You've bought a delicious looking piece of pork, now what is that cut of pork and how do you cook it? Use this complete guide to pork cuts 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. Consider seeking out pastured pork or organic pork for the best results.
Note: There are endless regional and cultural variations on how to butcher. Cuts you find may vary in name and specifics.
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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." Follow suit at home and either cure or braise it.
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Pork Loin Chops
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.
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Pork Shoulder Chops
Pork shoulder chops, sometimes sold as pork blade chops, are from the blade roast 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, too. Learn more about pork shoulder here.
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Pork Crown Roast
When the ribs on a rib roast (see "roasts" below) are "Frenched" (trimmed of meat), this cut becomes a rack of pork. A pork crown roast is two racks of pork tied into a circular crown, in the middle of which stuffing can be cooked.Continue to 5 of 18 below.
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Pictured here is a range of boneless cuts that may be referred to as boneless chops or cutlets. Pork cutlets are usually lean steaks similar to sirloin chops, but meatier and boneless. Sometimes medallions cut from a pork tenderloin a cutlet.
Cutlets are classically pounded thinner, to make them even more tender, dredged in breadcrumbs, and pan-fried. They are delicious that way, but can also be baked or quickly seared in a pan or on a grill to excellent effect.
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Ham is from the top of the pork leg (the bottom is the shank, which can sometimes be a hock, see below). It can be sold fresh, boiled, smoked or cured (as pictured). Prosciutto and jamon serrano, for example, are salt-and-air-cured hams.
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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.
When sold as whole "roasts," pork loins are usually tied up, as pictured. Are you looking for the long, skinny tenderloin? See below.
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Pork Back Ribs
Pork back ribs are often called baby back ribs. They are meatier than spare ribs but not as meaty as country-style ribs.Continue to 9 of 18 below.
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Country-Style Pork Ribs
Country-style pork ribs or loin 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.
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Pork Spare Ribs
Pork spare ribs 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.
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Like pork chops, many cuts get sold as "pork roasts." What binds them together is that they are all cuts that turn out well when baked in the oven.
- 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, then ask the butcher to crack the backbone between the ribs to make carving easier.
- Pork Tenderloins (see below) are popular for roasting because they are lean, moist, and flavorful.
- 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 tenderloin 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, and carve it off after cooking. Steaks cut from a rib roast are pork loin chops or pork rib chops.
- Pork Top Loin Roasts are created by the butcher by tying two top loins together with the fat sides out.
- Pork Sirloin Roasts (a.k.a. loin pork roast, pork hipbone roast, pork loin end roast) are lean but less expensive than 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) need long, slow cooking but offer up the tremendous flavor.
As a general rule, bone-in roasts can be cooked as-is, while boneless roasts benefit from being tied up like the one pictured. Use kitchen twine or plain, uncolored cotton string to tie loops around the roast, or ask your butcher to do it for you.
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Many—and perhaps most—sausages are traditionally made with pork. Some are fresh and need cooking; others are already cooked or smoked or cured when sold and need heating up or slicing. Learn details about different sausages here.Continue to 13 of 18 below.
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Pork Hocks and Shanks
We may call them pork hocks and shanks, but a pig would call them its shins. They are often smoked and make great additions to pots of soup or beans to add flavor and body to the broth.
Ham hocks, technically, still have the skin on them, and are usually sold smoked. When the skin is removed they are called shanks, usually sold raw (as pictured) and respond very well to braising.
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Pork Butt and Shoulder
Here's the thing: pork butt and pork shoulder are both from the shoulder. They are, technically, different cuts, with the butt (a.k.a. Boston shoulder, and many other names with Boston in them) coming from a thicker section of the shoulder with intense marbling that makes it a darling for pulled pork and other barbecue styles and the shoulder (a.k.a. pork blade shoulder or picnic shoulder) usually being the triangular piece that would be attached to the butt. So many styles and regional variations exist in butchery, however, that it's difficult for the average consumer to know exactly where the cut is from. Luckily, both need long, slow cooking and are great barbecued, braised, or used as stew meat, or in making gyro, so you can use them interchangeably.
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Pork tenderloin (a.k.a. pork tender, pork fillet) are extremely popular. They are also, along with pork loin chops, the most expensive cut of pork. They are lean, tender, and boneless. They are also easy to cook—try them grilled, roasted, or broiled—but also easy to overcook, so pay attention when they're on the fire or in the oven!
Pork tenderloins are sometimes sold with a silverskin, or silvery membrane, still attached. Remove this before cooking, as pictured (or ask your butcher to remove it for you).
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Pork Fat Back
Pork fat back, a.k.a. fatback, is, much as it sounds, the fat from the back of a pig. It is "hard fat" that can be chopped and ground (this is compared to the visceral or "soft fat" found in the abdominal cavity). As such, fatback is a key ingredient in sausages to add fat and moisture. Fat back has rather high water content, so adding too much to burgers or meat loaves will cause noticeable shrinkage when cooked.Continue to 17 of 18 below.
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Lard is simply rendered fat from pork. It can be used the same way any cooking oil or fat is used and is prized for the flavor it adds when used for frying.
Leaf lard is the highest grade of lard (lard is pork fat, the term is usually used to refer to rendered pork fat suitable for cooking). It comes from the visceral, or "soft," fat from around the kidneys and loin of the pig. Pork lard lacks any real pork or meaty flavor, making it an excellent neutral-flavored cooking fat with a high smoking point. Leaf lard is particularly prized by bakers for use in producing moist, flaky pie crusts.
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Pork Knuckles, Trotters, and Beyond
There are plenty more cuts of pork like pork knuckles, trotters, and beyond—the knuckles and feet (trotters), for example, both of which need long, slow cooking to break down all the connective tissue that otherwise makes them tough but are then prized for their meaty flavor.
There is also organ meat—pork liver is the key ingredient in many paté recipes—and the head. Meat from the head is cooked and turned into headcheese, a real delicacy.