How to Select and Cook Pork is a complete guide to choosing the best cuts of pork for a recipe, as well as the best methods to cook them. Thank you Pork.org for collaborating with me on this post. All opinions are my own.
I get so many questions on how to cook pork, that I partnered with my friends at Pork.org to tell you how to select and cook pork. You might be surprised to see how many different cuts of pork are commercially available. I find knowing where the cuts come from on the animal, and the best way to prepare them to be fascinating. How to select and cook pork is an important skill set to have in the kitchen.
How to Select and Cook Pork:
When selecting pork, remember to look for the brightest, pinkest meat that you can find. Bright pink = fresh. Also avoid purchasing packages with juice running around in the inside, as that pork has released it’s juices and my be tough when cooked.
Let’s start at the back, and work our way forward, shall we?
Cuts of pork from the leg area are more commonly known as ham. Ham shanks, fresh bone-in ham, ham steaks, smoked bone-in ham, ham cutlets, and boneless ham roast are all from the leg area. Hams pack a lot of flavor for an economical price. Thinner cuts like ham cutlets or steaks can be grilled or sauteed in a little fat like butter, olive oil, or bacon drippings. Thicker cuts such as a bone-in ham are best baked or braised in the oven with a little liquid. Ham cuts are great for feeding a crowd.
The National Pork Board recommends cooking ham to an internal temperature of 140 degrees F.
The pork loin contains some of my favorite cuts of pork. Included are country style ribs, baby back ribs, New York, sirloin, porterhouse, and rib eye chops, rack or pork, and rib eye (or center rib) roast. You’ll also find pork loin roast and pork tenderloin. I’m a big fan of the boneless pork loin chops pictured above, as well as this fruit stuffed pork loin roast. And who doesn’t love some really great bbq ribs?
Loin cuts are good sauteed, braised in liquid, roasted, barbecued, or grilled.
To roast pork tenderloins: place them on a rimmed half sheet pan in the oven at 375 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted into the middle of the thickest part registers between 145-160 degrees F. Let the pork tenderloins rest for 3 minutes before slicing. For extra flavor and a fancy presentation, butterfly and stuff roast tenderloins with tasty nibbles before roasting.
To roast boneless pork loin roasts: place them on a half sheet pan or deep roasting pan–fat side up–at 375 degrees F for 18-22 minutes per pound, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the middle of the thickest part registers between 145-160 degrees F. Let it rest for 3 minutes before slicing to serve. Pork loin roasts also cook beautifully in the slow cooker.
The National Pork Board recommends cooking loin cuts to between 145-160 degrees F, depending on the desired level of doneness.
The side holds more of my favorite cuts, including the ribs, belly, and bacon. The side cuts are less lean than others, but they are full of flavor.
Fat = Flavor.
Spare ribs do well roasted and grilled before brushing with sauce. Back ribs are thicker and best braised in a touch of liquid until tender, before adding sauce. Belly cuts may be seared, sauteed, and roasted. Bacon is best sauteed and roasted in the oven.
The National Pork Board recommends cooking back ribs to 190 degrees F, spare ribs to 190 degrees F, and bacon until crisp.
A good slab of saucy, fall off the bone, perfect bbq ribs are always a crowd favorite. Slow roasting spare ribs prior to finishing on a grill for a touch of smokiness is my preferred cooking method.
I also like bacon in savory baking applications, such as my Apple Cheddar Bacon Scones. Trust me! They are divine.
Roast style shoulder cuts are great for when you have time to go low and slow with the cooking method. Cuts such as shoulder roasts and pork blade roasts contain a fair amount of connective tissue that when broken down, makes for the most tender meat. I like a boneless pork shoulder roast in my Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Pork.
Thinner cuts like a blade steak or country style ribs may be grilled, barbecued, braised or sauteed. A good grilled pork steak is always a crowd pleaser.
The National Pork Board Recommends cooking thick shoulder cuts until about 170 degrees F or they are tender and easily pull apart. Pork Steaks should be cooked to 145 degrees F.
Knowing how to select and cook pork is essential for serving delicious, high quality pork. For a complete list of pork cooking times, temperatures, and methods see this link.
How Pork is Raised
Beyond knowing how to select and cook pork, knowing where food comes from is important. Last month, I was able to visit several pork farms here in my great state of Michigan with my friends from the Pork Board. If you recall, I toured a pork farm in Iowa a few years back, where I learned all about ethically raising pigs to feed to world. This time around, we focused on not only the ethical treatment of animals, but also on all of the methods employed by the farmers to ensure that they are good neighbors and good stewards of the land on which they live.
It never ceases to amaze me at how welcoming and open the farmers are in talking about their practices, and showing us how they operate on the farm. You see, farmers are hard working folk. Many farmers are working multi-generational farms in order to support themselves, and their communities. Every farmer that I’ve met is doing their best to be responsible stewards of their land, good neighbors to their community. They implement the latest technologies to care for and raise the safest, highest quality meat that they can, in order to feed as many people as possible. Bio-security is a large part of this goal.
The farms that I saw have state of the art climate control systems to keep the barns at a constant temperature. Living in a consistent temperature means that the pigs are more comfortable because they don’t have to deal with the stress of extreme temperature fluctuations. The barns have extensive hospital grade HEPA filtration systems in the barns to reduce the potential for airborne illness. Less airborne illness equates to healthier pigs. Healthier pigs results in better quality of meat for the consumer.
The air filtration systems go both ways, in that the air leaving the barns is also filtered to reduce the odor wafting toward neighbors. The animal waste is harvested and sprayed back onto the fields on which the crops that feed the pigs a highly specialized, nutritious diet are grown. All of which is done in order to reduce the environmental footprint of the farms while improving the health of the animals.
What About Antibiotics in Pork Production?
Perhaps the most common question to pop into my email box regarding meat is the used of antibiotics. I hear you. I understand. None of us likes the idea of antibiotic resistant bacteria running amok due to over use of antibiotics. Yes, pork producers treat their animals with antibiotics but they do so in the most judicious manner.
When an animal is sick, they receive with antibiotics. The farmers don’t want to see their pigs suffer, just as you wouldn’t want to see a sick child suffer. When an animal is sick, the farmer helps it become healthy again. It’s that simple. The animals are not pumped full of antibiotics forever in order to keep them healthy. Sick animals receive medicine to get well. Think about it. Medicine is expensive. Being sick is stressful. A farmer distributing antibiotics all willy-nilly would cause unnecessary stress on the animals. Medicine is expensive, so it doesn’t make financial sense to use them without cause. They just don’t do it. Antibiotics are prescribed, as needed, by veterinarians. Meticulous records are kept. Every medication and dose is recorded and follows the pig through it’s lifetime.
Here’s a fun fact: Pork may not be sold if even a trace of antibiotics are present in the meat, which is extensively tested. You read that right. The pigs are not be processed until well beyond the time that any antibiotics have metabolized out of their systems. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has a list that no farmer wants to be on. If any traces of antibiotics are found in the meat, that farmer is added to the dreaded list. Once on the list, that farmer’s meat will be thoroughly tested for a period of five years. If during that time the meat pings for antibiotics again, that farmer is banned from selling their meat in the US. That’s just not worth the risk and expense.
Let’s Talk About Hormones.
Ah, yes. The second most asked question regarding meat is the concern over added hormones. Guess what? It’s 100% illegal to inject pigs with hormones in the US. As in, the farmer would be banned from ever selling meat in the US ever again kind of banned. It’s just not done. So when you see a label on pork reading “hormone free,” know that all commercially raised pork in the United States is hormone free. You don’t have to pay a premium for the special label.