Pork primer: The different cuts, and how to cook them


It's easy to get lost in a plethora of pork.

There is always so much of it at grocery stores, the pink meat turned into a seemingly endless amount of cuts: rib roast, spare rib, center-cut chop. Bacon, belly, Boston butt. And what about ham?

Ah, ham, the spiral-cut staple of many Easter tables. No offense to this particular cut, the kind we buy at the store usually injected with a mixture of salt and sugar that cures it, but we know what ham is all about. Been there. So this Sunday, why not try another cut?

First, we need to identify what exactly those other options are. 

It may be easiest to think of it like this. Picture a pig. Now picture it segmented into four distinct parts: starting from the front, there's shoulder, then loin (top middle), belly (bottom middle) and leg (back). All of the various cuts we find in the refrigerated section of our local grocer are cut from these four larger parts, usually referred to as primal cuts.

Shoulder

The shoulder portion is divided into two major cuts: Boston butt, also referred to as pork butt, which doesn't have anything to do with the pig's backside, and the picnic shoulder, which usually has a large bone in the middle that you will need to cut around to serve. Often quite large and cheaper than other cuts of pork, the shoulder region is high in fat and connective tissue. The picnic shoulder has a bit less of both than the Boston butt.

How to cook: Both cuts are relatively tough, which means they are best cooked low and slow, in a slow-cooking device that can render all of that fat and tissue down. Shoulder is also often cured.

Loin

The loin is one of the largest portions of the animal, and is where you will find common cuts like chops and tenderloin, which is cut from the rear of the pork loin. A pork roast is typically the entire loin or most of it; from there, that loin can be cut into smaller things like chops or cutlets. This is also where you'll find baby back ribs. 

In the chops department, there is some variety based on where the chop is cut from. Rib chops are cut from the section near the ribs, and if you're buying boneless chops from the grocery store, chances are they are rib chops. In their natural form, the chops contain a large bone and a signature "eye." Another common type are center-cut chops, composed of tenderloin and loin meat; a bone running down the center separates the two.

For roasts, you'll find two main cuts sold in stores: the center-cut loin roast and the tenderloin roast. The first is boneless and often quite tender. It has some fat on it, but less than other parts of the pig. Tenderloins are even leaner, with very little fat, and small in comparison, weighing 1 pound or less. 

How to cook: Rib chops have more fat than the other kind of chops, so they are difficult to overcook. These are therefore your best bet for flavor. This is an easy cut to work with; chops do well in the skillet, on the grill or even in the oven. Cook them just until they reach a temperature of 145 degrees, then remove from heat and allow them to rest 5 minutes before serving. This ensures a juicy chop. 

Roasts are best, well, roasted. But it's also a good idea to get a sear on them in a hot skillet before finishing them off in the oven. Tenderloins do well in the oven, too, but they are pretty fragile and easy to overcook. Don't expose them to very hot temperatures, and consider using a marinade on them before cooking. Many tenderloins are sold this way in the store already, to give the lean meat more flavor. 

Belly

The fattiest part of the animal, this is where bacon and other cured meats like pancetta come from. Surely you've seen pork belly on a restaurant menu in the past few years; the cut has recently exploded in popularity. The fresh cut essentially looks like a giant block of bacon that hasn't been sliced yet. (Note: This cut isn't always readily available at grocery stores, but I recently found a package of pork belly at Publix.)

How to cook: Because belly is so fatty, you actually don't need to do much to it to make it taste good. Many preparations involve braising the belly, or cooking it in the oven at a very high temperature (450 or 500 degrees), which results in a crispy crust. 

Leg

Yes, the holiday ham you grew up eating comes from the very back of the pig. A whole ham is typically most of the leg, while a half is either cut from the wide butt end of the leg (sometimes called the sirloin) or what's called the shank end. Both are typically covered in a layer of fat, and so they benefit from a wet brining before cooking. 

How to cook: Cook it like a turkey, in the oven, allowing about 25 minutes of cooking time for every pound of ham. It helps to score the thick skin, which allows you to generously season the roast. 

. EASY

Pork Picnic Shoulder Pasta

Ingredients

2½ pounds bone-in pork shoulder

8 ounces finely diced pancetta

1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

6 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)

1 cup dry red wine, such as Chianti

1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand

2 bay leaves

¼ teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and crushed

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound tube-shaped pasta, cooked

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons zest from 1 lemon

Steps

Place pork shoulder, pancetta, onion, garlic, wine, tomatoes, bay leaves, crushed fennel, thyme and red pepper flakes in a slow cooker. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Stir to combine, cover and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours.

Remove pork from slow cooker and transfer to a platter or cutting board. Discard thyme sprigs and bay leaves from sauce. When pork is cool enough to handle, shred meat and discard fat and bones. Return meat to sauce and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings. Allow to warm through.

When ready to serve, toss sauce with cooked pasta and garnish with Parmesan and lemon zest.

Serves 6 to 8. 

Source: Serious Eats

. MODERATE

Mushroom Stuffed Tenderloin

Ingredients

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing

4 slices bacon, chopped

8 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon bread crumbs

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

2 pork tenderloins (2 to 2?½ pounds total), trimmed

½ teaspoon grated lemon zest

Steps

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms, ½ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste; cook until the mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the bread crumbs and all but 2 tablespoons parsley. Let cool.

Soak 10 to 12 toothpicks in water to prevent them from burning. Rinse the pork and pat dry. Butterfly the pork: Make a 1-inch-deep incision down the length of each tenderloin; do not cut all the way through. Open the meat like a book so the tenderloins lie flat.

Cover the pork with plastic wrap; pound with the flat side of a meat mallet until about ½ inch thick, starting from the middle and working outward. Spread the mushroom mixture over the 2 tenderloins. Starting with a long side, tightly roll up each tenderloin. Secure the seams with the toothpicks.

Heat a grill to medium high; brush the grates with olive oil. Brush the pork rolls with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill, turning, until a thermometer inserted into the center of the pork registers 140 degrees, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board to rest, about 10 minutes.

Mix the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons parsley, the lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste in a bowl. Remove the toothpicks and slice the pork rolls. Top with parsley oil.

Serves 8. 

Source: Food Network Magazine

. EASY

Honey Roasted Pork With Apples

Ingredients

1 (2½-pound) pork loin roast, tied

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons honey

4 sprigs rosemary

4 sprigs thyme

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

2 medium yellow onions, cut into 8 wedges each

? cup apple cider

5 whole sweet-tart apples, such as Gala, Fuji or Empire, cored and quartered

Steps

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the pork in a large roasting pan and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle the honey over the pork, then arrange the rosemary and thyme on top. Scatter butter over the pork, then arrange the onions in the pan around the pork.

Pour the cider into the pan and bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle of the pork reads 120 degrees, about 45 minutes. Scatter the apples around the pork and continue baking until the apples are tender and the pork is golden brown and the instant-read thermometer reads 160 degrees, about 45 minutes more.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven and let the pork rest for 20 minutes. Transfer the pork to a serving platter and cut into thin slices. Scatter the baked apples and onions around the pork and drizzle with the pan juices before serving.

Serves 4. 

Source: Saveur

. EASY

Parmesan-Crusted Pork Chops

Ingredients

2 large eggs

1 cup dried Italian-style bread crumbs

¾ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

4 (½ to ¾ inch thick) center-cut pork loin chops (each about 10 to 12 ounces)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil, or more

Lemon wedges, for serving

Steps

Whisk the eggs in a pie plate to blend. Place the bread crumbs in another pie plate. Place the cheese in a third pie plate. Sprinkle the pork chops generously with salt and pepper. Coat the chops completely with the cheese, patting to adhere. Dip the chops into the eggs, then coat completely with the bread crumbs, patting to adhere.

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a very large skillet over medium heat. Add pork chops, in batches if necessary, and cook until golden brown and the center reaches 150 degrees, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer the chops to plates and serve with lemon wedges.

Serves 4. 

Source: Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

. MODERATE

Pork Belly Tacos

Ingredients

For the pork belly:

1 (2-pound) piece of pork belly

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup melted shortening

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 white onion, coarsely chopped

2 dried chipotle chiles

2 teaspoons salt

For the pico de gallo:

½ pound cherry tomatoes, finely chopped

4 ounces tomatillos, husked, rinsed and finely chopped (about ¾ cup) 

½ small red onion, finely chopped

1 chile de arbol, crumbled

¼ cup light beer, or water

¼ cup fresh lime juice

Kosher salt

For the tacos:

1 tablespoon canola oil

12 (5-inch) corn tortillas, warm

Lime wedges, for serving

Steps

Braise the pork belly: Heat the oven to 250 degrees. In a large ovenproof saucepan, combine all of the ingredients and bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Cover, transfer to the oven and braise the pork until very tender, about 3 hours. Transfer the pork to a plate to cool slightly; discard the braising liquid.

Make the pico de gallo: In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients except the salt. Season with salt and mix well.

Make the tacos: In a large cast iron skillet, heat the canola oil. Add the pork belly, skin side down, and weigh it down with another heavy skillet. Cook over moderately low heat until golden and crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer the pork, skin side up, to a cutting board and let cool slightly. Slice across the grain ¼ inch thick, then halve the slices crosswise. Top each tortilla with a few pieces of pork belly and a little pico de gallo and serve warm. Serve with lime wedges.

Serves 4 to 6. 

Source: Food and Wine


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