There are lots of benefits to purchasing larger cuts of pork. If you’re into the farm-to-table movement, you can often order these cuts straight from the farmer, so you know where and how your meat was raised. You also have much more flexibility and more options when it comes to getting exactly the cuts you want. Prefer your roasts a little smaller? Not a problem when you’re cutting them yourself. For many home cooks, however, there’s one definite downside to breaking down large pork cuts into smaller ones: the cutting.
How to Work with Different Pork Cuts
It’s true that working with a large piece of meat, typically with lots of bones, can be a little intimidating, especially if you’re not accustomed to using a boning knife. While it can be tempting to swap out this flexible, five-to-six inch blade for a more familiar knife, like a paring or chef’s knife, resist the urge! Boning knives are designed specifically for the work of removing cuts of meat from the bone, and that flex gives you the ability to work precisely.
You already know that a sharp knife works way better than a dull knife, but a sharp boning knife is crucial—since the blade is flexible, it relies on a sharp edge rather than a sawing action or downward force to make clean cuts.
With the necessary knife on hand, the other important piece of the puzzle is a guide to pork cuts. Always know what you’re working with, and what you’re planning to end up with. Unless you’re working with entire hogs, or sides of pork, the largest pieces you’re likely to encounter are called primal cuts.
There are four primals: the shoulder, which is the entire front part of the animal from the shoulder blades forward; the loin, which includes the back and ribs; the belly (the most self-explanatory cut); and the leg, composed of the hips and hind legs. Each of these requires a slightly different approach and, of course, yields different cuts. With a little practice, you can learn to easily break down any primal into perfect cuts for your favorite dishes.
Breaking Down the Pork Shoulder
The pork shoulder can be further divided into sub-primal cuts called the shoulder blade, shoulder picnic, jowl, foot, and hock. From these, the most common further cuts are roasts and steaks (taken from the shoulder blade and picnic). The other sub-primals are more typically used in smoked or pickled preparations like pickled pigs’ feet or smoked pork jowl.
Pork shoulder is also commonly used to make deli meats and sausages because its high fat content makes it both flavorful and suitable for seasoning and curing. The fat also helps to absorb the flavors of herbs and other seasonings and distribute them throughout the finished product. For more on seasoning pork and other meats, check out our meat seasoning guide, and try cooking up a pork roast with this recipe for pulled pork, made easier (and faster) with F.N. Sharp knives and the Instant Pot.
Breaking Down the Pork Loin
The loin, or the spine and upper portions of the ribs, yields several further sub-primals: pork loin rib end, pork loin center, and pork sirloin. These can then be divided into chops, roasts and ribs of various sizes and descriptions depending on what you prefer. For quicker cooking times, opt for boneless cuts; however, bone-in meats often provide deeper flavor.
The pork loin is also the primal where you’ll find baby back ribs, which can be prepared fresh or smoked first, depending on your preference. Barbecue aficionados, of course, will tell you the smoking isn’t really optional. Low, slow cooking processes are optimal for rib cuts because this allows the extensive connective tissue to break down rather than constricting into a tough mass of gristle.
Breaking Down the Pork Belly
Unlike the other pork primals, there are no sub-primals in pork belly. Instead, break it down into final, more cookable pork cuts. It’s the fattiest portion of meat on a hog, and is used most commonly for bacon and spare ribs—that is, the lower section of ribs that’s included with the belly primal instead of the loin primal.
Pork belly can also be rolled to make pancetta, an Italian cured meat much like bacon except that it is not smoked after the curing process. Cuts of pork belly, since they’re so rich in flavorful fat, are often used as a savory flavor base. Think of rendering bacon or pancetta to use the fat for browning garlic, onions, or other aromatic ingredients. This provides a rich, meaty umami flavor to soups, risottos, and other dishes without including large cuts of meat.
Breaking Down the Pork Leg
The pork leg is one of the more complex primals simply because it can be broken down into a wide variety of pork cuts. Like the pork shoulder, it also includes a hock and foot, though in this case these are from the hind feet. They are typically smoked or pickled. Unlike the shoulder, however, the meat from the leg is very lean. The most common use for pork leg is ham, which is produced by curing and smoking.
Another Italian cured meat, prosciutto is made much the same way, but without the final step of smoking. The pork leg primal is also used for fresh cuts, including roasts, steaks, and cutlets. Because there is little connective tissue in the leg, it doesn’t get tough when cooked using dry heat like cuts from other primals may.
Learning to properly break down large pork cuts does take practice, but the effort pays off in the end. When you’re able to purchase primals, or even go whole hog, you get to decide what the final cuts will be, how thick you want your steaks, how much fat you want trimmed or left, whether that particular chop will be boneless or bone-in, and all the little details that make your final dishes just a bit more delicious. It saves you the hassle of trying to find exactly what you’re looking for at the local grocer or butcher, not to mention that, pound for pound, it’s less expensive to process the meat yourself.
When you first begin practicing your butchering skills, make sure a sharp boning knife is included in your kitchen knife set and keep your guide to pork cuts handy. Know which cuts you intend to make, where, and how. With that simple road map, you’re ready to begin! And remember, even if your first few attempts don’t go quite as planned, the results will still be delicious.