The Skinny on... Pork
Pork is among the most versatile meats in our supermarkets. Here’s what you need to know to get the best cut on your table.
These days, there are so many choices when it comes to pork: braising cuts, quick-cooking cuts, fresh, cured and smoked. And then there are the various cuts themselves, everything from ribs to roasts, from ham to bacon. No wonder we’ve all come to love pork so much!
Pork is among the most versatile meats in our supermarkets. It can become the base of a quick dinner — a center-cut boneless loin chop sauté, for example. Or it can be the centerpiece of a holiday feast — a slow-roasted ham or a Boston butt cooked over low, indirect heat on the grill and then “pulled” with barbecue sauce in the mix.
We can have it for breakfast (ah, bacon!), lunch (a ham sandwich), or dinner (long-braised country-style spare ribs).
And the news gets even better. The pork that’s showing up in our supermarkets today is leaner and healthier than ever.
How fast do you want to be?
In general, we can divide pork among the cuts that can be prepared in 20 minutes or less and those that take a bit longer, usually over indirect heat on the grill, roasted in the oven or braised on top of the stove.
|The Basic Divide|
- A small, 1-pound pork loin roast
- Loin chops
- Rib chops
- Center-cut boneless pork loin chops
- Ham steaks
- Ground pork
- Canadian bacon
- Loin roasts
- Rib roasts
- Crown roast of pork
- Spare ribs
- St. Louis–style spare ribs
- Country-style spare ribs
- Baby-back ribs
- Whole or half ham, whether fresh, cured and/or smoked
- Boston butt
- Picnic ham
Know what you’re getting
But just knowing the fast and the slow won’t tell you the whole tale. Since pork is so versatile, it shows up in three different forms in our supermarkets.
|Pork at the Supermarket|
- "Fresh” means it hasn't been cured or smoked. It may well be frozen.
- The most basic and essential cuts are loin, tenderloin and chops.
- These cuts have the most pork flavor; curing and smoking adds different flavors to the mix.
- Unless labeled otherwise, any cut of pork is fresh.
- Cured pork is soaked in a brine to increase moisture in the meat.
- It's often quite salty.
- The brines (like pickle brines) can have sugar in the mix and so also leave a sweet taste in the meat.
- Not all cured cuts are smoked. Deli hams are often simply cured.
- Smoking adds an earthy richness to the meat.
- Smoked can indicate “real smoke” from wood — or it can mean a smoke flavoring has been added.
- Different types of wood yield different flavors: hickory, mesquite, cherry or apple, to name a few.
- Almost all smoked cuts have been previously cured. Some types of bacon and some hams have been smoked without being cured. These are mostly available in high-end markets.
And a little more to know
These days, you can even find some specialty types of pork in your supermarket. These are designations not about the cuts but instead about the life or type of pig.
|Specialty Types of Pork|
- Berkshire Pork: This is the designation for an old breed with redder, more marbled meat and a bigger flavor throughout. Expect to pay more for this designation, although the extra expense can be worth it, particularly for a holiday meal.
- Heritage breeds: If you shop at farmers’ markets or local farms, you might find breeds beyond Berkshire, like Duroc and Chester White. These are often registered and have a long history, offering strongly flavored, well-marbled meat.
- Niman Ranch Pork: This is a network of over 650 farmers; the name indicates nothing about the pig’s breed but instead about its life: free of antibiotics and hormones, offered only vegetarian feed, and humanely raised.
- On hot days, bring a cooler in the car to keep pork chilled until you get home.
- Never defrost pork on the kitchen counter. Instead, thaw it in a refrigerator set at 40ºF or lower.
- If thawed properly in the fridge for less than two days, pork can be refrozen in its packaging, should your dinner plans change.
- Thoroughly wash and disinfect all kitchen surfaces and tools that come into contact with raw pork.
- There's no need to rinse a cut of pork before cooking. Bacteria are killed by heat, not water.
- Cook pork to an internal temperature of 145°F, with a three-minute rest.