Pork Cuts: The Ultimate Grilling Guide
Barbecue enthusiasts know that pork is delicious and versatile meat. From thin slices of breakfast bacon to event-worthy pulled pork to holiday hams, these cuts are excellent for any type of gathering or meal. There’s also a selection for every kind of cook. Whether you’re a slow-smoke or slap-it-on-the-grill kind of cook, there’s a piece of pork in it for you.
But which kind of cut should you choose? There are many types available at grocery stores and bonafide butcher shops, all of varying qualities and sizes. And depending on which you pick, there’s a method of grilling or cooking that garners the best result. Our ultimate guide will take you through the different cuts of pork and their uses, where they come from on the pig and the recommended method of cooking.
Pork Shoulder or Pork Butt
Despite the conflicting names, pork shoulder and pork butt both come from the same area of the pig. However, the former more accurately describes where, as both are cuts of pork from the shoulder area. The term butt comes from the barrels — called butts — in which colonial New England settlers used to store shoulder meat from pigs.
The butt is also known as the Boston shoulder, sitting right around the blade area. It typically comes in five to 10-pound portions as a boneless roast. Pork butt is slightly tough but has a high-fat content and incredible flavor. The pork shoulder is the best kind of cut for pulled pork recipes, and it’s the easiest leg section to divide into pieces or shred.
Because it’s on the tougher side, the best way to cook a pork butt is by smoking, roasting or braising. The ultimate goal is to cook it low and slow to keep all the juices in, leaving the roast tender and moist.
Picnic Ham or Picnic Shoulder
Another potentially confusing double name, picnic ham and picnic shoulder are interchangeable, as they also both refer to the same cut of meat. However, picnic shoulder and pork shoulder are two different terms. This picnic cut comes from the thinner, tougher area below the shoulder, leading into the front leg. It has more of a triangular shape and includes the area surrounding most of the leg bone.
Despite the name including the word ham, the picnic shoulder isn’t like your traditional ham — which comes from the rear leg of the pig. Instead, it’s smaller, tougher and fattier, and butchers often leave the bone in. Leaving the bone in can potentially help with slowing the cooking process and providing richer flavor.
Similar to the pork butt, the picnic ham benefits from the low and slow cooking method, as it’s even tougher than the upper part of the shoulder. Braising or smoking will help tenderize the meat and render the fat. Additionally, the picnic ham has a substantial fat cap — perfect for cracklings.
Front and Rear Hocks
You may be wondering what part of the pig ham hock occupies. Every pig has four ham hocks, also called pork knuckles. These cuts are located in the leg joint area, between the metatarsals that make up the pig’s foot and the tibia and fibula bones.
Most hocks come pre-brined and smoked if you purchase them in a store. They’re excellent for serving with beans and collard greens, but if you’re working with the brined pork, be sure to give it ample time to soak in water before cooking. If you manage to get your hands on a raw hock, it’s best to braise it.
Everyone has their preference when it comes to ribs. From the cut of pork to whether a sauce or dry rub is supreme, there are plenty of opinions on the best kind of ribs. The pig alone has three cuts of rib, and the country-style section is the meatiest of them all.
The country-style cut is connected to the spare rib section and sits closest to the front leg of the pig. While spare and baby back ribs have comparable meat qualities, this cut is much different, coming directly off of the picnic ham. This means they’re tougher and fatty, as well as larger in size. If pork cuts had a brisket section, it would be equivalent to country-style ribs.
The best way to cook these bone-in behemoths is with low heat for a longer period, as they have the highest meat-to-bone ratio of the three rib varieties. They’re an excellent choice for smoked rib recipes.
Even if you aren’t that into barbecue, chances are you’re still a fan of pork belly. It’s often the star of breakfast dishes and lends its flavor to many different recipes. Pork belly that has been cured, smoked and cut into thin slices makes the bacon you know and love. You can cube and cook it with beans or leafy greens to give them a delicious, meaty taste. At the very least, it’s a versatile cut.
It’s probably no surprise to you where pork belly comes from — the belly of the pig. It runs along the underside of the body, about as high as the ends of the ribs. The cut is extremely fatty and tender, making it excellent for curing and thin slicing.
When it comes to cooking pork belly, there are two options that stand out. For one, you can cure and smoke it to make homemade bacon or pancetta. Or, if you enjoy it in bigger slices, you can braise larger pieces.
While they are the least meaty variety of the three cuts of pork ribs, spare ribs are not to be overlooked. You’ll find them in two standard shapes — the regular style, which hasn’t been excessively trimmed, and the St. Louis cut. When spare ribs are St. Louis style, the butcher has trimmed off the cartilage and rip tips and removed the sternum bone. It makes the rack look almost perfectly rectangular and even, meaning a higher chance of an even cook on a grill.
Spare ribs come from the rib area closest to the belly and include some of the belly meat. While they are comparable to the baby back cut of ribs in terms of flavor and quality, they hold less meat, which affects cook time and portion size.
You can use one of three methods for the best spare ribs possible. Smoking will ensure they get a nice slow and even cook, as well as a smokey flavor that some look for in their ribs. Braising and low-temperature grilling also allow for the same slow heat, but give the meat a more classic taste. You can place the rack of spare ribs directly on the grill’s surface or wrap it in tin foil and finish them off by unwrapping and increasing the temperature.
Who doesn’t love a good pork chop? Thick or thin cut, with or without the bone, this cut makes a full meal. You can enjoy them on their own or serve them with butter beans, collard greens or any other vegetable you’re into. The best part is you don’t have to be an experienced pitmaster to cook these well, as long as you know where your cuts came from.
Pork chops come from the area perpendicular to the pig’s spine, from the shoulder to the loin. The cut most often comes from closer to the loin, however, as the meat is slightly less tough, making it more versatile and easier to cook.
If you purchase shoulder chops, you may need to choose a slower cooking method to ensure they turn out tender and that you render all the fat. Otherwise, you can slap your pork chops on the grill at a high temperature and fry them. If you’d prefer the quick grilling method, make sure you get loin chops.
If you want pork that’s guaranteed to be lean and tender and that comes in multiple cuts, look no further than the pork loin. It’s a large cut of meat that you can cook as a whole roast or purchase in individual sections.
The full loin cut stretches horizontally from behind the shoulder to the front of the hind leg and vertically from near the spine to about halfway down the side of the pig. Since there are many ways to butcher a pork loin, there are also many ways you can cook it.
You can divide the pork loin into several sections, including:
- Tenderloin: As its name would suggest, the tenderloin is the tenderest part of the pig. It’s also sometimes called the pork tender or pork fillet. It’s an extremely popular cut due to its high quality, but it’s also the most expensive piece of pork you can buy. The tenderloin comes in a long strip shape, cut from the center portion of the loin. It doesn’t connect with any bones, making prep easy, and they’re also relatively easy to cook. However, it’s also very easy to overcook, so carefully monitored grilling or roasting is your best bet.
- Sirloin: The sirloin cut is essentially the steak of pork. You typically can’t purchase it whole — it’s pretty large and oddly shaped, and you’d have to do some serious butchering at home to cook it — but you can buy thick or thin chop cuts. They have a more uneven, oblong shape than traditional pork chops, but they make up for their appearance in flavor.
- Blade loin: The blade loin comes from the area closest to the shoulder, making it the fattier end of the cut. It’s a large section, but typically the least expensive part of the loin due to its location and slightly less tender quality. Most butchers and grocers sell it cut into blade chops, making it the most marbled variety of pork chop available.
Since the pork loin is very lean meat, it has the highest risk of drying out if you overcook it. Because there isn’t much fat to render, you can fry or grill sections of the loin over dry heat with ease, whereas the fattier, tougher cuts need the low and slow treatment.
You can also braise the meat, but be sure to cover or wrap it before grilling, as this will help keep it juicy and tender. If you’re shopping at a grocery store, you might find the loin tied up as a roast, in which case roasting is your best option.
Baby Back Ribs
These cuts occupy the middle space on the pork rib spectrum. They typically have more meat on them than spare ribs, but can’t compare to the size of the country-style variety. However, baby back ribs are the favorite for competitive grilling events, as they’re meaty, tender and leave a good amount of surface area for sauces and rubs. Many would agree they’re the best pork cut for BBQ ribs.
The reason they’re of a higher quality than the spare rib cuts is because they come from the loin meat rather than the belly area. Their name basically describes the cut size and location — baby, as they’re the shortest form of pork rib, and back, because they come from higher on the back area of the pig.
As with most rib cuts, they’re a classic grill cut, perfect for glazing and grilling over a flame or cooking them slowly by smoking. Preparation depends mostly on whether you like saucy ribs or prefer a well-blended dry rub. If you’re a fan of the former, you can get to grilling faster, but for rubs, you’ll want to apply the seasonings and give the meat time to absorb the flavor with a few hours in the refrigerator.
If you enjoy celebrating the holidays with a delicious ham, then what you’re eating is the rear leg of the pig. It’s good for any kind of meal, from thin, pan-fried slices at breakfast to ham sandwiches for lunch to a filling, delicious main course for dinner. Most hams come cured, smoked or processed and ready to cook, but if you go to a butcher, you may be able to get a whole, fresh ham, free of any pre-treatments.
Either way, hams are excellent for roasting. It’s a large, thick cut — if you’ve seen a ham, you know — so unless you have it butchered down further, roasting and smoking are the best ways to achieve any kind of even cook. Score the outside skin, rub or baste it with your choice of seasonings or wet ingredients, such as garlic, cloves and honey, and let it roast for a few hours.
The cuts listed above are relatively easy to find in retail shops, but exotic cuts are typically only available at legitimate butcher shops. These parts of a pig are less versatile and arguably less meaty, but for experienced grillmasters and pork aficionados, they’re tasty treats or flavorful additions to a meal:
If you think the term trotters sounds suspiciously like feet, that’s because they are. Pig’s feet are mostly all cartilage and no meat, which doesn’t pair particularly well with grilling culture. However, they aren’t completely worthless. Trotters are excellent for adding flavor to stocks, providing a porky alternative to veal bones. You can use them to pump up the taste of your sauces and soups.
But that’s not all. Butchers typically don’t sell fresh pig’s feet, but many keep them on the shelves, jarred and pickled. In the southern states, they’re praised as a tasty snack straight out of the jar, but many people claim they’re a bit of an acquired taste.
Pig’s tails are somewhat of a secret cut, delicious to any meat fanatic willing to branch out of the regular retail sections of pork. They don’t have much meat on them, but chewing on the cartilage and skin is still a treat. They cook similar to ribs, and you can eat them in the same way.
To get the best pigtail tasting experience, grill them the same way you’d prepare your favorite pork ribs — it’s best to keep them covered in tin foil for the majority of the time, then finish them off without the foil to create a nice, crispy skin.
Even if you love pork, you might be hesitant to venture into snout territory. But don’t pass them off too soon. For those who are fans of St. Louis style BBQ, you may have tasted or seen them before — vendors will crisp them and sell them as a snack, also often called “snoots.” If you can find fresh-cut snouts, you can try cooking them on your own.
Otherwise, since they don’t have much meat value, they work well for flavoring soups. As with trotters, you may also find them pickled in jars at your local butcher.
If you want to try making some of the best soul food dishes out there, you need to know how to smoke pork jowl. Cured and smoked jowls are a staple of soul food and a frequently used ingredient in Italian guanciale. The meat comes from the cheek and underside of the pig’s face, where the jaw and neck meet. It has a similar quality to the pork belly cut, but comes with the rind and skin, which bacon meat often does not.
Cured and smoked jowls make excellent bacon and add that meaty, porky flavor to any side or main dish, from greens to beans. It’s a versatile cut and is easy to fry in a pan, grill or slowly smoke.
A majority of this cut is cartilage, but that doesn’t stop dedicated cooks from using it. The ears are popular for boiling in stocks, pickling in jars and roasting or grilling. They’re more common in international recipes and dishes, but stateside pork fans may also use them in similar ways. As a bonus, cured and smoked pig ears are also an excellent natural dog treat.
Half or Whole Head
If you’re really gung-ho about pork, you can also snag half-cut or entire pig heads from some butcher shops. If you get a whole one, it includes both ears, the snout, jowls and the rest of the face meat and skin, as well as the skull bones. Since there’s so much to carve off, it’s a versatile option that allows you to use it in soups, stocks, slices and more. The face meat is perfect for curing and making sausage or salamis.
If you want to get fancy with it, you can attempt the lengthy, multi-day process of creating a Porchetta di Testa, a delicious roast using all the meat on a full head, resulting in the perfect charcuterie. Or, you can carve it up and smoke or fry pieces for various uses.
Cook Your Pork to Perfection With Grilla Grills
Whatever your preferred pork cut, Grilla Grills is here to help you get that perfect, even cook every time. With our top-quality pellet grills and smokers, you can take on any kind of recipe, from slow-smoking pulled pork for a weekend BBQ party to frying up pork chops for a weeknight dinner. Once you’ve finished your meat masterpiece, you’ll be able to clean out our grills easily, prepping them for your next backyard cooking experience.