In the previous edition of “Food for Thought” (This Little Piggy I) we addressed the unwarranted fears regarding pork and trichinosis and dispelled the myth that pork should be cooked well done. We then discussed the aberration of breeding today’s pigs to be leaner and how to brine pork to restore some of the lost succulence. Let us proceed in this final segment to illuminating the various cuts of pork and how they should be cooked.
First and foremost, with any meat, the general rule of thumb is that regularly used muscles are tougher and require moist heat cooking methods, while sedentary muscles are tenderer and necessitate dry heat methods. For meat, braising and stewing are the primary wet heat methods. Dry heat cooking methods include grilling, sautéing, broiling, and roasting. The rib, loin, and tenderloin are the tender muscles, and the cuts closer to the hooves, (shoulder, breast, rump, and legs), are the tough guys, although very flavorful.
As displayed in the diagram below, the Boston butt has nothing to do with porcine hindquarters but rather, is the shoulder. According to the National Pork Board, in colonial times some pork cuts were packed into barrels known as “butts.” Bostonian butchers had a unique way of carving the shoulder; hence, Boston butt.
The shoulder is home to genuine barbequed pork. If you ever had a pulled pork sandwich, you have enjoyed the unusually tasty shoulder meat. While barbequing is dry heat, it is done low and slow to gently tenderize the meat over time. Otherwise, you can braise or stew the shoulder. It is also possible to thinly cut it and use it in Asian stir-frys. Cutting it thinly compensates for its toughness and allows a quick, dry-heat method like stir-frying.
Picnic shoulder is also known as picnic ham, even though its not ham. Real ham hails from the back leg. The picnic comes from the upper part of the foreleg and includes the lower part of the shoulder. It is often smoked which produces a ham-like taste. It is a cheap substitute for real ham. It is quite tough and usually requires even longer cooking than the upper shoulder. Picnic is also a primary source for sausage.
The lower portions of the legs are the hocks. They are magnificent for flavoring stews, greens, (e.g., collards), lentils and other grain dishes, and a variety of other concoctions. Drop a hock or two in a pot of simmering lentils or beans and you’ll add a wonderfully comforting and deep dimension of flavor.
The rear leg, as stated, is where real ham comes from. If cut in half the upper portion is called the butt end and the lower portion the shank end. The shank end will be a little tougher. Hams can be fresh, whereby the meat is not processed or cured. Curing is the term for any of a variety of methods by which foods are preserved. Flavor is added by the process as well. Hams for example, may be dry cured by covering them with salt and/or spices, immersed in a brine, (a salt-water solution sometimes augmented by seasonings), or injected with a brine. Some hams are also smoked and/or aged after the curing process.
Hams may also come fully cooked, partially cooked, or uncooked. Fully cooked hams require no additional heating. “City” hams are cooked, (as well as brined and smoked), while “country” hams are not cooked but still dry cured. Hams are also distinguished form the amount of water that is added to them. From highest to lowest are “ham” (no water added), “ham in natural juices,” “ham water added,” and “ham and water product.” Try to select “ham” or “ham in natural juices.” Always check the labels for the degree of cooking and the water content. Hams may also be sold boneless, partially boned, and bone-in, (i.e. no removal of the bone structure). As with all types of meat, the more bone the more flavor. Fresh ham is best cooked via roasting.
Bacon, one of the best meats in the world, comes from the side of the pig, which encompasses the belly. Slab bacon is a thick cut of bacon which is usually cheaper than the thinly sliced breakfast favorite. The most straightforward method of cooking bacon is in a skillet but laying out the strips on a sheet pan and popping them in the oven also produces extraordinary results. The side also provides salt pork. Salt pork is mostly fat, that as its name implies, has been salted. It is used as a flavoring agent in a myriad of dishes because, as any chef knows, few things are as tasty as pork fat.
Spareribs, the choice of Chinese restaurants, also hail from the side. A St. Louis cut is an entire slab of spareribs with the sternum and cartilage trimmed away. Spare ribs are the rib section closest to the breast bone while baby back ribs are the section of the ribs closest to the spine and hence part of the loin. Baby back ribs are less meaty, less fatty and more tender than spareribs.
Spare ribs and baby back ribs are best cooked low and slow, be it a dry or wet heat method. They can be coated with a dry rub and slow cooked in the oven or even a grill. For the latter they are seared first and then cooked on the rack above the grill at a lower temperature with the lid closed. Or they can be contained within foil or a cooking vessel with liquid and braised. And of course they, (along with pork shoulder), are the quintessential barbeque food. Depending on the school of thought barbeque will involve a sauce and/or a dry rub, but definitely long slow cooking with smoke flavoring.
There’s also a pork rib roast, equivalent to a rack of lamb or a beef rib roast. Rib roasts are almost as tender as the loin, but with more flavor. Pork rib roasts are also far less expensive than lamb or beef. The “rack of pork” as I like to call it, is one of the best deals on the pig. The rack can also be sliced into individual chops.
The loin, like all quadrupeds, is home to the tenderest meat on the animal. The loin runs along the back from the posterior side of the shoulders and ends where the upper back leg begins. Just beneath the loin is the crème de la crème, the smaller tenderloin, or, shall we say, the filet mignon of pork. Both the loin and especially the tenderloin make excellent roasts. Canadian bacon is thinly sliced pieces of the loin.
The entire loin can also be cut into individual pieces otherwise known as our beloved pork chops. Chops taken from the end closest to the shoulder are called blade chops. Sirloin chops hail from the posterior section of the loin. While both delicious, they are not comprised of uniform muscular tissue, but rather are somewhat mottled. Because people prefer pristine, unblemished, visually homogeneous meat, the “center cut” pork chops are more popular, (and more expensive). The anterior center are the rib chops, and the posterior center are the loin chops. All chops should be cooked by any of the dry heat methods.
Finally, there are a number of miscellaneous parts of the pig that also render culinary happiness. The jowls, an Italian favorite known as guanciale, are used to flavor various dishes. Classic carbonara sauce incorporates diced guanciale. Neck bones also add flavor to dishes and can be used like ham hocks, i.e., added to stews, braises, and simmered grain and vegetable dishes. Pig’s feet are mostly skin and collagen but will add flavor and particularly body to a dish. They require extended slow, wet heat cooking.
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