These days, if you’re out to eat, there’s probably a form of pork belly or bacon on the menu. But, even for the most knowledgeable pork enthusiasts, the actual location of various cuts is a mystery. Is pork butt really the rear end of the pig? (Spoiler alert: it’s not). Where does pulled pork come from? Is bacon made from the belly or the jowl? If the actual anatomy seems puzzling, you’re not alone. We’ve put together a list of the most common cuts of pork and their location on the animal itself. So, grab some pork rinds (made from the skin!), take a seat, and get ready to pig out.
Belly (Bacon, Pancetta, Straight Up Pork Belly)
If bacon, pork belly, and pancetta all seem similar to you, it’s because they are. These fatty cuts of meat come from the side or belly area of the pig, and are particularly high in fat content. Unlike bacon, which is cured, smoked, and generally served in a slab or slice, pancetta (thought of as the Italian form of bacon), is cured with salt and spices but not smoked, and generally sold rolled into a circular shape or pre-chopped into small cubes. Pork belly (which has grown hugely in popularity in recent years) is bacon that has not been cured, smoked, or sliced. Instead, it’s often braised or seared in small pieces.
As the name might suggest, spareribs come from the lower ribs of the pig where they meet the breastbone. With their high fat content, spareribs are a deliciously decadent part of the pig, and most often served barbecued so the rendered fat drips away.
Pork jowl (or cheek) is an unsurprisingly fatty part of the animal. Guanciale, which takes its name from “guancia,” meaning “cheek,” is the most commonly available pork cheek product. The jowl is cured for a month in a combination of salt, pepper, chili powder, and occasionally sugar, then hung and aged for an additional month before being sold. Guanciale is often used in place of pancetta or bacon, as it can be similarly rendered down and produces a significant amount of fat.
Pork Shoulder (Boston Butt or Picnic)
Totally misleading, pork butt is quite far from the rear end of the pig and in fact, it’s the shoulder connected to the upper front leg. The rectangular roast at the top of the leg is known as the “butt,” or “Boston butt,” as butchers in Boston allegedly had a specific technique for cutting this part of the animal. The “picnic” or “picnic shoulder,” which comes from the lower part of the shoulder, has a more triangular shape. It’s used for pulled pork or, when cured, for ham. Pork butt is a combination of both lean meat and fat, and is generally pretty large—up to 18 pounds or more. Pork shoulder is frequently braised for long periods of time and it’s eaten in many cultures, from the Korean Bo Ssam to Southern Pulled Pork to Latin American Puerco Asado.
While pork leg can often be roasted or braised whole, the leg is most often used to make ham—one of the most popular pork preparations. When uncured, it’s often called fresh ham, and can be available bone-in or boneless. Pork leg is a popular ingredient in a myriad of cuisines, from Cuban to European, but it is most often cured and served sliced into individual pieces.
The ham hock comes from the bottom part of the pig’s hind leg: it’s rarely eaten whole. It combines bone, meat, fat, gristle, and connective tissue. It’s usually smoked and/or cured before being sold. Ham hock is most frequently used to flavor dishes, particularly soups and stews.
Loin (Tenderloin, Sirloin, Blade End, Chop, Center Loin)
The loin, which includes many of the most popular cuts of pork, comes from the region between the shoulder and the leg, on both sides of the backbone. The loin can be cut into tenderloin, pork chop, center loin, and more. It features less fatty but still very tender meat, and is covered by a fatty layer known as “fat back.” Rib chops, loin chops, sirloins, and many of the most popular (and most expensive!) cuts of pork come from this region.