Pigs are the source of many delicious cuts, including bacon. Since the animals are now bred to be lean, the meat is higher in protein and about 30 percent lower in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol than the pork produced in the 1970s.
The richest and meatiest chops are cut from the center of the loin: The two most common types are loin chops, which look like miniature T-bone steaks and have a bit of the tenderloin attached, and rib chops, without the tenderloin (see Pork Tenderloin below). Because they dry out quickly during cooking, it’s especially important not to overcook lean boneless chops. Choose cuts that are at least an inch thick so they stay juicy.
Best for: grilling, broiling, and pan-frying.
Buy this large cut (from the back of the pig) without bones, which makes it easier to slice. Pork loin has a dense texture and a robust flavor, with a large cap of fat from the back. Stuff it and cook it as a roast, or slice it into 1-inch chops for pan-frying and grilling.
Best for: Roasting.
This lean, very tender cut from the end of the loin is pale pink and has a fine grain. Long, narrow, and tapering at one end, it is much smaller than a pork loin roast, so it cooks quickly and is a good choice for weeknight dinners.
Best for: Pan-frying, roasting, and grilling.
Made from ground pork, sausages come in a variety of sizes and are already seasoned. Flavors range from sweet to savory and spicy. Buy sausage out of the casing and use it as an alternative to ground beef in sauces or stews or as a pizza topping.
Best for: Pan-frying and grilling.
Small and meaty, these curved slabs are taken from the pig’s rib cage near the backbone. Prized for their sweet, juicy meat, they cook quickly. A full rack has at least 8 ribs. For the tenderest meat, select a rack that weighs 2 pounds or less (which should feed 2 people).
Best for: Roasting and grilling.
Although not as meaty as baby-back ribs, spare ribs are very tasty, thanks to a generous amount of fat. Large and irregularly shaped, they come from a pig’s underbelly or lower rib cage (also the source of bacon). A full rack has at least 11 ribs and weighs 3 to 4 pounds (which should feed 2 or 3 people).
Best for: Roasting, grilling, and braising.
Conventional bacon is made from fatty slabs taken from a pig’s underbelly, then smoked and cured with salt, which concentrates flavor. Leaner Canadian bacon is cut from the loin and comes in cylindrical slices. Pancetta, also cut from the belly, is cured (salted or brined) but not smoked. Bacon has a longer shelf life than uncured pork. It can be refrigerated for up to 7 days and frozen for 3 months.
Best for: Pan-frying.
A ham is taken from a pig’s leg. Some hams are sold fresh for baking, but most are cured with brine, salt, and spices, making them juicier, and fully cooked. Some are smoked, which imparts a meatier, more intense flavor. Hams are sold boneless, semiboneless, and with the bone in. Bone-in hams usually yield the best flavor, while boneless are easier to cut.
Prosciutto is ham that has been cured and air-dried for long periods of time for tenderness and a more complex flavor; it is typically sliced paper-thin and consumed uncooked. Precooked ham can be refrigerated for up to 7 days; when sliced, consume it within 4 days. Sliced deli ham keeps in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped, for up to 7 days. Freezing cooked ham is not recommended, as it results in an unpleasant texture.
Best for: Baking.
How to Choose Pork
The tenderest cuts of pork are pale pink and come from younger animals. The darker the flesh, the older the animal. Look for a fresh ham with well-trimmed fat around the outside and some visible marbling (the small flecks of white fat running throughout the meat) and white, not yellow, fat. With cured hams, look for finely grained, rosy meat.
Decoding the Label
Natural: All fresh meat can be labeled “Natural” as the USDA defines it: It simply means that no artificial ingredients or preservatives were added during processing. However, the pigs may have been given antibiotics and growth hormones.
Raised Without Antibiotics, No Hormones Administered: Antibiotics are commonly administered throughout pigs’ lives to prevent disease. Labels that claim exception to this practice are not verified by the USDA. Hormones are not permitted in the raising of pigs, so the label is superfluous. If you want to be sure your meat is free of exposure to antibiotics, look for a “USDA Organic” label (see below).
Free-Range: Although this label implies that the cattle roamed free and had access to a varied diet (which adds to the meat’s flavor and improves the animal’s well-being), verification of the claim is not required. (The USDA only certifies free-range poultry.) If you want a guarantee that your pig had ample time to roam free, look for a “Free Range” label in conjunction with one that states it is “Certified Humane Raised & Handled,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” or “Food Alliance Certified.” Issued by independent monitoring organizations, these labels are much better indicators of the humane treatment of animals. (To find certified products in your area, go to the individual organizations’ websites.)
USDA Organic: This label is the USDA’s certification that animals were not given antibiotics or growth hormones; that their feed was 100 percent organic, produced without using most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; and that they were given access to the outdoors.
Certified Humane: In this monitored program, pigs have to be fed a nutritious diet (not necessarily organic) and raised with sufficient space to perform “natural behaviors.” The use of antibiotics (except for sick animals) is prohibited. Look for the “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” logo.
Heritage Pork: Heritage pork comes from breeds that were once common but have become rare as farmers have increasingly bred pigs to be lean. Generally from small farms rather than big, industrial settings, they are often pasture-raised (checking into the source of the pork is the only way to know). The breed most commonly found is Berkshire (a.k.a. Kurobuta), black pigs that originated in England. Their prized meat, available in all the usual cuts, is darker in color than standard pork and well marbled—a characteristic unusual in pork—rendering it meltingly tender, sweet, and juicy. It is also expensive. Look for it at specialty meat sellers, farmers’ markets, and some supermarkets.
Grass-Fed: Like “Pasture Raised,” this label indicates that pigs have been raised completely on pasture grasses, not fattened on grain in a feed lot. Meat from grass-fed pigs has a more complex flavor and more vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids than meat from pigs raised on commercial feed. Meats that have met the USDA-monitored standards receive a “USDA Process Verified” shield. Other labels you may see from organizations that have their own certification programs include “American Grassfed” and “Food Alliance Certified.”
How to Store Pork
Keep pork refrigerated at all times in the original packaging, tucked into a disposable plastic bag to prevent any liquids from contaminating other foods. Use or freeze chops and roasts within 5 days of purchase or by the sell-by date. Fresh ground pork should be used within 2 days of purchase.
Freeze uncooked pork tightly wrapped for up to 6 months, ground pork for up to 4 months. Refrigerate fully cooked leftovers in airtight containers for up to 4 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
The safest, most accurate way to figure out when your pork is perfectly cooked is by checking the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. Decades ago, pork was cooked to a temperature of 180° F, due to the danger of trichinosis. However, the trichina parasite has been eradicated in meat sold today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendation for maximum food safety is 145° F for all pork. Because pork is lean and contains little water, beware of overcooking it, which quickly renders it tough and chewy.
Real Simple Pork Recipes:
- Pork Chops and Cotija Corn Puree With Radish, Cucumber, and Lime Salad
- Cinnamon-Spiced Pork Satay Kebabs
- Prosciutto Chicken With Broccolini
- Balsamic-Glazed Pork With Lentils
- Bean Salad With Bacon and Chives
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