VOLUME 15 ... BREAKING DOWN THE PORK

 

On February 18, 2007, we officially commenced the Chinese Year of the Pig; according to the Chinese zodiac, those born this year will be intellectually curious, honest, tolerant and loyal.  The pig is truly a wonderful animal and as omnivores, we should revel in its magic.  From an organic - or more precise, sustainable agriculture - standpoint, very few animals can come close to the pig in providing nearly 100% utilization - “everything but the oink” as they say.  From a characteristic standpoint, the pig is extremely intelligent, exhibits advanced social behaviour, and has an anatomy that so closely resembles that of humans that pig organs are the favoured animal for xenotransplants, that is, transplants from animal to human.  And from a taste standpoint, not many meats can compete with the richness in flavour offered by an organically raised cut of pork.  Unfortunately, the news is not all cheery – commercial pork production has reached such a horrific state that it rivals industrial veal production in the award for humans’ most disgraceful exploitation.

 

 

Most consumers don’t know what real pork tastes like, and instead are happy to buy cheap pork and expensive marinades.  “It’s a double whammy for the supermarkets: their pork may be cheap but is so boring that you have to load your trolley with expensive, value-added products (such as sauces and fancy marinades) to compensate,” says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his stellar book The River Cottage Meat Book.  But lets not get ahead of ourselves… we will limit this newsletter to the discussion of pigs as The Healthy Butcher knows them to exist and avoid a lengthy discussion on commercial meat production – perhaps the topic of another newsletter.
 

 

INTRODUCTION

The domestic pig (Sus scrofa) is a member of the Suidae family, which also includes the wild boar and wart hog.  Archaeological evidence from the Middle East indicates domestication of the pig took place as early as 7,000 years ago, with some evidence pointing to an even earlier time period in China, currently the world’s largest pork producer.  Although pork is prohibited in the Jewish and Muslim faiths, pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, providing about 38 percent of daily meat protein intake worldwide.  In Canada, per capita annual pork consumption (29kg) is nearly equivalent to beef (32kg) and chicken (30kg).

Contrary to popular belief, pigs are clean animals.  Granted, they do enjoy the odd roll in the mud… but for good reason – mud is used as a natural sunscreen, to keep cool, and to kill parasites by suffocation.  If given space, pigs will carefully keep their sleeping areas clean, and will designate a spot as far from this area as possible for waste.  Even piglets only a few hours old will leave the nest to relieve themselves.  When free to roam, pigs spend much of their day rooting about in the soil for tidbits.  Their powerful but sensitive snout is a highly developed sense organ.  A pig’s sense of smell is so keen that pigs are trained in France to unearth truffles!

Pigs that produce supermarket pork are not bred for flavour, but bred for lean, consistent meat, fast growth and docile behaviour.  Rare breeds on the other hand take longer to grow, have more fat, produce tastier meat and are far more active.  There are innumerable pig breeds, rare and domesticated, the most common carried at The Healthy Butcher are Berkshire, Large Black, and Tamworth. We will discuss pork breeds in a future newsletter.

STRUCTURE

A pork carcass is generally split into two sides of pork, each consisting of four primal cuts: Shoulder, Loin, Belly, and Ham. Pork, lamb, & beef are nearly identical structurally.  Well, the biggest difference is that a pig really has no neck; further, pigs have fourteen ribs while lamb & beef each have thirteen (and humans have twelve).  But generally, their bones and shapes are the same, and so is general muscles structure.  Yet, despite the similarities in structure, the terminology for cuts is confusing for the average consumer.  For example, the equivalent of a “pork loin chop” in beef is called a T-bone steak. Even within the pig, there is some inherent confusion: A ham is a whole back leg of a pig, but a picnic ham comes from the shoulder.

To help visualize the differences in the basic breakdown of pork, lamb, and beef, compare the primal cuts of beef and lamb, with those of pork, click here.

PREMIUM CUTS

 

Loin Cuts: Loin Roast (bone-in or boneless), Loin Chops (bone-in or boneless), Butterfly Chops (boneless), Tenderloin, Baby Back Ribs, Sirloin Roast, Sirloin Steaks, Peameal Bacon

 

The loin is the most tender and expensive part of the pig. Loin cuts are fairly lean and should be cooked carefully, usually with high heat dry methods, to a temperature of no more than 150°F (65°C), leaving the meat slightly pink and still juicy. The loin is usually divided into three main parts: (1) the rib or blade end, closest to the shoulder; (2) the centre cut; and (3) the sirloin end, closest to the leg. The centre cut portion of the loin is the most expensive portion of the loin. Peameal bacon, also known as Canadian bacon, is made by curing and smoking the loin – it’s a rare occasion for us to smoke our pork loins, but when we do – what a treat! Overall, the pork loin offers excellent cuts of pork that are very difficult to screw up when cooking, but that lenience comes at a price.

ECONOMICAL CUTS

 

Shoulder Cuts: Shoulder Butt (Blade) Roast, Shoulder Chops, Stewing Pork, Picnic Roast

 

The shoulder is one of the most flavourful and economical cuts. It contains the highest level of fat content, making it ideal for long, slow cooking – such as braising a roast for pulled pork or stewing cubes for a very tasty stew. The shoulder has the ideal meat-to-fat ratio for sausages. The butt section, which can be equated to the blade in beef, makes for a great roast that is tender enough for dry roasting and fatty enough for braising. Our Signature Porchetta roasts are butt roasts seasoned with olive oil, red wine, fennel, chili, rosemary, thyme & black pepper, then wrapped in pork skin to produce crackling, a popular Italian delicacy. We always use the picnic roast for slow braising with bone-on for our delicious pulled pork. The picnic roast can be equated to the cross cut in beef; it needs to be trimmed of glands and an excess of fat and gristle, one of the many reasons to know a good butcher!

 

Leg Cuts: Ham Roast (sold fresh or smoked, bone-in or boneless), Cutlets (Schnitzel)

Pork leg, or ham, is the large, plump hind leg of the pig. It is most commonly smoked, so many people believe “ham” refers only to smoked ham – a very common roast at Christmas and an even more common everyday lunchmeat. When shopping for a ham roast at a butcher shop, always specify “fresh ham” or “smoked ham” to avoid any misunderstanding.

The fresh ham makes for a wonderful roast, that can be stuffed, marinated or crusted. At The Healthy Butcher, we refer to two sizes of ham roast: (1) a Football Ham, which is composed of the Inside Round, Outside Round, and Eye of Round muscles all tied together and weighing about 6 lbs; and (2) a Baseball Ham, which is the Sirloin Tip muscle and weighing about 2lbs. The terms “Football” and “Baseball” are not official designations (no kidding), but help our customers easily visualize the sizes of these roasts.

The meat from the ham is very lean and quite flavourful, but not as tender as meat from the loin. Because of the lack of fat content, ham cuts should be cooked with dry-heat methods. Pork leg is perfect to cut into strips for stir-frying. Our favourite use of the pork leg is to cure it by salting, than hanging for a year or so to create supple and divine prosciutto.
 

Belly Cuts: Spareribs, Belly (sold fresh or cured and smoked as bacon)

The belly is the underside of the pig, including the side ribs, from which spareribs are cut. To say that the belly is flavourful is an understatement, but of course the fat content is very high. Bacon is produced by curing and smoking the belly, whereas Salt Pork is cured, but not smoked. One of the most fashionable items on responsible restaurant menus these days is braised pork belly – a divine, melt-in-your-mouth dish.

Pork ribs and the various terms used to describe them are a huge source of confusion, so we’ll dive a little deeper into the descriptions. There are two common types of pork ribs – spareribs, which come from the belly, and back ribs, which come from the loin (discussed above). Refer to the two diagrams to visualize how the rib cage is divided to produce both types of ribs. Spareribs are larger in size, contain more meat and more fat, and are somewhat less tender than back ribs (of course, how the ribs are cooked will ultimately determine their finished tenderness); spareribs are about 30% less expensive than back ribs.

There are couple of options with respect to the trimming of a sparerib. A whole slab of sparerib will have part of the sternum (breast bone) still attached with a strip of meat and rib cartilage along the edge of the slab, plus a flap of meat attached to the bone side of the slab, known as the skirt. Leaving the skirt attached is the more common way of selling spareribs. If the sternum and cartilage are removed and the skirt is left on, the result is referred to as “St. Louis Style” spareribs. If you remove the skirt as well, you’re left with “Kansas City Style” sparerib. We’ve seen these reference names reversed in many cookbooks, so it is best to describe exactly what you want rather than rely on the inconsistent city styles. There are no shortage of theories amongst hardcore smoking enthusiasts as to the best way to trim and smoke your ribs… ultimately, the most fun is to experiment for yourself. One final point on the trimming of ribs: there is a membrane on the bone-side of ribs. Smoke and seasoning will not penetrate the tough membrane, so this membrane should be removed before cooking. Any good butcher shop will sell ribs only with the membrane already removed.

Other Cuts: Head, Jowl, Snout, Ear, Tail, Innards (Heart, Kidney, Liver, Tongue, Casings)

A pig’s head can be boiled and boned to make head cheese. The jowls (pig’s cheeks) are rich in flavour and can be cured like bacon and are used to flavour dishes. Organ meats are used in various ethnic cuisines. And the small intestines are used as sausage casings.

FAT & BONES

Fat & Bone Cuts: Back Fat, Lard, Lardo, Hocks, Feet/Trotters

Fat from pork is often used in cooking and baking to add rich flavour; “Pork fat rules” as Emeril Lagasse says. Back Fat is the layer of hard, subcutaneous fat that surrounds the loin, ham, shoulder and flank – but usually refers only to the layer surrounding the loin on the pig’s back. Back Fat can be rendered for lard by heating and pouring off the liquid every twenty minutes or so, until all the fat has been rendered. It can also be finely diced and included in dishes where you want the fat to retain some shape and texture rather than just melt into liquid. Inserting small garlic-clove size chunks of lard into lean roasts is called larding.

Cooking with lard used to be commonplace before the widespread use of vegetable and olive oils. It was packed into stone crocks to last out the year and as a preservative for sausages. In the old days, if a hog didn’t have a two-inch-thick back fat layer, the farmer was disappointed. The next time you make a pie crust and go heavy on the butter – re-evaluate… pork lard is free of trans-fatty hydrogenation, and contains just 40% saturated fat (vs. 60% for butter), while its level of mono-unsaturated fat (the good stuff) is an admirable 45% (twice that of butter); truthfully, health benefits aside, lard will produce a superior crust to butter. We render lard in-house, next time you’re in pick up a small two-cup container of rare Certified Organic pork lard.

Lardo is cured back fat, also known as “Strutto” in Italy. We started making Lardo about two months ago, and now can’t make enough to keep it in stock. Modelled after the famous Italian Lardo made in Valle D’Aosta, with hints of juniper, it is delicious as an antipasto sliced thin on crusty bread, sprinkled with a little olive or truffle oil. Alternatively, use our Lardo in cooking as a substitute for more expensive pancetta.

Caul fat is the lining from the abdomen that resembles lace; it is used to wrap around roasts, called barding. As the caul fat melts it moistens the meat and also keeps it wrapped into a compact shape. We use caul fat to wrap lean beef roasts, such as eye of round.

Crispy pork skin, crackling, from a roast pig is a delicacy… you can always ask for a piece of pork skin to tie around a roast.

Hocks are the shank, the section between the knee and the foot. They are used to flavour dishes, and can be braised, poached or smoked. It is best to use cured and smoked meats with a fresh vegetable and fresh meat with a cured vegetable. Smoked hocks are great with split peas or fresh cabbage, versus fresh hocks with sauerkraut.

The toes and feet of the front legs of a pig are called trotters. They are tasty pickled or boiled.
 

FEATURED PORK RECIPES

This month we feature two fantastic pork recipes from two of our regular customers:

PORK PIE - A TRIBUTE TO PORK, by Catherine Mah

Catherine's recipe is not for the faint-at-heart. 

But after a three week prep time, including making your own

bacon, pork stock, and crust from rendered lard,

the result is the ultimate tribute to pork.

INCLUDES RECIPE FOR A BASIC SHORTCRUST PASTRY!

 

BAKED BACK RIBS, by Jonathan Fraser

Jonathan's recipe is simple and delicious, and includes

making a barbeque sauce from scratch... forget the bottled junk!

This is ribs the way they were meant to be eaten.

 

 

 

To learn more about cuts of beef, refer to:

"Breaking Down the Beef"

 

To learn more about cuts of lamb, refer to:

"Breaking Down the Lamb"

 

To learn more about various cooking methods and

appropriate cuts for each method, refer to:

"The Healthy Butcher's Cooking Guide"

 

To access past issues of live to eat? Click here.

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