The Cuts of Pork from Shoulder to Baby Back Ribs

Pigs are butchered into four primal cuts: shoulder, loin, belly, and ham. Each of these is then cut down to smaller cuts, which are packaged for the supermarket. As a general rule, the cuts with less fat are less tender and have less flavor. For example, the tenderloin, which is a very lean cut, isn't as tasty as the shoulder or butt, which is marbled with fat. However, the tenderloin takes only a fraction of the time to cook, while the shoulder or butt need several hours.

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    Pig Facts

    Pork cuts
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    Pigs are slaughtered between 10 and 14 months old. Unlike beef, the USDA does not grade pork based on the ratio of fat marbling to the meat. Pork is graded solely by size and gender.

    A butcher hog is a male or female pig raised for slaughter and can weigh between 195 to 300 pounds. A female hog raised entirely for breeding is a sow and can weigh between 300 and 700 pounds.

    A little more than half of the pig's total weight is cut up for retail. The remainder of the pig is used for other cooking purposes, such as pig's feet for thickening soups, intestines for sausage casing. 

    Most of the pork that you find in the supermarket is called "commodity" pork. The pig has been bred solely for its meat and lives in crowded pens for its brief life.

    Heritage pigs—an older stock of pig—are now being raised by local farms. This type of pig has a natural percentage of fat, and its pork is much tastier and more tender than commodity pork.

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    Kitchen still life, spring time produce
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    The only part of the pig's head that is butchered for retail is the jowl, which is used for guanciale (pronounced gwahn-chyah-lay), a tender and flavorful unsmoked Italian bacon. The rest of the pig's head is primarily only used for making head cheese, a type of terrine.

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    Boston Butt (Upper Shoulder)

    Smoked pork butt
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    The butt is not, in fact, cut from the rear of the pig. It is the upper section of the pig's front shoulders. Its name derives from the barrels—called "butts"—that were used to transport pork in the 18th century. It's called a Boston butt because of the method for cutting the shoulder in a particular way originated in Boston, and its name spread to other regions of the United States.

    Boston butts can weigh between 4 and 14 pounds and are sold blade bone-in and boneless roasts or cut into chops. Because of its high percentage of connective tissue, the butt needs to be braised. Recipes for pork butt are interchangeable with pork (picnic) shoulder.

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    Picnic Shoulder (Lower Shoulder)

    Seasoned pork shoulder, close-up
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    The picnic is the lower portion of the shoulder cut just above the pig's hock or shin. Like the Boston butt, it is tender and flavorful only when braised (or simmered). The picnic is a complex mass of muscle, fat, sinew and connective tissue and requires braising, but it is similarly tender and flavorful when cooked slowly in moist heat. 

    The shoulder is also prepared as pulled or shredded pork, sausages and smoked as an inexpensive alternative to ham. (Its name possibly derives from this preparation, as in a "picnic ham.")

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    Pork Belly

    A cut of pork belly
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    This part of the pig's body is not exercised, so the pork is heavily marbled and encased with fat. Pork belly is usually cured for bacon, but it is also braised whole and enjoyed for its exceptional moistness and flavor. Pork belly can also be wrapped and tied around a lean piece of pork, like a boneless loin, to add fat, juiciness, and flavor

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    Spare Ribs and Baby Back Ribs

    Saucy Baby Back Ribs
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    Spare ribs are the flat lower portion of the ribs attached to the belly. Spare ribs have a higher ratio of bone to meat and are connected by a membrane that is often removed (although some people enjoy the chewy texture). Preparations for spare ribs include braising or boiling then grilling or oven-baking.

    Baby back ribs are the curved upper half of the rib cage closest to the pig's spine. A rack of baby back ribs has at least 8 ribs, tapering to approximately 3 inches in length. Baby back rib meat is leaner than spare ribs and takes less time to cook.