Locally sourced ingredients are all the rage these days. That’s good news for grilling enthusiasts, as the practice allows us to gather more information about where our meat comes from and how it was raised. If you’re wondering what cuts to get when butchering a pig, our guide will tell you everything you need to know.
Understanding The Basics
Even if you don’t plan on actually butchering the carcass yourself, it helps to be aware of the different sections of the animal and the cuts they yield.
Essentially, there are five sections that provide butchers with edible cuts. These primal cuts consist of the shoulder, the belly, the loin, the butt (also known as the ham), and the head. Once the pig has been divided into these segments, it’s broken down further until it results in the cuts that make their way into your local butcher case.
If you’d like a detailed breakdown on the process, take a look at this video tutorial.
What Cuts to Get When Butchering A Pig
In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the cuts themselves. Each one carries its own distinctive characteristics—there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to pork products. That’s why you should look for at least one from each of the following categories when you buy freshly butchered pork from a local source.
As the name suggests, sirloin is taken from the loin portion of the animal, just above the baby back ribs and the ham. This segment is located toward the rump region, so it’s not quite as tender as the center section (also known as the tenderloin—see below). Meanwhile, the blade end of the loin, which is cut from the front of the pig, is much fattier than either the tenderloin or the sirloin end.
Pork sirloin is sometimes sold as a whole roast, but more often than not, it’s portioned into chops. These cuts are slightly different than most pork chops (see below), which are cut from different areas of the loin. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on pork sirloin chops, they’re excellent on the grill.
The center segment of the pork loin is very tender, with a mild flavor that lends itself well to marinades and seasonings. It can either be left whole or sliced crosswise into medallions. Either way, the tenderloin yields superb results when grilled, although be forewarned that the meat cooks quickly. Pan-searing is a good option too, especially if you want to make a pan sauce or gravy while the pork rests.
As we mentioned, chops can be taken from various portions of the loin. Pork loin chops are the priciest of the lot, but they also yield the most tender meat. Next in line are the pork rib chops, which are similar to loin chops in terms of price, but they have a milder flavor and a bit more fat.
Pork top loin and blade chops have plenty of flavor, but they’re not as tender as the other cuts. We would recommend using a low and slow cooking applications (such as braising) when preparing pork blade chops. Other chops would benefit from a quick turn on the grill, preferably with a healthy dose of your favorite barbecue sauce. No matter what type of pork chops you decide to make, remember that the meat will be more juicy and flavorful if the bone is attached.
This cut is sometimes called Boston butt, depending on the region. Either way, the name is misleading. The slab of meat that we call pork butt is actually located just behind the animal’s head, so it’s technically the shoulder. As such, it can be sold either boneless or with the shoulder blade still attached. Again, we prefer to opt for bone-in whenever possible, but be aware that this will affect your total yield once the meat has been cooked.
A bone-in pork butt will usually weigh 6 to 10 pounds, depending on the size of the pig. Boneless cuts, meanwhile, usually run between 3 to 6 pounds. If this sounds like too much, remember that the meat contains a great deal of fat, which will render out during cooking. Also note that if you have a great deal of meat left over, you can typically freeze the leftovers.
Boston butt is the ideal cut if you want to use your grill or smoker to make pulled pork. The meat is packed with pork flavor that provides the perfect counterpoint to the smoke from the grill. Don’t be tempted to trim the meat too much before smoking it—the rendered fat will make the cooked pork unbelievably juicy. If you’re worried about flare-ups, place the pork in a disposable aluminum pan before putting it on the grill.
As we mentioned, you can freeze leftover pulled pork, but the process might give the meat a drier texture once it’s thawed. You can offset this effect by adding a bit of moisture to the pan and reheating it over low heat.
A centerpiece at most holiday tables, ham is one of the most tasty and succulent cuts on the hog. It comes from the top section of the rear legs, above the hocks. The meat is tender, with a smoky-sweet flavor that can get drowned out in the curing process. The lack of preservatives is one of the best reasons for choosing locally sourced ham.
If you have a say in the matter, we would recommend leaving the bone in. While boneless ham is convenient, we find the bone-in variety to be far superior in terms of taste and texture.
Also known as the picnic ham, this cut can be found just beneath the Boston butt. The two cuts share similar characteristics, including the tough texture that’s typical of meat that sees a lot of action. Both cuts are also naturally fatty—the picnic shoulder has a fat cap on top that renders out when the meat is cooked for a long time at low temperatures.
The name of this cut is self-explanatory—it actually comes from the belly of the hog. When the meat is cured and smoked before it hits the shelves, it’s known by a more familiar term: bacon.
Pork belly doesn’t have to be made into bacon. When it’s left uncured, it has a rich flavor and a texture that melts in your mouth, owing to the high fat content. While the cut has more fat than meat, it’s unbelievably tender when it’s cooked properly.
Of course, depending on where you buy the pork, the belly could very well be transformed into bacon before you bring it home. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but remember that the curing and smoking process will make the meat taste saltier than it would if it were left alone.
Also located on the bottom half of the pig are the spare ribs, cut from the section just in front of the belly. These ribs are meatier than baby back ribs, but they don’t yield quite as much edible meat as their country-style counterparts (see below).
When the cartilage is removed from the spare ribs, they’re known as “St. Louis style” ribs. This popular technique allows the rib rack to cook more evenly, which is great news for beginners.
Baby Back Ribs
One of the most recognizable cuts on the market, baby back ribs come from the back of the animal, in front of the sirloin. Of the three rib types, they have the least amount of meat, but they’re exceptionally lean and tender.
The name of this cut can be misleading. While many people assume that they’re called baby back ribs because they were taken from very young animals, that’s not actually the case. In fact, the name comes from the fact that the ribs, which are taken from the top section of the rib cage, are much shorter than the larger spare ribs.
It’s also worth noting that these ribs are part of the pork loin, at least until the pig is fully butchered. Once the bones are separated from the rest of the loin, you’re left with this upper rib rack, which is then sold as “baby back ribs.”
Country Style Spare Ribs
On the backside of the picnic shoulder, you’ll find the country-style spare ribs. If you’re familiar with the brisket section of a cow, consider this the porcine equivalent. Of course, in this case, the bones are included in the cut.
As we’ve mentioned, the country-style spare ribs are the meatiest ribs you’ll find. That’s why we would make sure to procure some when you’re in the market for freshly butchered cuts of pork.
Because the hock is essentially taken from the pig’s knee joint, it’s sometimes referred to as the “pork knuckle.” As such, it doesn’t have much meat on it, but the bones make a delightful addition to stews and sauces. The marrow and natural juices are released from the hocks as they cook, giving liquid-based dishes a flavor and richness that can’t be duplicated by commercially prepared ingredients.
If you aren’t unfamiliar with this cut, you’re not alone. In fact, pork secreto is so named because its origins are considered something of a mystery. It was thought to be discovered by Spanish butchers, who located the cut when they sliced horizontally across the muscles behind the pork shoulder, just beneath the fat layer on the upper back.
If your butcher manages to locate the pork secreto, you’ll be rewarded with a well-marbled cut of meat with a deep purplish hue and a slightly nutty flavor. It doesn’t have the most attractive appearance—the shape is lopsided and rectangular, with irregular streaks of fat running through it—but when the meat is grilled, it’s as tender and delicious as any pork you’ve ever tasted.
A Word About Sausage
If you’re a pork fan, you’re probably wondering why we haven’t mentioned sausage yet. That’s because sausage isn’t really a cut, but ground pork that’s been mixed with seasonings.
By all means, ask the butcher to create a ground pork blend for you to take home. However, we would recommend experimenting with different flavor combinations on your own. Try adding fennel and crushed red pepper flakes for hot Italian sausage, or white pepper and sage for a delicious and savory breakfast treat.
Although these are the cuts we would recommend above all others, they’re not the only edible portions of the pig. Pork cheek, for example, is prized by many chefs and yields tender meat that crisps up perfectly on the grill. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can boil down the entire pig head to make head cheese—a spicy pork loaf with a texture similar to pâté.
Now that you know what cuts to get when butchering a pig, you can visit your local butcher shop or farmer’s market with new confidence. The key to the whole process lies in understanding the differences between the various sections of the animal. Once you’ve mastered that, you’ll know which cut to choose in any situation.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!