Compart Family Farms pioneering dry-aged pork

Is pork steak's long-lost cousin?

The dry-aged porterhouse served at FireLake restaurant is marked with grill hashes and flecked with spices and herbs. It's banded by a thick strap of fat and split down the middle with a T-shaped bone. The meat's tender, juicy interior contrasts its carnitas-like crust, and its flavor is deep, almost concentrated. It's exactly what you'd expect to find at a world-class steakhouse. Except that it's pork, not beef.

FireLake chef Paul Lynch worked with the pork's producer, Compart Family Farms, to road test a variety of cuts and dry-aging techniques as they developed a pork product worthy of a place on a high-end steakhouse menu. Lynch thinks that Americans, a nation of grillers, often overlook pork because the meat hasn't had a cookout-style "steak" as part of its identity—and that Compart's dry-aged porterhouse could help change that mentality. "Now you have a piece of pork you can understand," he says. "You will recognize it as a steak and you will eat it as a steak. If it were a blind tasting, you would be saying, 'Is this beef...veal...pork?' You wouldn't expect the richness and meatiness. It's not strange, just unidentified. You'll recognize it like a long-lost cousin."

Compart debuted its dry-aged pork at last year's National Restaurant Association Show, and became the first major producer in the country to sell the product commercially. The dry-aging process—hanging top-grade meat in a specialized cooler for several weeks as it loses moisture, tenderizes, and intensifies in flavor—improves the character of beef, and its pricey steaks are hard to find outside of upscale restaurants. (Typically, of course, fresher is better when it comes to food, but just-butchered beef can actually have unpleasant sour, metallic flavors. Commercial beef is commonly "aged," or held in a refrigerated state for several days between the time the animal is slaughtered and broken down into retail cuts. Most beef is wet-aged in vacuum-sealed bags, with just a small percentage undergoing the more complex, and costly, dry-aging process.) But the dry-aging process hadn't proved successful for pork; the meat was thought to be too lean. That is, until the Comparts discovered that they were breeding just the right pig.

FireLake's dry-aged porterhouse: It all starts with the right pig
courtesy of Compart Family Farms
FireLake's dry-aged porterhouse: It all starts with the right pig

THE STORY OF COMPORTS'S PORK PORTERHOUSE begins in what looks like a high school science lab in Nicollet, Minnesota, just west of St. Peter. Jim Compart, who runs Compart Family Farms with several other family members, points me toward a microscope hooked up to a video screen showing magnified boar semen. Workers at the collection facility can tell a lot about the health of the sperm based on, say, the vigor of their motion and the presence or absence of something called a protoplasmic droplet. All I see is dozens of tiny matchsticks, wriggling toward a goal I can only hope will eventually mean dinner.

After the semen is sealed into plastic tubes, it's packed into temperature-controlled containers and distributed to farmers who will use it to inseminate their sows. The names of a few of the sires—these select breeders are the only ones among the thousands of Compart hogs to be named—are printed on some of the tube labels. If all goes well, within a few days there's about a 90 percent chance that "Bert" and "Galaxy" will become fathers.

The Compart family has been in the hog business for more than 60 years—Jim's parents met showing pigs through 4-H. In addition to dealing in swine genetics, the Comparts raise hogs and operate a co-op of several other family farms in the area that use Compart genetics and raise their herds according to protocol developed through the family's research facilities.

Compart's sires are Duroc, a reddish-colored breed that Compart says was determined by the National Pork Producers Council to have the most marbled flesh among those it analyzed. While the average hog might rate about a 1.5 on the board's scale of marbling standards, some of Comparts best sires score in the sixes. To select their breeding stock, the Comparts evaluate boars in terms of their growth rate, muscle quality, carcass composition, back fat, and marbling—to determine the latter, they use ultrasound imaging akin to that of OB-GYNs. Compart calls it "performance testing" for hogs.

Compart pork is sold to restaurants all over the United States, and also to several Asian countries. While pork is the dominant animal protein worldwide, accounting for about 40 percent of global meat production, America's consumption rates lag behind those of Asians and Europeans. And particularly, in the last few decades, America's relationship with pork has been more complicated.

During the country's low-fat obsession of the 1980s, the average commodity hog became about a third leaner due to changes in breeding and diet, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin. The change was also driven by the meatpacking industry, which wanted to get as much meat as possible out of each carcass. Leaner, light-colored swine tend to have less back fat and hair than breeds like Duroc, which means they bring in more money and are easier to process.

By the 1980s, lean, pale pork had overtaken supermarket shelves, and the National Pork Board introduced the promotional slogan "the other white meat" to position pork as an alternative to poultry, while being more healthful than beef. The slogan quickly became one of the country's most recognizable ad campaigns, but even after decades of use, it didn't actually increase American pork consumption. That number has held steady at about 50 pounds of pork per person per year throughout the last decade, while chicken made big market gains, from 55 to 83 pounds. This summer the board announced it would be retiring the slogan, which pleased farmers such as Compart, who says it delivered the wrong message and turned consumers off to his animals' redder-colored meat.

NEVER BEFORE, in the course of reporting a story, has a source asked me to take a shower or wear communal underwear. But that's standard operating procedure for all those who enter Compart's barns, due to concerns about biosecurity. The irony was not lost on me that visiting pigs—animals most people associate with rolling around in the mud—required soaping up and donning a pair of clean boots and coveralls.

Since harmful diseases can easily infect swine via wildlife and rodents, the Comparts raise their animals in indoor barns with walls of pricey air filters—the sort used in hospital wards—to keep viruses out. Some of the deadliest viruses, when airborne, have been found to travel more than five miles, so producers are always on high alert. If a truck driver carrying a load of swine feed passes another truck carrying hogs on the road, some trucking companies require that he heads to a wash station to sanitize the vehicle before making his delivery. Compart says that a disease outbreak could incur a $300,000 loss to his business.

Compart's pigs are segregated into barns according to age, starting in a farrowing barn and ending in a finishing one. The younger animals are more rambunctious, and when startled by human visitors, they tend to clamber atop one another. But once the pet-sized pigs get comfortable, they're more than amenable to a few pats on the back or behind-the-ear scratches.

The animals are fed by an automated system in which a feeder is programmed to move through the pens and deposit a predetermined mix of corn, soybeans, vitamins, and minerals. When the pigs are 175 to 180 days old, they reach their slaughter weight of 265 pounds. When we reach the finishing barn, the hefty hogs laze about, blissfully ignorant of their impending trip to Sioux City, Iowa, for butchering.

From Iowa, select cuts are sent to dry-aging facilities at J&B Wholesalers, a food distributor in St. Michael, Minnesota. J&B found that Compart's meat was more amenable to the dry-aging process than most commercially available pork because it has a higher amount of fat and a higher pH. With temperature and moisture carefully regulated, controlled airflow slowly draws moisture out of the meat as enzymes work to tenderize it. After a few weeks the meat is ready. It's cut into individual portions and Cryovaced, destined for high-end restaurants.

At the end of my farm tour, Compart goes to a cooler in his office and pulls out a plastic-wrapped, dry-aged pork porterhouse. It's medium-pink in color, lighter than a steak, but with a similar pattern of white fat veins running through it. Were it larger and redder, it might be mistaken for a pricey cut of beef. "Everybody told us we couldn't do it," Compart says. "But we're elevating pork to the next level." He notes that advancing Americans' perception of pork has actually meant looking back. "People say, 'This is how pork used to taste.'"

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