Culinary Arts

A Guide to Pork: 4 Primal Pork Cuts and How to Cook Pork

Written by MasterClass

Jun 25, 2019 • 6 min read

You’re heading over to your local butcher determined to buy a prime piece of meat for barbecuing this weekend, but not quite sure what cut of pork to ask for? Use this guide to shop in confidence and distinguish the differences between St. Louis-style spareribs and baby back ribs, center-cut loin roast from tenderloin roast, and learn the best way to cook different pork cuts.

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What Is Pork?

Pork is the culinary term for meat from a domestic pig. It is one of the most commonly consumed meats in the world, eaten both freshly cooked and preserved. About 30 percent of the pork is consumed as cooked fresh meat, while the remainder is cured or smoked for bacon, ham, and sausage and rendered to make lard.

How Is Pork Broken Down?

The carcass of pig is initially separated into 4 main cuts of pork, which are referred to as primal cuts. Primal cuts are made of muscle, fat, and bone that are further broken down into 18 subprimal cuts. In addition to the carcass of the pig, pork knuckles and meat from the head are also butchered and sold for culinary purposes.

Why Are Some Pork Cuts More Tender Than Others?

Different cuts of meat are learner and tougher because they come from parts of the animal that work more, like the shoulder. These areas are flavorful, but require slow cooking and extra ingredients to help soften the tissue. Other cuts like tenderloin come from less active parts of the animal, and as a result, have less marbling throughout the meat.

4 Primal Pork Cuts

  1. Rear Legs (aka ham): The rear legs of the animal from hip to knee are often referred to as the “ham.” It is a primal cut sold as large roasts and is available fresh or cured. It can be further broken down into the fresh shank, fresh sirloin, cured bone-in half ham, and cured country ham.
  2. Loin: The area between the shoulder and rear legs are the most tender and lean part of the animal. Ribs and loin chops are cut from this region, along with pork loin roasts and tenderloin roasts. Pork chops often come from this area, try buying bone-in rib and center-cut loin chops for sautéing or grilling.
  3. Shoulder: Cuts from the upper portion of the shoulder are well marbled with fat, which make them ideal for low and slow cooking methods, like braising, stewing, or barbecuing, which will help break down connective tissues. This cut can be further broken down into the pork shoulder and pork butt, also known as Boston butt.
  4. Belly or Side: The underside of the animal has the fattiest meat and is the source of bacon and spareribs.

18 Subprimal Pork Cuts: How to Cook Each Cut of Pork

  1. Shank (Fresh Ham): The leg is divided into the shank end and rounded sirloin end. The shank end is covered in a thick layer of fat and skin that has to be scored before roasting, but it's still preferred over the bony sirloin end. Cooking Method: Roasting
  2. Sirloin (Fresh Ham): The rounded sirloin is more difficult to carve because of the bone, but is still flavorful nonetheless. Cooking Method: Roasting
  3. Spiral-Sliced Bone-In Half Ham: A popular wet-cured ham that is sold in its natural juices and easy to carve at home. Cooking Method: Roasting
  4. Country Ham: A generic name for American dry-cured ham. A favorite in the southern US, it starts with the whole leg and has a complex nutty flavor. If it is too salty, it can be soaked in water before preparing. It pairs well with biscuits, eggs, and grits for a classic Southern breakfast. Cooking Method: Roasting and pan-searing.
  5. Baby Back Ribs: Baby back ribs are cut from the loin primal cut, specifically the part of the ribcage closest to the spine. The upper ribs are called baby back ribs because they are shorter and leaner than spareribs. Cooking Method: Grilling and roasting.
  6. Rib Chop: These chops are cut from the rib section of the loin, and have a high fat content, keeping them flavorful and less likely to dry out during cooking. They are also sold as boneless pork chops. Cooking Method: Grilling, pan-searing, and braising.
  7. Center-Cut Chop or Loin Chops: These are the pork chop version of a New York strip steak and can be identified by the bone that divides the loin meat from the tenderloin muscle. The lean tenderloin cut is usually sold boneless. Cooking Method: Searing and grilling.
  8. Country-Style Ribs: Meaty, tender, boneless ribs cut from the blade end of the loin, close to the pork shoulder. They are meatier than other ribs, like baby backs or spare ribs, and contain no rib bones. Since they are boneless, they can be easily braised and shredded or pounded flat for pan-searing. Cooking Methods: Braising, grilling, and pan-searing
  9. Boneless Blade-End Roast: An ideal boneless cut for roasting, taken from the shoulder end of the loin. It is fattier than other roasts, but less expensive and more flavorful. Cooking Method: Roasting
  10. Center-Cut Loin Roast: Fattier than pork tenderloin, meaning it's juicy and tender. For better flavor, cook it with the slab of fat still attached, carve off after cooking if desired. Cooking Method: Roasting
  11. Center-Cut Rib Roast: Pork's equivalent of prime rib or rack of lamb, this lean roast comes with a protective fat layer. It may be cut with to include five to eight ribs and has plenty of flavor from the bones and fat. Cooking Method: Roasting and grilling
  12. Tenderloin Roast: Popular for roasting, this lean, flavorful, and boneless roast cooks very quickly because it’s small, usually weighing in at about 1 pound. Cooking Methods: Roasting, pan searing, and sautéing
  13. Crown Roast or Crown Rib Roast: Fit for a king, these are two bone-in center-cut ribs or center-cut loin roasts tied together to create an impressive-looking roast. Cooking Method: Roasting
  14. Pork Butt Roast or Boston Butt: Pork butt, also known as Boston butt, is a cut from the upper portion of a pig’s front shoulder. It’s a relatively inexpensive and forgiving hunk of meat that you’ll most often see served as pulled pork in barbecue restaurants. The muscle has a lot of connective tissue that needs to be broken down through slow cooking, but it’s also extremely fatty, so it’s less prone to drying out, even at higher temperatures. The relatively forgiving nature of the cut and consistent cooking temperature make this a great cook for beginners. Ground pork is usually made from this cut. Cooking Methods: Slow roasting, barbecuing, stewing, and braising
  15. Pork Shoulder (aka picnic shoulder): An inexpensive cut of meat that is sold with the bone in or boneless. A fatty, flavorful cut with connective tissue. Cooking methods: Barbecuing, roasting, and braising
  16. Spareribs: Spareribs are cut from the pig's ribcage closest to the sternum. Spareribs are less curved than loin-back ribs and usually have part of the breastbone attached. Cooking Methods: Roasting and barbecuing
  17. St. Louis-Style Spareribs: St. Louis-style spare ribs are cut with the brisket bone and surrounding meat trimmed off so that a well-formed, rectangular-shaped rack is created. The smaller size makes it more manageable on the grill. Cooking Methods: Roasting and barbecuing
  18. Pork Belly: A fatty cut of belly meat that comes from the underside of the pig. It can be used for steaks or diced for stir-fry. Pork belly can be cured and made into streaky bacon and Italian pancetta. Cooking Methods: Pan-searing, sautéing, and stir-frying.

3 Additional Pork Cuts: Head, Trotters, and Knuckles

There are many other parts of the pig that are used in cooking, from the ears to the tail, but the three common alternative cuts are:

  1. The pig head is used for pork jowl—cured and smoked cheeks of pork that are cooked like bacon. Meat from the head is also cooked and turned into headcheese—a prized delicacy in the culinary world.
  2. In many different kinds of cuisine, pork knuckles (also known as ham hocks) are treasured for their collagen rich-tendons and meaty flavor. They make stews and braises extra thick and flavorful, which is while you'll see them in stewed collard greens and baked beans.
  3. Trotters, which are the pig's feet, are often used in stocks to give them extra fat and thickness. Sometimes they're even served on their own as a cut of meat.

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