Much like beef, pork has gotten a bad rap as being unhealthy and fattening. As a result, leaner breeds of pigs are being raised in the U.S. today. While that may make pork better for your waistline, it can make it more difficult to cook moist, delicious dishes. Fortunately, you only need to lean few basic methods to learn how to cook pork well, even if it especially lean.
The flavor of pork is fairly mild and lends itself equally to savory, aromatic and sweeter, fruity preparations. As with other types of meat, cooking techniques vary based on which cut is being used. There are leaner cuts like the tenderloin and chops, which are perfect for roasting and grilling. Less lean cuts like the shoulder and ribs are at their best when cooked long and slow.
Different Cuts of Pork
There are many cuts of pork, but these are the ones most likely to be found in the grocer's meat case or at a local butcher's shop.
- Ribs: Depending on the part of the pig they come from, ribs can be either baby back or spareribs.
- Chops: Center cut chops are usually boneless and come from the loin while bone-in chops may also have rib meat.
- Tenderloin: Coming from the pig's back, the tenderloin is just what its name suggests: tender. You can also buy full pork loins which are larger and may be tougher.
- Ham: A true ham is the back leg. It's usually precooked or processed prior to sale. Picnic hams come from the shoulder and are often sold fresh.
- Shoulder or Rump: Pork roasts are typically shoulder or rump roasts which, despite their different names, both come from the shoulder.
Most Common Ways to Cook Each Cut
All pork sold today is considerably leaner than what your grandparents ate years ago. It is also safer now that trichinosis, a parasite that at one time was prevalent in pigs, has been almost completely eradicated in America. That means you can disregard any advice to cook all pork until it's overly well done and dry as a bone. Instead, select the right preparation method for your cut to deliver juicy, delicious pork to your dinner table.
- Spareribs are best braised or stewed, but baby back ribs can be also be barbequed.
- Ribs can have a large amount of connective tissue and slow cooking over low heat can help tenderize these cuts.
- Ribs often have a clear membrane on the underside that should be removed prior to cooking. Then spareribs can be cooked in a covered container with liquid or cut into chunks for stew. Baby back ribs are often covered with a dry rub or sauce and barbequed slowly over low heat.
- Both types of ribs will be most tender when cooked well done.
- Pork chops are best grilled, broiled or sautéed.
- Most pork chops sold today are very lean which means they must be cooked quickly over high heat or they will be dry and overdone. Some chops are made with shoulder meat and those can be cooked slowly over low heat.
- Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the chop with some thin cuts only needing 2-3 minutes of heat per side. The USDA recommendation for pork is 145 degrees so look for the meat to hit 135 degrees and take it off the source of heat. The internal temperature should continue to rise another 10 degrees while it rests prior to serving.
- Chops will be juiciest when cooked to medium.
- Tenderloins can be grilled or roasted or cut into medallions for sautéing.
- While whole pork loin has more fat and can be roasted over a long period at low temperatures, tenderloins should not be cooked too long or at too high a heat or they will dry out.
- You can marinate tenderloin first or simply season it. Cook at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes. When its temperature reaches 135-145 degrees, remove the tenderloin and let it sit for a few minutes to let the juices redistribute prior to cutting.
- Like chops, the tenderloin is usually best a medium temperature.
- Precooked ham simply need to be heated. A picnic ham should be braised.
- Picnic hams are tough, fatty cuts that need to be cooked slowly over a long period in order to become tender.
- Place a picnic ham and some liquid in a covered container, such as a Dutch oven, and cook over low heat until the meat is well done and pulls away from the bone, if the ham has one.
- Hams should be well done. However, avoid over-heating a precooked ham since they can quickly dry out.
Pork Shoulder or Rump
- Pork shoulders and rumps benefit from braising and stewing along they can also be barbecued or roasted slowly over low heat.
- These cuts can have quite a bit of marbling that makes them flavorful, but they may also have tough connective tissue that needs to be broken down through braising or slow roasting.
- Cut up and use in stews, braise with liquid over low heat until well done or roast at low heat until tender.
- Pork shoulders and rump roasts should be cooked until they are well done.