Pork Primal Cuts: Boston Butt, Picnic Shoulder and More
Just like beef, pork is divided into large sections called primal cuts. These primals are then broken down further into individual retail cuts.
Unlike beef, however, pork is not split into sides. Instead, it is broken down directly into its main primal cuts.
The most tender cuts of pork are from the rib and loin. It's where we get the expression "high on the hog" — the most desirable cuts of meat come from higher up on the animal. By contrast, the shank and shoulder muscles give us the toughest cuts.
Despite what its name might indicate, the pork butt, also called the Boston butt, comes from the upper shoulder of the hog. Consisting of parts of the neck, shoulder blade and upper arm, the pork butt is a moderately tough cut of pork with a good deal of connective tissue. Pork butt can be roasted or cut into steaks, but it is also well suited for braising and stewing, or for making ground pork or sausages.
Just above the Boston butt is a section of fat called the clear plate or fatback, which can be used for making lard, salt pork, or added to sausage or ground pork.
Another tough cut, the pork shoulder (also called the picnic shoulder) is frequently cured or smoked. Pork shoulder is also used for making ground pork or sausage meat. The pork shoulder is sometimes roasted, but it's not really ideal for this.
Hogs are bred to have extra long loins, so they can have up to 17 ribs — unlike beef and lamb which have 13. The entire pork loin can be roasted, or it can be cut into individual chops or cutlets. The tenderloin is taken from the rear of the pork loin, and baby-back ribs come from the upper ribcage area of the loin.
Above the loin is another section of fatback which can be used for making lard, salt pork, or added to sausage or ground pork.
The back leg of the hog is where we get fresh, smoked or cured hams. Serrano ham and prosciutto are made from hams that are cured, smoked and then air-dried. Fresh hams are usually roasted, but they can be cut into ham steaks as well.
The ham hock, which is used extensively in southern U.S. cuisine, is taken from the joint at the shank end of the ham, where it joins the foot. The ham hock is often braised with collards or other greens.
Pork Belly or Side:
The pork belly, or pork side, is where we get pancetta and bacon. Pork belly meat can also be rolled and roasted or even cut into steaks.
Taken from the belly side of the ribs where they join the breastbone, pork spareribs are often prepared by grilling very slowly over low temperatures. Pork spareribs can also be braised or cooked in a crockpot.
The pork jowl is mostly used in making sausages, although it can also be cured and made into bacon. In Italian cooking, cured pork jowl is referred to as guanciale.
High in collagen, pork feet are excellent sources of gelatin and are frequently added to soups and stews. Long, slow simmering breaks down the tough connective tissues in the pork foot and tenderizes the meat. Pork feet can also be cured, smoked or even pickled. Pig feet are a key ingredient in the traditional Mexican menudo.