The holy swine is one of the most popular meats in the world. And for good reason: Just about every part is downright delicious. From snout to tail, there are so many cuts to choose from. And though pork chops, pork loin and pork ribs are easy to find at your local butcher or supermarket, sometimes it’s good to change things up.
We asked Taylor Adams of Brooklyn butcher shop The Meat Hook for some helpful tips on which off-cuts to look for and how to make a killer dinner with them.
Secreto, aka Pork Skirt Steak
Popular in Spain, this cut of meat is just near the belly of the animal (where the meat for bacon comes from), so it’s quite juicy. “A lot of the times, the cut gets set aside as trim,” Adams explains. Its shape is somewhere between a beef skirt steak and skate wing and weighs in at around one and a half pounds. Its small size makes it perfect for marinating and grilling quickly. And, cut into strips, it works in just about any stir-fry.
Smoked or cured ham hocks are a staple of Southern food mixed into beans or collard greens. Fresh hocks are less well known but shouldn’t be overlooked. The cut, which is part of the shank bone of the leg, benefits from long braises. “When we send all of our hocks to our sandwich shop, they turn it into delicious sandwiches,” Adams explains. And between the bone, connective tissue, marrow, skin and a good amount of fat, hocks make for a very rich and meaty stock that’s perfect for tonkotsu, a long-cooking and deeply flavorful ramen broth.
Swap in this cut for your standard pork chop. Ask for the shoulder chop from the loin end, which is essentially a pork chop with a bit more fat. “You can grill it the same way you would a pork chop, and it will cost less money,” Adams says. The shoulder should give only two to three chops near the loin, where the meat is still supple and doesn’t need a braise.
Attached to the ham, this cut has a lot of pork flavor and less fat than a chicken thigh. You can ask your butcher to tie it into a sirloin roast and roast it the way you would a ham, or have him cut it into one-to-one-and-a-half-inch slabs and braise them. There are a lot of muscles present in the cut, so it’s best to cook it low and slow to soften its texture.
Yes, these are exactly what their name implies. The cut is relatively lean but still tender and loaded with flavor. Like ham hocks, pork cheeks have a lot of connective tissue and collagen, but when they are cooked for a long time, the meat breaks down and softens. The cheeks lend themselves to braising and are a great addition to a ragù. While the cheeks don’t provide too much meat (they each weigh about a third of a pound), the meat is rich and worth seeking out. Just be aware, butchers may get annoyed. They are a pain to carve out.
An abundance of collagen is found in the jowl and head meat, but once it is cooked, it can become melty and tender. “The head meat is always going to be fatty, but there’s a lot of flavor to it,” Adams, who turns the meat into headcheese or scrapple at The Meat Hook, says. Southern cooking also uses the jowl when it’s smoked, and it’s beloved in Italy, where butchers use it to make guanciale, an essential ingredient in a true carbonara. As for the head, it can also be smoked, making the skin blister and chicharrón like, or it can be split in half and braised (although you’ll need a big stock pot for that).
This one might be hard to find depending on how your local butcher gets his pigs, but it’s worth buying when you see it. “It’s great to marinate and throw in a super-hot cast-iron pan or on the grill,” Adams says. You can add it to soups and stews or slow-roast it until the meat is very tender and falling off the bones.
Cheap and easy-to-find (butchers are more than happy to put some aside for you), pork bones are great to make a clean stock with. Roast the bones at 400 degrees until deeply brown, then add them to a large pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer and cook for six hours. You can add aromatics if you like, but Adams reminds: “You can always add stuff, but it’s hard to take stuff away.”