Hi. This is Dan. Have you ever looked at a pig and thought, “Wow. That’s a nice Boston butt you have there. I don’t think your belly’s too fat. That would make a nice bacon. What a lovely loin you have.”
Over the next few months, we’re going to take you on a little tour of the pig. We’re going to explore parts of the pig that you may not know well, such as the pork shoulder, the different kinds of hams, the legs, as well as different cooking methods to suit every area of the pig.
Our first adventure is going to be the loin.
The loin holds probably the juiciest meat of the pig, the most tender, and the most lean. The loin comes from the top of the pig, the meat that runs along either side of the backbone, spanning from the leg to the shoulder. The entire loin is quite large — anywhere from 14 to 18 pounds, with a length of 2 to 3 feet. Obviously, most of us don’t buy an entire loin. Instead, your butcher cuts the loin into different parts, such as pork chops, tenderloin, baby back ribs, country-style ribs, and even Canadian bacon.
Next time you are at the grocery store, stand in the pork section. You’ll see a shoulder roast, with pockets of muscle and fat in the meat. (Fat is good.) When you look at a tenderloin or a pork loin roast, you’ll have a piece of unblemished pink meat. You won’t see gristle or any pockets of particularly tough muscle. It’s tender and supple. This is the part of the pig that doesn’t move much. The muscles have not been overworked. That’s why the meat is so easy to cook. You don’t need to use a moist-heat method in order to end up with meat that is easily chewable.
Let’s start with ribs. This is the time of the year when many men become cooks. In the winter, a great number of men don’t cook. But when summer rolls around, and the warm weather returns, and the barbeque comes out of the garage, every man thinks he has the best recipe for ribs. The loin contains country-style ribs and baby back ribs. Country-style ribs are the meatiest ribs. They are closest to the shoulder in the loin, and therefore, meatier than the baby back ribs. Country-style ribs are mostly a slab of juicy meat, with just a bit of bone. Baby back ribs come from the middle section of the loin, where it narrows, and the meat grows more thin. These ribs are mostly bone, with shreds of tender meat you have to gnaw off the bone. I’ve eaten my fair share of both kinds of ribs at church picnics, covered head to toe in barbeque sauce, and I like them both.
Now, let’s turn to pork chops. The pork chop is one of the most recognizable cuts of meat in the world, and the most elegant. When you go to a restaurant and see a pork chop on the menu, you think, “Oh, baby.” There are many different kinds of chops that can be cut from the loin:
– the blade chop is cut from close to the shoulder. This is the most marbled with fat of any of the chops.
– the rib chop comes from the center of the loin. It’s a lean chop. When you buy a bone-in pork chop at the store, you’re probably buying this.
– the loin chop is the most tender of any of the chops, because it contains part of the tenderloin. It has a characteristic t-bone shape, bending to one side. In some stores, you might see a boneless center-cut loin chop, which is the most tender chop available.
– the sirloin chop comes from the part of the loin closest to the hip. These chops are especially lean.
More infrequently, you might find a butterfly chop at your butcher shop. Your butcher will carve this thick cut of meat from the center of the loin and slice it down the middle to create the shape of butterfly wings. This cut makes a particularly succulent stuffed pork chop.
The thing that I love the best about the pork chop is that there are many different ways to cook it: grill it, saute it, bread it and bake it, stuff it, roast it. They all require a dry-heat method. Just a little bit of fat and you’re ready to go. Unlike some other pork cuts that we will cover here at another time, which require a moist method of cooking, the pork chop is easy to quick well, and fast. Chops with the bone in tend to be the juiciest.
Now, let’s turn to roasts.
If your butcher has not cut the loin into chops, then he or she will carve bigger chunks of meat from the loin. These are called roasts, the cuts of meat intended to feed families and parties of people. Think Sunday suppers here:
the blade loin roast comes from the shoulder-blade end of the pig. This roast is one of the most money-saving, because it tends to be a bit tougher than other parts of the loin. If you buy it bone-in, you will save even more money. This is a delicious cut of meat.
the top loin roast lies between the blade roast and the center cut loin roast. Lean and tender, this cut does not have any tenderloin attached. When you buy what’s labeled “pork roast” at the store, that’s actually two boneless top loin roasts, attached with fat sides out, and tied together.
center cut loin roast is the gold-star roast, what you think of when you hear pork loin. Tender and juicy, this cut of meat is a crowd pleaser. Leaving the bone in gives the roast more flavor when it’s cooking. However, that can make carving a bit more difficult. If your butcher removes the backbone and cleans the ribs of meat, you have a rack of pork. For a really decadent feast, you might ask your butcher to tie two racks of pork together into a circle, for a crown roast of pork. (The little white chef hats balanced on the top of the bones are optional, of course.)
the sirloin roast is a lean cut from the back part of the loin, closest to the leg. The bone-in roast, which is probably the thriftiest cut of meat, contains part of the backbone and hip bone, making it hard to carve. However, your butcher will probably be willing to bone and roll the roast for you.
the tenderloin is a special cut of meat, small and the most tender of any part of the pig. When you look at a tenderloin in the store, you might think, “I’m not paying that much money for that little piece of meat.” However, the tenderloin is worth it. It’s pure meat — no bones, very little fat. We’ve already shown you how to butterfly, stuff, and roast a tenderloin. Over time, we’ll be sharing more recipes for tenderloin here too.
About once a week here, from now on, we’ll be sharing recipes for all these different parts of the loin. On Wednesday, we have one for a pork top loin roast we think you’ll like a lot.