What Good is a Pig: Cuts of Pork, Nose-to-Tail
It takes a village to eat a pig. Many of the choice cuts, such as tenderloin and bacon—two of the cuts with the highest demand—are prices accordingly. Many of the middle cuts and slightly less desirable parts also move fast on the market. It’s the least desirable cuts that move a little slower, even though many of them are delicious “hidden gems,” such as tongue. So, the “village,” in this case, is the market, and there are buyers for every cut—all priced accordingly—waiting for their piece of hog heaven.
Reality of Economics and Social Justice
All of the pig is good, nose-to-tail but some of the pig sells for a lot more than other parts. This is not a social injustice. This is simply an economic reality. There are only two tenderloins on a pig and twenty people want them. There is only so much bacon to a pig and virtually everybody wants that. You can’t buy a pig and ask for it to be all cut into chops and bacon – pigs just don’t work that way although I’m trying to get there through our selective breeding program.
Supply is limited and the rest of the pig must be eaten too in order to avoid waste. The people who are willing to pay the higher prices for the high demand cuts make the rest of the pig available at lower prices to the rest of us. Be thankful that the 1% likes and pays for tenderloin. This is not social injustice – this is just economic reality.
Additionally, not all cultures make use of all of the pig, or not in the same way. We find very little market for heart and tongue – delicious as they both are. A few customers know this secret and buy them up but it took years to develop that market. Nobody buys the balls, at least not here – A feast for our livestock guardian dogs.
There is next to no market for lungs and pig guts. One of the advantages of our forth coming on-farm slaughter facility is the offal, literally the parts that fall off, will be made use in feeding our chickens during the winter and our compost piles to recapture their nutrients for our farm’s soil to grow crops in the future. With on-farm slaughter, nothing goes to waste.
Selling All of the Pig
We work hard to use or sell every bit of the pig every week. It is a challenge. There is an old saying that it takes a village to eat a pig. We see this in the sales. Everyone wants the high on the hog cuts. The middle-of-the-hog cuts also sell out with ease. But the low-on-the-hog can be a challenge some weeks. We price them accordingly. Sometimes those cuts will build up in the freezer for a few weeks before they sell. We work to sell these parts, through pricing, talking up recipes, trying recipes ourselves so we can talk about them and getting the word about about using the lesser known cuts of the pig.
Chef A has hocks on her menu for the next four months so those are taken care of. All winter Chef B has been making delicious stews that he thickens and flavors with trotters. Chef C takes all the tongues he can get for pickling and smoking and he’s now taking all the ears for a new recipe. Chef D took all the hearts, some tongues and a big load of ribs. Tails have been going to a researcher on fatty acids. Through all of this most of the pig, most weeks gets eaten by our customers. What doesn’t goes to the farmer’s table or the livestock guardian dogs – they work hard and have to eat too. It takes a village, and its dogs, to eat a pig.
When we’re out of one high demand cut some week we’ve had people say, “well just butcher another pig.” But it isn’t that simple. Without a market for enough of the pig we don’t want to take another pig every week. That would be wasteful, take up freezer space which uses energy and fail to encourage people to be more adventurous eaters. So sometimes we have the outtas. Sometimes we have to tell a new chef they’ll need to wait, they’ll need to work with us on this and earn seniority for picking the high demand cuts. The price of the high-on-the-hog cuts goes up and the low-on-the-hog goes down to adjust. This is economics. The process works, each week’s batch of pigs sells and we use the pigs nose-to-tail. For the most part.
Taking it from the Top
Let’s start at the top of the pig and work our way down to way beyond the cuts of the pig – everything is useful. Along the way we’ll discuss what is literally high-on-the-hog, middlin’ low-on-the-hog, sausage, oddments and other things. Refer to the chart above, you can drag it around the screen in its enlarged form or put it into another window by control-clicking it or right-clicking it.
High-on-the-Hog cuts that are literally high up on the hog, along the back. These start with the sirloin, tenderloin, loin roast, loin chops and the Boston Butt. Refer to the Pork Cut Chart and you’ll see what I mean – these high priced cuts all come from the back of the pig, high on the hog. It is the sale of these cuts of pork that pay for the piglet, for feed, for raising the pig and for slaughter & butchering. It is because folks will pay that extra dollar for these higher priced cuts that pigs are farmable from the economic point of view and thus produce a lot of other good meat for everyone else at a more economical price.
Why are these cuts expensive? Simple: limits of supply and high demand.
What are the High-on-the-Hog cuts?
- Sirloin – At the base of the spine between the ham and the loin. Typically sliced thin to cutlets. A lean meat.
- Tenderloin – One of the leanest meats on the pig and perhaps the highest demand meat of all. Each pig has two and there are never enough. Often sliced to medallions.
- Loin – Roasts and pork chops. This meat is probably the most commonly associated with pigs along with ham and bacon. These are the primary muscles of the back of the pig along the spine. Chine out for easy cut roasts, bone out or in at your preference. Some people like the flavor added by the marrow.
- Boston Butt – Also known as shoulder, not to be confused with picnic shoulder which comes from the front leg just below the Boston Butt. In my opinion, this is one of best pieces of meat on a pig due to the marbling and the way the three muscles of the back come together. For roasts get it bone out so you don’t have to deal with carving around the shoulder blade. The Boston Butt can be kept whole or divided into roasts. This is prime meat to be used for pulled pork, followed by picnic shoulder and ham. It can also be cut to delicious steaks, often called country ribs by some butchers.
Having Your Pork Chop and Eating Tenderloin
Note that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. That is to say, in some cases, making a particular cut precludes making others.
For example, Bone-in lower loin chops contain the tenderloin the way it is normally cut at the butcher. You could get a whole loin, preferably chine-off to make cutting easier, and then strip the tenderloin and have tenderloin as well as semi-bone in chops. But with normal pork chops the tenderloin is that little eye of meat so that makes it no longer available as a whole piece.
Likewise if you get bone-in pork chops from the loin then you miss out on baby-back ribs because they are the bone in the chops.
With meaty spare ribs you lose the chest bacon. Meaty spare ribs are wonderful, especially smoked, but if you cut your pig that way then it leaves just belly bacon.
Another example is Boston Butt roast vs shoulder steaks. These are both cut from the same meat where three muscles at the top of the back come together layered with delicious fat. Some people want this for making pulled pork. Others for a roast. I love it for steaks. My absolute favorite cut of pork is the giant, flavorful, highly marbled Boston Butt steaks off of an old sow or boar. A single steak may be two to four pounds. Enough to feed a family.