Pork Cuts: A Visual Guide

Before you shop for pork, it’s helpful to understand some basic information as well as the primal cuts from which the retail cuts are butchered. Buying and cooking today’s lean pork chops or tenderloins can be a challenge. And in addition, there are many cuts of pork in the market, many of which are sold under a variety of alternate names. Pork labels can also be confusing. Our retail cuts chart will help you understand shopping for pork, cut by cut.

Primal Cuts of Pork

Four different cuts of pork are sold at the wholesale level. From this first series of cuts, known in the trade as primal cuts, a butcher (usually at a meatpacking plant in the Midwest but sometimes on-site at your market) will make the retail cuts that you bring home from the market.

ILO_Pork_PrimalCuts

Shoulder: Cuts from the upper portion of the shoulder (called the blade shoulder) are well marbled with fat and contain a lot of connective tissue, making them ideal candidates for slow-cooking methods like braising, stewing, or barbecuing. Cuts from the arm, or picnic shoulder, are a bit more economical than those from the blade area but are otherwise quite similar.

Loin: The area between the shoulder and back legs is the leanest, most tender part of the animal. Rib and loin chops are cut from this area, as are pork loin roasts and tenderloin roasts. These cuts will be dry if overcooked.

Leg: The rear legs are often referred to as “ham.” This primal cut is sold as large roasts and is available fresh or cured.

Side/Belly: The underside is the fattiest part of the animal and is the source of bacon and spareribs.


Shopping for Pork—Cut by Cut

Not all roasts, chops, and ribs are created alike. We’ve rated the following cuts on flavor (★★★★ being the most flavorful) and cost ($ $ $ $ being the most expensive).

PRIMAL CUT: SHOULDER

ILO_PorkButt

Pork Butt Roast: This large, flavorful cut (often labeled Boston butt or pork shoulder at markets) can weigh as much as 8 pounds when sold with the bone in. Many markets take out the bone and sell this cut in smaller chunks, often wrapped in netting to hold the roast together.

Flavor: ★★★★
Cost: $ $
Alternate Names: Boston shoulder, pork butt, Boston butt
Best Cooking Methods: Slow ­roasting, barbecuing, stewing, braising

ILO_ShoulderArmPicnic

Pork Shoulder: This affordable cut can be sold bone-in or boneless. It is rich in fat and connective tissue.

Flavor: ★★★★
Cost: $
Alternate Names: Shoulder arm picnic, picnic shoulder, fresh picnic, picnic roast
Best Cooking Methods: Grill ­roasting, barbecuing, roasting, braising

PRIMAL CUT: LOIN

ILO_BladeChop

Blade Chop: Cut from the shoulder end of the loin, these chops can be difficult to find at the market. They are fatty and tough, despite good flavor and juiciness.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: Pork chop end cut
Best Cooking Methods: Braising, barbecuing

ILO_RibChop

Rib Chop: Cut from the rib section of the loin, these chops have a relatively high fat content, rendering them flavorful and unlikely to dry out during cooking. They are a favorite in the test kitchen. These chops are easily identified by the bone that runs along one side and the one large eye of loin muscle. Note that rib chops are also sold boneless. In fact, most boneless pork chops you’ll find are cut from the rib chop.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Names: Rib cut chops, pork chops end cut
Best Cooking Methods: Grilling, pan searing, braising

ILO_CenterCutChop

Center-Cut Chop: These chops can be identified by the bone that divides the loin meat from the tenderloin muscle. The lean tenderloin section cooks more quickly than the loin section, making these chops a challenge. They have good flavor, but since they contain less fat than the rib chops, they are not quite as moist.

Flavor: ★★
Cost: $ $ $ $
Alternate Names: Top loin chops, loin chops
Best Cooking Methods: Searing, grilling

ILO_SirloinChop

Sirloin Chops: These chops, cut from the sirloin, or hip, end of the pig, are tough, dry, and tasteless. The chops contain tenderloin and loin meat, plus a slice of hipbone. We do not recommend this cut.

Flavor: (no stars)
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: Sirloin steaks
Best Cooking Method: None

ILO_BabyBackRibs

Baby Back Ribs: Baby back ribs are cut from the section of the rib cage closest to the backbone. Loin center-cut roasts and chops come from the same part of the pig, which explains why baby back ribs can be expensive. This location also explains why baby back ribs are much leaner than spareribs—and why they need special attention to keep from drying out on the grill.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $ $ $
Alternate Names: Loin back ribs, riblets
Best Cooking Methods: Grilling, barbecuing

ILO_CountryStyleRibs

Country-Style Ribs: These meaty, tender, boneless ribs are cut from the upper side of the rib cage from the fatty blade end of the loin. Butchers usually cut them into individual ribs and package several ribs together. These ribs can be braised and shredded for pasta sauce, or pounded flat and grilled or pan-seared as cutlets.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: Country ribs
Best Cooking Methods: Braising, grilling, pan searing

ILO_PorkBladeRoast

Blade-End Roast: The part of the loin closest to the shoulder, the bone-in blade roast can be chewy. It can also be difficult to carve because of its many separate muscles and fatty pockets. Also sold boneless (see below).

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $
Alternate Names: Pork seven-rib roast, pork five-rib roast, pork loin rib end, rib-end roast
Best Cooking Method: Roasting

ILO_PorkCuts_BonelessBladeRoast

Boneless Blade-end Roast: This is our favorite boneless roast for roasting. It is cut from the shoulder end of the loin and has more fat (and flavor) than the boneless center-cut loin roast. Unfortunately, this cut can be hard to find in many markets. This roast is also sold with the bone in, although that cut is even harder to locate.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $
Alternate Names: Blade roast, blade loin roast
Best Cooking Methods: Roasting, grill roasting

ILO_CenterLoinRoast

Center-Cut Loin Roast: This popular boneless roast is juicy, tender, and evenly shaped with somewhat less fat than the center-cut rib roast. We prefer the more flavorful boneless blade-end roast, but the two cuts can be used interchangeably. Make sure to buy a center-cut roast with a decent fat cap on top.

Flavor: ★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: Center-cut pork roast
Best Cooking Methods: Roasting, grill roasting

ILO_PorkCenterRibRoast

Center-Cut Rib Roast: Often referred to as the pork equivalent of prime rib or rack of lamb, this mild, fairly lean roast consists of a single muscle with a protective fat cap. It may be cut with anywhere from five to eight ribs. Because the bones (and nearby fat) are still attached, we find this roast a better option than the center-cut loin roast, which is cut from the same muscle but is minus the bones and fat.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Names: Rack of pork, pork loin rib half, center-cut pork roast
Best Cooking Methods: Roasting, grill roasting

ILO_Tenderloin

Tenderloin Roast: This lean, delicate, boneless roast cooks very quickly because it’s so small, usually weighing just about 1 pound. Since there is very little marbling, this roast (which is equivalent to beef tenderloin) cannot be overcooked without ruining its texture. Tenderloins are often sold two to a package. Many tenderloins sold in the supermarket are enhanced; look for one that has no ingredients other than pork on the label.

Flavor: ★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: None
Best Cooking Methods: Roasting, pan searing, sautéing, stir-frying

ILO_SirloinRoast

Sirloin Roast: This sinuous cut with a good amount of connective tissue is difficult to cook evenly and to carve.

Flavor: (no stars)
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: None
Best Cooking Method: None

ILO_PorkCuts_CrownRoastofPork

Crown Roast: Butchers tie two bone-in center-cut rib or center-cut loin roasts together to create this impressive-looking roast. We find that a crown roast with 16 to 20 ribs is the best choice, as smaller and larger roasts are harder to cook evenly. Because of its shape and size, this roast is prone to overcooking.

Flavor: ★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: Crown rib roast
Best Cooking Method: Roasting

PRIMAL CUT: SIDE/BELLY

ILO_Spareribs

St. Louis–Style Spareribs: Regular spareribs are cut close to the belly of the pig (which is also where bacon comes from). Because whole spareribs contain the brisket bone and surrounding meat, each rack can weigh upward of 5 pounds. Some racks of spareribs are so big they barely fit on the grill. We prefer this more manageable cut because the brisket bone and surrounding meat are trimmed off to produce a narrower, rectangular rack that usually weighs in at a relatively svelte 3 pounds.

Flavor: ★★★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: Spareribs
Best Cooking Methods: Roasting, barbecuing

PRIMAL CUT: LEG

ILO_FreshHamShank

Fresh Ham, Shank End: The leg is divided into two cuts—the tapered shank end and the more rounded sirloin end. The sirloin end has a lot of bones that make carving tricky. We prefer the shank end. This cut is usually covered in a thick layer of fat and skin, which should be scored before roasting. This cut is not as fatty as you might think and benefits from brining.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $
Alternate Name: Shank end fresh ham
Best Cooking Methods: Roasting, grill roasting

ILO_FreshHamSirloin

Fresh Ham, Sirloin Half: Because of its bone structure, the rounded sirloin is more difficult to carve than the shank end and is our second choice. Its flavor, however, is quite good.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $
Alternate Name: None
Best Cooking Method: Roasting

ILO_PorkCuts_SpiralCutHalfHam

Spiral-Sliced Bone-In Half Ham: This is our favorite wet-cured ham because the meat is not pumped up with water (the label should read “ham with natural juices”) and because it is so easy to carve. Make sure to buy a bone-in ham; it will taste better than a boneless ham. Although packages are not labeled as such, look for a ham from the shank rather than from the sirloin end. You can pick out the shank ham by its tapered, more pointed end opposite the flat cut side of the ham. The sirloin ham has more rounded or blunt ends.

Flavor: ★★★★
Cost: $
Alternate Name: Spiral-cut ham
Best Cooking Method: Roasting

ILO_PorkCuts_CountryHam

Country Ham: This Southern favorite starts with the whole leg and is dry-cured like prosciutto or serrano ham. This ham has a complex, meaty, and nutty flavor. The meat is very salty and dry (even after soaking). Serve it in small pieces with biscuits or use in recipes with greens, rice, or pasta.

Flavor: ★★★
Cost: $ $ $
Alternate Name: None
Best Cooking Method: Roasting


➜ This content is excerpted from the Pork chapter from The Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book. See more inside the book.

Advertisements