Pork is a versatile, economical meat that can be used in a huge variety of ways – from ham, bacon and sausages to pulled pork, chops and BBQ ribs, to name but a few. Understanding which cuts suit which cooking methods will help you make an informed decision about what to buy.
This back muscle does little work and is very low in connective tissue. For this reason, it is very lean so is best when quickly pan-fried or roasted.
Loin roast or chops
A large eye of meat that is surrounded by layered fat and skin, that can also be cut on the bone – it can come as a whole roasting joint, cut into chops or just the eye as medallions. This requires careful cooking, as you need to render and crisp the fat, while ensuring the eye stays tender and juicy.
Hugging the belly, these are the longer, chunkier ribs that have a little less meat. High in connective tissue and fat, these need to be slow-cooked to break them down and make them very tender, and perfect when finished on a BBQ to crisp up.
Baby back ribs
From the top part of the ribs, these are high in fat and connective tissue but have more meat than spare ribs, and are slightly more tender and don’t require as long to cook.
The fattiest cut of pork, with many thin layered muscles interspersed with fat. It needs a blast of heat to get the crackling started (check out our epic recipe for the best pork crackling here), then long slow cooking if it’s a large piece, as it has a lot of fat to render and connective tissue to break down, but will create the most tender meat. Cured and sliced thin, it becomes streaky bacon, or pancetta in Italy.
A whole leg can be cured to make a ham, or cut into roasting joints such as the top round or gammon, or cut into steaks for escalopes. It’s made up of hard-working muscles, so cuts are best roasted slowly or gently braised.
Cut from the rump, these have a thick layer of fat around the outside but are made up of more muscles and have more internal fat than loin chops. Great pan-fried, grilled or roasted.
This is the lower shank of the leg. It is another hard-working muscle that is best simmered in soups and stews to tenderise and give amazing stock, or slow-roasted to render and crisp its high ratio of fat and skin.
It’s made up of many different muscles and has lots of fat and connective tissue, so a low and slow roast or braise is best here, and is most classically used for pulled pork, pork mince and sausages.
Arguably the hardest-working muscle on the animal. It is high in connective tissue but low in fat, so great in a braise – such as a goulash. It is also cured in Italy and known as guanciale. British traditionalists might be familiar with bath chaps where the cheek, sometimes with the tongue, is brined, boiled and rolled in breadcrumbs.
Try our hearty goulash with pig cheeks and pappardelle…
This is the foot of the pig – it has many small bones and lots of gelatin-rich cartilage and connective tissue but very little meat. Often cooked very slowly and then deboned, or boned beforehand (very labour intensive), stuffed and roasted.
Once braised, the meat can then be picked and set in a terrine with some of the braising liquid for brawn.
Not really meat but just a big bit of cartilage. Thinly sliced and deep fried it becomes the crispest crackling.
Which breeds of pig to choose?
Most supermarket pork that you buy is likely to be middle white, large white and large black, which have have been specifically bred for their fairly low ratio of fat to meat and the speed at which the animal grows. There are many traditional breeds that supermarkets and butchers are stocking, such as Gloucester Old Spot, Berkshire and Tamworth, which are prized for their higher fat content and slow, pasture-based outdoor rearing, which makes for a tastier product.
This meat, increasingly popping up on trendy menus, comes from the black Ibérian pig of Portugal and Spain, famed for feeding on the local acorns, adding a nutty depth to the meat and fat. It is most commonly seen it in its cured form as ibérico ham but also as cuts such as ‘pluma’, which is from the bottom end of the loin, or ‘secreto’ which is a thin muscle from the belly. It’s usually served very pink and, in some cases, rare.
Serving pork medium (pink) has become more common in restaurants in recent years due to the higher welfare standards of pigs as well as better refrigeration, which have resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of cases of trichinosis and hepatitis E. However, when cooking at home, government guidelines recommend to cook the pork until it has reached 70 degrees and stayed at that temperature for two minutes.