Going Whole Hog

Minnesota Spoon’s tip-to-tail guide to breaking down a pig


Photos by Matt Lien

If there are 1,000 ways to skin a cat, then there are approximately 1,001 ways to butcher a hog. That’s because each chef has his or her preferred method, myself included. Here, then, is my go-to guide for breaking down a pig.

There are a few things that reign true for all methods of whole-hog butchering: sharp knifes, sanitary working conditions, and proper areas for meat storage. Each of these areas needs to be addressed before starting to butcher any animal. After those conditions are met, you can begin the butchering process.

When I receive a hog, it comes gutted, head off, singed of all hair, and split in half along the spine. Not all hogs will come like this, but this is where we will begin for the sake of this particular method. I’ll walk through doing one of the halves; the same method can be applied to the other half.

The first step to breaking down the hog is separating it into user-friendly size pieces. To do that, take the half hog and split it into three different sections: the shoulder, the middles, and the ham. After those pieces are out, break them into usable meats. The shoulder will produce a coppa and a picnic shoulder; the middles will produce chops, belly, and ribs; and the ham will be left whole for roasted ham.

Two middle sections

Two middle sections

To take the shoulder off the pig, bring a boning knife between the fourth and fifth ribs. Slice up to the top of the shoulder and then back down towards the belly area. You should have a clean cut all the way to the spine. At that point, use a bone saw to separate the shoulder from the rest of the body. Next, take off the foot at the first joint using a combination of boning knife and bone saw. 

Move to the other end of the hog and mark a line roughly a quarter of the way up the start of the tailbone. Using your boning knife, cut through all the meat surrounding the line of the tailbone. Finish the cut with a bone saw, sawing through the portions of tailbone and spine in that area. Remove the rear foot in the same manner as the front foot. Now you have our three manageable segments of shoulder, ham, and middles. Put the middles and ham into the fridge; keep the shoulder out to cut.

First, remove all the skin and excess fat from the shoulder. Next, take the ribs, shoulder blade, neck, and arm bone out. Once those bone sections are cut away, there will be two distinct sections left: the coppa and the picnic shoulder. The coppa is a beautiful cut of meat for roasting or braising. The picnic shoulder makes for incredible sausage or braising meat. Set your cuts in the fridge and pull out the middles.


Taking skin off the shoulders

For the middles, use a combination of boning knife and bone saw to cut through the lower portion of the ribs and remove the belly from the loin. Once the belly is off, separate the section of ribs from the top of the belly. Set the belly in the fridge to cool and start taking off the chops from the loin section.

Again using a combination of boning knife for cutting through meat and bone saw for cutting through bone, cut out chops of your desired thickness, being extra careful to keep the tenderloin intact as you move down the loin. Once the chops are out, trim off any fat that you don’t want, set all the cuts in the fridge to chill, and pull out the ham.

Splitting the loin into chops

Splitting the loin into chops

To start the ham, remove all the skin but leave about a quarter-inch of fat surrounding the leg. Flip the leg over and remove the leg, pelvic, and tail bones to create a boneless ham. Truss it up, brine it, and you have yourself a roasting ham.

That, my friends, is a basic outline on how to break down a pig. If you’re looking to learn hands on, contact me at [email protected] for pig butchering classes.

For more cooking tips, follow @TheMinnesotaSpoon on Instagram or Facebook, or go to SlayToGourmet.com to see some previous recipes.


Speak Your Mind