I think that the pig is the most versatile of all the animals we rear for food and if I could only eat one animal for the rest of my life the pig would be it. From crispy bacon through to succulent ham, from soft and gelatinous pulled pork, flavour-packed sausages, and roast pork leg with brittle, salty crackling, it is the pig’s breadth of cuts that make it outstanding versatile.
But have you ever wondered where all the various cuts come from, and how they’re best used? Well, wonder no more, because here’s our complete guide to the pig and how best to use him!
Find out about cooking with different cuts of beef
The different cuts
The diagram shows where they all come from but it’s worth mentally splitting the pig into two different varieties of cut when you are thinking about how to cook the meat and which bit to use in which recipes.
The most expensive joints are the prime cuts, including the loin and fillet. These are generally found on the top half of the pig because the muscles there don’t do as much work.
The cheaper cuts tend to come from the lower half of the animal and include bits like the hock and shoulder. These muscles do more work, so are tougher and take longer to cook.
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Cooking the different cuts
The tender cuts benefit from being cooked relatively briefly in a hot oven – and you don’t have to cook pork until it’s as tough as your leather walking boots anymore; the advice now is to make sure that the internal temperature has reached 70-72°C and it can even be a little pink as long as you know the meat has been reared, killed and stored properly. I probably wouldn’t risk it with a cheap supermarket joint but would feel absolutely confident of doing it with a joint from one of our own animals.
The trouble with the better cuts – apart from the cost – is that they can be a bit bland, mainly because they don’t have much fat on them. Lean meat like this is perfect if you’re trying to eat healthily, but it isn’t so good if you’re looking for maximum taste…
This is where the cheaper, tougher cuts come in; they need to be cooked low ‘n’ slow but the payoff is a depth of flavour that is on a whole different scale to something like a pork fillet or loin joint. Tough cuts are also a great option for anyone who wants to throw something together in the morning and leave it cooking in a low oven or in the slow cooker until the evening.
The pork shoulder
The British think of a barbeque as something that you throw a sausage or a burger on, whereas the rest of the world often thinks of smoking and cooking meat for a long time at a low temperature to produce dishes like pulled pork and tender ribs.
A pork shoulder – known as a ‘pork butt’ in America – is a huge piece of meat that is fairly cheap but will yield an enormous number of portions if it’s cooked properly. We either smoke it for eighteen hours, or wrap it tightly in tin foil and cook it at 125°C in the oven until you can pull the meat away from the shoulder blade. We then shred it and serve it instead of a more traditional roast. (This technique works well for lamb, too.)
Try this recipe for BBQ pulled pork
The hock is ideal as a base for a ham and pea soup. It will need to be boiled for a couple of hours in water (add a chopped carrot and an halved onion for extra flavour) until the meat falls away from the bone easily. You then shred it by hand when it has cooled and add it to a pea soup.
Making a basic pea soup couldn’t be easier: just tip a 1kg bag of peas into a saucepan and cover with milk. Cook until tender, blitz with a blender and then pass it through a sieve to get rid of the pea skins. Add more milk if needed to bring it to the correct consistency (or a couple of ladles of the cooking stock from the ham hocks) and season to taste. You can serve it as it is or add the shredded hock. It also freezes very well.
The loin is the Sunday roast favourite, and with good reason. Simply weigh and cook at 230°C for half-an-hour before reducing the heat to 180°C and cooking for a further 20 minutes per 450g/1lb.
Probe for a temperature of at least 70°C in the middle and remove from the oven to rest under tin foil. If you like crispy crackling now is the time to remove it and blast it in the oven separately with the roast potatoes for 20 minutes or so.
Try this recipe for pork loin with sherry-roasted parsnips
Bacon is simply cured belly or loin pork (streaky is the belly, while loin gives back bacon). If you want to try making your own bacon then bacon ribs are a great place to start. Weigh the ribs and then mix a fifth of that weight of salt with the same weight of sugar. So if the ribs weigh 1kg then mix 200g of salt with 200g of sugar.
Sprinkle some of the cure over a whole rack of pork ribs, saving the remainder in an airtight container. Place the ribs in a Tupperware container with a lid (you might need to cut them in half to fit them in). Store in the fridge. Check them every day, pouring off any liquid and sprinkling over a bit more of the salt/sugar mix. Do this for four days. On the fifth day remove and rinse them.
Remove the white membrane on the back of the ribs and then pop them in a baking tray and cover tightly with tin foil. Cook in a 150°C oven for two to three hours until tender, then blast for another half-an-hour at 220°C to crisp them up.
Bacon, egg and spinach cups
Chicken, broccoli and bacon gratin
Bacon and egg risotto
Bubble and squeak with halloumi and bacon
Field mushrooms stuffed with bacon and spinach
The really cheap cuts
Pork cheek, jowl and neck might not sound very appetizing, but they’re extraordinarily cheap and make a great stew when you cook them for a few hours with something like lentils or split peas.
Pigs can be legally kept in appalling conditions, so please consider buying free-range pork that has been reared in the UK. The pig is a wonderfully intelligent creature - ours play football, love a cold shower from a hose on a hot day, and love a cuddle - and it is heartbreaking to see them confined to a space that is too small to even turn around in.
Yes, free-range pork is more expensive, but the answer is to eat less of it, buy cheaper cuts (which generally taste better anyway!) and stretch a joint over two or three meals instead of just the one.
Read Carlton's account of owning pigs
Pig: Cooking With a Passion for Pork by Johnnie Mountain is a brilliant read, as is the Love Pork website.
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