By: Elizabeth Stark
When making pork dishes at home, it’s important to have a good grounding in the basic cuts since they vary widely in flavor, tenderness, fattiness and preferred cooking method.
For this guide, we’ll be focusing on five popular cuts of pork: belly, shoulder, tenderloin, chops and ribs.
Why You’ll Love Pork
Pork may be the most versatile of all meats as it provides so many delicious dinner options. Classics like pork barbecue and ribs are beloved cookout staples, while pork chops and tenderloin are family dinner favorites. Pork’s also front and center in a range of popular imports like carnitas, pork dumplings and bratwurst.
How to Select and Store Pork
When selecting fresh pork, look for cuts that are firm; the flesh should be grayish-pink and have little to no smell. Fresh pork is best stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, wrapped in wax paper, for up to three days. For smoked meats, check the expiration date to ensure freshness. As with all meats, the best way to ensure quality is to shop with a butcher you trust.
Commonly seen as bacon, pork belly is a fatty cut that comes from the underside of the pig. Most often served salted and smoked as bacon, its richness and strong flavor also make it an excellent cut to prepare fresh.
How to Cook Pork Belly: The high fat content and tough meat of fresh pork belly are best suited to a low-and-slow cooking approach, and should either be braised or slow-roasted. A little acidity provides a nice contrast to pork belly's richness, so consider including white wine or vinegar in your sauce or braising liquid.
Most commonly found in pulled pork sandwiches, pork shoulder is a flavorful, fatty cut. Selecting pork shoulder can be confusing because it goes by a wide variety of seemingly contradictory names like:
- Pork shoulder
- Pork butt
- Boston butt
- Picnic ham
All of these come from the shoulder, which has nothing to do with the pig’s backside or ham. The shoulder is a flavorful cut, but because it’s a muscle that does a fair amount of work, it’s often tough.
How to Cook Pork Shoulder: It does best with a slow cooking method that will break down the meat. That makes it a perfect cut for smoking, either in a smoker or on the grill. It’s also wonderful in stews and braises. Pork shoulder is outstanding with smoky tomato-based sauces, Carolina-style vinegar sauces or summer fruits like peaches.
Pork tenderloin is cut from the larger pork loin. Because it’s a muscle that does very little work, it’s extraordinarily tender. It’s also extremely lean and can dry out easily if overcooked.
How to Cook Pork Tenderloin: This cut is best roasted or cut into medallions and quickly sautéed. Because it has a mild taste, it's best not to overwhelm tenderloin with heavy sauces. Seasoning with fresh herbs will lend it a lovely complexity.
Pork chops, which are cut from the loin (between the shoulder and the ham, and above the belly), are probably the most familiar cut of fresh pork. They’re only slightly less tender and lean than the tenderloin and similarly don’t require much cooking time.
This is the best cut for grilling and is also fantastic sautéed. Pork chops are great seasoned only with salt, but they are also wonderful accompanied with sautéed onions or mushrooms.
Tip: In the past, many recipes called for loin chops to be cooked until well done, leading to a lot of hopelessly dry chops. Today, the USDA considers it safe to cook pork to an internal temperature of 145-155 F, followed by a three-minute rest time.
Pork Spareribs and Baby Back Ribs
Pork ribs can be cut in a variety of ways, but most often you’ll see them cut into spareribs (the lower part of the rib) and baby back ribs (the upper part). Baby back ribs have more meat and are leaner, so they cook faster but can also dry out easily. While there’s less meat on the spareribs, they are tender and pack intense taste. They’re also a more forgiving cut to work with.
How to Cook Ribs: Whichever kind of ribs you use, you’ll want to use a slow, dry method like smoking or roasting on low heat. The appropriate sauce to go with ribs is a topic that inspires powerful opinions, but if you're a barbecue sauce newbie, try a thick, smoky Kansas City sauce or a thinner, tangier St. Louis one.
A Guide to Cooking Other Cuts
Grill/Pan Roast/Broil: Tenderloin, rib chops, loin and loin chops
Braise: Shank, shoulder, belly and cheeks
Roast: Belly and ham
Smoke: Shoulder, ham, belly, shank, ribs and cheeks
Elizabeth Stark writes the blog Brooklyn Supper — the story of a family eating with the seasons in Virginia and Brooklyn. She believes strongly that good, local food and wholesome meals should be available for everyone.