Number 6 “Pork - the Other White Meat” February 28th, 2004
Okay, pop quiz time. How many of you knew that I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago for an article they were writing on pork? Hmmm? Come on now, don't all you folks read the Journal? Oh well, it wouldn't matter if you did because, sadly, Big Daddy wound up on the editing room floor. You see, the article was more about the science of pork than it was about cooking. More specifically, it was about the science of breeding new varieties of pigs in the hope of making pork more attractive to the average home cook. And with only limited page space, I just didn't make the cut...or maybe I did. I guess it's all in how one looks at it. Anyway...
In this edition of my newsletter we're going to explore the reasons why people are trying to improve our pigs when, armed with a little knowledge of pork and how to properly prepare it, the pigs we have now are just fine. We're going to look into why so many people have given up trying to cook juicy, tender chops when grandma's chops were delicious (well, at least my grandma's chops were delicious). I'll also share tips and techniques and, of course, some pretty tasty recipes. But first...Exploding the Myth - Everyone knows you gotta cook pork until it's well done. Wrong!!!
But that's the myth. A few weeks ago my son, who has a bachelor pad not too far from us, called up for some tips on cooking a pork roast that he was going to prepare for friends. The next day he dropped by and when I asked him how the roast turned out he said, "Fine." But then he proceeded to tell me about one of his guests who was horrified to see that the inside of this lovely roast was still pink. Shocking! He ranted about how his mother had told him over and again that you always cook pork until it is well done, white all the way through, otherwise it was unsafe to eat (undoubtedly his mom had to smother the meat in gravy to make it palatable.) Nothing my son could say would allay his fears. He was convinced that my son and I must be morons not to know this. The truly sad part of this little tale is that it is played out all across the country, with the result being that home cooks are preparing less pork per capita than they did in the past -- in grandma's time. And that's the reason why people are trying to breed new varieties of pig.
So, what happened to grandma's pigs? Actually, something quite profound, a couple of "somethings" to be precise, that makes it imperative to cook pork to the medium/medium-rare stage while ensuring it is safe.
Prior to the 70s most pigs were raised with little attention paid to their diets, other than to feed them plenty of whatever was available. "Slopping the hogs" was quite literal back then. As a result pork was much fattier than it is today. As the health food craze begun to gain momentum in the 70s, people began to demand foods they perceived as healthier and, at the time, pork was not considered very lean and healthy. The pork industry responded to these consumer demands by changing the way pigs were fed, and they were extremely successful. A pork butt, a cut from the upper shoulder, is approximately 50% leaner today than it used to be. Today, cuts of pork such as chops or the tenderloin are almost as lean as the white meat of a chicken and far more lean than beef.
So, pork is healthier, but does it taste as good? More on that shortly. But first, I want to touch on the other thing that occurred back in the 70s, and that was the crackdown by the government on the sanitary conditions in which pigs were raised. This was sparked by the same forces the spurred the pork industry to raise leaner pigs and has resulted in Trichinosis being virtually eliminated from the pork that reaches our markets. Trichinosis, if you recall, was the reason our mothers and grandmothers warned us to cook pork to death, and they did so with good reason. Or so they thought. It was true that trichina, the parasite that can cause trichinosis, was present in the pigs being raised and brought to market and that it would make you sick if the pork was not cooked to a high enough temperature to kill the baddies. But even then, they didn't need to cook pork until it was well done. The industry was quite afraid of government intrusion, or even lawsuits, resulting from people contracting trichinosis. As a result they came down too far on the side of caution, recommending people cook pork to temperatures of 170 degrees or higher.
The truth is that trichina dies at a temperature of 138 degrees. But because the pork had a much higher fat content in the old days, cooking pork well done could still result in juicy, tender meat. But as pork has become leaner, cooking pork properly has become more difficult. Home cooks who still recall mother's warnings or that still have copies of old cookbooks laying around, can't understand why their pork roasts and chops are dry and tasteless and as a result are cooking much less of it.
This pretty much brings us full circle, back to the article that appeared in the WSJ about the breeding of new pigs that can be lean and still be fun to eat. But the question remains; can we cook today's modern pork and have it draw rave reviews at the table? The answer is absolutely yes.
Choosing a Cut
Before discussing techniques and recipes, let's spend a little time on selecting the right cut for what you wish to do. Use the picture below as a reference while I describe the most popular cuts of pork.
There are four areas of the pig referred to as the primal areas:
The shoulder and upper part of the front leg (subdivided into the butt and the picnic.) Cuts from this area tend to have the highest fat content, cost the least and have the most flavor.
The loin, or back, is the leanest area of the animal and generally requires the most care to produce tender, juicy results.
The side is where spare ribs come from, and
The leg is where the ham comes from.
Now let's look at the cuts that come from each primal area:
|Pork Butt||High||Low||Also known as a Boston Butt or Shoulder Butt, this cut is most famous for the delicious pulled pork you find in barbecue joints across the south. Its high fat content makes this ideal for long, slow cooking either in a barbecue smoker, roasted in a low-heat oven or even braised.|
|The Picnic||High||Low||Still high in fat content, although not as high as the butt, the picnic can be prepared using the same methods as the butt, although it is generally considered too tough for roasting.|
(Loin Cuts - Chops)
|Center Cut Chops||Moderate||High||AKA loin chops, these are the t-bones of pork recognizable by the bone that divides the chop into the loin and tenderloin portions. These chops are very lean and are best cooked with dry heat by pan searing, grilling or broiling.|
|Rib Chops||High||Moderate||America's most popular pork chop, they are higher in fat content than center-cut chops and are thus less likely to dry out and become chewy. They may be grilled, pan-seared and roasted, braised or sautéed.|
|Sirloin Chops||Low||Moderate||AKA sirloin steaks, but don't let the name fool you. These chops are cut from the hip end of the loin and tend to be dry and flavorless.|
|Blade Chops||Moderate||Moderate||These are flavorful cuts from the shoulder end of the loin, although they tend to be tough.|
(Loin Cuts - Roasts)
|Tenderloin||Moderate||High||One of the most versatile cuts on the hog; they can be grilled, sautéed or roasted, either whole or sliced into medallions. The trick is to prevent them from overcooking as they are easily dried out. Using marinades (wet or dry) or serving with a sauce enhances their lackluster flavor.|
|Blade Roast||Moderate||Low||AKA rib-end roast or pork loin rib end, good flavor for the money. You're better off getting this boneless and it should be braised.|
|Bone-in Loin Roast||Moderate||Moderate||AKA center rib roast or rack of pork, this is one of my favorite cuts for roasting (see Garlic and Herb Pork Loin Roast)|
|Center Cut Roast||Moderate||Moderate||This is the boneless version of the bone-in loin roast. While it's also excellent, I think the bone-in version has superior flavor.|
|Sirloin Roast||Moderate||Low||Much like the Sirloin chops, this cut doesn't live up to it's name.|
(Loin Cuts - Ribs)
|Baby Back Ribs||Moderate||High||No they're not from baby pigs and they barely classify as ribs. These are what are left when center cut pork chops are removed from the bone. Because they have relatively little meat on them, they are one of the most expensive cuts on the hog. These are best grilled.|
|Country Style Ribs||High||Moderate||Once again, not ribs, they come from the blade end of the loin. They are delicious though. Like chops, these are good for grilling, but because they contain more fat, they lend themselves well to braising.|
|Spare Ribs||High||Low||Fatty and meaty these are favorites of backyard grillers everywhere. Due to their high fat content they are also a staple of southern barbecue. There are thirteen ribs from the belly-side of the pig. This is what is left after the bacon has been trimmed away. They may also be slow roasted or braised. For more on ribs see my write-up, all about ribs.|
|Fresh Ham||High||Low||In my mind these are the kings of pork roasts. They are bursting with pork flavor and dirt cheap. The problem is finding one. Most Americans overwhelmingly prefer cured hams, so supermarkets rarely carry these. If you can get your market or butcher to special order one, do so. A whole fresh ham can weigh up to 20 pounds so tell the butcher you want the shank end only. This cut should be oven roasted.|
|Cured Ham||High||Low||Usually found fully cooked and pre-wrapped in markets across the country and is the only ham most people have ever had. They really don't require cooking, just heating up. Cold smoked hams, also cured, are not fully cooked and must be cooked through before eating. The curing process is what gives the cuts the flavor that most Americans associate with "ham."|
At the risk of repeating myself, let me say that modern pork just doesn't taste as good as old-fashioned pork. The primary reason, of course, is that it's leaner than it used to be; with some cuts, it's leaner by a lot. As Emeril likes to say, "fat is where the flavor is." And I really shouldn't say that today's modern pork doesn't taste as good, which implies it tastes poorly, rather it doesn't have the intensity of flavor as old-fashioned pork. So here are some of my favorite ways to punch up the flavor a bit.
First there's brining, and since I did a whole newsletter on that subject, suffice it to say that brining can both improve the flavor (by using flavored or spiced brining solutions) and make the meat more moist. If you haven't explored the possibilities of brining, I encourage you to do so.
Beyond brining, I love to use marinades and rubs with pork. Ribs, chops, roasts, it doesn't matter, you can turn an ordinary chop or tenderloin into gourmet fare with just a little extra effort. When I barbecue with a smoker (I smoke meat with a moist heat) I almost always use a dry rub on the meat, and I generally rub down the meat the night before cooking and let it rest overnight in the fridge. Dry rubs at barbecue pits throughout the south tend to be closely guarded recipes but you'll find a couple of good ones in the Barbecue and Grilling section of this site. I also use dry rubs like my Tarragon-Basil rub for chops and tenderloins before grilling or pan sautéing to add additional flavor.
Wet rubs are great as well. I tend to use them if I plan on roasting, which is a dry-heat method of cooking. One of my all-time favorites is the one I use on my bone-in loin roast. It is to die for and would work well on most any cut.
I also use marinades, like my mopping and marinade sauce, for spare ribs and back ribs if I'm planning to grill them. There's something magic about the way vinegar works on pork, which is why you'll almost always find it in wet marinades for pig parts.
Favorite Ways to Cook 'em
Pork truly is versatile and can be prepared in so many ways. It's so much fun to use your creativity. But we all have our favorite cuts and favorite techniques, so here are some of mine:
Roasting - for roasting, nothing is better to me than a good bone-in pork loin. Even if you don't use the wet marinade, this is a delicious cut, especially served with a pan gravy made with the drippings while the roast is resting and waiting to be carved. Of course, if you can actually find a fresh ham (and I usually cannot), then I would absolutely urge you to give that a try as well.
Grilling - Ribs, ribs, ribs! I think my family could eat ribs off the grill every night of the week. I prefer the spare ribs over back ribs, in large part because there is a much higher ratio of meat to bone and a higher fat content, which to me translates into more flavor. Also, they aren't nearly as pricey. But don't get me wrong, back ribs can be delicious too. I also like to grill whole tenderloins as well as chops, just be mindful not to overcook either of these. Fatty ribs can be forgiving if you cook them too long, but your chops will be like shoe leather.
Barbecuing (i.e. smoking) - Spare ribs (don't smoke back ribs, not enough fat content), Boston butts and fresh picnics all come out fantastic when smoked.
Braising - I must admit I don't braise a lot with pork, but the ideal candidates would be the same cuts preferred for barbecuing, the butt, the picnic and ribs.
Pan Frying or Sautéing - This is something I do mostly when the weather is not conducive to outdoor grilling or barbecuing. I often sauté whole tenderloins and thick pork chops just enough to brown them well on the outside and pop 'em in the oven to finish cooking. The one recipe (and a family favorite) that must be done this way is my smothered pork chops. After nicely browning on the stovetop, they must be smothered in caramelized onions and finished in the oven. Fantastic!
So there it is, folks, my take on pork. Despite the fact that I claim it isn't as good as it use to be, it's still my favorite animal to have for dinner. With the right amount of knowledge and the willingness to bust up a couple of old myths, anyone can serve pork just as juicy and delicious as grandma's. I hope you give it a try.
Until next time.