You've paid for the high-quality pastured or heirloom or organic pork, now what is that cut of pork and how do you cook it? Use this guide to tell a pork blade chop from a pork loin chop, a shoulder from a butt (tricked you, those are the same!), and how to cook different cuts of pork to their best advantage.
When buying pork, look for firm, pink flesh. Damp meat, pale meat, and soft meat all come from a factory-farmed pig.
Note: There are endless regional and ethnic variations on how to butcher. Cuts you find may vary in name and specifics.
Pork belly is not, as you may think, the stomach. Rather, it is the flesh that runs on the underside (the belly) of the pig and surrounds the stomach. It is one long cut of meat with plenty of fat worked into the meat, which is why it is prized for curing and turning into bacon or pancetta. It can also be cooked fresh and is often seen on menus as "braised pork belly."
Pork Blade Chops
Pork blade chops, sometimes sold as pork loin blade chops, are from the blade roast (see below) and are fattier and a bit tougher than other "chops." They can still be grilled, broiled, or pan-fried to great effect, especially if marinated or tenderized beforehand, but they can also stand up to longer, slower cooking methods like braising.
Pork Blade Roasts
Pork blade roasts (a.k.a. Pork rib end roast, pork 7-rib roast, 5-rib roast, rib end pork loin) are fattier than other roasts, but less expensive and with great flavor. If the roast is bone-in ask the butcher to crack the backbone between the ribs to make carving easier.
Several different cuts can be called pork chops. All are great grilled, broiled, or pan-fried. Note that thicker-cut pork chops with the bone still attached cook up the juiciest and most flavorful. In descending order of tenderness (and thus expense), specific pork chops cuts are:
- Pork loin chops (a.k.a. pork loin end chops, loin pork chops, pork center loin chops). You can identify these by the T-shaped bone on one side of them.
- Pork rib chops (a.k.a. pork rib cut chops, rib pork chops, pork chop end cut)
- Pork sirloin chops
- Pork top loin chops (a.k.a. pork strip chops) are sometimes sold boneless and called pork loin fillets, which can be cooked just like a chop.
Pork cutlets are lean steaks similar to sirloin chops, but meatier (and boneless). Note that some people call medallions cut from a pork tenderloin a cutlet.
Cuts from the pork loin are the leanest and most tender pork cuts. Be careful to avoid overcooking any cut of pork from the loin (they usually have the word "loin" in their name, i.e. tenderloin, loin chop, etc.). The three sections of the pork loin are:
- Blade end is closest to the shoulder and tends to be fatty.
- Sirloin end is closest to the rump and tends to be bony.
- Center portion is, obviously, in the middle and is the leanest, most tender, and, of course, most expensive section of pork.
Pork Hocks and Shanks
We may call them hocks and shanks, but a pig would call them its shins. They are often smoked and make great additions to pots to add flavor and body to soups or beans. When the skin is removed they are called shanks and respond very well to braising.
Pork Rib Roasts
Pork rib roasts are called pork center loin roasts or even sold as "pork roast" when the ribs are removed. They are fattier than pork tenderloins, but still fairly lean. They are extremely juicy and flavorful. For a juicy roast, cook it with the slab of fat that comes on it still attached - simply carve it off after cooking.
When the ribs on a rib roast are "Frenched" (trimmed of meat), this cut is called a rack of pork. A crown roast of pork is two racks of pork tied into a circular crown, in the middle of which stuffing can be cooked.
Steaks cut from a rib roast are pork loin chops or pork rib chops.
There are three main cuts of pork ribs and they all respond well to long, slow cooking:
- Pork Back Ribs are often called baby back ribs. They are meatier than spare ribs but not as meaty as country-style ribs.
- Pork Country-Style Ribs (a.k.a. pork blade end ribs) are the meatiest and fattiest of pork ribs, but aren't as easy to pick up and eat with your fingers as are the other pork ribs. They come bone-in or, more commonly, boneless.
- Pork Spareribs are the least meaty of pork ribs, but popular for the tender-chewy texture (they are the least fatty of pork ribs) they can attain with properly long and slow cooking.
Like pork chops, there are many cuts that get sold as "pork roast." What binds them together is that they are all cuts that turn out well when baked in the oven.
- Pork Tenderloins (see below) are popular for roasting because they are lean, moist, and flavorful.
- Pork Rib Roasts (see above)
- Pork Top Loin Roasts are created by the butcher by tying two top loins together with the fat sides out.
- Fresh Pork Legs this cut is also known as the ham and can be cured or cooked fresh
- Pork Sirloin Roasts (a.k.a. loin pork roast, pork hipbone roast, pork loin end roast) are lean but less expensive that pork tenderloins. They are difficult to carve if they are bone-in, so have your butcher bone, roll, and tie it.
- Boston Butts (see below)