accurate and human stunning and bleeding. If you begin with the carcass, the finest reference manual for processing that I can think of is The Art of Charcuterie by Jane Grigson (listed in the bibliography).
The Slaughter Area (also Workstation #2, Gutting Station)
The slaughter area should have thick, durable plastic sheeting on the floor. This is purchasable in any hardware store and is most often found in the painter’s supply aisles. Your other workstations will also need plastic sheeting, but you can get away with a much thinner and cheaper grade for those.
You may use up to five 10′ X 10′ plastic sheets in one slaughter operation, and all but one of them can be an inexpensive housepainter’s grade. If you spend $5 to $8 on your plastic sheeting, you will save yourself at least an hour and probably more of labor scrubbing surfaces, and also decrease your risk of tainted meat.
In your slaughtering area you will need a pulley or chainfall, sturdy rope of at least 500 lb test strength, a rifle or a professional livestock stunner (captive-bolt or electrical), a knife with at least an 8″ to 10″ blade, Rubber gloves are optional. To preserve the blood for later uses in blood pudding and blood sausage, you will need a clean bucket ready with 1/2 cup of good white vinegar already in it ready at the slaughtering station.
Workstation #1: Dehairing tub and scraping table
Your first workstation is the dehairing area, and for this you will need a tub or 55-gallon drum full of hot water at precisely 150 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, an instant read cook’s thermometer to check the water, some large kettles of boiling water, a large sturdy table at a comfortable work height covered with plastic sheeting, a small blowtorch with a flame spreader (hardware store supply), several bell scrapers (paint scrapers will do, some long handled brushes, and so will a dull knife) and some iron or copper wool. I have successfully used an old, heavy door on top of two sawhorses for the scraping area, covered with a sturdy and clean plastic sheet. For the chilling stage, if you do not have a cold room or very cold weather (between 32F and 40F) in which to hang a carcass to chill and firm overnight, you will need from 30 to 40 lbs of ice.
The dehairing tub should be positioned in such a way that you can dip the pig into it fairly easily by manipulating the rope and pulley or chainfall. The tub should be sturdy enough so that the pig cannot knock it over if any unwanted shenanigans occur.
Most home hot water heaters can be made to directly deliver water at a fairly high temperature, so if you are lucky and have one in an accessible area, you may be able to get water close to this temperature out of your taps. Adjust temperature upwards by using large pots full of boiling water. In an outdoor slaughter, it is also possible to prop up a tub or drum over heavy rocks and build a fire underneath, but this may lead to overheating or uneven heating.
The sturdy dehairing table can also serves as the primal separation and processing area. Use a clean (or well hosed) plastic sheet on the scraping table. You will need many assorted knives, a knife sharpening tool, a cleaver and hammer, a meat saw, a bandsaw or a reciprocating saw, a hose with running water or several basins of water, clean paper towels, plenty of garbage bags, large food storage bags and clean food grade buckets. A clean chainsaw lubricated with food grade vegetable oil may also be used to make the backbone and heavy bone cuts on the carcass.
If you have enough cold storage room (36F to 40F) to set up overnight brine tubs, and this is highly recommended to improve the flavor and moisture retention of pork you do not plan to freeze for more than a month, you should plan for enough food grade buckets to hold as many of the following cuts as you think you want to brine: the head and trotters (for headcheese), all four legs and the loin or “pork chops”. Basic brine recipes can be found in Section X.
Workstation #2: Gutting Station
Your second workstation, which can actually be in the same place as the slaughtering area since the pig will be hanging head-down for this operation, is the gutting station. You will need access to running water or basins of water, several buckets, assorted plastic bags and meat containers, a gambrel hook or a clean, sturdy 1″ X 1′ dowel with a screw eye in the middle and a few feet of twine, scissors, one small (3″ – 6″) knife, plenty of clean paper towels and a bucket containing a 10% bleach solution or an antibacterial soap that is rated for use in food service. Rubber or latex gloves are highly recommended. Sanitary separation must occur between this station and the later meat processing areas.
Workstation #3: Your Kitchen
The third and final workstation is your kitchen, where you will finish the processing and preserving. Your sink and counters should be scrubbed clean with bleach before and after, and you will want to have ready a number of large Ziplock bags, many Tupperware containers, assorted knives and a knife sharpener, several good cutting boards, five pounds each of non iodized salt and loose brown sugar, plenty of coarsely ground black pepper, some spices to taste, a good quantity of fresh or dried sage, the ice left over from pig chilling in the sink, and (optional) a gallon or so of maple syrup and a bottle of good brandy or Calvados for bacon curing.
The ergonomics of the workstations should flow like this: the pig is humanely stunned while on the ground, and hauled up on the pulley or chainfall for slaughtering. The pulley must then swing over to the dehairing station as the pig is next dipped into the tub of heated water for a few minutes, then pulled out and laid on the table for scraping, and then possibly plunged in again to repeat the process. It can then be swung back to the original slaughtering area for gutting, with the original over-hock tie on its hind legs being replaced by a gambrel stick or a thick dowel threaded behind the large tendons on the hind legs and tied in place with twine.
After it is gutted and the carcass and processing area is cleaned thoroughly, the pig is allowed to chill for a few hours on ice (ideally overnight hanging in a cold room, but not all of us have a cold room) before it is swung back to lie on the cleaned scraping table, where it is separated into primal cuts and smaller cuts. Finally, those cuts are carried into the kitchen for processing into bacon, sausage and manageable cuts for the home freezer and refrigerator.
Prepare all your workstations and make sure they are clean and have all the equipment you will need ready at hand before you proceed to the slaughter.