Paper, Plastic or Cheesecloth?


Saddle Pig, Piglets and Rooster

Over on the Left Over Queen’s Blog Jenn wrote about the wonderful opportunity to work with Cole Ward, the butcher we apprenticed with in preparation for building our on-farm butcher shop.

In the article she mentioned:

One thing we did learn though, is, if you are ever in the market for a whole pig that you plan to butcher yourself, make sure you do not wrap it in plastic, until it has been cut up to your liking and going into the freezer. Our pig was delivered in plastic and because plastic makes the flesh sweat, we were not able to use the skin or the head and many of the exposed bones, because of the moisture, those areas were beginning to take on an unfavorable characteristic. So we had to take extra measures to clean the exposed surfaces of the pig with salt and also soak other parts in a salt water brine for several hours. Not to mention having to throw away nearly 30 lbs of what should have been useable stuff.

Our experience from years of doing roasters and cuts is exactly the opposite. We take pigs to market pigs every week of the year and have been doing this for years – that’s a lot of pigs and thus a lot of experimental data. There has never been any problem with “sweating”. That’s a lot of pigs and a lot of chances to observe.

When butchering with Cole Ward I’ve also cut pigs which were not wrapped with plastic. We worked with him for eighteen months – again, a lot of data. Those pigs were fine too – no “sweating” on them either.

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So I wondered why the difference in experiences between our pigs and Jenn’s pig? What is the real cause of the sweating on Jenn’s pig?

Our pork cuts are vacuum shrunk wrapped in plastic and the back fat with skin on is great, no sweating at all. With the roaster pigs, wrapped in plastic but not vacuum shrunk, the skin is also great, no sweating at all. The skin makes wonderful cracklins, roasts wonderfully and we have rendered the lard from it for years with much delight. So the vacuum is not the difference.

Vacuum packaging in plastic has the very important advantage of keeping micro-organisms out which would decay the meat. This makes it more sanitary and healthy which is critical when selling through the stores where the meat gets handled repeatedly by different people. We plastic wrap to keep the cuts sanitary for delivery to the customer.

Almost as importantly, stores demand plastic vacuum packaged pork so the customers can see what they are buying. No lookie – no buyie. Paper wrap does not sell in the stores, a simple fact of life.

Properly frozen, vacuum packaged will also keep almost indefinitely. Paper on the other hand is subject to freezer burn due to sublimation of water out of the meat and through the creases in the paper no matter how well you wrap it. What ever you use, avoid those automatic defrosting freezers because what they do is warm the box up to melt the ice and every time they do that it damages the food. If you have an automatic defrost freezer, switch it to manual – it really isn’t much work and just needs to be done once a year if that.

Unbeknownst to most people, the classic “butcher’s paper” wrap is really a composite of plastic on the inside and paper on the outside. It looks environmentally green but really it is far worse than paper or plastic because it is a composite material which is non-burnable (toxins), non-compostable and non-recyclable. Because of the plastic on the inside of the sheet it means that when you wrap in “paper” you’re actually putting the meat/skin in contact with plastic. Since it isn’t hermatically sealed it is actually worse than vacuum packaged plastic.

“butcher’s paper” = plastic+paper

So why the difference in experience between our pigs and the one Jenn bought somewhere else? It’s not the plastic and it’s not the vacuum. Why does plastic work fine for us? The guess I’ve come up with is that our pigs get fully chilled and aged for three days to a week prior to being cut and wrapped in the case of cuts and wrapped in the case of roasters. This allows the carcass and skin to dehydrate just a little bit so there is no surface moisture. Surface moisture, especially if not properly chilled, is bad because it provides a suitable growth medium for the growth decay microbes which also can cause disease. Our extended chill time prevents the “sweating”.

Most slaughterhouses do not do this extended chilling and aging time – some even hot cut and wrap pork. At maximum they cut the pig the next day when it is barely chilled down and not properly aged or dehydrated. This means the pig may be going into the plastic too warm and too wet. This may be the real problem that Jenn had with her pig, insufficient chilling and aging for surface dehydration and deep cooling.

Some people will tell you that it is not necessary to age pork. My extensive testing of hanging aging of pork[1, 2] has shown that it improves the quality just like it does for sheep, goats and beef. Makes sense – It’s meat. This is especially noticeable for larger animals and pastured animals but it even improves young finisher age (6 month) pigs. Even just a few days makes a difference. Perhaps part of why our pork tastes so good is we routinely age it.

The result is there is no waste with ours plastic wrapped pigs since the head and skin are fully usable. Just ask the butcher to hang the pig unwrapped for a few days and you should get the excellent results we get. I’m glad to have read Jenn’s account because it made me think about this. Sometimes little details make big differences.

Outdoors: 78°F/51°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 73°F/60°F

Daily Spark: The memoirs of the blind genius were brailliant. -WillJ

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor…

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