A Complete Guide to Pork Cuts

Understand Different Types of Pork Cuts and The Recommended Cooking Techniques

A Complete Guide to Pork Cuts
Variety Parts of Pork Cuts

Understanding the intricacies of pork cuts was a journey that involved numerous interactions with my trusted butcher. He was always enthusiastic about sharing his expertise and giving me meaningful insights of best pig breed for steak and best cuts for succulent and tender or with a crispy finish.

In this guide, I'll delve into the various pork cuts and equip you with the knowledge to master this subject.

What is the Main Cuts of Pork?

When a pig is butchered, its carcass is first segmented into four primary divisions, known as primal cuts. These cuts consist of muscle, fat, and bone.

Pork Primal Cuts - GameKeeper, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Four Primal Pork Cuts

1) Shoulder: The meat from the top section of the shoulder is generously interspersed with fat.

This marbling is perfect for cooking techniques that require extended durations, like stewing, braising, or barbecuing, as they soften the connective tissues.

This portion is further classified into the pork shoulder and what's commonly known as the Boston butt or pork butt.

2) Loin Region: Situated between the rear legs and the shoulder, this section boasts the most succulent and lean meat.

This is where one gets the ribs, loin chops, and various roasts, including those of the tenderloin. For a delightful grilled or sautéed dish, opt for bone-in rib or middle loin chops.

3) Rear Leg: Often referred to as the "ham," the hindquarters span from the hip to the knee. This primal section can be purchased as large roasts, either fresh or cured. For instance, the renowned Iberico ham is produced from the cured hindquarters of the black Iberian pigs. Same goes to Italian culatello ham derived from this part.

It further divides into sections like the uncured shank, pure sirloin, cured whole leg, and traditional country ham.

 4) Belly: Pork belly is the lower section and one of the fattiest sections on a pig. It encompasses the side ribs and the breastbone of the animal. Once the side ribs are taken out, this part is often referred to in stores as "side pork".

It's this very section that undergoes curing and smoking to produce side bacon. Additionally, this side pork can be rolled and treated to create pancetta.

Out of these primal cuts emerge distinct subprimal sections, each with its specific culinary applications. Beyond the primary carcass, parts like the pork knuckles and the head meat are also utilized and sold, bringing a distinctive taste and texture to various culinary creations.

Roasts, chops, and ribs vary in taste and price. We've assessed these cuts based on taste profile, with 1-5 indicating top-notch taste, and cost, where $$$$ signifies the highest price bracket.

Fun Fact: Pork not only offers a rich source of protein but also provides an array of vitamins and minerals. Depending on your culinary needs, you have the flexibility to select from lean or more marbled pork cuts.

Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Cuts of Pork Steak

Pork Shoulder
Pork Shoulder - CC BY-SA 2.0 ,by FotoosVanRobin from Netherlands via Wikimedia Commons

1) Primal Cut: Shoulder

·         Pork Butt Roast

Celebrated in culinary circles as Boston Butt or simply pork shoulder, this flavorful cut is a testament to richness in the meat world. When intact with its bone, it can weigh up to 8 pounds. However, modern butchers often de-bone and segment this cut into manageable sizes, securing them in netting for even cooking.

Renowned for its tantalizing tenderness when smoked to an internal temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit, pork butt originates from the dense region of the pork shoulder, spanning the upper arm to the neck. Consumers can pick from the hearty bone-in, the quicker-cooking boneless center, or entirely boneless variants. Notably, the boneless options, given their flexibility, cook faster than their bone-in counterpart, especially when pre-sectioned for grilling or smoking.

Taste: 4/5
Price Range: $$ 
Also Known As: Boston shoulder, pork end, Boston roast 
Recommended Cooking Techniques: Long-duration roasting, BBQ grilling, slow stewing, gentle braising.

·         Pork Shoulder

 A cost-effective choice available in both bone-in and boneless variants. Known for its generous marbling and connective tissue content.

Taste: 4/5 
Price Range: $ 
Also Known As:
Arm picnic, shoulder roast, prime picnic, picnic cut 
Recommended Cooking Techniques: BBQ grilling, oven roasting, direct grilling, and gentle braising.

Pork Loin
Pork Loin - CC BY 2.0 ,by Father.Jack from Coventry, UK via Wikimedia Commons

2) Primal Cut: Loin

The pork loin is celebrated as one of the most succulent, lean, and user-friendly cuts from a pig. Originating from the region between the shoulders and extending to the back legs, it's prized for its tenderness.

The loin itself occupies a considerable section of the pig, giving rise to a multitude of cuts. Among these are the well-known center-cut chops, sirloin chops, majestic crown roasts, and flavorful sirloin roasts.

For those exploring culinary options, consider the bone-in rib or the center-cut loin chops, as they showcase an exceptional taste when grilled or sautéed.

·         Blade Chop

Sourced from the shoulder region of the loin, these chops might be a rare find in some markets. While they boast a rich taste and retain moisture well, they come with a higher fat content and can be on the tougher side.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $$$ 
Also Known As: End Cut of Pork Chop 
Recommended Cooking Techniques: BBQ grilling, and slow braising

·         Rib Chop

Sourced from the loin's rib portion, these chops are characterized by their richer fat content, ensuring a flavorful bite that remains juicy during cooking.

Highly favored in culinary experiments, their distinct appearance includes a bone running along one edge and a prominent loin muscle.

While these chops are commonly available with the bone, many boneless pork chops in the market are essentially rib chops in their boneless avatar.

Taste: 3/5 
Price Range: $$$  
Also Known As: End cut pork chops, loin rib chops 
Recommended Cooking Techniques: BBQ grilling, pan-frying, slow braising.

·         Center-Cut Chop

Distinguished by the bone that separates the loin meat from the tenderloin section, these chops offer a unique cooking challenge.

The tenderloin part, being leaner, tends to cook faster than its loin counterpart. While they bring a delightful flavor to the table, their lower fat content compared to rib chops might mean they're slightly less juicy.

Taste: 2/5
Price Range: $$$$ 
Also Known to As: Loin end chops, upper loin chops 
Recommended Cooking Techniques: Pan-frying, BBQ grilling.

·         Sirloin Chops

Originating from the sirloin or the hip portion of the pig, these chops tend to be more on the tough and dry side, lacking in flavor.

Comprising both tenderloin and loin meat with a segment of hipbone, this particular cut isn't highly recommended by culinary enthusiasts.

Taste: 1/5 
Price Point: $$$ 
Also Known As: Hip-cut steaks 
Recommended Cooking Techniques: Not advised.

·         Baby Back Ribs

These ribs are sourced from the rib cage area near the spine. Given that the loin center-cut roasts and chops originate from this region, it's understandable why baby back ribs carry a heftier price tag.

Their proximity to the loin also results in a leaner meat composition compared to spareribs, necessitating extra care during grilling to retain their moisture.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $ $ $
Also Known As: Riblets, Loin back ribs
Recommended Cooking Techniques: Barbecuing, Grilling.

·         Country-Style Ribs:

Originating from the fatty blade end of the loin, these boneless, rich, and succulent ribs are typically separated into individual portions by butchers and are often sold in bundled packages.

While they can be slow-cooked and pulled apart for a savory pasta sauce, they are equally delicious when flattened and either grilled or pan-fried as cutlets.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: Country ribs
Recommended Cooking Techniques: Grilling, pan-frying, or slow-cooking.

·         Blade-End Roast

Situated near the shoulder region of the loin, this roast, especially when bone-in, can present a chewier texture. The presence of multiple muscle sections and pockets of fat can make carving a challenge. There's also an option to purchase it without bones.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $
Also Known As: Rib-end roast, pork loin rib finish, seven-rib pork roast, five-rib pork roast.
Recommended Preparation Technique: Oven roasting.

·         Center-Cut Loin Roast

A favored choice among many, this boneless roast is known for its juicy and tender texture, boasting a more consistent shape than the center-cut rib roast.

While the boneless blade-end roast is often favored for its richer flavor, both cuts can replace each other in recipes. It's advisable to select a center-cut roast that has a good layer of fat on its surface.

Taste: 2/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: Center-cut pork roast
Recommended Cooking Techniques: Oven roasting, grilling.

·         Center-Cut Rib Roast

Drawing comparisons to prime rib or a rack of lamb in the world of pork, this moderately lean roast is characterized by its mild flavor and a single muscle shielded by a layer of fat.

It can come with anywhere between five to eight ribs. Given the presence of bones and adjacent fat, many consider this roast superior to the center-cut loin roast, even though they originate from the same muscle.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: Pork loin rib half, center-cut pork roast, rack of pork
Recommended Cooking Techniques: Oven roasting, grilling.

·         Tenderloin Roast

A lean and fine-textured, boneless cut, the tenderloin roast is typically petite, often weighing around 1 pound, making it a quick-cooking choice. Similar to beef tenderloin in its lack of marbling, it's vital not to overcook this roast to maintain its desired texture.

Frequently, you'll find tenderloins packaged in pairs. When shopping, be cautious; many market options are enhanced. Ideally, choose one labeled with no other ingredients aside from pork.

Taste: 1/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: None
Recommended Preparation Techniques: Oven roasting, pan-frying, light sautéing, and stir-frying.

·         Crown Roast

Crafted by connecting two bone-in center-cut rib or loin roasts, this roast stands out for its remarkable presentation.

It's optimal to opt for a crown roast comprising between 16 to 20 ribs, given that those with fewer or more ribs tend to cook inconsistently. Due to its distinct form and dimensions, this roast can easily be overcooked.

Taste: 2/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: Crown rib roast
Recommended Preparation Techniques: Oven roasting.

Pork Belly
Pork Belly - CC BY-SA 3.0 ,by Rainer Zenz via Wikimedia Commons

3) Primal Cut: Belly

·         Pork Belly

Pork belly, a rich and fatty cut, originates from the lower section of the pig. This versatile meat can be sliced into steaks or chopped for stir-fry dishes.

Additionally, after curing, pork belly can be transformed into streaky bacon or the Italian delicacy, pancetta.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: Side Pork Fresh, Pork Side Bacon
Preferred preparation Techniques: Sautéing, pan-frying, and stir-frying.

·         St. Louis-Style Spareribs

Traditional spareribs are sourced near the pig's belly, which is the same region bacon originates from. Whole spareribs, inclusive of the brisket bone and its accompanying meat, can tip the scales at over 5 pounds.

 Some of these racks are so expansive that they might scarcely fit on a grill. The St. Louis–style stands out as a preferable choice; it's tailored by removing the brisket bone and associated meat. This results in a more streamlined, rectangular rack typically weighing around 3 pounds.

Taste: 4/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: Rectangular spareribs, Center Cut
Recommended Preparation Techniques: Barbecuing, oven roasting.

·         Spareribs

Spareribs are sourced from the ribcage of the pig, specifically near the sternum area.

Compared to loin-back ribs, spareribs have a flatter profile and often come with a portion of the breastbone still connected.

Taste: 4/5
Price Range: $ $ $
Also Known As: Pork Side Ribs
Recommended Preparation Techniques: Barbecuing, oven roasting.

Pork Leg
Pork Leg - CC BY-SA 3.0 ,by Guanbirra via Wikimedia Commons

4) Primal Cut: Leg

·         Shank End, Fresh Ham

The pig's leg is split into two primary sections—the slender shank end and the fuller, rounder sirloin end. Carving the sirloin end can be a challenge due to its numerous bones.

The shank end, which we favor, often sports a robust layer of fat and skin. It's advisable to score this layer prior to roasting. Contrary to some expectations, this cut isn't overly fatty and can greatly benefit from a brining. For instance, the Iberico ham (pork leg) that commonly prepared using dry-aging technique .

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $
Also Known As: Fresh ham's shank portion
Recommended Preparation Techniques: Oven roasting, grilling

·         Sirloin Half, Fresh Ham

The round-shaped sirloin, owing to its bone composition, poses a greater carving challenge compared to its counterpart, the shank end. While it might not be our top pick for ease, it certainly delivers in terms of flavor.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $
Also Known As: Not applicable
Recommended Preparation Techniques: Oven roasting

·         Spiral-Sliced Bone-In Half Ham

Among wet-cured hams, this is our top choice, mainly due to its retention of natural juices without being excessively water-injected (seek out labels specifying “ham with natural juices”).

For a richer taste, opt for the bone-in version over its boneless counterpart. Although packaging might not specify, it's advisable to select a ham from the shank rather than the sirloin end.

Distinguish the shank ham by its tapered, pointed end that contrasts the ham's flat cut side. Conversely, the sirloin ham typically showcases a more rounded or blunt finish.

Taste: 4/5
Price Range: $
Also Known As: Spiral-carved ham
Recommended Preparation Technique: Oven roasting

·         Country Ham Overview

A cherished delicacy in the South, the country ham utilizes the entire leg, undergoing a dry-curing process akin to that of prosciutto or serrano ham.

It boasts a rich, multi-layered flavor profile with meaty and nutty notes. Given its pronounced saltiness and dry texture, even post-soaking, it's best enjoyed in bite-sized portions, often accompanying biscuits.

It's also a popular addition to dishes featuring greens, rice, or pasta.

Taste: 3/5
Price Range: $ $ $ $
Also Known As: Not applicable
Recommended Preparation Technique: Oven roasting

Alternative Pork Cuts: Head, Trotters, and Knuckles

The diverse culinary world of pork goes beyond the commonly known cuts. Let's explore three unconventional yet delightful parts:

  1. Pig's Head: Beyond its exterior, the head conceals treasures like the jowl, which is the pork's cheek. When cured and smoked, it transforms into a bacon-like treat. Further, the head's meat is often cooked and transformed into headcheese, a dish that holds a special place in gourmet circles.
  2. Pork Knuckles or Ham Hocks: These are not only meaty but are also abundant in collagen-rich tendons. This combination endows stews and braised dishes with a rich depth and a viscous consistency, which is why they are the stars in preparations like collard greens stew or hearty baked beans.
  3. Trotters (Pig's Feet): These may seem unconventional, but they have a special culinary niche. They're excellent for adding a rich, gelatinous quality to broths, making them dense and flavorful. In some culinary traditions, trotters are also prepared as standalone dishes, celebrated for their unique texture and flavor.

These cuts may not always be front and center at the butcher's, but they play a pivotal role in creating some of the most cherished dishes in various cuisines.