Your Guide to the Most Popular Cuts of Pork—and How to Cook Them to Perfection
Fun fact: you’ll almost never find it organic. Who knew?
Pork is best served seared. Or maybe grilled. But also braised. And don't forget roasted pork tenderloin...and bahn mi sandwiches, and pulled pork made in the slow-cooker, and we haven't even reached bacon. Whatever way you cook it, pork's a crowd-pleaser.
But having options creates confusion. How do the various cuts of pork (and styles of ribs) differ, and what’s the best way to prepare each? And if anyone is able to make sense of all those labels you'll find on pork packaging, that's news to me.
First and foremost, food safety
In 2011, the USDA changed the recommended cooking temperature of pork to 145ºF with a three minute rest. "That’s a 15ºF drop from the old 160ºF cook temperature," explains Billings. "Nowadays, pork tenderloin is as lean as a chicken breast—it's roughly 16 percent leaner than 20 years ago." Ground pork should still be cooked to 160ºF.
Nitrates — Anything smoked, like bacon and ham, has nitrates. Nitrate-free means the product is free from sodium nitrate, but includes another safer form, like celery salt. Nitrates are used for food safety in all smoked products.
No Antibiotics, Ever — Exactly how it sounds: never treated with antibiotics.
Organic — Unlike with chicken, organic is a label that is unlikely to be seen on a pork label. Organic pork doesn’t have the supply from farmers or the demand from consumers due to the significant cost of organic feed. Many industry experts say even if there was demand, the cost alone doesn’t pay out in flavor.
Certified Humane — This means that the animals were raised on farms that met the farm animal welfare standards of third party, non-profit auditing organizations (like the Humane Farm Animal Care organization). These organizations have an animal welfare protection checklist that farmers who use the label must follow. For pork, the checklist includes elements like outdoor access, clean bedding, indoor space per growing pig, and more.
No Animal By-Products in Feed — This means that the hogs are fed an all-vegetarian diet.
No Growth Promotants — In the U.S., growth promotants and added hormones are not allowed in pork or poultry products. Consumers won’t see the claim “no hormones added” on pork unless it is followed by a statement that says, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” So, if you don’t see it on the label, don’t be alarmed.
Crate Free / No Crates — This is a label consumers might start seeing more and more as the industry leaders are making a stronger push for animal welfare. It means that the animals were not confined in a crate during their life with the exception of pregnant sows who are confined for a few days to protect them after insemination.
Heritage Breed — Likely to be found at specialty meat markets or butchers, not your local grocery store. ButcherBox carries heritage breed because the product is produced with more fat, tenderness, and flavor.
Bone-In and Boneless Pork Chops
Both the bone-in and boneless pork chops come from the rib section of the pork loin. While the bone-in pork chop is distinguished by the curved bone along its side, both feature gorgeous marbling throughout, as well as a juicy and moist strip of tasty fat along the rim.
Try the bone-in pork loin chops pan-seared with a flavorful maple-chipotle sauce or these honey lemon pork chops. Boneless pork chops are wonderful grilled, pan-fried, seared, or stuffed, and braised with bacon and Asiago.
Get the recipe: Pork Chops With Spring Vegetables and Mustardy Pan Gravy
Pork Loin / Pork Loin Roast
Lean and mild, pork loin is taken from the most tender part of the pig. It only has a small layer of fat on the top. As the name suggests, it’s ideal for roasting. Try slow cooking it on low in a Dutch Oven, braised in copious beef broth. You can also opt for a simpler approach, with just good kosher sea salt, black pepper, and olive oil.
Get the recipe: Bacon-Wrapped Pork Loin with Cherries
Pork tenderloin is a delicious, healthy choice: It’s extremely lean meat because it’s taken from a little-used muscle along the pig’s ribcage. Pork tenderloin is also mild, tender, and incredibly versatile; it's great grilled or as a slow-cooked pork roast. It cooks quickly and holds up well to strong marinades and rubs, like a coffee rub.
Get the recipe: Sweet and Spicy Pork Tenderloin
Pork Butt or Pork Shoulder
Richly marbled with plenty of connective tissue, the pork butt—also known as Boston butt—is the ideal choice for pulled pork. Funnily enough, the term “butt” is a misnomer, as the butt actually refers to the pork shoulder. This cut is great for the smoker.
Get the recipe: Slow-Cooker BBQ Pork Sandwiches
St. Louis Pork Ribs: Cut from the lower half of the rib section, St. Louis pork ribs attribute their rich flavor to unctuous belly meat fat. They’re thicker and fatter than baby back ribs, and were first trimmed into a rectangular rack in St. Louis—hence the name. To keep them moist, be sure to steam or add liquid to your ribs during the cooking process.
Get the recipe: St. Louis-Style Pork Ribs
Baby Back Ribs: As the name suggests, baby back ribs are the baby of all rib cuts. They’re also the leanest of all the rib pork cuts, cut from the very top of the ribcage. Cook them low and slow for optimal texture and flavor. For moisture and flavor, try quick-brining your baby back ribs. Use a good spice rub and smoke them over a low fire, then transfer them to the oven to finish. Be sure to score and peel your baby back ribs before cooking.
Get the recipe: Dry-Rubbed Baby Back Ribs
Boneless Country Style Ribs: These densely marbled ribs are cut close to the shoulder, and hold up well in a variety of cooking methods. You can cook them low and slow, or high and fast—either way, they’re delectable. Try them in the slow cooker with your favorite barbeque sauce or flash-sear them in a cast iron pan, then finish them off in the oven. No matter which cooking method you use, you will end up with a flavorful, American classic.
Get the recipe: Caribbean Country-Style Ribs