Pork Shopping Guide

Tips on Selecting Cuts | Terms | Description of Cuts | Inspection and Grading
Read the Label
| Look and Feel | Quantity to Buy | Purchasing in Quantity


When shopping for pork there are several things that you need to consider so that you will be assured of purchasing the correct quantity, quality and type of pork to satisfy your needs. It is important to be familiar with the different cuts that are available, know what to look for on the labels, know what to look for when visually checking the meat, and be able to determine how many servings per pound the cut will provide. The following information will help you make a purchase suited to your needs.


Tips on Which Cut to Select:

Decide how much time and effort you want to use in preparing and cooking the cut you select. Chops and steaks will take less time to cook than a roast but require more attention during the cooking process.

  • When feeding a large group, preparing and cooking a large roast may be less effort than trying to cook individual chops or steaks for each person. It also gives you time to attend to other dishes since the roast will need little attention while it is cooking.
  • Cuts from the loin are very popular and easy to cook but are more expensive than the cuts from the shoulder, which contain more fat but are very flavorful and tender.
  • Ribs are always a favorite, but will the mess created by ribs be suitable for the occasion?
  • Select the right thickness of chop for the intended use. To grill, broil, braise or stuff, select chops 1 to 1 ½ inches thick, or for a quick sautéing, select chops that are no more than ½ inch thick.
  • For extra speed, and convenience in cooking and serving, select boneless cuts, but be aware that you may sacrifice some flavor and juiciness due to the absence of the bones and the boneless cuts also tend to be more expensive.
  • Always select pork that has been inspected and approved for wholesomeness to guarantee that the pork was processed under sanitary conditions and is free of disease.

Note: Always select meat just before you are ready to check out at the food store. Raw meats should not be put in bags with other foods. In warm weather, raw meat should be placed inside the car so that it can be exposed to air conditioning. If the travel home will take more than an hour, be sure to have a cooler that the meat can be stored in for the ride home.


Terms to Know

Fresh: Meat that has not had any form of curing, smoking, salting or brining.
Cured: Meat preserved by salting with a brine or dry rub and then stored for a period of time until the salt has sufficiently penetrated the meat.
Smoked: Smoking generally takes place after the meat has been cured. The process serves to impart extra flavor into the meat but was originally used to preserve meat.


Description of Cuts

There are many different pork retail cuts available with each having its own characteristics. Their flavor, leanness and tenderness vary according to the primal cut it is taken from and its location within the cut. To see the different cuts and a description of each, click the link below.

Pork Products

Different cuts have several methods of cooking that are best suited to that cut. If you want to use a particular method of cooking, you will want to purchase a cut that is suited to that method. See the chart below for the suggested cuts best suited to the different cooking methods.

Cooking Method

Suggested Cuts

Roasting Blade Boston Roast, Loin Roast, Picnic Roast, Rib End Roast, Crown Roast, Sirloin Roast, Fresh Ham Roast, Smoked Shoulder Roll, Butt Ham, Shank Ham, Picnic Ham, Back Ribs, Country-style Ribs, Tenderloin, Canadian Bacon
Pan-Frying Blade Chops, Rib Chops, Center Cut Chops, Loin Chops, Sirloin Chops, Blade Steaks, Arm Steak, Fresh Ham Steak, Center Ham Slice, Cutlets, Tenderloin Medallions, Canadian Bacon, Bacon, Ground Pork, Sausage

Deep Frying

Cutlets, Cubes, Strips
(It is difficult to deep fry larger cuts and achieve proper doneness without burning the outer surface.)
Grilling and Broiling Blade Chops, Rib Chops, Center Cut Chops, Loin Chops, Sirloin Chops, Blade Steaks, Arm Steak, Fresh Ham Steak, Center Ham Slice, Cutlets, Spareribs, Country-style Ribs, Back Ribs, Tenderloin Medallions, Tenderloins, Canadian Bacon, Ground Pork, Sausage, Roasts (grilled over indirect heat)
Steaming Ribs, Cutlets, Ground pork, Cubed or Diced Pork,
Poaching Blade Roast, Picnic Roast, Fresh Ham Roast, Butt Ham, Shank Ham, Picnic Ham, Pork Shanks (Hocks), Uncooked Sausage (poach briefly before frying, grilling or broiling)
Braising

Blade Boston Roast, Fresh Ham Roasts, Blade Chops, Sirloin Chops, Blade Steaks, Arm Steaks, Fresh Ham Steaks, Back Ribs, Country-style Ribs, Spareribs, Cutlets, Pork Shanks (Hocks), Sausages

Stewing Cubes (from shoulder or leg cuts)
Sautéing Blade Chops, Rib Chops, Center Cut Chops, Loin Chops, Sirloin Chops, Cutlets, Tenderloin Medallions, Canadian Bacon, Bacon, Pork Patties, Strips (all cuts should be no more than ½ inch thick to sauté properly)
Stir-Frying Strips, Cubes-small
(Strips and cubes can be trimmed from cuts of the shoulder, loin or leg.)
Microwaving Strips, Cubes, Smaller Boneless Cuts


Inspection and Grading

All retail cuts of pork have been inspected by the state or federal government. This inspection is mandatory and is performed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA. A FSIS-USDA inspector checks the meat through all stages of processing. The inspector checks the slaughtering process, they check the carcass being cut into smaller cuts, they make sure the proper additives are added to processed meats and they make sure that all products are labeled with accurate information. All meat products, from a whole carcass to the edible byproducts must have the inspection legend seal stamped on it or shown on its label, which ensures that the meat has passed inspection for wholesomeness, disease, and that it has been processed under sanitary conditions.

Meat inspection should not be confused with grading of the meats, which refers to the quality of the meat rather than wholesomeness and safety. Grading is not mandatory and if undertaken, is paid for by the meat processor, whereas the inspection is mandatory and is a service conducted by the government that is actually paid for by the taxpayers. Pork only has two grade levels set by the USDA, which are "Acceptable" and "Utility." Acceptable, which is the only grade found in a retail store, indicates that the pork has a high ratio of lean meat to bone and fat. The utility grade, which is pork whose texture lacks firmness and contains high levels of water, is the grade used by the meat processors to make processed meat products.


Read the Label

Reading the label will tell you much about the cut, such as the primal cut it was taken from, the name of the retail cut, the description (bone-in or boneless), the date it was packaged, total weight, cost per pound, and nutritional information. If you are familiar the different cuts, having the name of the cut on the label will help you determine if it is of the proper leanness and tenderness desired. If you are not familiar with the cuts, you will have to rely on choosing the cut by sight.

The shoulder consists of cuts that contain a high level of fat, which provides flavor and tenderness. Roasting, braising and stewing are cooking methods used for these cuts. The steaks from this area are best when grilled, broiled or braised. Cuts from the loin are tender and lean. Chops from the loin are generally grilled, broiled, pan-fried or braised. The roasts are generally roasted or braised. Cuts from the leg/ham are lean but not as tender as the loin. The roasts from this cut are generally braised and the steaks are grilled, broiled, pan-fried and braised. The cuts from the side/belly are very flavorful, but contain a fair amount of fat and are generally broiled or pan-fried. Ribs are generally roasted, braised, grilled and broiled. See the chart above for cooking methods to use for different cuts.

The label will contain the name of the cut and whether it is bone-in or boneless. This information will help you determine what quantity you will need to buy according to the weight contained in the package. A boneless cut will contain more servings than the bone-in cut so it is important to take this into consideration when determining your needs. A bone-in cut may be lower in cost per pound but when selecting your best value, you should compare cost per serving. To determine the cost per serving, use the following equation:

Cost per pound / # of servings per pound = Cost per serving
(See servings per pound chart below.)

Also, consider the fact that the bone and fat, which is not edible, is what helps give your meat great flavor and tenderness, so it may be worth paying a little extra per serving for the bone-in cut.

The label on fresh pork may have a "sell-by date" printed on it, but the USDA does not require the "sell-by date". It represents the last day recommended for selling the product. Generally the store will pull any products left on the shelf the day of the "sell-by date". If the meat is properly refrigerated, it will remain fresh up to three days after the "sell-by date." If it is not to be used within that time, it should be frozen. Some labels may have a "Use-by date" rather than a "sell-by date" which means the meat should be eaten, cooked or frozen by that date.

The nutritional value of the meat will also be shown on the label. The label will show serving size, calories, fat and cholesterol content, and it will list the nutrients contained in the meat. The label may also contain information such as cooking instructions, food safety and handling instructions.

Some pork products, such as ham, may be precooked. If so, the label will indicate that it is "fully cooked" or "ready-to-eat". If it is not, it will clearly indicate to "cook before eating". Even though the precooked hams are ready to eat, their flavor is enriched from being baked to an internal temperature of 130°F.


Look and Feel

Looking at and feeling the cut of pork can give you information that the label will not provide. When shopping for a lean cut of pork, inspect the piece to see if it is well trimmed of excess fat around the edges and that it does not have a lot of fat running through it. However, it is desirable to have some marbling running through the meat to provide added flavor and tenderness. When selecting a whole ham or shoulder a visual inspection will be difficult because you will not be able to see any of the inside area of the cut. Pork today is raised much leaner that it was years ago so it is not as much of a problem to find lean cuts. The meat of the cut you are selecting should be pink with a white to grayish tint of coloring and have a fine-grained texture. Meat from the loin is generally lighter in color than the meat from the shoulder or leg. The meat should be firm to the touch, look moist but not slimy wet, and it should not emit any foul odors. The fat on the outer edges should be creamy white and be blemish free. If the fat has a yellowish tint, it is old and probably close to being spoiled. The package the cut is contained in should be cool to the touch and free of any holes or tears.

When selecting cuts such as chops and steaks, look for the individual cuts that are sliced evenly throughout, with all the cuts in a package sliced to the same thickness. This will help to ensure that each cut will cook evenly throughout and that all the cuts will finish cooking at approximately the same time.


Quantity to Buy

It is sometimes difficult to know just how much pork to buy to have the proper amount for a particular recipe or to serve to a specific number of people. Some of the information that will determine the quantity needed may be the type of cut you are selecting, whether the meat is bone-in or boneless, the number of people being served, whether or not it will be served in controlled portions, or if the meat will be served on a "help yourself" basis. The following information may be helpful in determining your needs.

Approximate Servings Per Pound
Type of Cuts Per lb. Type of Cuts Per lb.

Roasts:
Blade Boston, Bone-in
Blade Boston, Boneless
Picnic (Smoked or Fresh), Bone-in
Smoked Shoulder Roll
Blade Loin, Bone-in
Top Loin, Boneless
Center Loin, Bone-in
Sirloin, Bone-in
Fresh Ham Roast, Bone-in
Fresh Ham Roast, Boneless
Ham - Bone-in
Ham - Boneless

Chops and Steaks:
Blade Chops or Steaks
Arm Steaks
Rib End Chops
Center Cut Loin Chops
Sirloin Chops
Boneless Chops
Center Slice Ham


2
3
3
3
2
3.5
3
2.5
3
4
3.5
4.5


3
3
3
3
3
4
3.5

Ribs:
Back Ribs
Country Style Ribs
Button Ribs
Spareribs

Misc. Cuts:
Shanks (Fresh or Smoked)
Ground Pork
Pork Sausage (Ground)
Tenderloin
Canadian Style Bacon
Bacon

Pork - Boneless:
One pound of raw pork equals approximately 12 ounces (or 3/4 of a pound) of cooked pork.


1.5
2
1.5
1.5


1.5
4
4
4
5
6


Purchasing In Quantity

Pork can be purchased in large quantities in several different ways, such as buying multiple retail packages, purchasing a full carcass or side of pork, or purchasing wholesale cuts. Purchasing in large quantities will generally save you money but you need to take several factors into consideration before making a purchase.

  1. Determine if you have space to store a large quantity of meat, either in the refrigerator freezer or in a freezer unit, or both.
  2. Will your household consume enough of the meat within the suggested storage time?
  3. Will the cost of the purchase fit within your food budget?

When determining your cost per pound for a full carcass, side or wholesale cut, be sure the cost for cutting, wrapping and freezing are all included. If they are not, you will have to add the costs in to get the actual price per pound to compare your cost to the cost of buying the meat as retail cuts.

Also, take into consideration all of the different cuts you will get when you purchase a full carcass or side. The bacon, hams and other cuts that you want smoked or processed in a special manner will add to your cost and you will have to be sure your provider has the capability to do this processing. There may also be cuts that you will get that are not some you generally purchase. If your household will not eat these items, you will be paying for wasted cuts. This may determine whether or not it is wiser to purchase the full carcass or side, or to purchase only wholesale or retail cuts that you know your household will consume.

Your butcher or retailer should complete the wrapping and freezing of the cuts because they will be equipped to do it properly. The meat must to be wrapped tightly in a moisture proof wrap to eliminate all air within the package. If air is allowed to enter, it will remove moisture from the meat, causing deterioration in quality, which will eventually cause freezer burn. The meat should be wrapped in waxed freezer paper or a heavy aluminum foil. Be sure the packages are marked with the date when they are wrapped.

Make sure that your butcher or retailer is properly equipped to quick-freeze your meat after cutting and wrapping. The quick freezing process is less damaging to the meat fibers, where slow freezing may cause ice crystals to form, which can rupture the cells in the meat. This damage results in the loss of more juices when the meat is thawed and a loss of flavor when cooked.

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