Purchasing a whole or half pastured pig, and trying to figure out how to have it cut? Wanting to try a new cut of pork or wondering how to cook a certain cut? Here we’ll break down a pig into all the available cuts, so you can navigate nose-to-tail our organic-fed pastured pork.
The Primal Cuts: In butchering a hog, it is typically first split in half lengthwise by sawing through the spine, yielding two halves. These, in turn, are broken down into four “primal” cuts: the shoulder, the loin, the belly, and the ham. Each part has different compositions (shape, types of bones, amount of fat, tenderness, etc.) and, in turn, different ways of being used. Some parts are commonly cured and smoked, some not, but really anything can be both used fresh or cured.
The Shoulder is the front part of the pig, containing the shoulder and arm (or front leg). The top half (containing the shoulder blade) is called the Boston Butt (why, I can’t say), while the lower half (containing the arm bones) is the Picnic or Picnic Shoulder. Either of these can be kept whole and large for roasts, which when slow-cooked are the cut of choice for making pulled pork. Alternatively, the Butt can be sliced into blade steaks (some butchers will cut country-style ribs here, basically a thick blade steak), and the picnic deboned and sliced into picnic steaks. These lend themselves well to braising and slow cooking as well, but can also be grilled but (being a shoulder cut) may be on the tough side. Either can also be deboned and possibly rolled for a boneless shoulder roast.
In the UK, boneless “spare ribs” (not really a rib) are cut form the the top-most part of the Butt, but in the US we tend to call the actual ribs the spare ribs (see below). Shoulders can also be smoked before being cut for roasts or steaks. The Shoulders also work well for cubed stew meat, or can of course be ground for ground pork or sausage.
The Loin is from the back of the pig, the long center portion between the shoulders and hip. It includes the spine or vertebrae, and a few inches of the ribs. Lying inside the body cavity, along the underside of the loin, are the tenderloins, the most tender part of the animal (because it isn’t much exercised), and pretty lean. This can be grilled or roasted whole, or first cut into medallions. If not removed, the tenderloin can be left attached to sirloin roasts or chops (below).
For the rest of the loin, there are three areas that grade into one another: the front-most portion is the blade-end, the center portion is, well, the center or center-cut, and the back end is the sirloin or sirloin-end. Any part of the loin can be cut into roasts, or sliced into chops, and either can be bone-in or boneless. So, chops from the center of the loin would be called “center-cut chops,” and a roast from the blade-end of the loin a “blade roast.” Country-Style Ribs can be cut from the blade-end of the loin as well. When cutting the loin away from the spine/bones, this also produces baby-back ribs from the short pieces of rib that were attached to the spine. Thus one has to choose whether (from the blade-end and/or center cut of the loin) one wants a bone-in roast or chops, or a boneless cut with separate baby-back ribs (a small portion by themselves). Boneless loin can also be cut thin into cutlets, or cubed or sliced into strips for kabob or stir-fry meat.
Cuts from the loin are good for dry-heat cooking, like roasting, grilling, and broiling. Because of its leanness and good tenderness, the loin is not typically ground, though Canadian bacon is made from a cured and smoked boneless loin.
The Belly is what it sounds like, made up of layers of muscle and fat, with the front portion attached to the rest of the ribs. Typically the ribs (or side ribs or spare ribs) are sliced away from the meat; kept whole this is a full “rack” of ribs; the rack can be cut lengthwise to make St. Louis Style ribs along with rib tips. For the rest of the belly, a square-shaped slab can be cut to be cured and smoked to make, yes indeed, BACON. The triangular-end of the belly is the side-pork (which in the past became “salt pork”). The side pork can be kept as-is or ground for sausage. Pork belly can be kept fresh and cooked in a variety of ways (like seared and braised pork belly), and with all that fat absorbs spices and flavors well, but it is a very rich cut, and just a small amount will do.
The final primal cut is the Ham, which is really just the back Leg (or the thigh and buttock, if you prefer ). What we typically call “ham” is cured and smoked, but really the hams can be fresh, or uncured, as well. Kept whole, this is a massive piece of meat, hence the ham is usually cut into a shank-end half and a butt-end half, and ham slices or steaks can be cut from the center as well. Boneless roasts or rolled roasts can also be made, or thin boneless slices cut for cutlets. Since I prefer the loin and shoulder cuts for fresh (uncured) eating, I always like to cure and smoke the ham. If fresh, it could also be all ground, for ground pork or sausage, or cubed or sliced thin as cutlets or strips, like the loin above.
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That then is the breakdown of the four primal cuts of pork. But wait, we’re not done yet. There’s also quite a bit of Other Stuff to consider. There’s the hocks, the lower parts of the arms and legs, made of some tough-ish meat surrounding bone. This can be deboned and ground, but is also often smoked to use for flavoring dishes, like baked beans or boiled greens. Yumm.
There’s also the jowls, which are a small but thick cut of meat from the pig’s cheek. It is similar to pork belly, and can be cooked in similar ways, or cured into a bacon-type product as well. Or its sausage meat (if you haven’t noticed yet, sausage is a sort of catch-all for meat). Nearby is the neck, which can be deboned for grinding (though a lot of meat is left on all those odd-shaped bones), or used as a stewing roast and debone more fully after cooking.
Pigs also have a good bit of fat, or lard. There’s mainly two types, one of which is the backfat, a thick layer of fat along, that’s right, the back. The other is called leaf lard, a more delicate and mild tasting fat from inside the body cavity near the kidneys; this is the lard that’s prized for pastry making. Lard is rendered by cutting it into small cubes, then cooking it over low heat; the fat melts away, becoming liquid, which can then be poured off, when cool obtaining the consistency of shortening. Lard makes a mean french-fry.
Then there’s organ meat, like heart, kidneys, and liver; there’s pig tongue and pig feet, head, nose, tail, ears…you’d need to ask your butcher to hand onto these if you’d like to use them, as they’ve fallen out of favor with we Americans. Though I haven’t yet tried all these parts, of what I have they are indeed good eating.
A final word about sausage, curing, and smoking. Sausage is made by grinding meat and fat and adding salt and seasoning, and for links, stuffed into casings (well-cleaned sheep or pig intestines). It is a great use for all the trim meat from making other cuts. Fresh sausage is just that, fresh, while other sausages (think European-typed) are cured, allowed to dry age for a time. Here, this is something you’d have to do at home.
Curing involves applying salt and seasonings to meat, either with a wet-cure (a brine) or a dry-cure (just salt and spice rubbed onto the meat). This flavors the meat, and may also change its texture. Typically nitrate salts are used, as a preventative against botulism, which also gives the pink color to cured meats. Typical American bacon and ham gains its flavor and color from curing; these are also commonly smoked, cooked to a low temperature in the presence of smoke and picking up that wonderful flavor. (An example of a cured but not smoked meat would be the Italian prosciutto.) Because of regulations, unless doing such processing yourself, a cured and smoked product from a local butcher will probably be brined (probably using nitrates) for a short time and then smoked.
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Whew! If you’d like even moreinformation – and pictures! – on the cuts and breakdown of a pig, here are a few other informative sites:
CloveGarden.com – Basic chart with pictures and descriptions
AmazingRibs.com – Detailed glossary, with many images
Sugar Mountain Farm – Vermont farmer Walter Jeffries giving an extensive pork breakdown, along with some economic and social considerations and nose-to-tail eating.