Got pork? Here is your all-purpose roadmap to getting to know all of the most important pork cuts a bit better. At the very least, you’ll learn something that’ll impress your butcher.
Though not always flashiest centerpiece protein (unless you're roasting the whole animal), there is something to be said for the pig as an enduring snout-to-tail source of meat. But when you’re just going for select parts of the pig, decoding the different cuts and uses of pork can be somewhat overwhelming. What’s the difference between a Boston Butt and picnic shoulder (besides the hefty price tag)? Why can’t you use guanciale, prosciutto, pancetta, and bacon interchangeably? Is anyone still eating pickled pig feet? (Spoiler alert: yes.)
Ready yourself to get to know your pork products a little better. We’re going cut-by-cut to answer the questions above and much more.
Let’s start with the head. While there are a few fanatics who like to gnaw on pig ears and, of course, the people of St. Louis who still eat Snoots (a smoked snout minus the nostrils), the main sources of edible meat on a pig’s head are the cheeks and jowls. The tender cheeks can be braised and stewed much the same as shoulder cuts. From the jowls comes guanciale, a type of Italian cured meat. Cheek fat is firmer than belly fat, so guanciale doesn’t shrink in the pan like bacon and pancetta. One way to remember that guanciale is different from other cured meets? The name comes from the Italian word for cheek, guancia. In recipes like Collard Greens with Guanciale and Chiles, this tender-sweet cut of pork is essential.
Now with the shoulder, things get trickier. The shoulder is comprised of two cuts: Boston butt and picnic shoulder. Boston butt is a higher quality cut of meat, often three times as expensive as picnic shoulder. When it comes to slow cooking and pulled pork, both cuts will do (although you’ll find partisans on both sides). For a budget-friendly slow roast, stick with the picnic shoulder. However, keep in mind that the Boston butt has a better marbling of fat—and for a perfect barbecue cut, opt for bone in. The bone adds flavor and insures that the meat cooks evenly, the secret to this succulent Many Onions Pork Shoulder.
We can now skip to the most tender section of the pig: the loin. This cut comes from flesh beneath the rib cage and can be served three ways: pork tenderloin, loin chops (bone-in), and steaks. Canadians salt-cure this section and call it—what else—Canadian bacon. And what would a Classic Eggs Benedict be without Canadian bacon?
Above the loin is a very special, very versatile fatty layer. This is called the fatback because it is, literally, the fat of the back. Back in the day, this was the poor man’s cut of meat, and the poor man has always proved to be a resourceful cook. In France, fatback became the source of lardons. In Italy, it became the lardo, commonly used as a building block for battuto—their version of sautéed vegetables. In the American south, this section is cured to become salt pork, fried to create pork rinds, and rendered to produce lard. Salt pork and lard become the base of all truly great slow-cooked dark winter greens, like our Collards and Kimchi.
OK, so let’s talk about the ribs. Perhaps the most well recognized in the U.S. are baby back ribs, as featured in our classic Grilled Baby Back Ribs. This meaty, leaner cut of ribs does not hail from a precious baby pig—the baby merely refers to the shorter length of the bone compared to spare ribs. Baby back ribs are above the pork loin and the spare ribs are found at the belly of the pig. Spar ribs are generally the less expensive option and considered the pride and joy of most Southern barbecues. They’re the required cut to make George Harvell’s (of Loveless Motel and Café fame) Watermelon Ribs. While yielding less meat, the larger bones and higher fat content offer richer flavor according to many true pit-masters. Spare ribs are commonly sold “St. Louis-style,” with the breastbone and cartilage cut away for an easily managed, rectangular shape of meat. Oh, and country-style ribs? They’re not actually ribs. The bone you get there is the scapula—the shoulder bone.
And now for the belly, the home of bacon and its Italian cousin, pancetta. So, the question of the hour: What’s the difference between pancetta and bacon? Pancetta generally has a saltier cure than the traditional bacon most of us are used to. Once cooked in the context of a recipe, bacon and pancetta have negligible differences besides salt levels, and bacon tends to lend a smokier flavor. If you’re looking to give pancetta a try, pair it with some sweet Spring Peas. As for uncured, uncured pork belly is often slowly braised—skin-on—in Chinese, Korean, and Philippine cuisines. In Japanese food culture, you’ll often see pork belly serving as the meaty protein in bowls of ramen, like our Ramen with Ginger Roasted Squash and Crispy Pork Belly.
We finally get to the part of the pig most commonly associated with both holiday celebrations and lunchtime alike—the never-so-humble ham. Made from the hind leg, ham is as regional is it gets: Jamón serrano and Jamón iberica from Spain, Prosciutto from Italy, Black Forrest ham from Germany, Jinhua ham from China, York ham from the UK, and our own Smithfield ham, from Smithfield, Virginia. A purest could tell you the differences—but as a realist, just know that the majority of your recipes will either call for a generic ham or for delicate slices of prosciutto. Prosciutto can adorn any cheese board, be wrapped around figs, asparagus, or shrimp, or top a flatbread for a salty-savory kick. It adds umami, and class, to most any dish. Take our fancy, tea-with-the-Queen-worthy Prosciutto Asparagus Tea Sandwiches, for example. A more generic ham can be glamorized in the context of the king of ham sandwiches, the Croque Monsieur. Fat slabs of ham and ham hocks (the smoked section of the ankle) are often added as flavor boosters in hearty bean dishes, like our Split Pea Soup.
Shall we end with the trotters? Also known as pig feet, trotters have been a staple in the American Southerner’s diet since the Civil War. But trotters have always appealed to Michelin starred chefs, including enfant terrible Marco Pierre White. (If you don’t know who he is, think of him as a precursor to Gordon Ramsey.) After the financial crisis in 2008, many other restaurants fell back on trotters as a flavorful, cheap source of pork. But how do you make trotters work for the home cook? The most common method is to pickle them, but if you’re looking for a different way to go whole hog (sorry, I had to) try our Fried Pig’s Feet.
For even more pork love, be sure to check out Ryan Scott’s One to Five cookbook, which features a wide array of ways to use the Many Onions Pork Shoulder mentioned above.