A pig is a large animal, capable providing meat for a family for the better part of a year properly preserved. These days, we freeze most of our meat to keep it from spoiling, but refrigeration has only been around for the past century or so. How did out great-grandparents, and countless generations before them, preserve the harvest?
I began researching preservation methods a few years ago, hoping to home process a hog and preserve it using traditional methods. Right after we got that year’s pigs, I became pregnant with my first child and I learned just how hard it is to put food on the table while growing a family.
Our pigs were still processed at home, but later than expected. They were almost a year old and about 350 pounds each. It took us all day to just get them into the freezer, with an 8-week old baby slung on my back while we worked.
It was all we could do to get them put up, and we weren’t up for adding any extra challenges to our day. Into the freezer they went.
My pork preserving research will not go to waste. We still plan to preserve a whole pig without refrigeration in the next few years. I’ve found methods for almost every part of the pig, but there are a few that still a few parts that remain elusive.
I have yet to find traditional methods for long-term preservation of pork ribs, for example. There are a few traditional southeast Asian methods for fermenting the meat, but only for a short period before consumption. For now, I plan to preserve the rib meat as rillettes and cook the bones down for pressure canned pork stock.
In order to preserve a whole pig without refrigeration, I’m still going to fall back on a few modern methods, including canning. None the less, those methods still don’t require electricity, and modern or not, they can still be accomplished with little more than a bit of equipment and a fire pit.
Tools and Resources for Pork Preservation
Before you get started, you’ll need the right tools. Very sharp and purpose-built knives are essential to parting up a pig at home, especially if you plan to end the day with all your fingers still attached. Cutting with a dull knife, or the wrong type of knife for the job is a good way to get hurt. Here’s a list of the knives we use on processing day:
- 6-inch Boning Knife with Flexible Blade – For cutting around joints and along bones like the shoulder blade.
- 12-Inch Butcher Knife with a Rounded Tip – Perfect for long cuts like separating out ribs.
- 5-inch Skinning Blade – Essential if you’re skinning a pig, but also helpful in separating layers between cuts.
- 22-inch Stainless Steel Meat Saw – Not exactly a knife, but a must for cutting through bone.
Beyond good tools, you’ll need a few key supplies. If you’re adventurous, you can clean your own pork casings for sausage. If this is your first time making sausage, however, I’d suggest practicing with store-bought casings to get the process down before you add that extra complexity. Curing salt, as well as regular kosher salt, are also a must haves for long-term preservation. You’ll also need a meat grinder, either electric (we use this one) or hand powered, and a sausage stuffer.
If you’re seriously considering raising and preserving a whole pig at home, I’d also suggest investing in a few charcuterie books. If you’re only going to buy one, I’d suggest starting with Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. It’s comprehensive and written in easy to understand language with lots of recipes included. Here’s what’s on my charcuterie shelf:
- Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing
- The Art of Making Fermented Sausages
- The River Cottage Curing and Smoking Handbook
- Olympia Provisions: Cured Meats and Tales from an American Charcuterie
- Meat Smoking and Smokehouse Design
Best Preservation Methods for Each Pork Cut
We’re used to using each cut of pork differently in our cooking. Some cuts are tougher, and are better roasted low and slow, while others are better for quick grilling. In pork preservation, each cut has different characteristics that affect the final flavor of the product.
Tougher and fattier cuts can be ground into sausage that’s preserved in casings, while leaner or more tender cuts may be salted and preserved whole.
Cured Pork Leg
The back legs of the pig get less work than the shoulder and the meat is more tender. The whole leg is often cured as one piece, into either a type of ham or prosciutto. The process involves thoroughly salting the entire leg, and then curing for a year or more.
Since it’s such a big cut of meat, it can be risky if you don’t have the temperatures just right. Only curing a ham or prosciutto at home if you have an appropriate root cellar or consistently cool basement.
My friend Teri at Homestead Honey built a root cellar (and wrote a book about the process) and home-cured prosciutto was one of the first things that went in. She wrote about her adventures in homestead meat curing, where they cured prosciutto, lardo, salami and bacon on their homestead in Missouri.
Cured Pork Loin
Coming back from the dark neck meat is the lightly colored pork loin. When the back fat is left on, this becomes pork chops. Totally stripped of back fat and rib bones, this cut becomes a single long loin cut. There are a number of different regional ways to cure a pork loin.
The Italians make it into lonzino with a bit of salt, sugar and instacure #2 along with black pepper, garlic, cloves and thyme. Canadian bacon and German kassler are also made from the pork loin, but it’s a fresh cure that won’t keep the same way that lonzino will.
Cured Pork Tenderloin
The tougher parts of the pig are the parts that a pig uses every single day for basic motions. Good examples are the jaw and jowl muscles for chewing and the neck muscles for rooting. The tenderloin is just the opposite. It’s a small muscle that pulls the pigs back legs forward as it moves. For the most part, that’s a passive action, and that muscle hardly ever contracts. Lack of use makes a tenderloin exceptionally tender and smooth meat.
If you can, roast the tenderloin up the day you process the pig for a real treat. It’s quick cooking and prepares without much fuss. There’s nothing better than a succulent tenderloin after a long day spent processing a pig to remind you why it’s all worthwhile.
If you do choose to preserve the tenderloin with the other cuts, there are a few things to keep in mind. Tenderloins are much smaller and even leaner than pork loins. They can be cured quickly and easily at home as a whole cut.
Cured Pork Shoulder (Salumi)
The pork shoulder is almost always ground into sausage for salumi. Why? The shoulder is one of the most used groups of muscles on a pig, and it tends to be tough and fibrous. It also happens to have the perfect proportion of fat to meat for most sausage (20% fat and 80% meat). Since the shoulder is heavily used, it also has more flavor than most cuts, which yields exceptional sausage.
There are literally hundreds of different types of cured sausages. They vary in size, curing time, seasoning and most importantly, flavor. They all use lactic acid bacteria, the same bacteria that makes sauerkraut and kimchi, to consume the sugars within the meat and lower the pH so that harmful pathogens cannot thrive. To do this wonderful preservation work, they need salt.
Salt added at the beginning of the process slows down the growth of harmful bacteria and gives the lactic acid bacteria a competitive advantage. For an in-depth tutorial on home-cured sausages, The Art of Making Fermented Sausages is the best resource around. It covers every aspect of sausage making and explains in detail how and why each step work to preserve the meat (along with troubleshooting guides).
If you’re considering building your own smokehouse, as many types of cured meat and sausages are smoked, I’d highly recommend Meat Smoking and Smokehouse Design by the same author.
To make salami, you first have to make sausage. That involves grinding the meat and then getting it into casings with seasoning and salt. We use a LEM 3/4 hp meat grinder, and it makes beautiful mince for sausage at the rate of 7 pounds per minute. You can also use a hand grinder, which will give you a good work out and let you accomplish the same thing without electricity.
Regardless of how you grind the sausage if you plan to cure the meat DO NOT use the meat grinder to pack your sausage into casings. Putting the meat back through the meat grinder emulsifies the meat and sausage bits, leaving you with something akin to hot dogs or bologna. Good quality salumi is made with a sausage stuffer, that does not mash and emulsify the meat as it goes into the casing.
Homestead Honey has beautiful pictures (and a tutorial) for making sausage at home using an 8-quart sausage stuffer after manually grinding the meat in a hand grinder.
Cured Pork Neck
Capocollo is an Italian word that directly translates to “top of the neck.” That’s just where this cut comes from. When cutting up a pig, you can easily see that the loin that runs above the ribs and outside of the spine changes color near the neck. Starting at the 4th or 5th rib, the loin meat abruptly changes from white meat pork to the much darker color of the collo or “collar” meat.
Because the Italian language varies by region, it’s also called capicollo, capicollu, finocchiata. In Argentina, they call it bondiola or bondiola curada. In the US we typically call it capicola or capicolla.
The main difference between preparing capocollo and many other cured whole pork cuts is that capocollo is cased in a large casing as a whole cut. Since this adds considerable complexity to the process, the neck meat is sometimes just ground into sausage with the shoulder meat. It can also be cured in a similar manner to the pork loin, though the texture, flavor and fat content will be very different.
After the meat goes into a large casing, it’s then tied using a number of complicated butchers knots to secure it along the whole length of the cut. These days, butchers and home curers alike use meat nets to simplify the process.
Cured Pork Belly
Everyone knows that pork belly is for making bacon. The trick is, not every culture makes bacon the same way. American bacon was cured and hot smoked to be shelf stable as pioneers moved across the open plains.
Italians make a completely raw version called pancetta that’s rolled and hung to cure with aromatic spices. The French also have a version, called ventreche.
Cured Pork Jowls
Cured pig jowl, or Guanciale, is cured meat somewhat like pancetta, but more flavorful. A pig really uses its jowl muscles, which means that they’re tough but flavorful. The curing process renders them tender but maintains all the rich flavor. The pig jowl is cured in a mix of instacure #2, salt, sugar and spices for about a week until it’s stiff. It’s then washed off and hung to dry at 50 to 60 degrees and 55% humidity for at least 3 weeks.
Cured Pork Ribs and Trimmings
I’ll admit it, I haven’t found a good way to cure pork ribs. My best solution is to either cook them immediately or to bone the meat off and cure it in pork fat as confit.
Confit is salt-cured meat, slow cooked in fat directly in a preservation vesicle, like an earthenware pot. When it cools, the fat seals the top and keeps oxygen out, effectively protecting the sterilized cooked meat inside. Kept in a cool dark place, confit, or potted pork, should keep for months.
Using Pig Head, Shanks and Trotters
Though head cheese is not a preserve or cure, it is an excellent way to make use of the little bits of meat and rich gelatin found in the head, shanks and trotters. The yield is relatively small, and it’s one of those things to eat within a few days of processing a pig. Hank Shaw at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook describes the process in a nutshell:
“hog’s head and a few trotters simmered with herbs, veggies and spices until the meat — and everything else — falls off. You then pick through the bits for the goodies, strain and reduce the stock and rely on the gelatin in it to set the sausage.”
Hank also describes in detail why it really shouldn’t be called head cheese, but hey, that’s what it’s called in this country. It may not be an appetizing name, but it does make a tasty meal.
Hunter Angler Gardener Cook – Copa di Testa (head cheese)
Hunter Angler Gardner Cook – Fromage de Tete (French Head Cheese)
Kopiaste (to Greek Hospitality) – Zalatina (Greek Head Cheese)
Preserving Different Types of Pork Fat
Pork fat is one of the easiest parts to preserve. If properly rendered, lard will keep in a cool pantry without refrigeration. Meats preserved in pork fat, such as rillets and confit, will also keep in a cool cellar without canning.
How to Render Leaf Lard
Unlike bacon drippings, good quality lard doesn’t taste anything like pork. Lard can be used for deep frying, but it can also be used in pies, biscuits, cookies and scones.
Traditionally, leaf lard was reserved for making the very best pies. Leif lard is taken from the leaf fat, which is a lobe of fat found near the kidneys. It’s roughly shaped like a leaf, thus the name. Since the leaf fat is softer, the lard is spreadable at room temperature, making it very easy to work with.
Regardless of the fat you choose, it will render cleaner if you grind it first. The more surface area, the easier it is for the fat to melt without taking on any extra porky flavor.
Lard can be made from any pork fat, but backfat lard will be harder in texture and is better for deep frying. Save the back fat for use diced up in cured sausages or cured as lardo, and make your lard from leaf lard if you can.
How to Cure Cure Back Fat
Back fat is a solid sheet of fat above the pork loin and just under the skin. In heritage breeds, it’s often several inches thick. To make quality lardo, the backfat needs to be at least an inch thick.
In today’s lean pigs, it’s rarely enough to cure on its own. If you want to make quality lardo or any sausage containing back fat cubes, raise a traditional heritage breed. Our home raised heritage pigs had nearly 2 inches of backfat at 5 months old, so no problem there.
Lardo is cured back fat, which is sliced paper thin. It has a silky texture and complex flavor that’s developed in 3 to 6 months of curing. The author of The River Cottage Curing and Smoking Handbook gives this suggestion for the best way to eat lardo:
“[Lardo should be] sliced gossamer-thin and can be eaten raw with a small amount of olive oil, or as I particularly recommend, wrapped around freshly steamed asparagus so that it becomes translucent and melting.”
Lardo is also made into a dish called Pesto Modenese, which is lardo whipped with parmesan, garlic and herbs. It’s used as a rich spread on bread or toast.
Bacon is Magic – Pesto Modenese (whipped lardo spread)
How to Use Caul Fat
Caul fat is another type of fat that surrounds the intestines like a lacy membrane. This very particular type of fat is used to wrap meatballs, sausages and specialty items. Historically, the butcher would keep this type of fat as an extra and use it on his own table. These days, it’s finding its way into high-end restaurants.
If you want to see true beauty, check out these pork liver and caul fat caillettes. Trust me. It’s hard to make liver and caul fat sexy, but these are about as sexy as nose to tail eating gets.
Traditional “Butchers Faggots” are a dish made by British butchers to use up the truly odd portions of the pig that are hard to sell. Things like lungs and caul fat go into this delicacy, that was reserved especially for the butchers family. Scott Rea has a video recipe for butchers faggots that takes you through the whole process:
Preserving Pork Bones as Stock
The bones are full of nutrient-rich marrow and cook down into a delicious and protein-rich bone broth. A single pig yields a lot of bones, which means a lot of pork stock. A single pig will yield between 40 and 60 quarts of pork stock, and though it can be frozen, that’s a lot of freezer space and electricity. A better method is pressure canning.
We also incorporate the organ meats into stock, which adds more flavor and richness.
Keep in mind that all of these cured meats will need space to cure, sometimes for a year or more. While a back closet is great for the occasional dry cured cut, a whole pig is going to need ample space and good air flow. Do you have enough space on hand to accommodate a whole pig dry curing?
Perhaps before you commit to a whole pig, consider portioning off a portion of your basement as a root cellar. Better yet, build one outdoors.
What are your favorite ways to preserve pork? What methods have I missed? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.