Pork has “amazing weeknight staple” written all over it—it’s leaner than steak, cheaper than chicken, and many cuts cook extraordinarily quickly.
So why does pork get less love than other types of meat? One too many run-ins with dry pork chops or tough tenderloin can be all it takes. To maximize pork’s potential, it’s important to understand how to cook it. Different cuts of pork call for different cooking methods, and when you put the right ones together, you’ll end up with mealtime magic every time.
Here’s a comprehensive guide to the pork section of your supermarket
, from the cheap cuts to holiday-worthy hams:
Also labelled as: rib chops, end cut pork chops
Rib chops are sold bone-in and are cut from the shoulder end of the loin. Their high fat content makes them tender, flavourful and less prone to drying out during cooking than tougher blade and centre-cut chops. (They’re the ribeye of the pork world.) Give them attention they deserve by pan-searing them, and basting in a bath of foamy butter to finish. Ta-da! A date-night worthy dinner in under 30 minutes.
Centre-Cut Pork Chops
Also labelled as: boneless pork chops, boneless rib chops
Centre-cut chops are very affordable and ultra-versatile.
Because this cut is boneless with very little connective tissue or fat, it can be prone to drying out. Thicker chops will be more forgiving to cook than their thinner counterparts, so try to select chops that are at least 1-inch thick. Often sold in large packs, they’re perfect for feeding a crowd or keeping the hungry dinner hoards at bay.
Also labelled as: pork loin, tenderloin roast
This cut, from the muscle that runs down the backbone, is the leanest you can buy. Tenderloin cooks very quickly, which is great for on-the-fly meals, but also means it can be easily overdone. Its mild flavour makes it an excellent vehicle for tasty rubs and marinades, which will also help to tenderize the meat. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature is at 160 F to guarantee a perfectly cooked tenderloin.
Also labelled as: Boston butt, pork butt, pork roast
Despite its name, pork butt actually comes from the shoulder, and it’s a rich, flavourful cut. Relatively inexpensive, pork butt is also tough and fatty, so it needs to be slow roasted, stewed, or braised in an oven or slow cooker to coax out the tenderness. (Totally worth it.)
Bonus: Pork butt is often sold in smaller, boneless pieces (around 2 pounds) so it doesn’t have to be reserved just for large dinner parties.
Best used for: Hands-off cooking, pulled-pork sandwiches and carnitas.
Try it: Rum and coke pulled pork, pot-roasted pork shoulder with mushrooms.
Also labelled as: fully-cooked ham, smoked ham, spiral-sliced ham
A note on cured hams: There are several types of cured hams. The two most common varieties are city hams and country hams. City hams are wet-cured in brine, while country hams are dry-cured in salt then aged, resulting in a flavour similar to prosciutto. Wet-cured hams are easily found in most supermarkets and are what you want to serve for a special dinner.
Cured hams are generally fully-cooked, so the main goals for cooking are to heat it through and develop a crisp crust on the outside. When picking out a ham at the supermarket avoid hams labelled as “water added” or “ham and water”: They are brined extensively, making for an unappealing, spongy texture. Hams labelled as “ham and natural juices” will be more flavourful and contain less water weight. Look for bone-in shank cuts with tapered ends—they’ll be tastier than the boneless, sirloin cuts. Cured ham’s salty, smoky flavour pairs well with a sweet glaze (such as apricot, pineapple and orange). For an impressive holiday table centrepiece, score the fat, roast and glaze until burnished and shiny.
Best used for: A holiday crowd-pleaser.
Try it: Pineapple and ginger-glazed ham.
Also labelled as: baby back ribs, loin back ribs
Pork back ribs are smaller than spare ribs, but contain more meat and less connective tissue than fattier spare ribs do. Back ribs come from the same part of the rib as pork chops and centre-cut roasts, so they can be on the pricier side, but are oh-so-delicious when glazed with a tasty barbecue sauce. As a bonus, brushing with barbecue sauce will keep lean back ribs from drying out while they cook.
Best used for: Barbecuing and grilling.
Try it: Classic pork back ribs.
Also labelled as: pork baby roast
Pork belly comes from the underside of the belly and is essentially uncured, unsmoked and unsliced bacon. But the rich flavour of pork belly is good for more than just breakfast. This cut’s high fat content makes it melt-in-your mouth tender when roasted, and the flavour is deliciously complex. For best results, seek out a pork belly roast from your local butcher.
Best used for: Slow-roasting, porchetta
Try it: Roast pork belly with clementine and star anise.