pork chops
Pork chops | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Pork chops | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Grillist

Everything You Need to Know About Every Cut of Pork

Pork is the unsung hero of America’s protein canon, with cuts available for every price point and cooking project. But as with beef, pork varies drastically in texture and recommended preparation. Knowing what to do with each cut can be challenging -- even after you figure out the difference between regular ham and picnic ham (hint: they're nothing alike).  

To pull all the pork apart, we sat down with Aaron Silverman, co-owner and founder of Portland, Oregon's Tails & Trotters, which raises its own hazelnut-fed pigs and turns them into chops, ham, porchetta, and everything in between. With a focus on stuff you can find at your grocery store and butcher shop, he broke down what to look for and what to do with it.

Here’s everything you’ll need to know about the most common cuts of pork.

Editor's note:Silverman recommends knowing what type of store you’re walking into, whether it’s a butcher or cutter shop. Cutters often get meat -- you guessed it -- already cut, and likely won’t be able to dig a coppa out of a Boston butt. The benefit of going to a butcher, Silverman says, is you can rely on their knowledge to get exactly what you want. The more you know!

Shoulder/butt

Where it is on the pig: The top half of the front leg, but hold onto your butts, because things are about to get pretty complicated.

What it is: In most American commodity butchery, the shoulder will be taken and simply sawed in half, the top becoming the Boston butt or shoulder, the bottom the picnic ham or picnic shoulder. Generally, the Boston is fattier and more tender than the picnic shoulder. But at Tails & Trotters and other specialty butchers, Bostons are broken down into three different cuts: the coppa or collar, the brisket, and the presa, or secreto.

Silverman says the coppa is the most versatile of the cuts on a pig. Coppa has fat that’s fully integrated. For any cured meat lovers, when you see coppa or capicola, that’s not a casing stuffed with fat, muscle, and lean: that’s the coppa cut. At the grocery store, when people are buying a butt roast, there’s a small, 2lb pound coppa in there.

The second cut is the brisket, which is just like a beef brisket. Pretty straightforward.

The last of the three is a cut likely only found at specialty butcher shops, or shops that get large enough animals in for it to have developed. Sometimes called a secreto -- at Tails it’s also known as the presa -- this muscle is on the shoulder blade bone itself, beneath and between the coppa and the brisket. Silverman described the muscle as “like a bodybuilder’s tricep.”

“We all have one, just most of us don’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Silverman says. “It’s in every pig, but until the pigs really reach a certain size, that muscle doesn’t differentiate out from the mass of the shoulder.”

What to do with it: Coppa can be grilled, roasted, braised or cured. The brisket cut is “really exceptionally suited” for brining and smoking, again similar to the beef brisket... some places will pickle them like corned beef, rub them with a spice rub, and smoke them for their porkstrami. And the big shoulder with all the elements you find at the grocery store is most commonly used in pulled pork or roasted. 

pork picnic shoulder
Picnic shoulder carnitas | stacyarturogi/Shutterstock

Picnic ham/picnic shoulder

Where it is on the pig: In commodity butchery, the bottom half of the front leg. Silverman says this (and the shoulder/butt cut) are the biggest misnomers in pork butchery.

What it is/what to look for: The picnic ham is the bottom half of front leg on a pig, with the foreshank and foot. Unlike the Boston butt or the butt ham (though nobody in this country is making ham from either cut, Silverman says), the picnic is leaner than the top half, with less integrated marbling, and has a fat cap on the exterior.

What to do with it: “Picnic hams” at Tails & Trotters are boned out and sold as a picnic roast. When people come asking for a “shoulder,” this is what they’ll be steered towards. This cut needs to reach a higher temperature to break the connective tissue down, making this ideal for carnitas, kabobs, and pulled pork. It “hits the sweet spot of value and usefulness,” Silverman says.

Spare ribs

Where they are on the pig: Most spare ribs come from the belly area

What they are: Spare ribs are cut from the belly ribs, or the St. Louis ribs. They’re straighter, thinner and have much more fat in them than baby backs. The way these are butchered will depend on where you go; Silverman says, technically, St. Louis-style spare ribs have the cartilage tips completely taken out and the rib rack squared. Some may come with the flap meat, the diaphragm on the ribs, which leaves a big portion of very dense meat on the back. Others may remove that.

What to do with them: Both spare ribs and baby backs are best cooked low and slow, but especially spare ribs which have a fair amount of connective tissue in them.

Baby back ribs

Where they are on the pig: On the back, baby 

What it is/what to look for: Once you get into the middle section, you have back ribs, which are usually sold as baby backs even though there’s no such thing. 

“People would be really grossed out if you had ribs from a baby pigs,” Silverman says. “Tony Roma’s made a fortune in the ‘80s calling them baby backs.” 

Back ribs come from the loin itself and will have pretty lean meat on them. They’ll have wider, more curved bones than the belly ribs, maybe 3-4 inches, and come about nine ribs or so to a rack. Depending on the pig, they can have very little meat. 

What to do with it (how to cook it/pairing if applicable): Like spare ribs, these are best cooked low and slow because they’re so lean.

Hock/foreshank

Where it is on the pig: There’s two potential cuts here, the hock and the foreshank. Foreshanks are the knee joints from the front legs, while the hocks are the knee joints on the rear legs.

What it is: Foreshanks are very meaty, with a solid bone running through them and very little fat under the skin. In a lot of European countries, like Germany, you’ll see them as knuckles. Hocks, on the other hand, are much fattier because of the way pigs are structured. The joints have a lot of fat under the skin, have a tiny pin bone in the muscle, and are smaller -- in many instances half the size of the foreshank.

What to do with it: Foreshanks are well suited for braising (at Tails & Trotters, foreshanks are braised down and made into multiple varieties of pulled pork). They’re also well suited for brining and smoking.

Because hocks have hollow marrow bones, they work really well for osso bucco, Silverman says. The shop will often split the hocks in half and sell them as osso bucco, though they will occasionally braise them for pulled pork as well. Hocks also fare well brined or smoked.

Loin

Where it is on the pig: This is the meat the baby back ribs are cut from, where the rib roast peters off in the belly area.

What it is: The center loin is cut from the last rib or two, after the rib roast. They’re often found boned out, trimmed and in the 4-6 pound range, depending on the size of the pig. They can also be made into chops, but they’ll be much leaner than the chops from the rib roast portion. The center loin is what’s used for Canadian or English-style bacon.  

What to do with it: The center loin is cured into three different flavors of lonza at Tails & Trotters. They can also be brined and smoked and used for sandwiches, or roasted. To cook at home, Silverman recommends the America’s Test Kitchen methodology of starting at a low temperature, around 250 degrees until the internal temperature is around 100, then throwing it on a grill or cast iron pan to sear and finish until the internal temperature is around 130-135 degrees and pink. That's right: don't be afraid of a little pink.

“Even our pigs and the amount of fat on them, the eye of a center loin will cardboard out when it hits 140+ degrees,” Silverman says.

Chops

Where it is on the pig: Where the rib portion separates off the shoulder

What it is/what to look for: Depending on the butcher, the chops are often the first nine ribs. These are fattier chops with a big fat cap and an extra muscle buried in the fat. Halfway through the rib, that muscle peters out to a clear traditional chop with just the fat and then lean meat.

What to do with it: Like the other cuts from the loin portion, chops can be pan-fried, roasted, baked, or Shake & Baked. But keeping an eye on internal temperature is crucial since these are easy to overcook.

Sirloin

Where it is on the pig: A muscle found with the loin portion of the pig, but not often sold on its own.

What it is: The sirloin is an “exceptionally lean muscle,” Silverman says, with the only fat on the very outside. Tails & Trotters uses the sirloin for trim to make sausage or mortadella because it’s easy to control the meat-to-fat ratio with how lean the muscle is. You might also find them as cutlets in the case.

What to do with it: Sirloin is often used to make schnitzel. Depending on the thickness of the sirloin, cut them to half an inch, pound them out, bread them, then fry or bake.

Belly

Where it is on the pig: Right on the tum.

What it is: The belly, like the loin, has two portions: the rib portion that’s leaner and a lower, leg portion that’s much fattier.

What to do with it: Most belly meat ends up as bacon or bacon products like pancetta. It can also be turned into rillettes and salt pork, fried, roasted… you name it, it can probably do it. But while the belly cut is straightforward, most cooking methods are not. Because it’s so fatty, most preparations require multiple steps, Silverman says, sometimes braising or cooking at a lower temperature to render the fat out before chilling or pressing it and cooking it off the next day. Silverman recommends a Gordon Ramsey recipe for preparing belly. But hey, if Arby's can pull it off, you probably can too.

Leg/Ham

Where it is on the pig: The hind legs.

What it is/what to look for: For the most part, the muscle in the center of the leg is used for ham. Because Tails & Trotters specializes in ham, the legs are broken down into three different muscles, and each is made into a ham because they all differ in size and fat content. The smallest piece is called the sirloin tip, from the top outside portion of the leg where the leg meets the sirloin. It’s a super lean muscle, often used for “sweetheart” hams.

The next muscle is the inside round, from the inside of the ham where the leg meets the hip joint. It’s a very finely marbled muscle, with some netting on the outside of the muscle itself, but still pretty lean. It clocks in around 4-6lbs and is very well suited for fresh roasts, or green ham.

The last cut is from the outside of the leg, or the outside round. It’s skin-on so if the pig has any fat, there may be some fat in there. It’s a cut often cured for culatello, a quick, boneless prosciutto. It has a large fat cap and the muscle itself is well marbled. Hams from this portion tend to come in around 8-10 pounds.

What to do with it: Most of the hams from the hind legs are best roasted. At Tails & Trotters, the inside round is rubbed in various spice rubs, roasted and sliced for sandwiches. The fat content of the outside round -- the muscle often used for making prosciutto --  makes it a perfect candidate for curing as well.

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Samantha Bakall is a freelance journalist and photographer specializing in diversity-based food issues. She currently calls Portland, Oregon home. Her work has appeared in The Oregonian, where she was the food & dining writer for more than four years, The Takeout, The San Francisco Chronicle, and in other publications. When she’s not writing, you can find her kayaking, hiking, or traveling as often as she can. Follow her at @sambakall.