What Are the Different Cuts of Pork?
Pork is one of the foundational proteins in the BBQ world, from its influence in the Carolinas to the delicious strips of bacon we squeeze into every dish that’ll take them. Virtually every piece of pork can be cooked in some fashion, with lung being the lone exception. But how well do you know the different cuts of pork? You’ll be a better shopper, cook, and consumer if you understand distinctions like the difference between baby back ribs and St. Louis-style ribs, or which cut typically produces pulled pork. And if you have a passion for trivia, you’ll be delighted to discover that pork “butt” is actually found in a pig’s shoulder. (Anatomy enthusiasts beware!)
We’ve assembled this guide to pork cuts to help you grasp some of the more confusing terminology — what’s next, pork belly being located in the feet? — and be better prepared when planning the next boar-becue. We’ll start with the primal cuts of pork, then explore the popular subprimals and commonly merchandised cuts within each section. Along the way, we’ll give recommendations for cooking styles depending on the cut in question. You could say we’re taking a whole-hog approach to the topic!
The Primal Cuts of Pork
Once a pig is ready for harvest, it’s divided into the primal cuts from which individual pieces like chops and ribs are taken. There’s a bit of a debate over how many primal pork cuts exist; every butcher will tell you there are at least 4, but some would argue that a pig has as many as 6 primal cuts. For the sake of comprehensiveness, we’ve included each of the possible 6 below:
The debate rests with whether the head and feet should be included with the other, universally accepted primals. Many in the meat industry lump in pieces of the head with the shoulder primal, and assign the feet to their respective shoulder and leg cuts. We don’t feel too strongly one way or the other, but we’ll treat the pair like individual primals strictly to give you as much information about their cuts as we can. Much like with the different cuts of beef, pork primals that contain work-intensive muscles usually require slow-cooking to compensate for the abundance of connective tissue.
Butchers typically start here, making a cut between the 5th and 6th ribs to isolate the pig’s neck, shoulder blade, and upper arm (front leg) from the rest of the carcass. 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 sausage.
The major subprimals here are the picnic shoulder and pork butt, the latter of which is the thicker, front end of the shoulder generally used to make BBQ pulled pork. You might find individual cuts from the shoulder merchandised as picnic shoulder, Boston butt, pork blade steaks, boneless blade-end roast, and coppa or capicola. Head and feet pieces may also be included, depending on your butcher.
Essentially the back of a pig, the pork loin is fairly fatty and remarkably tender because its muscles do minimal work. Leaner cuts like pork chops and pork cutlet turn out great on the grill, while thick ribs, roasts, and tenderloins appreciate slower cooking methods like smoking or braising. Pork loin is the highest-yielding pork primal, with the following cuts calling it home: pork tenderloin, pork tenderloin roast, fatback, baby back ribs, rack sirloin, country-style ribs, bone-in pork chops, rib chops (aka boneless pork chops), pork cutlets, sirloin roast, crown roast, and pork loin roast. The pork loin primal is also the source of sopressata — lean, ground pork that’s packed into thick intestines and flattened into a salami shape before being cured and aged for 40 days.
Ever wondered how baby back ribs got their name? It’s a reference to how short they are compared with spare ribs, along with their proximity to the backbone. Country-style ribs, meanwhile, are located closest to the shoulder blade and contain more fat than their leaner baby back brethren.
No weird guessing games here; pork belly is simply pig stomach. Unsurprisingly, it’s super fatty and is where most bacon originates. This primal cut is typically broken down into the pork side (which contains pork belly, bacon, and pancetta) and pork spare ribs (which give us large, meaty spare ribs as well as smaller, rectangular-trimmed St. Louis-style ribs). The daring eaters among us will trace pork innards like the liver and tongue back to the belly, as will those who cook with lard. When it comes to cooking methods, it’s common to pan-fry bacon and pork belly while going the traditional low-and-slow route with smoked ribs.
Again, this is a straightforward primal cut of pork that includes the back leg up to the hip, with a cut on the final vertebra separating it from the loin and belly. 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 (commonly done in tandem with greens). 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. This area also produces pork leg steaks, whole pork leg shanks, ham hocks (pig shin), and dry-cured prosciutto.
Despite what you may think, pig head is extremely tender and flavorful. The head produces a surprisingly solid yield: jowl, collar, cheeks, ears, and snout. The meat is often ground up for sausage, while salted jowl and cheek serve as the foundation of guanciale, a cured Italian specialty that’s cooked like bacon. Pig ears and snouts, on the other hand, are typically cooked down in stocks and stews to impart flavor and thicken dishes with their melted collagen. Whether you consider the head part of the shoulder or a stand-alone primal, there’s something for everyone to try.
Last up are the feet, also known as “trotters.” They’re filled with a huge amount of collagen, which melts into flavorful gelatin when slow-cooked. For this reason, pork feet are usually cooked down in stocks, soups, and stews to add thickness and meaty flavor. That being said, they can still 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 sometimes included in the shoulder primal.
There you have it, the primal cuts of pork! We know that’s a lot to keep track of in one sitting, so we gathered all the info into the chart below. Use it as a guide when planning meals, walking the aisles at the grocery store, or deciding how to cook a specific cut of pork.
Pork Primal Cuts at a Glance
|Primal Cut||Location||Meat Qualities||Common Subprimal Cuts||Cooking Styles|
|Pork Shoulder||Neck, shoulder blade, and upper portion of the front legs||High fat content, yet tough because of plentiful connective tissue||Picnic shoulder, Boston butt, pork blade steaks, boneless blade-end roast, rolled coppa, hocks||Low-and-slow methods like smoking, braising, stewing, and roasting|
|Pork Loin||Upper-middle portion; pig back||Fatty and remarkably tender, with some lean cuts||Pork tenderloin, tenderloin roast, fatback, baby back ribs, rack sirloin, pork chops, pork cutlets, rib chops, sirloin roast, crown roast, pork loin roast, country-style ribs, sopressata||Dry-heat grilling for chops; slow-cooking for ribs and roasts|
|Pork Belly||Lower-middle portion; pig stomach||Extremely fatty||Pork belly, St. Louis-style ribs, spare ribs, pancetta, bacon, lard, innards like liver and tongue||Frying or searing for bacon and pork belly; roasting or smoking for spare ribs|
|Pork Leg||The back leg up to the hip||Flavorful with good fat content, but filled with connective tissue||Ham, hocks, pork leg steaks, whole pork leg shanks, prosciutto||Slow-cooking methods like braising, smoking, and roasting|
|Pork Head||The entire head||Extremely tender and flavorful||Pork jowl, collar, cheeks, snout, ears, guanciale, sausage||Smoking and braising for stocks and stews|
|Pork Feet||Front and back feet||Flavorful and filled with collagen||Pickled pig’s feet||Slow-cooked in stews and stocks|
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