What are the Basic Cuts of Pork?
Expert Advice

Image: Deposit Photos, AndrySt

Are you hosting a backyard barbecue party and planning for pork to be the centerpiece of the feast? Well, pork is one of the fundamental proteins in the BBQ world. Do you know the difference between baby back ribs and St. Louis-style ribs, or which cut typically produces pulled pork? And did you know that pork “butt” is actually found in a pig’s shoulder?

Thankfully, our friends at BBQGuys are here to navigate us through the basic cuts of pork and where they come from. Let’s go ahead and dive into the whole hog!

The 6 Primal Cuts of Pork

Since pork is a popular part of our diet. We should have a better understanding of what we’re eating. “Primal Cut” refers to the first piece of meat that is separated from the pig during the butchering process. The next cuts are called “Sub-Primal Cuts”. It’s important to understand the relationship between primal and subprimal cuts because the location of the meat will tell you a lot about its qualities and how best to prepare it.

There’s some debate over how many primal pork cuts exist; every butcher will tell you there are at least four, but some would argue that a pig has as many as six primal cuts.

cuts of pork

Much like with the different cuts of beef, pork primal cuts that contain work-intensive muscles usually require slow-cooking to compensate for the abundance of connective tissue.

Pork Shoulder

This area mostly features working muscles that require low-and-slow cooking methods like smoking, roasting, braising, or stewing to take advantage of their succulent flavor. Pork shoulder cuts owe much of their flavor to the well-marbled intramuscular fat, which also makes this primal a great source of ground pork and sausage. 

  • Location: Neck, shoulder blade, and upper portion of the front legs.
  • Sub-primal Cuts: Boston Butt and Picnic Shoulder.
  • Popular Cuts: Picnic shoulder, Boston butt, pork blade steaks, boneless blade-end roast, rolled Coppa, and hocks.

Pork Loin

The loin is the leanest and tenderest part of the hog. Since the meat is remarkably tender, you can use dry heat techniques like grilling, baking or sauteing. For ribs, slow cooking is recommended.  Smoke chops to get that distinctive barbecue flavor.

  • Location: whole backside of the pig.
  • Sub-primal Cuts: Fat Back, Loin Center, Loin Rib End, and Sirloin
  • Popular Cuts: Pork tenderloin, tenderloin roast, fatback, baby back ribs, rack sirloin, pork chops, pork cutlets, rib chops, sirloin roast, crown roast, pork loin roast, and country-style ribs.

Pork Belly

The belly cut offers a great selection of very tender meat and is rich and fatty. There are some great cuts to choose from, especially if you’re planning to host a large crowd. This primal section does not have subprimal cuts. The most popular retail cuts are bacon and spareribs. Most people tend to pan-fry bacon and pork belly. Ribs are best cooked low-and-slow or smoked.

  • Location: stomach of the pig.
  • Popular Cuts: Pork belly, St. Louis-style ribs, spareribs, pancetta, and bacon.

Pork Leg

Like the shoulder cut, the work-heavy leg primal is full of connective tissue that makes for tough meat unless it’s smoked or braised. This cut is popular especially around the holidays. The main leg product is ham of all kinds — country-style, spiral sliced bone-in, etc. — which is cured and then smoked to complement the pork’s natural flavor.

  • Location: hindquarters of the pig, back leg up to the hip.
  • Sub-primal Cuts: Leg Butt, Leg Shank, and Hock
  • Popular Cuts: Ham, hocks, pork leg steaks, whole pork leg shanks, ham steaks, pork cutlets, shank ham, rump ham, and prosciutto.

Pork Head

Pork is a resourceful meat in the sense that we can use about every piece butchered, including the head cut which is extremely tender and flavorful. This pork cut is used to make stocks, soups, or brawn aka headcheese.  Pork jowl is a special cut taken from the pig’s cheek and made into a fresh cut or cured meat known as jowl bacon.

  • Location: pig’s entire head
  • Sub-primal Cuts: Jowl
  • Popular Cuts: Pork jowl, collar, cheeks, snout, ears, guanciale, sausage

Pork Feet

Pork feet also known as “trotters” are filled with a huge amount of collagen, which melts into flavorful gelatin when slow-cooked. They are usually cooked down in stocks, soups, and stews to add thickness and meaty flavor. They can also be served on their own as pickled pig’s feet; the back feet attached to the leg are better for pickling because they’re larger than the front set. This primal cut section does not have subprimal cuts.

  • Location: Front and back feet
  • Popular Cuts: Pickled pig’s feet

So now that you know your pork leg primal cut from a belly cut and you’re armed with knowledge about the basic cuts of pork, browsing through the meat department will be a breeze. Of course, you can always ask your friendly grocery store butcher if you have any remaining questions or would just like their opinion.