By Cyril E. Jordan – In 1936 at age seven, we moved to Allegheny County, Friendship, New York. I farmed with my father most of my life and I still own about 60 acres. We used to raise pigs for meat (cattle, too), and I’ve got several tips on butchering a pig that have been passed down through the generations. Currently, we raise chickens for eggs, turkeys, rabbits, guinea hens or whatever my wife chooses to come home with.
For most of my life we smoked our own hams, shoulders and bacon and it was the greatest taste in the world. For some reason we got away from doing it and in 1974 I decided to reprogram my mind with the old family method while Dad was still here to direct me.
Wondering what can pigs eat? Well that fall I had a little corn that did not get ripe enough to store in the crib and had no use for silage so I went to an auction and purchased 14 little pigs. I raised them on commercial feed and all the soft corn they would eat.
Under Dad’s supervision I butchered and smoked all 14 of them. After that I have done several alone but not in the last four or five years. Gotta get back at it!
Many old timers had different little quirks to enhance the operation of butchering a pig and naturally whatever it was, it made their product “superior” to their neighbors and I am sure you will receive other recipes from around the country that differ from mine and will be just as good in providing you with a satisfactory product.
The operation that I relate is the way my dad and the way his dad and I even suspect the way his dad prepared and smoked their pork.
Today many people have their hogs skinned but that is a no-no with me. The hog must be scalded and scraped with the hide remaining.
The first step I offer for butchering a pig is to cure the meat in a brine. The only ingredients required are water and salt. Other things can be added, but salt is the preservative required. Our old family method of butchering a pig was to add a little salt, pepper and brown sugar and therefore, so do I.
The meat should be placed in a very clean crock or wooden barrel. I have always used a barrel because that’s what dad used and so did his dad, etc. If you use a barrel and if it is a new whisky barrel, place the barrel upside down on bricks or something to hold it off the ground, with wrinkled up newspapers inside it, light the newspapers and burn out the barrel. Then rinse it thoroughly and it is ready to use. If the barrel is not a new whisky barrel, then scrub it with a strong chlorine solution, then rinse thoroughly. If you use a crock, scrub it with a chlorine solution then rinse thoroughly. I guess today some people use plastic type containers but that just doesn’t sit with me.
Making the brine: Before refrigeration, Dad would dissolve enough salt in a bucket of water to cause a fresh egg to float or come to the surface. In later years he gradually cut the amount of salt back and today I would use enough salt to cause an egg to stand up and just bounce off the bottom of the bucket. This is still quite a lot of salt for people who do not sweat enough to cleanse their body of excess chemicals that are supposed to be bad for you. Add a small pinch of saltpeter (Prague Powder) and a couple tablespoons of brown sugar for every bucket of water.
Place the meat in the container and cover completely with the brine. Then cut a board the right size to fit in the container to hold the meat down and place a rock on top of the board for weight. Of course you will want to scrub the board and the rock with your chlorine solution also. I suppose other modern nonferrous materials could be used for this but “don’t tell Grandpa.”
In the old days, butchering a pig was done around Thanksgiving time and the meat was left in the brine all winter. Today, I prefer to leave it down about four weeks.
Occasionally check the meat and move it around in the brine because where the hams touch eat other, the brine does not penetrate. Also, and this is very important: When you place the meat in the brine, take a handful of salt and rub it on every exposed bone, especially where the bone has been cut. If you do this, you will not need to use a syringe to inject the brine into the meat around the joint. This is an old Jordan method which has always worked for us without ever having any spoiled meat.
After the meat has cured in the brine for about four weeks, prepare for the smoking. The time to smoke is in the spring when the sap is running because the intent is to produce as much smoke with little flame or heat as possible. There are several types of wood you can use such as hickory, hard maple, apple, or even corn cobs. However, most people have their favorite and so do the Jordans. (Hard maple.)
Do not cut the wood in advance. Go to the fence row and find some young cull maple… not a whole lot. Prepare your fuel in the fire pot and your smokehouse by placing a little torn up newspaper with a little dry kindling and fine maple slivers. Tending the fire is very important. Once the fire is burning, increase the size of wood to create more smoke with almost no flame. (Tricky.)
Remove the meat from the brine and let hang for a little while to drip off, then hang it in the smoke house. Be sure you have placed a metal type guard between the meat and the fire. I use a piece of metal roofing. Hang the meat so the pieces do not touch each other. If some appear to be advancing faster than others, rotate them.
The first day you should make sure your meat gets a good smoking without cooking. I would smoke it for about four or five hours with careful attention. Let the fire die out and light it again the next day. The length of time can be shorter just so you give it a little bit. If you work out you can wait until you get home, then smoke it for an hour or two in the evening. On the third day do the same. On the fourth day, if the hams look well coated, you may even want to skip and not smoke it again until the fifth day. Skip the sixth day. Smoke it again on the seventh day. This should be sufficient if you are going to cut, wrap and freeze it. Remember, if you plan to let it hang as in the old days you will need to salt and smoke it harder. If the weather stays cool you can leave it in the smoke house for a week or two. The reason for smoking pork slow is to allow time for the smoke to draw into the meat. If you smoke it too fast, you will only cook the outside and the inside may yet be raw. Some people today claim they can achieve the same results with injections but don’t believe it. There is nothing that can compare with the flavor of ham that has been cured the slow old-fashioned way.
In the old days the meat was heavily salted and smoked hard, then placed in brand new flour sacks obtained at Burett’s General Store in Oliveburg, PA. The meat was placed in the sacks and tied tight. Pepper was then put on the top of the sack to discourage little creatures from tying to get into it. Then the sacks were hung in the granary. When meat was needed, a sack would be carried to the house where the desired amount would be cut off then replaced in the granary. As a little boy (three-to-five years old) I remember getting a taste cut right off the ham because it was preserved to the extent you could do so.
Today I use less salt and do not smoke it as hard. Then I cut, wrap and put it in the freezer. You will find this will still be plenty salty for today’s taste.
I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you along with the old timers out there with their techniques on butchering a pig and ham smoking techniques.
Originally published in Countryside November / December 1993