Do you know the difference between loin back ribs and country style ribs? What about loin chops, sirloin chops, and top loin chops?
If you answered "no" to either question, then you'll find the pork cuts chart and information below particularly helpful in deciding what cuts of pork are best based on your needs, budget, and how well you know your way around a BBQ grill.
All pork sold in supermarkets is either USDA inspected or inspected by state systems that follow standards set by the federal government.
However, pork is not graded in the same way beef is graded. And while the pork cuts chart below doesn't show it, USDA grades for pork reflect only two levels: "Acceptable" grade and "Utility" grade.
Acceptable grade pork is the only fresh pork sold in supermarkets. Pork graded as Utility is mostly used in processed products and is not available for consumer purchase.
Now that we understand the grading, we'll discuss the best cuts of pork for grilling or BBQ.
Let's start near the front of the hog, where the butt is located. ...Huh??
"Shoulder butt"?? My girls laughed the first time I put that on our grocery list. And while it is odd-sounding, it's not what you might be thinking.
In the pork cuts chart below, notice the shoulder area just beneath the "Clear Plate" portion of the hog.
That is the upper portion of the shoulder. Depending on where you're from, this cut is known by several names, including: shoulder butt, pork butt, Boston Butt, Boston blade roast, Boston style shoulder, bone-in-blade roast, boneless blade roast, blade end shoulder, and blade end butt.
As you can see, it has nothing to do with the posterior of the hog, which is called the leg or ham.
The shoulder butt is a well-marbled cut, "marbling" being a food industry term for fat. Fat is good. Fat adds moisture and flavor. This makes the shoulder butt the cut of choice for your classic pulled-pork barbecue.
Also, the shoulder butt is located "high on the hog", a term originally referring to the upper portion of the hog where you find your more expensive cuts. So when folk say "you're livin' high on the hog", that means you're living well!
Therefore, the shoulder butt costs more than the picnic shoulder, which we'll discuss next.
The picnic cut is the lower portion of the shoulder, closer to the foot. And while the butt can be bone-in or boneless, the picnic is most always bone-in with the skin left on.
The picnic shoulder has more bone and is a little tougher. However, that is solved by "low and slow" cooking.
Regarding taste, some say the picnic has a slightly different flavor than the butt -- that it's more like ham. Others prefer the picnic because it has a larger bone and meat closest to the bone is said to be more flavorful or "sweet".
Your personal tastes and preferences will determine which you like best.
If you're ready to move beyond grilling and start barbecuing, I highly recommend barbecuing/smoking a few picnic shoulders before trying things like spare ribs or beef brisket, which are most unforgiving if not cooked just right.
Picnic shoulder is a good, inexpensive cut to practice with because it's not easily ruined. You will still enjoy eating it even if you don't get it just right.
As shown by the pork cuts chart, the loin runs from the hog's shoulder to hip. Above it is the back fat or "fatback", which can be used for salt pork, making lard, or added to ground pork or sausage.
From the loin we get the leanest and most tender cuts. It is sold as roasts and chops, both with and without the bone.
Boneless: The boneless pork loin roast comes from between the rib end and the sirloin end of the loin and is typically sold in 2 to 4 pound pieces. It is sometimes sold as a double boneless loin roast which is two boneless loin roasts tied together with the fat sides facing outward.
Pork loin roast is not the same as pork tenderloin which is a long but smaller cut that usually weighs about a pound.
There are three sections to a pork loin:
From these sections we get three major categories of pork chops: 1) blade chops, 2) loin chops, and 3) sirloin chops, which we will consider in more detail.
As you can see from the picture of the whole pork loin below, depending on their location on the loin, pork chops can get quite specific within the three major categories mentioned above.
But one of the great things about pork chops is that they all cook the same. The only exception would be if you had a chop that was really thick or stuffed.
Other than that, all pork chops can be braised, grilled, broiled, or pan-fried.
And since they are so easy to prepare, pork chops are probably the least intimidating cuts of pork if you're new to outdoor grilling.
However, it is important to keep this one thing in mind: As with any lean cut of meat you must be careful not to over-cook pork chops. Leaner cuts should not be cooked past medium (145°F).
Here's a quick run-down of things you'll likely find most helpful when selecting chops:
Blade Chops: Cut from the beginning of the loin in the shoulder, they are usually thicker, more marbled, and a bit tougher than other chops. They can also withstand longer, slower cooking methods like braising.
Rib Chops: Rib chops are located next to the blade chops at the rib end of the loin. They include some back and rib bone.
Sirloin Chops: The sirloin chop is off the sirloin end of the pork loin. It has a little more bone than center cut chops but are of similar quality. Cook them as you would a loin chop.
Loin Chops: (a.k.a. pork loin end chop, pork center loin chop). These chops are sometimes sorted into loin and center loin, depending on how much tenderloin is attached.
Loin chops have a T-shaped bone that's off to one side, like a pork T-bone. It has a New York cut on top and the fillet or tenderloin on the bottom. I have to admit, I always flour and pan fry these rascals.
Ribs... They were my inspiration for this web site and are the favorites of just about everyone I know.
Although spare ribs are my preference, we're starting high on the hog first -- with baby back ribs.
Baby back ribs are taken from the top of the pig's rib cage where the loin section is located. This is why they're sometimes called loin ribs or back ribs. Being from the loin, baby backs are smaller, less fatty and more tender than spare ribs.
Now we're talkin'! Spare ribs are bigger, meatier, fatter, and thus more flavorful than baby backs. Taken from the belly section of the hog, they're also more tough and, therefore, take longer to cook. But, man, is it worth it!
Spare ribs are not only my personal favorite, but are one of the weapons of choice for pit masters at the competition level.
You ain't done nothin' in terms of BBQ until you can make great spare ribs. Mere mortals need not apply.
St. Louis style ribs or St. Louis cut (SLC) are spare ribs with the brisket bone (rib tips) and flap meat removed. Some cooks prefer their ribs trimmed this way because of appearance, allowing you to serve more even portions. More importantly, it helps the ribs cook more evenly.
For these reasons, I always trim my ribs St. Louis style. See the picture below of my spare ribs, bone-side up.
Trimmed St. Louis Style
But you don't throw away those trimmings! You put them on the pit along with the ribs. Once they're done they make great "tasters" for the cook!
Because my smoked ribs are so popular, I never cook less than four slabs at a time, which leaves plenty of trimmings to share with the family.
We eat them as appetizers while we wait for the ribs to get done. We don't even use any BBQ sauce.
Rib tips are meaty but small rib pieces cut from the spare ribs when you're trimming your slab St. Louis style.
When I trim my ribs I always save the rib tips for myself. I do enjoy the fat and nawing on the gristle!!
Also known as pork country ribs, country spareribs, and country style ribs, these ribs are not really ribs at all. Although you can't see it in the pork cuts chart, they're cut from the blade end of the loin, next to the shoulder. However, they contain few, if any ribs.
As mentioned earlier, meat next to shoulder is more fatty. So these ribs have a high fat content which keeps the moist and tender with lots of flavor. They're great on the grill using the low and slow, indirect heat method.
I always find Danish ribs frozen and sold by the case with the label usually indicating they're from Denmark. They're smaller than baby back ribs with even less meat. It's reported by some that they sometimes have a fishy smell/taste.
The price is always very cheap, which certainly appears to be on par with the quality. I've had Danish ribs twice and they weren't very good. Granted, I definitely could've done a better job cooking them than the person who served them. But I can never bring myself to buy a box. You get what you pay for.
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