Pork Meat Buying Guide

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Pork

Once upon a time, American society really only ate pork for breakfast.  Chicken was considered healthy, beef was thought to be luxurious, and pork was made into ham and bacon and the occasional pork chop.  Thought to be too fatty to be eaten on a regular basis, ordinary citizens went about their days ignoring the thousands of ways pork could be transformed into delicious dishes.


Modern breeding systems and feeding techniques over the years created pigs with a third less fat than their porcine ancestors.  Ingenious marketing in the early 1990s brought pork into American consciousness as “the other white meat” and just like that, pork became a relatively inexpensive, delicious, versatile protein addition to our daily diet. 

Just like beef, there are a lot of different cuts and retailer labels for pork. Using our handy guide, you can become an expert pork purchaser.

Labeling

Heritage Breeds

Over the last decade, consumers have become more aware of how their pork is being raised and the effect the life of the animal has on the meat.  The term “Heritage Breeds” has recently come into vogue when describing pork products, but what does it actually mean? According to The Livestock Conservancy, in order for pork to be labeled as a “Heritage Swine”, it must be a true genetic breed of swine that has had a continuous breeding population in the US since 1925.  However, the term “Heritage Breeds” when referring to meat is not USDA regulated and therefore open to interpretation.  


For some farmers, heritage breed pork is a general term for meat from livestock that are raised as they would have been hundreds of years ago. Animals are allowed to feed on grass and grain and are raised without artificial hormones. 


For other farmers, heritage breed pork comes from breeds common to the Americas hundreds of years ago, such as Berkshire and Duroc.  The idea behind the propagation of heritage breeds is that they considerably more flavorful than their commercial counterparts and they protect the species as a whole.  If all pigs were of one breed, a particularly nasty and widespread disease could wipe out the entire pork production industry.


While the USDA does not regulate the term “heritage breed pork”, a high quality butcher who has a relationship with his farmers will be able to direct you to higher quality, more flavorful cuts of meat.

Quality and pH Level

According to Kenneth Prusa, Food Science professor at the Iowa State University, the color of pork is a strong indication of quality. Pork meat from both Berkshire and Duroc breeds have a vibrant pink to red tint to them (although Duroc isn’t as red as the crimson-colored Berkshire breed of pork), which indicates that the meat has a higher pH than their supermarket pork counterparts. Prusa added that pH is the “overall driver of quality in pork.” Hence, the higher the pH of the pork, the better the quality of the pork. 


In fact, just a small difference in the pH level of pork greatly affects the texture and flavor of the meat. Berkshire breeds are strategically raised to have a little higher pH level than normal pigs; the normal pH for mammals is approximately 7. In effect, the slightly higher pH of Berkshire breeds makes the meat firmer, tastier a deeper red. Also, Prusa added that the pH level is more significant than the fat content of the pork in terms of assessing the flavor of the meat.

Factors Affecting pH Level

Husbandry. Berkshire pigs are grown in an environment with minimal stress. It is believed that when the animal experiences less stress and is more relaxed, its blood flows more evenly. This results in flavorful juices distributed well into its system.


Slaughtering methods. When Berkshire pigs are scheduled to be slaughtered, they are also subjected to little stress so that there wouldn’t be a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles that results to a lower pH. The quality of the animal’s last few days can greatly affect the final quality of the flavor and texture of its meat. Obviously, animals raised naturally are the least likely to be subject to high-stress environments like being locked in cages.


Blast chilling. Another way to avoid decreasing the pH level of the meat is by blast chilling it immediately after slaughter. It is important to note that once blood flow stops, the pH level of the meat rapidly decreases, so blast chilling it helps preserve the higher pH level of the pig.

Enhanced Pork

Since regular pigs found in supermarkets are leaner and less flavorful than their heritage breed counterparts, many meat suppliers use flavor-enhancing meat injections to improve the overall flavor of modern pork.

Sodium Solution

Enhanced pork products are injected with sodium solution to improve the flavor of the meat. The solution is a mixture of water, salt, potassium lactate, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, sodium lactate, and other flavor-enhancing agents.  Such an enhancers are often used in leaner cuts like loin and tenderloin to add flavor to an otherwise bland cut.


While sodium solution injections enhance the flavor of the pork, they do so at a price. Pork injected with a flavor-enhancing solution weighs 7-15 percent more than unenhanced pork products. As a result, the flavor tends to be salty and leave a spongy texture when it is cooked. Also, enhanced pork tends to lose almost six times its moisture content when frozen and thawed. 

Nitrite and Nitrate Content

Nitrites and nitrates are food preservatives that fight bacteria in processed or cured meats. They are also the compounds that give meat its deep pink color.  Both compounds are typically found in the brine of cured pork products such as ham, bacon, and lunch meat.  Celery juice is often used as an alternative to chemical preservatives because of its naturally high nitrate content.  


These compounds are generally considered safe to consume, although nitrites and nitrates have been linked to migraine headaches in some individuals. Even if pork products are labeled as “nitrite- or nitrate-free”, these compounds are usually present in a natural form as a result of the curing process.  

PRIMAL CUTS OF PORK

Pork is broken down into four initial series of cuts, more commonly known as “primal cuts” --  which include the shoulder, side or belly, loin, and leg. These primal cuts are wholesale items from the butcher level and are then sold in various cuts by supermarkets and local meat shops.

1. Shoulder

There are two basic portions from this cut of pork, -- the blade shoulder and picnic shoulder:

Blade shoulder - Cut from the upper section of the pork shoulder, a blade shoulder is evenly marbled with fat and holds a lot of connective tissue. Cuts from this portion of the pork shoulder are typically used for slow cooking methods like stewing, braising and barbecuing.

Picnic shoulder - Cut from the section near the front leg area of the pig. Cuts from this portion of the pork shoulder are quite similar to the cuts from the blade shoulder, but are considered to be more economical.

2. Side or Belly

As the name suggests, this portion contains the most fat of all of the cuts from the underside of the animal. This primal cut is where the spare ribs and bacon cuts are taken.

3. Loin

The cut from the section between the shoulder and the back legs is called the loin. It is the leanest and most tender part of the pig.

Popular cuts found in this area include loin chops, rib chops, loin roasts, and tenderloin roasts. Because of their lack of fat, it is important to cook them with a meat thermometer as they can become dry and lose flavor if overcooked.

3. Leg

The legs at the back of the animal are usually referred to as “ham”. They are often sold as large roasts in fresh or cured varieties.

SHOPPING FOR PORK

At the supermarket or local meat shop level, each primal cut is sold in a variety of other cuts and under a litany of different labels. This handy guide will ensure you are familiar with the kind of cut you need before heading to the nearest supermarket or butcher. 

1. Primal Cut: Shoulder

Pork Shoulder


Characteristics: Contains a lot of fat and connective tissue; sold either bone-in or boneless

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Fresh picnic roast, picnic roast, picnic shoulder, shoulder arm picnic roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, roasting, grill roasting, barbecuing







Pork Butt Roast


Characteristics: Big cut weighing up to 8 pounds; can be sold with the bone in; has an excellent flavor 

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Boston butt, Boston shoulder, pork butt

Recommended Cooking Method: Stewing, braising, slow roasting, barbecuing

Notes & Tips: This roast can be sold in smaller cuts and is usually packaged in a mesh netting that holds the roast together.


2. Primal Cut: Side or belly

St. Louis Style Spareribs


Characteristics: This style of cut uses whole ribs near the belly area of the animal; weighs about 5 pounds or more, as it consists of the brisket bone and meat.

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Spareribs

Recommended Cooking Method: Barbecuing, roasting

Notes & Tips: A popular cut for barbecuing because it can be easily managed on a grill or smoker.  The connective tissue and fat on St. Louis style spareribs keep the meat moist during long, slow cooking.


3. Primal Cut: loin

Rib Chop


Characteristics: A cut taken from the rib area of the loin and has a recognizable bone running along one side and a big eye of loin muscle; these chops are fatty and juicy as long as they are not overcooked.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Pork chops end cut, rib cut chops

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, roasting, pan searing, grilling

Notes & Tips: Rib chops can be sold boneless.

Blade Chop


Characteristics: A cut taken from the shoulder end of the loin, which contains a lot of fat and is quite tough; has a porky, pleasant flavor and is juicy

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Pork chop end cut

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, barbecuing





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Center-Cut Chop


Characteristics: A chop with a distinct bone that divides the tenderloin muscle from the loin meat; contains less fat than rib chops, but have a mild pork flavor

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Loin chops, top loin chops

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, searing

Notes & Tips: Cooking this chop can be challenging since the tenderloin portion tends to cook faster than the loin section. 

Sirloin Chop


Characteristics: a chop cut from the sirloin or the hip end of the pig containing a piece of the hipbone, tenderloin, and loin meat.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Sirloin steaks

Recommended Cooking Method: Pan searing, braising, barbecuing







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Baby Back Ribs


Characteristics: Cut from the area of the rib cage nearest to the backbone, these ribs are smaller and leaner than spareribs.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Riblets, loin back ribs

Recommended Cooking Method: Barbecuing, braising

Notes & Tips: Ribs benefit from low and slow cooking.  Combine braising and smoking for optimum texture and flavor.

Country-Styler Chop


Characteristics: A boneless rib cut from the side just above the rib cage, from the blade end of the loin; the meat is tender with a rich flavor.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Country ribs

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, braising, pan searing, barbecuing

Notes & Tips: Most butchers cut this type of ribs into several cuts and then place them in a single package.

Blade End Roast


Characteristics: The section of the loin nearest to the shoulder; it can be challenging to carve, as it has a lot of different fat pockets and muscles on the meat.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Rib-end roast, pork five-rib roast, pork loin rib end, pork seven-rib roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting, braising

Boneless Blade End Roast


Characteristics: A cut from the shoulder end of the loin; fatty, and more flavorful than the boneless center-cut loin roast.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Triangle roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, roasting

Notes & Tips: It may be quite difficult to find this type of cut in most meat shops.

Center-Cut Loin Roast


Characteristics: A cut similar to the boneless blade-end roast that can also be juicy and tender.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Center-cut pork roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Grill roasting, roasting

Notes & Tips: Buy this roast with a nice fat cap on top and cook it with the fat cap on top.  This allows the meat to self-baste and stay moist

Center-Cut Rib Roast


Characteristics: A cut consisting of five to eight ribs with the bones and fat still encased within the meat; it has a good flavor and slightly tender texture similar to the prime rib or rack of lamb.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Center-cut pork roast, pork loin rib half, rack of pork

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, roasting

Crown Roast


Characteristics: A cut from two bone-in center-cut rib or center-cut loin roasts attached together, usually containing 16 to 20 ribs.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s:​ Crown rib roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting

Notes & Tips: A crown rib roast is very impressive when served whole.  Because of its shape and size, it is important to work with a meat thermometer to prevent overcooking.

Sirloin Roast


Characteristics: A cut with lots of connective tissue, making it ideal for braising and barbecuing.

Flavor: 1/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, barbecuing

Notes & Tips: Sirloin roasts are ideal for slow cooking.  For maximum flavor, be sure to marinate or rub prior to cooking.

Tenderloin Roast


Characteristics: A very small cut of meat that is boneless and lean with very little marbling; this cut is equivalent to beef tenderloin.

Flavor: 1/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Pan searing, sauteing, stir-frying, roasting


4. Primal Cut: leg

Fresh Ham (Shank End)


Characteristics: The first cut derived from the leg area is the shank end, which is covered with a thick layer of skin and fat.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Shank end fresh ham

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting, barbecuing

Notes & Tips: The fatty layer in this cut is just enough to keep the meat juicy and this cut will actually become more flavorful if you brine or marinate it first.  Be sure to score the skin prior to brining or marinating to allow the liquid to penetrate the meat.

Spiral-Sliced Bone-in Half Ham


Characteristics: A wet-cured ham that is flavorful and easy to cut; a bone-in ham is tastier than a boneless ham since the bone also develops its flavor as it cooks.

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Spiral-cut ham

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting

Notes & Tips: Buy the bone-in ham with the label “ham with natural juices”. Prepared hams also benefit from a slow reheating process making them ideal for parties or events.




Fresh Ham (Sirloin Half) 


Characteristics: A cut from two bone-in center-cut rib or center-cut loin roasts attached together, usually containing 16 to 20 ribs.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Crown rib roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting

Notes & Tips: A crown rib roast is very impressive when served whole.  Because of its shape and size, it is important to work with a meat thermometer to prevent overcooking.



Country Ham


Characteristics: A whole leg that is dry-cured with a salty, nutty  flavor. 

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Pan searing after slicing

Notes & Tips: It is important to think of country ham like prosciutto.  It is delicious on its own, but very pungent.  Ideally, country ham is served as a condiment rather than a main course.  Top biscuits with very thin slices or use in place of prosciutto in pastas.  

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