Wednesday, 16 February 2011 | Tags: ,

Pork has long been a staple of the human diet throughout the world. We love slow-roasted pork, so we found out more from our favourite butcher about buying a good quality cut of pork.

The Basics

  • The nutritional value of pork depends on the cut. However, pork is actually no fattier or higher in calories than similar cuts of other meats like beef, veal, lamb, and poultry.

  • Pork is a good source of protein, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc. It’s also higher in B-complex vitamins, riboflavin, niacin, and especially thiamine than other meats.

  • Pork is low in sodium, but high in cholesterol. Stick with roasts and tenderloins for leaner, healthier options. Avoid fatty cuts like bacon, sausages and side ribs.

  • Common cuts for pork include:

    • From the shoulder area: blade roast and steak, shoulder roll, picnic roast

    • From the loin area: pork chops, rib roast, back ribs, tenderloin, sirloin cutlet, loin roast, Canadian bacon

    • From the side/belly: spareribs, bacon

    • From the leg: top leg roast, ham, leg cutlet

  • Pork today is raised much leaner that it was years ago so it is not as much of a problem to find lean cuts, but make sure excess fat has been trimmed around the edges.

  • The meat should be pink with a white to grayish tint and have a fine-grained texture. Meat from the shoulder is generally darker than the loin.

  • The meat should be firm to the touch, look moist but not slimy, and it should not emit any foul odors.

  • The fat on the outer edges should be creamy white and blemish free. If the fat has a yellowish tint, it’s old and probably close to spoiling.

  • If you’re buying pre-packaged cuts, the packaging should be cool to the touch and free of any holes or tears.

  • Remember, boneless pork yields more portions than bone-in pork. Be careful when comparing prices because, though you think you might be getting a good deal on bone-in pork, you may just be paying for the weight of inedible parts.

Pork Tenderloin

  • A completely boneless strip of muscle considered the leanest and most tender cut (and the most expensive) because the tenderloin muscle runs along the central spine and assists with the animal’s posture, rather than being a motion or weight-bearing muscle (which results in a tougher cut).

  • When choosing tenderloin look for meat that is reddish pink. A darker red indicates acidic pork, meat that is juicy and delicious but that does not keep well and must be eaten immediately.

  • Avoid pork roasts that have a brown or greenish tinge or that are slimy or have an odour.

  • Keep raw pork roast in its original wrapping and store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for two to four days.

  • Cooked pork will keep four to five days in the refrigerator.

  • To freeze, wrap meat well in plastic, foil, or butcher paper and store below 0°C for up to ten months.

  • Leftover cooked pork will keep in the freezer for one month.

Pork Shoulder

  • The high amount of connective tissue and fat in pork shoulder makes it one of the toughest and least expensive cuts of meat. However, this is ideal if you’re planning to smoke or barbecue it!

  • The pork shoulder can be divided into two parts: the picnic cut and the butt.
    • The “butt” is the choicest of the two cuts and should be cooked using a moist-heat method for best results. The shoulder may also be cut into butt steaks, or into cubes and strips.
    • Choose a “picnic cut” for smoking, barbecuing, or recipes calling for long, slow cooking.

  • Choose a cut that is moist and a healthy pink colour, not grey or red.

  • Look for marbling and surface fat, which add flavour and juiciness.

  • Avoid any cuts that look damp or clammy, with oily or chalky-looking fat.

  • Buy a bone-in piece, which produces more tender meat.

  • Also make sure that the roast contains skin and some rind at its tip. This layer of skin protects the meat during the long, slow roasting these recipes call for.

Pork Belly

  • Pork belly has alternating streaky layers of fat and lean meat. It is a fatty and tough cut, but a very flavourful one. It’s popular for braising or cooking methods that use a slow, low heat, which make the belly tender and juicy.

  • A lot of the fat renders out during cooking, so cooked pork belly should not taste greasy.

  • Pork belly also tends to be less expensive than leaner cuts, like tenderloin. Centre-cut pork belly is a preferred cut, because it is a bit leaner and meatier.

  • The fat on pork belly should be white. Avoid any that is beginning to yellow.

  • Meat that is paler pink tends to come from a younger animal than meat that is darker red.

  • The skin can become tough and leathery when cooked. Ask your butcher to remove it for you, unless your recipe requires it to be left on. If your recipe does not specify, it is safe to assume that the pork belly should be boneless and skinless.

  • There should be slightly more meat than fat on the cut of the belly that you choose, but not by much. It will still look as if there is far too much fat on the meat, but remember, a lot of this will render out during cooking

  • Although the belly meat has traditionally been cured to make bacon, this cut is now becoming more popular for cooking.

  • It has always been a popular cut to cook in French, Italian, and Asian cuisine and, as a result, can often be most readily found at Asian butchers and markets.

  • If you have a chance to buy Berkshire pork (a breed that is being raised by increasing numbers of artisan producers), try it, as it is world famous with chefs and foodies for being incredibly rich, tender, and well-marbled.

Baby Back Ribs

  • Baby back ribs are cut from the loin of the pig. They are leaner, thinner, and shorter (hence the term “baby”) than spareribs, which are cut from the side or belly of the pig, and country-style ribs, which are cut from the loin.

  • A typical full slab has 11 to 13 bones which equates to about 1.5-2 pounds of meat.

  • Pork ribs should be reddish pink. A darker red indicates acidic pork, which tends to be juicy and delicious but doesn’t keep well and must be eaten immediately.

  • Avoid ribs that have a brown or greenish tinge or that are slimy or have an odour.

  • Keep raw pork ribs in their original wrapping and store them in the refrigerator where they will keep for 2-3 days.

  • Cooked pork will keep 4-5 days in the refrigerator, and in the freezer for a month.

  • To freeze, wrap raw ribs well in plastic, foil, or butcher paper and store at 0 degrees Celsius for up to 10 months.

  • Thaw pork ribs in the refrigerator, leaving them wrapped. This takes 8-10 hours to thaw, depending on the size and thickness of the pieces.

  • Do no refreeze thawed pork ribs.

Pork Liver

  • Pork liver has the strongest flavour of most animals on the North American menu. Chicken livers are the mildest.

  • Pork liver is also the coarsest and least tender of other meat livers (including beef, chicken, and lamb).

  • Choose a pork liver that has a bright colour that is moist , with a fresh smell. Avoid any that have a slimy surface.

  • Prepare the pork liver the day you buy it, or store it loosely wrapped in the fridge for no more than a day.

  • Pork liver is very high in iron, niacin and riboflavin, but it is also high in cholesterol.

Pork Hearts

  • The meat of the pig heart tends to be tough (as with most animals) so try to choose a heart from a younger animal for a more tender meat.

  • Hearts should smell fresh and have a red colour. Avoid any that are brown or grey.

  • Store loosely wrapped in the refrigerator for no more than two days before cooking.

Butcher’s Sausage

  • Typically the “house sausage” that a butcher sells – a simple sausage mildly spiced and herbed.

  • It should be made from a mix of lean pork meat such as shoulder and fatty cuts such as belly.

  • The fat is vital because it carries taste and provides succulence. It also binds the sausage together inside the casing.

  • Ask your butcher for meat from ‘overweight’ pigs which have a good fat covering.

  • Look for a mixture of at least 50% lean meat and 50% fatty meat.

  • A leaner version may include some veal or poultry, blended with a little pork for binding.

Pork Fat (for sausages)

  • When shopping for fat to make sausages, ask your butcher for a marbled piece of pork back fat to ensure that your sausages stay moist and succulent.

  • Berkshire pork fat is the crème de la crème of pork. If your butcher has it, it will cost you around $4 per pound.

  • Before making sausages, make sure your pork fat is well chilled. The cool temperature keeps pork fat from getting too warm and gumming up your meat grinder when blended with the meat (which should also be nice and cold).

  • A cold meat-to-fat blend is easier to work with when stuffing it into casings.

  • It is also most sanitary since bacteria can form at room temperature.

Guancale (Pork Jowl)

  • Guanciale (pronounced GWUN-shee-AL) is cured pork jowl, the fleshy part under a hog’s jaw.

  • Though generally not eaten raw, uncured guanciale is a savory white pork fat often used to cook with.

  • It is leaner and richer in taste than pancetta or bacon, though both are adequate substitutes.

  • Ask your butcher to prepare some for you, or look for it at your local Italian grocery store and specialty meat markets where it should cost around $10 per cheek/pound.

Other Considerations

  • Organic pork is becoming more widely available, and comes from pigs that are raised in a natural, free-run or free-range environment, medication-free. Health benefits of eating organic vs. non-organic pork have yet to be proven definitively, but many people feel it tastes better, even though it is usually more expensive.

Be Aware

  • When cooking, ensure the internal temperature of your pork reaches at least 140°F (many people prefer to cook to 150°F to be safe) to avoid contracting trichinosis, which is caused by the presence of a microscopic parasitic worm (Trichinella spiralis) in the meat. This parasite is killed at these high temperatures, but the main symptoms of trichinosis are gastroenteritis, fever, vomiting, muscular pain, swollen eyelids, and headaches.


Using the exact same recipe for a shoulder of pork from Jamie Oliver’s Cook With Jamie, we slow-cooked (overnight) one organic and one commercially-raised pork shoulder cut:

  • Organic: $6.77 per pound
  • Non-organic: $2.99 per pound

Taste Test

We were amazed at the results:

  • The organic pork was was juicier, more flavourful and fell right off the bone.

  • The non-organic pork just didn’t compare.


Even though it was more than double the price, we think it’s worth it. From now on we will only buy organic pork!


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