Pork is not graded in the same way that beef is graded. Basically, there are two types of pork – butcher hogs and sows. Butcher hogs are raised specifically for slaughter. They are bred to produce highly palatable meat. Sows are used to breed more pigs. When the sows are later slaughtered, their meat lacks palatability and therefore the meat is used for processed and cured pork such as sausages and hams.
Major Cuts of Pork
Pork differs from beef in how the major cuts of meat are divided and sold. In beef, the ribs, short loin and sirloin are separated. In pork, these three sections together are referred to as the loin. The loin is the most important major cut for fresh pork purchased from the meat counter. The retail cuts from the loin meat include center cut pork chops (both bone in and boneless), rib end chops, boneless butterfly pork chops, sirloin pork roast, boneless pork roast, country style ribs and pork back ribs.
Boston Style Shoulder (Butt)
The meat from the Boston-style shoulder is tender, flavorful and juicy due to its higher proportion of fat. The meat cuts from the Boston-style shoulder include the pork butt roast, pork steak, pork stew meat, pork cube steak, ground pork and boneless country style ribs. Meat from this area benefits from slow cooking methods such as braising.
The lower portion of the shoulder is called the picnic shoulder. The picnic shoulder is often split into two pieces – the shank end and the shoulder end. Picnic hams can be purchased as a fresh picnic ham and roasted. Many times though, the meat from this area is smoked and sold as processed ham.
The front part of the belly area produces pork spareribs, also St. Louis ribs and rib tips come form this area. The rest of the belly produces bacon and salt pork.
The leg produces ham. Sometimes you will be able to purchase the ham fresh for either roasting or smoking at home. Otherwise the hams are processed and sold as processed ham (shank ham, butt ham, ham steak, and spiral ham).
The Pork You Buy
Pork Chops and Steaks
In the past, pork was mainly sold as bone-in pork chops, but we are seeing an increasing trend toward labeling pork chops as pork top loin steaks and pork boneless breakfast steak. Pork chops can come from differing sections of the loin and therefore have different names. The tenderest of the pork chops are from the center of the loin. From the center section come the loin chops and the rib chops. The loin chops are similar to the T-bone beef steak in that they have a t-shaped bone and have a portion of the tenderloin on one side of the bone. The chops from the shoulder end of the loin are called pork loin blade chops or pork loin rib end chops (sometimes called blade steaks). And the chops from the sirloin end of the loin are called bone-in pork sirloin chops or pork end cut chops. Pork steaks can be cut from the shoulder but they can be a bit on the fatty side, but are very flavorful and tender.
Like beef, pork has a tenderloin, which makes an excellent roast and is also great cooked on the grill. Other pork roasts include the boneless crown roast, top loin roast, center cut roast, sirloin roast and pork shoulder butt roast.
Pork ribs are favorites for many people, and each area of the country has its preference. In some parts of the US, the spare rib is king, while in other parts the back rib is king. Back ribs, or baby back ribs, originate from the blade (shoulder) and center section of the loin. Back ribs generally have at least 8 ribs to a rack and are often referred to by weight – generally the smaller the better and the more expensive.
1-1/2 and down ribs (1 ½ pounds or less)
1 ½-1 ¾ and down
1 ¾ -2 ¼ and
2 ¼ and up
Spare ribs are the ribs from the belly section and are also referred to by weight, however spareribs usually have at least 11 ribs to the rack. Weight for spareribs range from 3 pound and down:
3 ½ – 3 ¾
4 and down
4 to 5 and down
5 and up
Ribs in recent years are getting heavier as the hogs have gotten larger and more lean.
St. Louis style ribs are spareribs with the brisket bone trimmed off. Many people prefer their ribs trimmed in this style, as they prefer the meat on this portion of the ribs.
Rib tips are the small meaty breast rib pieces that have been cut from the ribs during the trimming process. The best rib tips are full tips cut from the spare rib when producing the St. Louis rib.
Country style ribs are prepared from the blade end of the loin.
Fresh hams come from the leg portion and can come either bone in or boneless. When most people think of ham, they think of processed ham. Hams can be processed in an old fashioned smoking process where the ham is hung in mesh netting and allowed maximum exposure to hickory smoke during cooking. Alternatively, hams can be dry-cured with salt and aged to give them a distinctive flavor. These hams require soaking in water and pre-cooking in liquid before baking.