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The Cuts of Pork - Part 1

From Boston Butt to Baby Back Ribs


Similar to how beef is butchered, the pig is cut into four large portions called primal cuts. The primal cuts for pork are: shoulder, loin, belly and ham.

Each of these primal cuts is then broken down into the various cuts found in the supermarket or at a butcher. All meat is muscle, and depending on from which part of the pig's body the cut is made, the meat will be tough and compounded with connective tissue, for example, in the heavily exercised parts of the pig like the shoulder, or tender and marbled with fat, for example, the belly.

Butchering by Sebastian Cortez, Sebastian & Co.

Pig Facts

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 male butcher hog is called a barrow, and a female butcher hog is known as a gilt. A female hog raised entirely for breeding is a sow and can weigh between 300 and 700 pounds.

Approximately 56% of the pig's weight is cut for retail pork. Unlike other meat animals, much of the remaining pig parts are used for other culinary purposes, like fried pig skin, pickled pig's feet and pig intestine for sausage casing. In recent years, pigs have been bred for leaner meat, which has resulted in a bland-tasting pork, especially the loin. Older stocks, like heritage pigs, are being re-introduced by local farms, since their meat has a natural percentage of fat, which means tastier and more tender pork.


Image © Gene Gerrard

When butchered, a pig is initially cut in half horizontally (cows are quartered), and its head and tail are removed. Generally, the only part of the pig's head that is cut is the jowl, which is used for guanciale (pronounced gwahn-chyah-lay), a tender and flavorful unsmoked Italian bacon. The cheeks, snout and ears can also be prepared as head cheese, which is not a cheese, but more like a terrine, in which the pig head's meat is boiled from head and then set in gellatine.

Boston Butt (Upper Shoulder)

Image © Gene Gerrard

Despite its confusing name, the butt of the pig is not the rear end of the animal, which is called the ham. The butt is actually the upper section of the pig's front shoulders. After the pig's head and tail are removed, the entire shoulder is then separated at the 4th or 5th ribs. The shoulder tapers down to the pig's foot, and the wide end at the top is cut from the tapered end. This is called the butt. Its name derives from the caskets or barrels, called "butts", used to transport pork in the 18th century. As to Boston, the method for cutting pork apparently began in Boston, and its name spread to other regions of the United States.

Boston butts can weigh between 4 and 14 pounds and are composed of muscle, fat, sinew and bone. The butt is sold blade bone-in and boneless roasts or cut into chops. Because of its high percentage of connective tissue, the butt needs to be cooked slowly in moist heat, i.e., braising, and the slow-cooking process softens the connective tissue and melts the fat, making the pork very juicy and flavorful. A boneless Boston butt is often used as an alternative for baby suckling pig in making porchetta, a traditional Italian roast.

Picnic Shoulder (Lower Shoulder)

Image © Gene Gerrard

The picnic is the lower portion of the shoulder cut just above the pig's hock or shin. Like the Boston butt, 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. Picnic 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".)

Pork Belly

Image © Gene Gerrard

The shoulder and ham are separated from the rest of the pig's body, which is the whole loin (the loin is further broken down, see next section). The pork belly is then separated from the side ribs. This part of the pig's body is not exercised, so the muscle 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

Spare Ribs & Baby Back Ribs

Image © Gene Gerrard

The ribs are next cut from the loin. Spare ribs are the flat lower portion of the ribs attached to the belly. The USDA states that a slab of ribs must have at least 11 bones. 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 upper curved half of the rib cage closest to the pig's spine. A rack of baby back ribs has at least 8 ribs and follow the natural curvature of the pig's spine, tapering to approximately 3 inches in length. Closer to the loin than spare ribs, baby back rib meat is lean and tender and requires less cook time. There are a number of ways to cook baby back ribs, including slow-baked, boiled, steamed and then grilled or broiled.

Continue reading: The Cuts of Pork - Part 2: From Loin to Trotter

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