Friday, August 16, 2019

Homemade Sausage Seasoning

A friend asked me about making sausage from home-raised pigs, and I realized I hadn't posted my breakfast sausage recipe yet! I've been using it for years, so I can readily vouch that it's been well tried and tested!
This recipe makes 2 tablespoons of seasoning, which is enough for about 2 pounds of sausage. Feel free to multiply or divide it as you like - I usually make a big batch so I always have some on hand.
Sausage Seasoning 
2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp sage
1/2 tsp marjoram
1/4 tsp savory
1/8 tsp ginger
pinch cloves and red pepper
Mix it all together, and it's ready to use! I generally mix my seasonings in when I fry up my sausage, but if you prefer you can certainly mix it in when you grind your meat, too. 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

2019 Chicken Harvest - The Good, The Bad, and The Numbers

I think this was our best year yet raising Cornish cross meat birds (aka "broilers"). The birds grew out well (dressed out weight averaged over 4 pounds per bird) and looked happy and healthy. Best of all, we didn't lose any to predators, weather, disease, or "sudden chicken death syndrome" (AKA "it just died").
As we have for the last few years, we ordered the broilers through our local feed mill, who get their chicks from Sunnyside Hatchery in Beaver Dam, WI (which is about as local as I can get). I've ordered directly from the hatchery before and had them delivered through the post office, but the price is the same, and I like that I can pick up their first bag of starter chick feed at the same time I'm picking up my birds. I bought straight run, which means I get both pullets (girls) and cockerels (boys). Pullet chicks cost less because they don't grow as large or as quickly, which of course means cockerels are more expensive because they produce more meat more efficiently, so straight run seemed like a good compromise between cost and efficiency.  
We kept them in the same old cobbled-together wooden brooder we've used since we got our first batch of chicks years ago (the picture above is of our broiler chicks from last year; the picture below is of our laying chicks from this spring). This year we used wood shavings for bedding instead of the newspaper and paper towels I've used before. It was slightly more annoying because the shavings got into the water fountain and food trough, but not enough to be a real problem. 
At two weeks old, we moved them out into their "halfway house" - an ark-style small chicken tractor a friend gave us a few years ago. This way the chickens had access to fresh air and sunshine in the daytime, but still had a solid wooden covered area for nights and inclement weather. 
At four weeks old the chickens outgrew this pen and went into a rectangular 4'x8' chicken tractor (click here to see how to build your own). This year we switched to white tarps instead of blue, which made my husband happy (apparently blue plastic tarps in the yard look a little too redneck; white plastic tarps are much more classy) 😉. Although these homemade shelters may seem pretty flimsy, we had some major storms in our area this year while the chicks were growing out (there were many, many large trees down across the state from the first storm, and our power was out for five days while the electric company repaired broken power lines and blown-down poles) and even though their only protection from the weather was the tarps (and the fact that their pasture was in a slight depression on our land), the chickens all came through just fine. 
The main difference this year, other than the pine shavings, was that we were able to give them a lot more space to run. We had a 4 feet high by 50 feet long garden fence that wasn't in use, so my daughter claimed it to build a pasture area for the birds.  We moved them to fresh pasture every few days as the grass got beaten down and covered in manure. They still had a chicken tractor in the center of the pasture for protection from inclement weather and for shade from the hot July sun, but for the most part they spent their time outside in the fresh air. This was much more room than we'd been able to give them before (usually we've kept our broilers confined to just two 4'x8' tractors) and it seemed to really make a difference. The birds were much cleaner, and were able to be more active (well, as active as a Cornish cross chickens ever will be . . .)
All well and good, but what about the bottom line? We had happy, healthy chickens, but how expensive was it to raise them this way? Since we didn't have to buy or upgrade any infrastructure (other than the tarps, which were about $2 each), the purchase price of the chicks and the cost of their feed were our only inputs. The chicks cost us $1.40 each, plus a $6 fee for buying less than 50, for a total of $76. They ate 700 pounds in the 8 weeks we raised them, which cost us $380.50, or a little over 54 cents a pound. Those together add up to a total expense of $456.50. Divide that by 50 birds and you end up at $9.13 a bird. They were all right around 4 pounds each when we put them in the freezer, so for an easy estimate let's say that's 200 pounds of meat. A little more simple math, and I figure we're around $2.28 a pound. Not bad for locally-sourced (doesn't get more local than your own back yard!) organic-fed pastured chicken! The closest organic chicken I could find for comparison was over $3 a pound (and that wasn't local or pastured, plus I would have had to pay for shipping). Local, pastured, but not organic chicken was $2.18 a pound. There really is no comparison for meat you've raised yourself, to the standards you want for your family - but it's still nice to know you're not paying much more than you would for second-best!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Homemade Sheboygan-Style Bratwurst

Independence Day is coming up this Thursday, and in true American fashion, we will be grilling out. And since our great state is Wisconsin, what we'll grilling will be brats. If you love brats as much as we do, but also hate all of the MSG, nitrates, etc. in most brats as much as we do, then I'm here to share the joy I've found with you.

I should note that these are infinitely customizable - feel free to add cheddar, jalapeno, or whatever you like. Our local brat shop - Louie's Finer Meats in Cumberland, Wisconsin - offers a dizzying array of specialty brats featuring everything from onion and garlic to cranberries, blue cheese, and wild rice (my favorites are the blueberry and cheddar and the mushroom and swiss).

Homemade Sheboygan-Style Bratwurst 
3 pounds of ground pork or beef (include at least half a pound of pork fat in that total)
1 Tbsp salt
2 tsp ground white pepper
1 tsp dried marjoram
1/2 tsp caraway seed
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 Tbsp minced fresh garlic
(2 tsp red pepper flakes optional)
Stuff casings according to manufacturer's direction. Can be frozen, or grill and serve.

My husband also likes to "hot tub" marinade his brats before grilling - he puts the brats in a crock pot set to low, then adds a bottle of beer and a sliced onion.

Enjoy your summer cookouts, and have a happy Independence Day!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Our 2019 Three Little Pigs

You can probably tell by the last few posts that I've been very excited to get pigs again this year. Not only are they a source of organic, pastured, chemical-free ham and bacon, but they are a great money-saver for our large family as well. So you can imagine how excited I was yesterday when our "pig guy" called and said he finally had a couple of pigs available for us! Usually we try to get our pigs mid-May, so we're getting a pretty late start this year, but that's OK with me - we'll have more garden produce for them when they really start porking out (meaning we'll save more on the feed bill). We should still have a full four months to grow them out, though, depending on the weather. Our processing date depends on when the heavy frosts set in, since we don't have a heater for their water trough. So when the water starts freezing overnight, it's time to butcher. If we have a normal fall, that will put our processing date in October or maybe even November.

But right now the weather is balmy and beautiful, and we're more than ready to bring some pigs home. We got the call before church, and on the drive home I texted my sister-in-law to ask if she'd like me to pick up a pig for her, too - she'd been toying with the idea of raising a pig, but hadn't decided one way or the other. She didn't text me back before we headed out to pick up the pigs after lunch, so I assumed it just wasn't meant to be for her this year. But when we arrived at the farm, lo and behold, there were three pigs in the pen! A black one, a pink one with black splotches, and a little pink runt. Now, not having heard back from my sister-in-law, and knowing my own weakness, I had only brought enough money for the two piglets I was planning on, plus my emergency $20 I always carry with me. When we got to the pen and I told the kids to pick out the ones they wanted, the farmer said he'd give us the runt for half price. I told him that all I had was the $20 extra, and without a second's hesitation he said, "Sold!" And that's how we ended up with three little pigs instead of two.

Which ended up being a good thing, since I got a text message from my sister-in-law on the drive home saying she'd like one after all! We'll be raising it here with the others, but she'll pay for her pig's feed (plus a little for our trouble) and help with the butchering. My daughter, who's in charge of the pigs this summer, is excited to earn her first "farm money".

So now they're home and all settled in, so we just have to settle on some names! All through lunch the kids were brainstorming names for this year's piggy pair, finally settling on Chris Hamsworth and Tom Piggleston (with my oldest son lobbying heavily for Benedict Baconbatch). The only problem was that when we picked them up, we found out that all three of the pigs are gilts (girls). So of course I suggested that we simply modify the names slightly so we'd have Christine Hamsworth and Thomasina Piggleston (which my daughter would not agree to until I assured her we'll still call them Chris and Tom). The runt has been officially dubbed Eggs Benedict Cucumberpatch (Eggy for short), and is already the family favorite.

And so begins another summer of pig-raising. I have to admit, I've missed having pigs this spring. They're such a useful homestead animal - eating food scraps that are too big for the chickens to manage (not to mention the chicken bones leftover after I make broth), clearing the thorns and thistles out of the pasture, and just generally being their happy piggy selves. Our little farm just feels more complete with them around.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Rhubarb Bread Pudding

There isn't too much ready to be harvested yet on my little homestead, but two things I do have in abundance are eggs and rhubarb. This recipe uses plenty of both, and also got a vote of "yummy!" from all of the kids!

You may think that this looks a lot like my recipe for Overnight French Toast Bake, and you'd be right - it's pretty much the same thing, just with the seasonal addition of a thick layer of rhubarb.

Rhubarb Bread Pudding 
Cubed Bread (enough to generously fill the bottom of an 8x8 square baking pan)
3-4 cups chopped rhubarb stems
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg (optional)
1/2 cup ground walnuts (optional) 
Layer bread and rhubarb; sprinkle spices and nuts over all. In a separate bowl, mix:
6 eggs
1/2 cup maple syrup (or sweetener of choice plus vanilla)
1 1/2 cups milk (either buttermilk or sweet milk both work fine) 
Pour liquid over dry ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for an hour. Serve hot or cold.

This can be made ahead: simply refrigerate after adding the liquid ingredients, then bake at your convenience (I often refrigerate this overnight for baking in the morning).

Once you've mastered this recipe, you can easily change it up with whatever seasonal fruit you have available. I've yet to find a fruit that doesn't work!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Simple Home Smoked Ham

In my previous post I outlined how I make bacon from our home-grown pork; to make ham, I use the same basic recipe, with just a couple of tweaks:

1.Cure the meat for a longer period of time. Since it's a bigger cut of meat, I like to cure it for three days instead of just one, which gives the salt more time to permeate the pork.

2. The other change was for my husband's preference. In my first attempts at curing ham, I followed the bacon recipe exactly, just leaving it in the refrigerator longer, as I said. When I made a pot of potato soup, however, my husband requested that I leave out the maple syrup when I make ham - the sweet flavor just didn't taste right in the savory soup. So I changed that as well, and the recipe became even more simple: just salt and smoke.

Simple Home Smoked Ham

2 pounds pork roast
3 Tbsp salt (I use canning/pickling salt because of the finer texture)
Smoke as in the bacon recipe, again to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. This will take a little longer than for the bacon due to the thickness of the meat.
Feel free to adjust the recipe to whatever size cut of meat you have; just try to keep the same meat to salt ratio.

I should note that the finished ham will be fully cooked in the smoker; no further cooking is necessary, so you can go ahead and slice it for your sandwiches!

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Saturday, May 25, 2019

How Much Money Can You Save By Raising Your Own Food?

For many people, one of the main reasons for rasing your own food is to save money. Taking out the middle man, cutting out the costs of labor and transportation - it only makes sense. Add to that the idea that foods harvested right from your back yard can be richer in flavor and nutrients (saving you money in health care costs) - and of course gardening itself can be a great form of exercise (saving you money at the gym, too!)

But how much money can you really save raising your own food? I ran the numbers for last year (which are lower than they'd normally be, since I only had a minimal garden as we worked to set up our new homestead), and found it can be a lot!

Our biggest savings was from our pork. We raised two hogs this year, which we purchased for $100 ($50 each). They ate about 2,125 pounds of organic feed, bringing our total cost up to $1156.28 (this is actually about $300 more than we would usually spend because of an unforseen delay in our butchering date - you can read about that here). We butchered them ourselves and will be smoking all of the meat at home, so the only processing cost will be for the equipment we purchased (this was our first time butchering our own pigs) for $296.20. So our total cost was $1452.48 for 300 pounds of meat in the freezer, not counting the bones (which we'll make into broth) and lard. We'll be making all of this meat into pork chops, bacon, ham, and bratwurst (this is Wisconsin, after all. We love our brats!) From our normal sources, we would have paid around $3,140 for that amount of meat (in those cuts), so by raising our own we saved just under $1,700 (again, that's counting the price of the processing equipment and the extra feed from raising them longer than we expected). If you'd like more information, you can read more about how much we saved by raising our own pork in this post.

We also raised a batch of 50 broilers this year, each bird averaging 5 pounds. Purchase price was $71 ($1.42 per bird), and total feed cost was $458.84 (about $9.18 each). That price is for organic feed, which is generally about twice the cost of regular. We did the butchering ourselves and used chicken tractors we had already built (you can see my post with building plans here), so our total cost was $529.84 (or $10.60 per bird; about $2.12 per pound, dressed).  Our normal source for organic chicken charges $3.50 a pound, which would come out to $875 for the 50 chickens we raised. So our savings was $345.16, or $1.38 per pound.

From those chickens we also made broth (also known as stock). The cheapest source I have for organic chicken broth is Walmart, which charges $2.50 for a quart. I don't usually measure exactly when I make broth, but a conservative guess at how much we made would be a gallon per bird, which would multiply out to 200 quarts a year, or $500. Since I already calculated the cost for the bones in the meat total, there was no additional cost for the broth.

Our free range hens (which we only had from May to December in 2018 because of our move to the new house) gave us 2,235 eggs this year, at a cost of $297 in organic feed.  If we had paid $4 a dozen (the going rate for organic eggs around here), those eggs would have cost us $745; a savings of $448.

So the animals on our farm alone saved us around $3,000. We weren't able to have much of a garden this year, but we did raise about $116 worth of butternut squash (our cost was just $5 for the seedling plant) and $30 worth of mushrooms (which cost $25 for the spawn, but will give us harvests for years to come). I didn't add up how many tomatoes we harvested (the kids ate most of them before they made it into the house!) so I can't calculate the value of those. Conservatively, then, our tiny starter garden netted us only $121, but obviously that number will go up significantly when we're able to garden more extensively this summer.

But what really surprised me was the amount of money our countertop microbial "farm" saved us. We have kefir smoothies every morning for breakfast, using 3 pints of kefir per day for all seven of us. Using a supermarket price of $4 a quart for plain organic kefir ($6 for our 3 pints) times 365 days a year, that would cost us $2,190. Making our own from organic milk that costs us $1.50 a day instead of $6, which saves us $1,642 over the course of a year - all for less than a minute or two of work per day.

We also make our own homemade kombucha (you can find my recipe here). You can get kombucha at Walmart for about $3 a pint, and we make 2 gallons every week. That would cost us about $2,500 over the course of a year. The tea and sugar required to make that same amount at home would cost around $150, for a savings of  $2,350 (we flavor it with raspberries harvested for free from a friend's garden, so that added no extra cost).

When you add those it all up, our total savings, even without much of a garden, was over $7,000. Our total expenses for all groceries over the past year was around $14,000, so we cut our grocery bill by a third! I can't wait to see how we do next year!

How about you? As you can see, some of the biggest cost savings were "raised" right on our kitchen counter (ooh, that reminds me - I didn't count my sourdough bread! I'll have to calculate that out next . . .) How much do you save by raising your own food?