With consumer trends and tastes constantly changing at an alarming rate, it’s important for retail and retail professionals to have a solid foundation about how major pork cuts are broken down. Having this knowledge allows for the chef, meat manager, or even home consumer to creatively explore undervalued cuts and provide for innovative and exciting culinary experiences.
Over the course of our series on whole pig butchery, we’ll explore how the carcass is separated into the major retail and retail primals. Subsequently we will spend some time merchandising those items into manageable and familiar cuts.
Market hogs are grown to a live weight of roughly 250 lbs (115 kg) before being shipped to the processing facility. These facilities can be licensed on either a federal or provincial basis. While a federally inspected facility has the ability to ship pork products across provincial or federal boundaries, pork that is processed in a provincial facility is required to remain inside the province.
Over half of the total Canadian production is exported. Of the pork that remains domestically, much of it is sent on for further processing, giving us hams, bacon and sausages, among other delicacies. Pork muscles vary in tenderness, fat content and flavour according to their position on the carcass.
Pork is graded on the processing floor. The Canadian grading system ultrasonically measures back fat and loin eye thickness seven centimeters off the midline between the third and fourth last ribs. These measurements are used to predict lean-meat yield. Grading indices are also generated, based on a series of grids designed to reflect particular market needs. An index dictates the market value of an animal. Average carcasses are given an index of 100 and carcasses that are either leaner or fatter than the averages are given a score of above or below 100.
After processing, hogs are split down the backbone into halves. Each side of the hog is then further divided into four primal cuts: shoulder, loin, belly, and leg.
The side may come from the processing facility with the leaf lard left in. If so, simply remove and set aside – but don’t dispose! Leaf lard is the soft fat from around the kidneys and the loin of a pig. It is especially good for baking and adding it to pie crusts will make them moist and flaky.
The first cut made is to remove the shoulder from the mid-section of the hog. In Canada, this is generally made along a straight line between the 2nd and 3rd rib. In comparison to a 1-2 rib break which is common in the U.S., the Canadian break leaves more meat in the shoulder, and less in the loin. At the processing plant this cut will be made by a mechanical saw, however it can also be done by a hand-saw.
Typically after separating the shoulder from the carcass it will be divided again in order to create two pieces of similar weight. The top portion of the shoulder is known as the pork shoulder blade, or pork butt. The lower half of the shoulder is called the pork shoulder picnic and is connected directly to the hog’s front foot.
At this point, the leg can be separated from the loin and belly. A hogs hind leg is also known as a fresh ham, not to be confused with cured, smoked or salted hams that have been further-processed. This primal will generally be used to make processed hams, although many of the muscles in the leg could also perform well on their own as fresh meat items. Again, a saw will be required for this cut as it will separate the pelvic bone; however, the femur bone remains fully intact inside the leg.
Finally, the belly is separated from the loin. If doing this by hand, score a straight line starting from the shoulder side of the loin moving towards the sirloin end. Next, with the saw, cut through the bone and finish the separation by knife.
With a few simple cuts, the side of pork is transformed into manageable primals that are now ready to be merchandised into common retail and retail cuts.
Upcoming editions of this newsletter will demonstrate how the shoulder is separated into the blade and picnic, how tenderloin, back ribs and boneless pork loins are removed from the loin primal, and much more.
Not all processors sell primals or cuts exactly as described here, however all can be cut from the whole side pork without much difficulty.