The F.N. Sharp Guide to Different Cuts of Pork
There are lots of benefits to purchasing larger cuts of pork, one of which is the money you can save by breaking them down yourself. And if you’re into the farm-to-table movement, you can often order these cuts straight from the butcher so you know where and how your meat was raised.
Breaking down your own pork cuts also gives you much more flexibility and options when it comes to getting the exact 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 whole cutting part. But with the right knives and a little bit of practice, you’ll be breaking down your own pork cuts (and saving money) in no time!
How Pork is Broken Down Into Different Cuts
Unless you’re working with entire hogs, or sides of pork, the largest pieces you’re likely to encounter are called primal cuts, which are divided into four sections:
- 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, which is the most self-explanatory cut
- The leg, which is composed of the hips and hind legs.
Breaking down each of these primals requires a slightly different approach and, of course, yields different cuts. But, with a little practice, you can learn to easily break down any pork primal into perfect cuts for your favorite dishes. But first, let’s talk about knives.
The Best Knives for Cutting and Breaking Down Pork
When it comes to breaking pork down into different cuts, there are a few different knives to keep on hand, from the hefty chef’s knife to the handy little paring knife.
The Chef’s Knife
The western-style chef’s knife is a must-have when it comes to breaking down larger cuts of meat – especially if it involves cutting through bones. The different parts of the chef’s knife can also be used for different tasks.
For example, the entire edge of the chef’s knife can be used for slicing through meat and disjointing bones, while the heel can be used for cutting through thick slabs of meat and bones. The tip also comes in handy for trimming fat and removing sinew, while the spine (the part opposite to the cutting edge) can be used for scraping ingredients off your cutting board.
When using a chef’s knife to prepare pork, it’s important to begin slicing with the heel of the blade. To do this, simply apply gentle downward pressure while pulling the knife carefully toward your body, using the entire length of the blade to allow the weight of the knife to do the work for you.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Chef's Knife
The Boning Knife
With its thin, semi-flexible blade, the boning knife is used to remove the meat from bones and the skin from meat. This handy knife is perfect for breaking away the cartilage in joints and peeling away excess skin and fat.
When using a boning knife to prepare pork, you’ll want to use the blade or “pinch” grip, which is done by “pinching” the blade between your forefinger and thumb with the rest of your fingers tucked under the handle. This grip gives you more control when cutting meat away from bones and joints, which involves using the length of the blade to make long, smooth cuts while using your non-dominant hand to pull the meat away from the bone as you cut.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Boning Knife
The Utility Knife
Not to be confused with the small, often retracted pocket knife, the utility kitchen knife is another strong contender for cutting through pork. It comes in handy for trimming fat and removing the skin, as well as slicing smaller pieces of meat. It’s also a great tool for slicing cured meats for a charcuterie board.
The blade of the utility kitchen knife usually measures between 4 and 7 inches long, making it longer than a paring knife but shorter than a chef’s knife, yet another solid all-rounder in the kitchen. While utility kitchen knives more commonly come with serrated edges, which require using a sawing motion to cut through meat, some (like the F.N. Sharp Utility Knife) are designed with a straight edge to produce cleaner cuts without compromising the visual aesthetics of the dish you’re making.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Utility Kitchen Knife
The Paring Knife
While the handy little paring knife is typically used for in-hand work when preparing fruits and veggies, like peeling apples and potatoes, hulling strawberries, segmenting citrus and coring tomatoes, it’s also great for trimming excess fat and scoring or removing skin.
The paring knife can definitely be handy for removing pork skin (or rind) to create crunchy snacks like pork rinds and crackling.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Paring Knife
The Bread Knife
While bread knives are designed to slice through crusty loaves of bread without crushing the delicate interior, they’re also great for slicing cooked pork roasts – especially if they have the right edge. Bread knives are always serrated, but there are a couple of different types of edges to choose from: pointed and scalloped.
Pointed edge bread knives, often simply referred to as "serrated" knives, have sharp and aggressive teeth that require using a sawing motion and less force compared to straight-edged knives. Scalloped edge bread knives (like the F.N. Sharp Bread Slicer), are designed with more rounded serrations spread further apart. This edge type creates less crumbs while slicing through crusty loaves of bread and retains flavorful juices while carving through thick-crusted roasts.
Knife Knowledge 101: Top Uses for a Bread Knife
With the necessary knives on hand, the other important piece of the puzzle is a good, large cutting board made of either wood or plastic (but preferably wood, like this F.N. Sharp one, and here’s why), and becoming familiar with the different pork cuts so you always know what you’re working with and what you’re planning to end up with.
Get All the F.N. Sharp Knives You Need: The 6-Knife Set & Magnetic Knife Block
Breaking Down the Pork Shoulder
The pork shoulder consists of the front portion of the pig, which is commonly used to make deli meats and sausages because the high fat content makes it both flavorful and suitable for seasoning and curing. The fat also helps absorb and distribute the flavors of herbs and other seasonings throughout the finished product.
More on Seasoning: The F.N. Sharp Guide to Meat Seasoning
The pork shoulder is further divided into five subprimal cuts:
- The Shoulder Blade – the upper portion of the pork shoulder, which has several different names, such as Boston shoulder, Boston butt, or simply “butt roast”. The “butt” in these names refers to the thicker end of the pork shoulder, not the butt itself. This cut can be purchased whole and boneless or bone-in and has quite a bit of marbling, making it very tender when slow-cooked.
- The Picnic Shoulder – this cut comes from just below the shoulder blade and also has a few different names, including picnic ham, picnic roast or arm roast. This is also a fatty cut that becomes more tender with slow cooking.
- The Jowl – this cut comes from the cheeks and is commonly used in Southern dishes like collard greens and black-eyed peas, as well as an Italian cured meat known as guanciale. You can also slice it up and fry it like bacon.
- The Hock – this cut comes from the lower part of the leg located between the picnic shoulder and foot. Since this is an active part of the pig, it’s very well-muscled and tough, but can become tender when slow-cooked. It’s also used to add some flavor to stews and other dishes.
- The Foot – this cut comes from the front feet, which are smaller than the back feet, so it’s more commonly used as a primary ingredient in gelatin since it’s naturally rich in collagen. If you’re planning on making a recipe for pig’s feet, you’ll want to go for the hind feet, which are included as a subprimal of the pork leg.
Breaking Down the Pork Loin
The pork loin, which is located along the back starting from just behind the shoulder and ending at the hip, is the leanest part of the pig, which makes these cuts ideal for dry heat cooking methods like baking, broiling, grilling, roasting and searing. For quicker cooking times, opt for boneless cuts; however, bone-in meats often provide deeper flavor.
The pork loin, which can also be split into two sections known as the pork loin rib half and the pork loin sirloin, is further broken down into three sub-primals cuts:
- The Loin Rib End – this cut, of course, includes part of the rib cage and is where you’ll find both your baby back and country-style ribs. The baby back ribs, which are much leaner (and more expensive) than spare ribs, come from the part of the ribcage closest to the backbone. The country-style ribs come from the blade part of the loin and are actually boneless and meaty, but also very fatty, making them more tender and moist.
- The Loin Center – this is where you’ll get all of your pork chops and roasts, including the tenderloin, which is cut from the muscle along the spine. The tenderloin is long, thin and rectangular in appearance, and since this muscle isn’t used for movement, it’s a very tender cut of meat, much like the beef cut known as filet mignon.
- The Sirloin – this portion, which is also broken down into roasts and chops, comes from the back end of the loin and is fairly lean. Cuts from the sirloin are also less expensive than center loin cuts but still delicious.
Grab an F.N. Sharp Chef's Knife and a boneless pork loin and check out this video to see how to break it down into chops and roasts:
Prep School 101: How to Use a Chef’s Knife Like a Pro
Breaking Down the Pork Belly
Unlike the other pork primals, there are no subprimals in the pork belly. Instead, it's broken down into final, more cookable pork cuts. It’s also the fattiest portion of meat on a hog, so it's most commonly used for bacon and spare ribs, which come from the lower section of ribs that is included with the belly primal rather than the loin primal.
Pork belly can also be rolled to make pancetta, another Italian cured meat much like bacon except it’s not smoked after the curing process. Since they're so rich in flavorful fat, pork belly cuts 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, which come from the hind legs and the feet 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.
The subprimal cuts of the pork leg include:
- The Leg Butt – As the name implies, this cut is the actual butt end of the ham and is located at the top of the leg primal. This part of a ham is leaner, more tender and has a rounder appearance compared to the shank end and is easier to carve since it only contains one bone. The leg butt is sometimes called the sirloin or rump end.
- The Leg Shank – Another cut of ham, the leg shank is located below the butt portion and is a bit fattier but not quite as tender. It also has more of a cone shape in appearance and contains the shank bone and part of the femur, making it slightly more difficult to carve than the leg butt.
- The Hock – Just like the pork shoulder primal, the leg primal also includes the hock, which is located at the end of the shank and is often referred to as shanks, pork knuckles or rear leg ham hocks. While this portion can be slow-cooked and served as an entree, it’s more commonly used as flavorings in soups, stews and other dishes.
- The Foot – Again, like the pork shoulder, the pork leg primal also includes the feet. Since the rear feet are bigger than the front feet, these are the ones used for recipes like pickled pig’s feet. Slow-cooking is also a must with this portion as it helps tenderize the thick skin and connective tissue.
A Final Word on Pork Cuts
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 and all the little details that make your final dishes just a bit more delicious. This includes how thick you want your steaks, how much fat you want trimmed or left, and whether that particular chop will be boneless or bone-in.
All in all, 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.More on Meat: The F.N. Sharp Guide to Meat Cuts
Try Breaking Down Some Pork for These F.N. Sharp Recipes
Instant Pot Pulled Pork with Radish Jalapeno Slaw Recipe
Grab a pork roast and your Instant Pot for this pulled pork recipe!. You can actually use a fresh or frozen pork roast for this one and still have delicious pulled pork in half the time you’d expect from a slow-cooker recipe. As an added bonus, there’s also a little bit of beer involved, which means your pork will not only be tastier, but you'll get to enjoy drinking the rest of it while cooking (because pouring it out would be wasteful, of course)!
Bone-in Pork alla Milanese With Arugula Salad
This bone-in pork chop recipe adds a delicious take on Italy’s classic Cotoletta alla Milanese. The pork chops are coated in a mixture of panko crumbs, shredded parmesan, parsley, oregano, salt and pepper, then pan-cooked to perfection and topped with a crisp arugula salad.
Blackened Pork Tenderloin with Savory Blueberry Sauce Recipe
This pork tenderloin recipe combines spicy and sweet with blackened seasoning and a delicious blueberry sauce topping for a stunningly elegant and simple to pull together recipe that takes the boring right out of weeknight meals!
Plan on Grilling or Smoking Some Pork? Check Out Our Backyard BBQ Guide