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A Guide to Every Cut of Pork Worth Eating

Everything you ever wanted to know about pork, but were afraid to ask.

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Henry Phillips

At the Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg, past the registers, past the display of cast iron, past the $850 Big Green Egg and a display case full of local meats and premium cheeses, is half of a 300-pound pig stretched out on a cold metal table. Light streams in from a skylight in the high ceiling as butcher Scott Johnson cuts him into smaller and smaller — and then recognizable — cuts of meat. “People associate this with giant blades, but it’s mostly done with the tip of a very sharp knife,” he says as he pushes the spinal cord out with an index finger.

The Brooklyn Kitchen opened in 2006 when Taylor Erkkinen and Harry Rosenblum wanted to sell the kind of well-made cookware they searched for but couldn’t find in their own neighborhood. Their vision then expanded to meat, cheese, canning, grilling and, after an expansion added more space, classes. The most involved of these classes is full-animal utilization, a term which first entered the foodie zeitgeist after Fergus Henderson elevated the millenia-old practice to make it modern, and trendy. And now, over a decade later, it checks all the right boxes to make it popular, even within the confines of an urban setting; Brooklynites can get food that’s local, that they can cook themselves and that forgoes animal waste.

The gist of full-animal utilization is that, as the name implies, more or less every part of the animal is used. If it’s good-looking meat and fat, it’s used for commercial cuts. If it’s a bit uglier, it gets ground in to sausage. Bone is used for broth. The tail, for dog treats. The only parts of the pig not used are the spinal cord and glands, which “make the pig stock cloudy,” Johnson says as he tosses the white cord into a mostly empty waste bin.

The classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen range from crafting cocktails to learning knife skills to bread making, but today all eyes are on the pig. Since late February, the kitchen has been initiating locals on a kind of backwards engineering of protein. You’ve seen it all before in a restaurant, but given the whole pig, where exactly does the bacon or the country ham come from? Below, find a crash course in everything you wanted to know about pork but were afraid to ask.

Below, we’ve also highlighted some of our favorite pork recipes from across the web. Though several call for specific cuts of pork, we hope you approach them as starting points — mixing and matching different cuts to your tastes, expertise and culinary curiosity. No recipe must be followed to a tee. Collectively, cooking is, and will always be, one long experiment in the pursuit of flavor.

Ham

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That juicy ham that sat on the table last Thanksgiving is actually the rear leg, from knee to hip. At the Brooklyn Kitchen, the “house ham” is made by carefully cutting free the skin (and fat) that wraps around the leg and, once a few smaller cuts are removed to shape the ham (which will go into sausage), the skin is rewrapped and tied taut with a slipknot. (The leg from the knee down — the hock — is then used to make broth.)

Cooking: Smoke it slow and low for the juiciest ham.
Alt. Recipe:Savannah-Country Ham” (Saveur)

Pork Skirt

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The pork skirt, also known as the secreto (or secret cut), is a bit of mystery. Roughly speaking it sits between the stomach fat and the ribs. An easy-to-miss, thin layer of meat, it’s extremely tender because it’s not a heavily worked muscle.

Cooking: Cook it hard and fast so as not to dry it out, and serve it medium rare or rare to maintain the juiciness.
Alt. Recipe:Pork Bulgogi” (Two Red Bowls)

Tenderloin

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“On the cow, this is the fillet. It sits on the short loin, near the hip bone,” Johnson says as he gently frees the cut from near the backbone. The tenderness is a result of the tenderloin being an “unworked” muscle — it sits in the shoulder and rarely comes into play in the day-to-day activity of a pig.

Cooking: “It’s the most tender piece, great for fast cooking or ponding it out and frying it for milanese.”
Alt. Recipe:Pork Tenderloin With Shallots and Prunes” (The New York Times)

Coppa

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Without a doubt, this is Johnson’s favorite. “If it’s a BBQ, I’m bringing the coppa. Prepare it in medallions and rub it down, pulled-pork style.” For this cut, he counts five ribs down from the shoulder, before the pork loin and pork skirt begin. “It’s a contradiction of a loin muscle — the fat content is high (about seventy-thirty muscle to fat) but it’s a working muscle. A paradox.”

“If people are intimidated about cooking pork or say they don’t like pork, you can change their mind with this. Twenty years ago it was something you only saw in restaurants, but now more people know about it.” The rest of the shoulder is used for sausage.

Cooking: Braise it whole to get the most tender pulled pork.
Alt. Recipe:Smoked Pork Shoulder with Molasses Barbecue Sauce” (Brooklyn Supper)

Pork Chop

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On a cow, this cut is the ribeye. The pork chop is and has always been the king cut when it comes to pork. It’s leaner than the coppa, but extremely similar. This is the same cut that’s served as a “tomahawk” at fancy restaurants — the extra bone making the exaggerated part of the tomahawk is actually part of the baby back ribs. (Which, if you’re keeping track at home, should be boiled and sauced. Those in NYC should head to Blue Smoke.)

Cooking: Sear it on a hot skillet to brown, then finish in the oven.
Alt. Recipe:Habanero-Marinated Pork Chops” (Bon Appétit)

Sirloin

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Last, when moving from head to tail, comes the sirloin. If you follow the vertebrae down to the last floating vertebrae, where it stops being a backbone and starts being a tail, above this is the sirloin. “Think of it as the tip top of the hip.” They can be cut like pork chops but tend to be less attractive when plated. They’re still tender, though, and benefit from the flavor of the leg muscle.

Cooking: Blast some heat on it in the oven, then reduce heat and baste to preserve juiciness.
Alt. Recipe:Hong Shao Pork” (Manger)

The Knives You Need

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Rosewood Paring Knife 3.25 Inch by Victorinox $20
Straight Boning Knife 5 Inch by Victorinox $43
6-Inch Vintage Cleaver by ARCO Auction
Rosewood Chef Knife 8 Inch by Victorinox $60
Honing Steel 12 Inch by Victorinox $45
Meat Hook 5.5″ Flat Grip by UltraSource $17
Sharpening Stone 400 and 1000 Grit by Messermeister $28
Scabbard, Double Pouch, Aluminum by Victorinox $39

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