Every meat-eater I've ever met has a very special place in their belly for bacon. Quite simply, it is delicious, almost any way you cook it. In fact, we love it so much that we raise a couple of pigs each year to meet all our bacon needs, not to mention ham, lard, sausage, pork chops, ribs, etc.
Within this article we hope to run you through the real basics of bacon. How to raise pigs holistically, a summary of butchering, curing the ham and bacon, and finally how to smoke it (we even have another Instructable on how to build a smoker). Admittedly, this isn't for everyone, but the quality of meat you get from happy, healthy, pastured pigs is unsurpassed. If you don't have the space and resources to raise a pig yourself, it pays to get in touch with someone locally who can, or organize a pig-share.
Unfortunately, all our photos of smoked meat, seem to be of the shoulder or of hams. Sorry, you'll just have to think bacon when you see them!
For more information on raising and processing pigs, click here.
For other stuff we do, visit our website here.
Step 1: Pig Facts
- The size of a litter varies with each sow, her age and breed playing a big role. But let's say the average is 8 piglets. Of those 8, there will normally be a runt (which will always be on the smaller side and is best to avoid buying if you can) and a couple of extra big ones. The latter is what you want ideally when buying a piglet to raise.
- Any pig will produce bacon, but a Landrace is usually longer than most breeds and thus will produce more bacon. It is also a fast growing breed.
- Piglets are usually weaned between 4 and 6 weeks, and this is when they are sold to people to feed up. Prices for a feeder pig vary according to your location. Near us, they sell for about $40.
- The perfect butcher size for a Landrace is about 240 lbs, which will give you about 150 lbs meat. A healthy animal on a good diet can achieve this weight at 6 months old, so 4 1/2 months after purchasing a Feeder pig.
- If you have to buy all the pig's food (no pasture, kitchen scraps, etc.) you will need between 650 and 750 lbs of feed, costing roughly $150. This puts the cost of your meat at about $1.30 a pound, for all kinds of different cuts.
- Pigs are omnivores, which means they eat a large variety of food, including grass, weeds, vegetables, grains, all sorts of kitchen scraps, any slaughter wastes from other animals (like poultry or rabbits). To grow well, they need a fairly high percentage of protein in their diet. So if you can't give them something like slaughter waste or meat scraps, give them a high protein plant like soy. For one or two feeder pigs, you can supplement their food considerably by picking weeds for them and giving them scraps. This will bring down the cost of raising them, and pigs love the variety.
- Pigs are easy to house. They don't need much shelter really, except when they're small or about to give birth. They do however get sunburned, so shade is absolutely essential. Rain isn't much of a problem - our pigs always run out in the rain to play in the mud.
- Pigs can't climb, so you don't need to make your fencing very tall. We use a three-strand electric fence, which they respect very well once they learn what it is. Pigs are very intelligent and usually learn fast.
Step 2: Great Life = Great Meat
Here are a few suggestions on improving the quality both of the pig's life and your meat:
- Pigs are social animals, so it’s always best to have more than one pig living together. This also makes better use of your resources, as there's little difference to the space required if you have one or two animals. You can always sell the other one to someone who doesn’t have space to raise pigs.
- As with any animal, overcrowding causes stress. Industrial pig raising operations have to cut their pigs' tails off, because they are so stressed in their cramped conditions that they will bite each others' tails, which leads to infection. Never keep a lot of animals cramped together.
- Pigs like to hike, rooting around for food as they walk. Give them as much pasture as you can spare (rotating the pasture is a good idea too). Pigs can also live as part of a mixed herd. Our pasture is open to pigs, poultry and goats. If your pigs get lots of exercise, their muscle tone will be highly developed, making a better meat.
- Most people with pigs keep them in concrete pens, probably because they are easier to clean. If you can avoid it, do not do this. Pigs love dirt. They root in it, play in it and the babies will even eat it.
- Contrary to popular belief, pigs are very sanitary creatures. If they have the space and freedom to do so, they will usually dedicate a certain area to the bathroom that is away from where they eat and sleep. If this area is somewhere into the pasture, you will not even have to clean it up, especially if you have poultry that can go and peck through it (to eliminate flies and bugs).
- If you can, allow them a place and some water where they can make a wallow. One thing pigs love more than dirt is mud! You can usually tell how happy your pig is by how much of their bodies and faces are covered with mud. It also acts as a sunscreen.
- Always provide your pigs with shade, preferably trees. They can burn in the sun.
- Pigs can seem very lazy, as they seem to spend a lot of time sleeping in the shade of a tree. However, they also love to play and be involved in activities. You can use this to your advantage. Make them work for you. For example, with a rock bar, make a deep hole somewhere you want to plant a tree. Put a few grains of corn in the hole. The pigs will love digging up the corn, giving you a hole for your tree!
- Pigs are omnivores, so try and vary their food. Adding kitchen scraps, weeds, grass, tree leaves, acorns, etc. to their diet will not only reduce your feed bill, it will satisfy more of their appetites.
Step 3: Butchering
This is the part that puts most people off, which is fair enough. It's never "nice" to kill an animal, especially one like a pig which has such a personality. However, the sole reason to keep pigs is for meat, so this part of it must be done if you want to have bacon. If you really don't want to do it, you can probably find someone with experience to come and help.
Here's a few tips to make it all easier. For more detailed information, see here.
- Select a place where you will be doing the deed. A week or so beforehand, start feeding your pig there. This will make him comfortable with the area and the routine, so that on butcher day, he will not be stressed. You do not want to stress your pig in any way: not only will it cause him needless suffering, it is also not good for the meat. When he is eating, you can use the rifle without him even knowing. You will then want to bleed the pig out, so that as much of the blood leaves the flesh as possible.
- Have everything (singletree, table, several sharp knives of different sizes, gun, several buckets, plastic bags, trash bags, cold water) prepared the day before, and then start early the next morning. Make sure you are in the shade and that you work before it gets warm (preferably in fall or winter).
- You can just go right ahead and skin the pig. However, if you want the skin, to make crackling, you will need to scrape the hair off first. This involves pouring hot (not boiling water) over an area, and then when it's warm, scraping a blunt knife over the skin to remove the hair. Once done, wash everything really well.
- Once you have split the breastbone, hook the tendons of the hind legs to the singletree - the legs want to be as wide apart as possible. Then raise the carcass using the winch.
- Cut around the anus, carefully avoiding cutting into the rectum. Pull the anus/rectum out a bit, and tie a string around it real tight to avoid anything coming out. Then remove the head.
- Now you want to remove all the innards, washing and putting aside the organs you want to keep. Take your time and be very careful not to nick any of the intestines or gall bladder - some things water will not wash away!
- Using a bone saw, cut down the backbone, splitting the carcass into two halves. Wash each half and then butcher each into the separate cuts.
Step 4: Makin' Bacon
Before you start, weigh each cut, and get containers big enough to fit the cuts in and that will fit in your fridge. If you are doing this in winter and it stays cold all day where you are, you will not need to put the containers in the fridge, just make sure they're safe from animals!!
Cure per 10 lbs meat:
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup #1 cure (pink stuff)
- In the case of hams, inject some of the cure into the meat, near the bone. For bacon, you don't need to worry.
- Immerse your cuts in the liquid cure. Put a non-metallic weight on top to make sure it doesn’t float out of the cure.
- Leave it in cold water for 8-10 days (in a container in fridge if the weather outside is not cold). You can leave it for longer if you wish, the cure will just be deeper.
- Soak in water for two hours.
- Test the meat. If it’s still really salty, rinse again and leave to soak in water for another 2 hours.
Sorry, but we have never taken any photos of our bacons curing. When we butcher a pig, we are super busy for two whole days, processing all the meat, lard, sausage, etc. And somehow we don't get around to much photography!
For information on processing lard and sausage, click here.
Step 5: It's Smokin'
We usually smoke a whole bunch of meat at once (hams, bacon, rabbits, sausage), and it is an all-day affair. In fact, when neighbors see smoke rising from our place, we usually end up getting a visitor or two!
We built a smoker out of an old, junk barrel and a stove pipe. If you want to see this Instructables, click here.
- Start a fire in your firebox, using mesquite, oak or apple wood. It's okay if it's a little green, as it's the smoke you want. We actually keep a bucket of water by our smoker, and dip the sticks in for a little extra smoke.
- If you want, you can put a rub of whatever spices you like on the bacon. However, we tend not to put anything else on it - it is definitely good enough on its own.
- Place the cuts of meat on the grills within your smoke chamber.
- Close your smoke chamber. In the case of our design, put the lid on top of the barrel. You want the temperature inside the barrel to be between 150 and 200 degrees. Adjust the wood you add accordingly.
- Keep the fire going for as long as it takes for the meat to reach the required temperature with a meat thermometer. In the case of bacon, it needs to be about 140 degrees in the center, which will take about 4 hours. Of course you will have to taste it many, many times to make sure it's cooking well.
- Eat as much as you can hold while it's still warm, and cut the rest into smaller portions to freeze. You won't have to buy bacon from the store all year.