The general rule, the primal pork cuts from the top of the pig (the loin) are leaner and tender than pieces from the bottom. Cooking the tougher cuts (shoulder and hocks) low and slow can make these pieces tender and juicy. And it’s important that the cuts available at the grocery will vary depending on geography.

PORK SHOULDER, or PORK BUTT

The front of the pig: Pork shoulder (also called pork butt or “Boston butt”) is typically sold around 5 to 10 pounds as a boneless roast at the grocery store.

Best Cook: Most experts suggest this for roasting since it’s a relatively tough cut, well layered with fat, and is good for braising, slow and low roasting or barbecue. A typical preparation? Pulled pork.

Interesting note:

Why is this type of meat called “Pork Butt”: During colonial days New England butchers tended to take less prized cuts of pork like these and pack them into barrels for storage and transport. The barrels the pork went into were called butts. This particular shoulder cut became known around the country as a New England specialty, and hence it became the "Boston butt."

PICNIC HAM

Directly below the shoulder is the next cut you’re likely to find: the Picnic Ham (occasionally called the picnic shoulder). This isn’t like your normal thinking of Ham, say experts, but the picnic ham is the lower part of shoulder. Another tough and fatty cut, though it is often sold bone-in.

Best Cook: Smoke or Braise – slow cooking methods are key to render the fat and make the meat tender and flavorful. The larger fat caps on the picnic ham are great for making cracklings.

COUNTRY STYLE SPARERIBS

These come off the picnic ham. The country-style spareribs contain a combination of dark and light meat.

Best Cook: Braise or stew.

FRONT HOCK

This usually comes brined and smoked and labeled as “ham hock” in the store.

Best Cook: Use the brined and smoked version for pork and beans or in your collard greens. Always best for low and slow cooking.

PORK LOIN

The pork loin comes from the pig’s back and is large, lean and tender.

Best Cook: Experts recommend a slow roast, but don’t cook it too much, or on too high of a heat. Since this is a lean meat, it will get dry.

PORK CHOPS

Meat perpendicular to the spine, and often from the loin. Thick or thin, bone-in or bone-less pork chops are cut from this perpendicular location.

Best Cook: Depending on the location of the cut, these cuts are typically high heat, fry, or a grilling thing. The shoulder ends are better for roasting or longer grill experiences, if pork fat is render correctly it has an amazing flavor.

BABY BACK RIBS

Debone a pork loin, and the ribs that come off are baby back ribs. This is a tender rib option: The meat in between the ribs is a loin meat instead of a belly meat.

Best Cook: Smoked, barbecue, braise, or bake.

PORK BELLY

Bacon is pork belly cured, smoked, and sliced. If you like to give a pig a good belly rub you’re touching the belly meat.

Best Cook: Belly is great for mid temp braising. Commonly at 300 or 325 degrees for 2 to 2.5 hours then crisp it in a pan. Belly is amazing and can be utilized for a lot of cooking.

SPARERIBS

Spare ribs come from of the belly too. Usually served as regular or St. Louis style (cut off the cartilage to be recto-linear and cook more evenly).

Best Cook: Smoked, braised, or low-temp grilling.

SIRLOIN

Working to the back, next is sirloin, which is often cut into chops.

Best Cook: They are great marinated and grilled.

REAR LEG

Commonly eaten as ham, and is typically cured, smoked and processed in some kind of way.

Best Cook: Score the skin, rub with garlic herb paste and roast slow and long at 350 degrees for 3 or 4 hours. It’s a great roast pork, leaner. Lower cost when compared to a loin, and serves more people.

HOCK

The rear hock is similar to the shank of the front leg. Usually comes cured and smoked.

Best Cook: If cured and smoked, use for beans or collard greens. If raw, braise it.

Bonus: Butcher Shop Finds

Trotters

All cartilage, no meat. Great for building stock body. Use this instead of veal bones.

Half or Whole Pig Head

Versatile, and included in things like Porchetta di Testa, or a salami made from both the meat and skin of a pig head.

Ears

Popular in worldly cuisine, pig’s ears are great roasted, boiled, grilled or pickled.

Jowls

Smoked and Cured, pork jowl a soul food staple. In Italy, jowl is used to make guanciale. Snout. Often used in soups.

Tail

Cook pig tails the same way you would cook ribs at home in the oven, covered in tin foil first, then uncovered to crisp them up. Not a lot of meat, but chewing more cartilaginous, lip-smacking, and delicious. An amazing secret cut no one thinks about, and most people haven’t seen it, unless you’re regularly in Chinatown.

 
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