Know the difference between pork shoulder and tenderloin? Discover everything you need to know about pork cuts with our easy meat guide.
There aren’t many meats that offer as much as pork. With at least four main primal parts and their respective subprimal portions, you can use almost any part of the hog for cooking, smoking, or grilling. But how do you know which cut of pork to choose?
Each cut boasts different meat-to-fat ratios, and subsequently different tastes, textures, and cooking approaches. Whether you’re buying from your local meat counter or ordering specialty Kurobuta pork, if you get your meat choice wrong and you’re facing an uphill battle in the kitchen.
We’re here to help. From baby back ribs to tenderloin, discover everything you need to know to get the best pork cut for your next meal.
As the name suggests, the pork shoulder cut comes from the hog’s shoulder, covering the area from the back of the head and down to the front trotter. It’s a primal cut of meat and can be broken down into two subprimal cuts: Picnic shoulder and pork butt.
The picnic shoulder cut sits just below the shoulder blade and is sometimes referred to as the picnic ham, arm roast, or picnic roast. There’s no official explanation as to why it’s called the ‘picnic’ ham, although it’s suggested it could be because the cut is better suited to creating thin ham slices, suitable for lunch, rather than thick ham slices. The picnic shoulder contains more sinew and fat than the main pork shoulder, meaning it is a cheaper cut to buy and produces the best taste when slow-cooked.
Pork butt, contrary to what the name suggests, comes from the upper portion of the pork shoulder and not the back end of the pig. It can also be referred to as the Boston Butt, which refers to how this lesser valued cut of pork was once packaged and shipped in barrels, called Butts, and shipped off to New England.
Pork butt has a lot of fat marbling running throughout, which is why it makes the perfect cut to use to make slow-cooked and tender pulled pork.
Pork shoulder and its subprimal cuts are all high in fat and fairly tough as they come from a hard-working group of muscles. Due to its high fat content and tough texture, cuts from the shoulder primal are ideal for low and slow cooking.
The loin primal is where we find the majority of the most familiar day-to-day cuts of pork. Pork loin is formed by the muscles that run along the back of the hog, from the shoulder to the leg, and produces subprimal cuts that can be both on and off the bone. Loin cuts of pork are the most lean and tender cuts of meat on the pig.
To confuse things, pork loin is also a subprimal cut as its primal. And to complicate things even more, it’s often mistaken with the similarly named pork tenderloin.
The pork loin is a cut taken from between the back fat and the ribs and creates a wide rectangular slab of meat. It has a fat cap across the top and can be butchered as a bone-in or boneless cut.
The tenderloin, while similar in name to pork loin, is very different in appearance. Pork tenderloin is a long, thin cut taken from the area along the pig’s spine. It is a boneless cut of pork and has a darker color than that of the loin cut meat.
As it’s a muscle that isn’t used for movement, it is an extremely tender and lean piece of pork that could be compared to the beef filet mignon.
Multiple chop cuts come from the loin primal:
- Blade chop
- Rib chop
- Center-cut chop
- Sirloin chop
All varieties of loin chops are ideal for frying or grilling due to their balanced meat-to-fat ratio.
Loin roasts are characteristically sold as rolled cuts of pork with the skin on (as it makes excellent crackling) and trussed with butcher’s string to hold their shape.
The loin primal is also where we get the sought-after pork rib cuts. There are four cuts of pork ribs, and they are differentiated based on where in the ribs they are cut from and how they have been trimmed.
Baby Back Ribs
Baby Back Ribs are from the highest part of the rib cage that connects directly to the spine. They are called ‘baby’ back ribs as they are smaller than spare ribs. Baby back ribs will range from 3-6 inches long, have a slight bend to them (from where they meet the spine), and are leaner than spare ribs.
Spare ribs come from the side area of the ribcage and go all the way down to the breastbone. They are easy to tell apart from baby back ribs as the cut is much bigger and the bones have a different shape. Spare ribs have one end that tapers to a point, and the opposite end will have visible bone marrow, where it’s been cut away from the baby back ribs.
Spare Ribs (along with St Louis cut and rib tips) as sometimes classed as part of the pork belly instead of the Pork ribs
St Louis Cut Ribs
St Louis cut ribs are essentially just a fancier trimmed-up version of spare ribs. It’s a cut of ribs that you’ll often see being used on the BBQ competition circuit as it offers a much nicer overall presentation (‘the first bite is with the eyes’ after all!)
St Louis ribs are shorter than a rack of full spare ribs but have the cartilage and gristle trimmed off to give a more uniform shape.
Rib tips aren’t exactly a cut in their own right but are more of a byproduct of preparing St Louis cut ribs. Rib tips are the small sections of bone and cartilage that attach the end of the ribs to the breast bone.
They used to be discarded as waste trimmings when preparing the St Louis cut but have started to become popular as a dish in their own right. They would usually come in a section around 8-12” long and 1-3” wide, depending on how they had been butchered and are then cut into chunks to make them easier to eat.
Pork belly (also sometimes referred to as the pork ‘side’) is where we get the fattiest and most flavorsome cuts of pork.
It’s a primal cut of pork and doesn’t divide down into official subprimals but there are several ways to prepare it that produce common pork products such as:
- Pork belly
Pork belly, as a stand-alone cut, doesn’t contain much meat in comparison to the thick fat marbling that runs through it. If cooked correctly though, that fat will render into the meat resulting in a rich taste and a melt-in-the-mouth texture.
The leg is a primal cut of pork from the rear legs of the pig (the front legs being classed as part of the shoulder primal). It’s a very lean cut of pork and traditionally is used to produce meat for curing and smoking such as Iberico ham and Prosciutto.
The hock comes from the part of the pig’s leg below the shank. It is classed as a subprimal cut of both the shoulder and the leg – If the hock comes from the front of the pig, it is called a shoulder hock, and if it comes from the hind legs, it is called a Ham hock. Hock is best suited to very low and slow cooking, usually with added liquid to help break down any collagen or fat and keep the meat moist.
Fatback technically isn’t a cut of meat, as the name suggests, it is a cut of the pig made up entirely of fat!
It is a hard fat found on either side of the spine and is cut off in a slab. Due to its solid texture, it can be ground or chopped and used as an ingredient in foods such as pate, sausages, meatballs and burgers. It can also be rendered into lard and used as a cooking medium or in pastry.