Pork has been a favorite in many parts of the world for a long time. In America, the first pigs arrived along with the explorer Hernando de Soto in 1529. Pork’s popularity is partly because it preserves so well. This characteristic allowed farming families to butcher hogs before winter and eat the meat all winter long.
Today, people still enjoy cured pork products like ham and bacon, along with fresh cuts like pork chops, ribs and tenderloin. Per capita, Americans consume just over 50 pounds of pork a year. People tend to enjoy some pork products, like bacon, in smaller amounts because they are so rich in flavor. Pork can also add a delicious kick of flavor to soups, stews, vegetables and other dishes. You’ll even see bacon as an ingredient in some desserts.
In short, Americans love pork. It’s a staple meat product on American breakfast, lunch and dinner tables, and it can show up in a variety of ways. Let’s take some time to look at the main cuts of pork you can purchase and the best ways to prepare them, so you can choose the best cuts of pork for any meal.
What Are the Primal Cuts of Pork?
We can break a side of pork down into four basic primal pork cuts. You’ll see some sources divide pork into a few more primal cuts, but traditionally, pork cuts consist of these four sections, before being divided further into subprimal cuts.
- Shoulder: The shoulder encompasses the front portion of the hog. You might hear the upper part of this primal cut called the butt, and the front leg called the picnic.
- Leg: The leg primal cut includes the hog’s hind leg and rump. This portion is where ham comes from, so you’ll sometimes hear the leg section referred to as the ham.
- Loin: The middle of the hog consists of two sections. The top, known as the loin, is exceptionally tender and lean.
- Belly: The bottom portion of the middle of the hog is the belly, sometimes called the side. It’s the fattiest portion of the hog.
What Are the Subprimal Pork Cuts?
Pork primal cuts begin as large sections that typically get cut down further. Cuts that are smaller than primal cuts, but still relatively large, are subprimal cuts. You may see these cuts of meat sold whole or cut down further into pork retail cuts. These are the individual portions you commonly find at the grocery store or butcher shop.
Each cut of pork has unique qualities that contribute to the flavor and texture. That means you want to pay attention to the specific cut of pork you have when choosing the best preparation methods. Let’s take a look at some pork subprimal cuts, categorized by the primal cuts they originate from.
Shoulder Subprimal Cuts
Pork shoulder is high in fat, which makes it a popular choice for grinding down to make sausage. Sausage comes in many forms, including links, loose ground meat and patties. Each type of sausage has a different mixture of spices or other fillers that add flavor to the pork. Pan-frying and grilling are popular methods for cooking sausage.
Pork shoulder is also the primal section of choice for making delicious pulled barbecue pork. Slow cooking methods tend to work best for pork shoulder, since it helps tenderize the otherwise tough meat. Shoulder portions are usually tougher because the animal uses these muscles frequently to get around. That said, blade steaks cut from the shoulder are excellent choices for quick cooking methods like grilling.
Pork shoulder consists of five subprimal cuts.
1. Shoulder Blade
The shoulder blade is the upper portion of the pork shoulder. This cut goes by a few different names, including butt roast, Boston shoulder, Boston butt and more. The “butt” label can be confusing, but the explanation is simple: The butt is the thicker end of the pork shoulder. You can purchase this cut whole with the bone in or boneless, or you can find smaller sections taken from this subprimal cut. It has excellent marbling and can be very tender when slow-cooked.
2. Picnic Shoulder
Just below the shoulder blade cut is the picnic shoulder, also known as the picnic ham, picnic roast or arm roast. One possible explanation for the name “picnic ham” is that this cut is fit for a more casual meal, like a picnic, as opposed to a formal dinner where you might serve a ham. The picnic portion of the shoulder is somewhat fatty and sinewy, which makes it a relatively affordable cut, but it can become tender through slow-cooking methods like roasting or braising.
Unlike Boston butt or picnic ham, there’s nothing mystifying about this name. The jowl is just what it seems: a pork cut that comes from a hog’s cheeks. In Southern cuisine, chefs who prepare this delicacy often cure and smoke it, which is why some people call it jowl bacon. You can fry slices of jowl on a skillet just like bacon or use it to flavor soul food favorites like black-eyed peas or collard greens. Italians use pork jowl to make guanciale, a signature cured pork product.
Between the picnic shoulder and the foot is the hog’s lower leg, known as the hock. Because of its location on the hog, this cut is tough and well-muscled, which makes it an economical cut of meat. When slow-cooked at a low temperature, though, it can become incredibly tender. It’s also a great flavor addition to stews and other dishes.
The shoulder primal also includes the front feet on the hog. There are a variety of ways to prepare pig’s feet, but because the front feet are smaller than the back feet, they are typically the primary ingredient in gelatin. Pig’s feet are excellent for making gelatin, since they are naturally rich in collagen.
Leg Subprimal Cuts
The leg primal section consists of the rear leg up to the hip. You may know this primal cut best for producing ham, but it also includes a hock and foot, like the shoulder primal does. The best way to prepare a ham depends on the specific cut and whether it is fresh or has undergone curing or smoking before purchase. A fresh ham is a raw cut of meat that will taste essentially like a pork roast.
To get its signature taste and texture, ham goes through a curing and often a smoking process before going to market. Country hams are dry-cured and safe to eat as-is with no cooking required. You can also pan-fry country hams in slices or soak and bake them like a wet-cured ham. Wet-cured hams, commonly called city hams, are typically precooked, so preparing one entails heating it through. Baking is a common way to do this. You can add a glaze, marinade or special garnish, as well.
The subprimal cuts of a pork leg include the following.
1. Leg Butt
The butt end of the ham, also sometimes called the sirloin or rump end, is at the top of the leg primal. This half of the whole ham is leaner and more tender than the shank end. It is also easier to carve because it only contains one bone. You can also find boneless or bone-removed hams. Butt hams have a rounder appearance than shank end hams.
2. Leg Shank
The shank-end ham is below the butt portion. Shank-end hams have a distinctive conical shape that makes them a beautiful centerpiece at a holiday dinner. However, this cut is fattier and not quite as tender as the butt portion. The shank-end ham contains the shank bone and part of the femur, so it is slightly more complicated to carve.
At the end of the shank, you’ll find what’s known as the hock. People also commonly call this portion of the rear legs ham hocks, shanks or pork knuckles. You’ll need to cook raw hocks through, but you only have to warm cured and smoked hocks. You can slow-cook hocks and serve them as an entree, but it’s more common to find them used as a flavoring in soups and other dishes. Slow cooking allows the collagen in the hock to break down, making the meat tender.
The foot on a pig also goes by the names trotter or pettitoe. Pigs have four feet, but the back feet are larger than the front, making these feet better for producing pickled pig’s feet and other trotter dishes. Many cultures have recipes dedicated to preparing pig’s feet. Slow cooking is a must with feet, since it tenderizes the thick skin and connective tissue.
Loin Subprimal Cuts
The term “eating high on the hog” refers to the luxury of pork loin cuts. The loin is the leanest and tenderest part of the hog, and is where some popular retail cuts like center-cut loin chops and pork tenderloin roasts come from. Because this meat is remarkably tender, you don’t have to use slow-cooking methods. Instead, you can use dry heat techniques like grilling, baking or sauteing. For ribs, however, slow cooking tends to be a good idea. You can also smoke chops to give them that distinctive barbecue flavor.
The loin can also make back bacon, a staple in some countries, including Canada, England and Ireland. The bacon most of us are familiar with in the United States comes from the belly. Back bacon is much leaner, though the cut includes the fat that runs along the hog’s back. People process it through curing and smoking, which gives it that signature bacon flavor, but ultimately, it more closely resembles ham than belly bacon.
The loin primal consists of three subprimals.
1. Loin Rib End
The loin rib end section is the part of the loin that is adjacent to the shoulder. This section, as the name suggests, includes part of the animal’s ribcage, and is the source of both baby back and country-style ribs. Baby back ribs come from the part of the ribcage closest to the backbone. They are much leaner than spare ribs and more expensive. Country-style ribs come from the blade end of the loin, which contains more fat. These ribs are boneless and meaty. A popular method of preparing them is braising.
2. Loin Center
The loin center is a prime location for delicious pork roasts and chops. You can usually find these market-ready cuts with the bone in or boneless. Because this section of the animal gets little use, you can grill, pan-sear or braise chops and can bake roasts without needing to make special efforts to tenderize the meat. As the name suggests, the tenderloin is one of the tenderest cuts of pork you can enjoy.
The sirloin is the section of loin farthest back, connecting to the ham section. The sirloin contains some fat, though it is still fairly lean. Butchers can cut this section into roasts and chops. Cuts from this part of the loin tend to be more affordable than those from the loin rib end and center, but they can still be delicious.
Belly Retail Cuts
The belly subprimal also goes by the name of the side. Whatever you call it, this subprimal that runs along the underside of the hog has a reputation for being the fattiest part. This primal section does not have subprimal divisions. There are several ways to prepare pork belly, but you probably know it best for two types of retail cuts: bacon and spareribs.
While back bacon may be a staple in other parts of the world, American bacon comes from the belly. Bacon can come in both thick and thin slices, and can contain varying amounts of fat. It tends to be high in fat, however, so pan-frying is a great way to render the fat and make the bacon crisp. In addition to being a delicious breakfast meat, bacon is also a popular flavor addition or garnish for many dishes.
Spareribs come from the lower part of the ribcage, just above the belly. These ribs are larger and meatier than baby back ribs. They are also more affordable. In supermarkets and butcher shops, you’re likely to see these ribs trimmed down and labeled as St. Louis-style spareribs. That means the butcher removed the breastbone and cartilage, leaving a more uniform, rectangular slab of ribs. Roasting and smoking are ideal methods for preparing these ribs.
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