Purchasing cuts of meat can sometimes become a little confusing. There are so many terms being used it can be difficult to choose what the cook really wants. By becoming familiar with the labels the consumer can purchase pork and be more satisfied with the resulting dishes.
HAM: There are 4 cuts of ham, the picnic, the butt end, the shank and boneless. On the butt you will find more meat, however the shank provides a wonderful bone for making soups and beans. Because of that bone however, it is much easier to carve the butt cut. Both the butt and shank come from the back end of the pig while the picnic comes from the front.
CURED: Generally when people think of a ham they are assuming it is cured. This is how we preserve the pork by adding sugar, salt, smoke and nitrates. The process extends the life of the pork by preventing spoilage.
CITY HAMS: Most hams in the United States were submerged in a brine (salt water) until all the meat has been preserved. A more modern method is to inject the salt water, which is a much cheaper process. Most city hams will have been smoked as well.
So exactly how much water has been added to your ham? When the label states “Ham” it is a minimum of 20.5% protein and no added water. Next is “Ham with natural juices” with only 18.5% protein and therefore about 8% water has been added to increase the weight of the ham. “Ham, water added” needs only 17% protein and a high of 10% added water by weight. Last (and many consider the least favorite ham) is “Ham and water product,” which can contain any amount of added water. The consumer must read the label to find out how much water has been added to it.
COUNTRY HAMS: Compared to a country ham which has been dry rubbed, the city ham will have a very different flavor. Prosciutto, Bayonne ham, Serrano ham, Black Forest ham, Westphalian ham, York ham, and Ardennes ham are all cured in the same way, where the hams are hung to dry for months. Country hams are available smoked and unsmoked and usually raw, so that requires being fully cooked before serving so be sure to read the lable. These hams are extremely salty and much drier than the city ham.
FULL HAM: A ham that includes the shank and butt end. It has not been cut in half and will weight around 16 pounds.
BONELESS: If you are looking at the diagram above and wondering where to find a boneless ham, you won’t. It is a ham where the bone was removed and pressed back together to form a nice oval shape. In this category fall the hams found in a can which are pieces of ham pressed together.
SPIRAL CUT: Hams can be loaded onto a machine and it is spun in a circle as the knife continually cuts thin slices. It is especially nice when used on a buffet. However, they are not ideal for freezing for more than a couple months.
PORK LOIN: This is a long tube of meat cut from the top of the pig. When cured it becomes known as Canadian Bacon in the States, or Black Bacon in the United Kingdom. This is a very tender and lean piece of meat.
TENDERLOIN: Cut from the center of the loin and is very tender, lean and full of flavor.
PORK CHOPS: When the pork loin is sliced the pieces are referred to as chops. They can be bone in or boneless and thicker slices are preferred so they don’t become overcooked.
COUNTRY STYLE RIBS: Country style ribs are a way to enjoy a rib and still use a fork and knife. There are rarely any bones in them as they come from the sirloin end of the loin.
BABY BACK RIBS: These ribs are from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle. The term “baby” is an indication they are not from sows, but market weight hogs. If one buys the whole rack, they have the ribs from 1 end of the pig to the other and will include 8 to 13 ribs.
SPARE RIBS: These ribs are from the belly side of the rib cage, below the section of back ribs and above breast bone. Spare ribs tend to have more bone then meat on them, unlike the baby back ribs. They are also a fattier cut of meat.
PORK ROASTS: A pork roast should be cooked low and slow. If cooked too quickly they will get very dry. They make great pulled pork sandwiches.
BACON: Lets take just a moment to reflect to this one cut of pork. It is salty, smoked, sometimes flavored with maple syrup or black pepper and perhaps the best part of the pig. Now that you are drooling, how do you prefer your bacon cut? Thick slices take longer to cook, but you are not at risk of eating flimsy pieces that fall apart before they make it to your mouth. Bacon is made from several place of the pig. The belly tends to be very high in fat. A side cut will be leaner. Bacon made from fatback is just how it sounds, mostly fat while bacon made from the loin will be much leaner. Unlike ham, bacon uses dry packing for the curing process.
COOKING TEMPERATURES: The USDA lowered the temperature for pork from 160 degrees to 145. This was announced in May of 2011.
As always, please let me know if you have any questions. Happy cooking!