The Skinny on... Pork
Pork is among the most versatile meats in our supermarkets. Here’s what you need to know to get the best cut on your table.
Article By: Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
This long, tubular, boneless cut may be the primal piece of pork for many of us, best roasted with lots of herbs and seasonings for a celebration meal that’s easy to carve. (Just cut it into rounds!) The loin comes from the center of the pig, a cut “high on the hog” (that is, where there’s less marbling, a lower bone-to-meat ratio). You don’t have to buy an entire 6-pound pork loin; you can even buy 1-pound roasts. A loin can also be butterflied, stuffed, and tied back into its tubular shape.
When the rib bones (and sometimes a piece of the backbone) are left attached to the pork loin, the cut morphs into a pork rib roast, the equivalent of a standing rib roast from a cow or a rack of lamb. A pork rib roast is best roasted, of course — and then sliced into servings between the bones. When two racks are tied together in a circle with their meat facing the center, they become a crown roast of pork, usually with stuffing piled into the center on top of the meat.
This boneless cut is taken from the top back of the pig, as high on the hog as you can get. It’s without a doubt the tenderest cut of pork around, about 1 pound per tenderloin. It’s wider at one end and tapers toward a point. Watch out: It cooks fast and can get dried out. Since a tenderloin cooks so quickly, the cut should be pan-seared, broiled or grilled — or cut into medallions for pan-frying with lots of vegetables.
Taken from farther back than most of the high-on-the-hog cuts, these are actually chops from the sirloin of the pig. A loin chop is the pork version of a beef T-bone: a bit of the tenderloin on one side of the bone and a bit of the strip loin on the other side. A loin chop is best pan-seared or grilled, although it can also be braised for a comfort-food dinner.
If a pork rib roast is cut into individual chops, one bone each, they become pork rib chops. If the bones are removed from these chops, the resulting cut becomes “center-cut boneless pork loin chops.” These are some of the easiest cuts of pork to prepare — they don’t need much more than a quick sauté, a little time on the grill or a few minutes under the broiler. Rib chops almost always have a layer of fat around one side; this fat should be trimmed before the chops are cooked. (Even easier: Ask the butcher at your supermarket to do it for you.)
These classic pork ribs are a favorite at most barbecue joints: a long rib bone with a thin covering of meat. If the cartilage-full tips are removed from the ribs, they’re called “St. Louis–style pork ribs.” Spare ribs take a long time to get tender in the oven or on the grill — but boy, is the effort worth it.
As an aside, country-style spare ribs, despite their name, aren’t ribs at all. They come from the front of the pig, and are meaty like loin chops but much more marbled.
These are cut from the same place as the spare ribs, but much higher on the hog, up near the loin roast. There’s a lot of lean meat between the bones, far more so than in spare ribs. Baby-back ribs are not from “baby” pigs — they’re called “baby-back” because they’re small ribs off the back of the pig. They’re best on the grill, usually left as a whole rack until they’re cut apart to serve.
A ham is the back leg of a pig. A fresh ham has not been smoked or cured — and is about the best pork roast on the market. A whole ham is the whole back leg, the hip down to the shank. However, it’s usually cut in half at the supermarket. The shank end is the more familiar, even more iconic cut: a round eye with a single, long bone, the meat tapering to a thinner end. The butt end of the ham has a more complicated bone structure and is more difficult to carve, although there’s great taste from all those bones roasting in the meat. Fresh hams are best slow-roasted in the oven — or cooked a long time on the grill over indirect, low heat.
This is the type of ham most of us know. Like a fresh one, it can be a whole ham, the shank end or the butt end. Smoked hams are also often sliced into ham steaks. Here’s an important note: A ham does not need to be cured before it’s smoked — although the two usually go together. Canned hams and “boiled” deli hams are most often cured but not smoked.
from the back end of the pig; rather, it’s a big, succulent, shoulder-blade roast, familiar to most of us as the meat used in pulled pork. Think of it in terms of taste and texture as the pork equivalent of beef chuck (although it’s not the same cut). A Boston butt is usually braised, slow-roasted, pot-roasted or barbecued over indirect, low heat. The cut directly below the Boston butt on the front leg is called the “picnic ham” and should not be confused with the more standard, back-end hams. A picnic ham is cooked just like a Boston butt.
A hock is cut from below the Boston butt and the picnic ham, the bit of the front legs before the feet. Hocks can be fresh or smoked. While not great eating on their own, they are most often tossed into pots or slow cookers to add lots of flavor to soups, beans, stews and long-cooking vegetables.
Although ground pork is often made from trimmings and can be quite fatty, you can indeed find “lean ground pork” at some high-end or well-stocked supermarkets. However, for the best ground pork possible, pick up a pork loin and hand it across the counter to the butcher to grind for you on the spot.
Bacon is pork belly, smoked and most often cured (but not always). It’s sold either in slabs — which can be diced for a little added flavor to almost any soup or stew — or in strips, familiar to most of us as breakfast fare. For the meatiest bacon, go to the butcher counter so you can examine each slice that has been cut from a larger slab. Nitrates are used to keep bacon pink after curing and smoking; nitrate-free bacon is grayer, even browner, although it tastes the same.
Cooked and ready to eat, Canadian bacon is cured and smoked pork loin, far leaner than belly bacon. It can be used just as a flavoring in stews and soups. However, Canadian bacon will not get as crisp as regular bacon since it has a lower fat content. One note: The name’s a bit dodgy. "Canadian bacon" in Canada (known as "peameal bacon") is boneless, sweet-cured pork loin — not smoked, not fully cooked, and rolled in cornmeal.
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