While the cow produces a myriad of beefy bits, with varying muscle striations, fat content, flavors and textures, pig flesh is considerably more uniform. Pork is not USDA-graded like beef, so it’s best to look for breeds that are most consistent when it comes to marbling. “For me those breeds are Hampshire and Berkshire,” says butcher and meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda. “We’ve all heard of them both. They’re both crosses of several heritage breeds and yield a great product, but they’re not overpriced.” If the cut is from a heritage hog, you’re likely in for some good eating. Or as Brian Merkel of San Francisco’s Belcampo Meat Co. points out: “It’s delicious because it’s pork. It’s all fucking good.“ But that doesn’t mean that some cuts aren’t heads and pigtails above others. Here’s five fantastic pork parts to order during your next visit to the butcher shop:
A rich, fatty slab of meat that turns meltingly tender after some time in the oven, pan, or grill, this cut is used in everything from porchetta to Korean-style stews. “It’s amazingly versatile,” says Harlem Shambles butcher Tim Forrester. Order fresh, skin-on, center-cut belly, as lean as possible. Each slice contains three layers: thick skin, a layer of fat, and ribbons of reddish meat just like bacon, which is what pork belly becomes when cured.
Pork butt, or “picnic cut,” is actually the bottom shoulder of the pig, a dense, well-striated section of muscle laced with lots of collagen. It’s a butcher’s favorite and meant for smokers or slow cookers. “There’s nothing much to it,” says Jeremy Stanton, chef and proprietor at The Meat Market in Great Barrington, Mass. “When cooked low and slow, it holds together yet becomes ultra-tender.”
3. Rib Eye
Craving a juicy chop? Treat yourself to this choice cut. Basically a boneless pork chop from the rib section, it’s thicker and bolder in flavor. There’s a sublime swath of fat surrounding it, which melts and insulates when cooking. Pan searing is preferred. Raves LaFrieda: "I think it's an amazing cut, and it's fairly inexpensive."
4. Pork Skirt Steak
Occasionally referred to as the secreto, this is one of the cuts butchers prefer to keep for themselves. If you can find it, snatch it up, as the long cut is similar to the more popular tenderloin but with a bit more fat and flavor. “Give it some acidity, season it, and grill a killer piece of meat,” says Nate Ando of Red Apron Butchery in Washington DC.
This is the part of the shoulder that runs from the base of the neck to the tip of the loin. Cured and thinly sliced, it’s a centerpiece of antipasto, commonly called coppa. Left whole, it’s ideal for roasting, with thin skin that crisps up over the fatty, tender meat. “It has that perfect meat-to-fat ratio,” says Andrew Vaserfirer, head butcher at Revival Market in Houston. “It’s really flavorful and versatile.”