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A Home Cook's Guide to Pork

2021-10-11

Graph of Pig with different body parts named

Pork, in our humble opinion, is the unsung hero of the meat case. Not only is it super flavorful, with the perfect ratio of lean meat to fattiness, it’s also incredibly versatile — every cut offers a different eating experience. There are also so many ways to prepare it. During summer, we love to smoke and grill pork; in winter, we use it to make the most comforting roasts. (Also: bacon.)

Why else do we love pork? It’s a nice way to break up a monotonous meal routine — to climb your way out of the weeknight-chicken rut. Plus, the quality of the many pork cuts available at Gelson’s is second to none.

“At Gelson’s, we pride ourselves on having some of the best meat cutters in the area, and on processing all of our pork cuts in-house,” says Sean Sáenz, our senior director of meat and seafood. “It helps us ensure we have the freshest, most delicious meat with the fine craftsmanship our customers expect and deserve.”

Our meat department gets deliveries of pork four to five times per week — none of which is precut, packaged, and shipped across the country — so we can guarantee its freshness. And we staff our counters with expert butchers everyday until closing, so we can cut whatever you want on the spot. Long story short: getting your pork (or any meat, for that matter) at Gelson’s is like getting it from an old-timey butcher shop, just like Grandma and Grandpa used to do.

In this guide, we outline a handful of the pork cuts, also known as “sub-primals,” that you can get at the Gelson’s meat counters. (Fun fact, there are four main “primals,” or sections, of the pig that these cuts come from: the hind leg, the loin, the shoulder, and the side or belly.) Not sure which cut you need for a particular dish or recipe? The folks behind our meat counters can help.

“I always start by asking customers how they want to prepare the meat,” says Sean. “For example, if they’re grilling, I usually recommend a center-cut pork chop or baby back ribs. If they’re using the oven, I point them toward the tenderloins.”

We also give you a few specific recipes for each pork cut — and go into some of Sean’s recommendations for preparing them. A couple of high-level pork-cooking tips from the meat counter:

● Don’t feel like you need to get fancy with pork. Most of the time, a simple dry rub or marinade is all you
need — let the pork’s incredible flavor speak for itself.
● We like to eat our pork medium, which calls for cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 145°. If you like your pork more well done, aim for 160°. With pork, a kitchen thermometer is your best friend!

Pork Butt Roast

Contrary to what its name suggests, this cut of pork does not, in fact, come from the pig’s rear end. It actually refers to a cut that comes from the upper blade shoulder. Who knew! (Okay, we did.) The blade shoulder is a very muscular area with lots of sinew and tendons, but when you cook pork butt low and slow, all that melts away, leaving you with meat so tender, it literally falls apart. At Gelson’s we sell both bone-in and boneless pork butt roasts — both of which cook up incredibly juicy and shred easily.

As such, pork butt is the go-to cut for pulled pork sandwiches and carnitas — both of which work with either braised or smoked meat. We also like to put it in the Dutch oven or slow cooker with some aromatics and serve the resulting meaty, flavorful shards in a rice bowl with fresh herbs and veggies. And if we have any leftover pulled pork (which is rare, but miracles do happen), we like to use it in lieu of pot roast in this agnolotti recipe.

Baby Back Ribs

What makes baby back ribs so fantastically delicious? They’re the upper half of the rib cage, which are in the loin of the pig, so they’re super tender and meaty — much more so than spare ribs, which are the lower half of the rib cage. And at Gelson’s, our meat cutters trim the backside of those curved bones, which makes for a much better rib-eating experience.

Sean’s favorite way to prepare baby back ribs? “I really love smoked baby back ribs. But typically, I slow cook them on the grill with a dry rub — my go-to is Big Poppa’s Desert Gold Seasoning, which you can get here at Gelson’s,” he says. “I put the ribs bone-side down on a super hot grill for 20 to 25 minutes with the lid closed, and then turn off some of the burners, move the ribs off to the side, and do indirect heat for up to four hours.”

Of course, baby back ribs are also great with a side of homemade barbecue sauce for dipping (or a thick slathering of the stuff over the top of the ribs). You can also play around with regional barbecue sauces: For Carolina-style ribs, go with a mustardy, vinegar-based concoction. For Memphis-style, a thinner, tangier sauce is in order. Want baby back ribs on the double? Try our Instant Pot version.

Pork Chop

Also from the loin: the classic, yet oft-misunderstood pork chop! Many of us grew up eating pork chops — and dry ones at that, due to bygone misconceptions about how long you need to cook pork. But the truth is, pork chops taste amazing if you prepare them properly.

At Gelson’s, we offer not only boneless and bone-in pork chops, but also a gourmet, center-cut pork chop. Our butchers French the bone, so the pork looks like a great big lamb rib chop, and they cut the meat a little thicker so you can easily grill it without drying it out. During fall and winter, we sell a special center-cut chop that’s stuffed with cornbread — it’s so hearty and comforting.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that pork chops are an impressively versatile cut. You can go old-school and bake them in the oven, of course. But Sean highly recommends a bone-in chop on the grill (with that same Big Papa’s dry rub he uses on his baby back ribs). For boneless? He goes straight to the cast-iron skillet.

“My favorite boneless recipe actually uses Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup mixed with a couple tablespoons of sour cream,” he says. “I brown the pork chops in the skillet, add the soup mixture for a sauce, put a lid on it, and let everything simmer for 15 minutes. Then I serve it over rice or pasta, or with a side of vegetables. It’s so creamy and delicious.”

Another excellent recipe for the skillet: our apple cider pork chops. We love all of its modern updates on a classic flavor combination.

Tenderloin

The final cut from the loin is the long, thin tenderloin — one of our top sellers here at Gelson’s. What makes it so popular?

“It’s basically the filet mignon of pork,” says Sean. “It’s very tender and very lean, which our customers love.”

Plus, you can pan fry pork tenderloin in a skillet — like we do in this kale and white bean number — and even throw it on the grill (as long as you use indirect heat). But with one of our favorite pork tenderloin recipes, all of the magic happens in the oven: we rub the pork down with sweet brown sugar, punchy whole grain mustard, and woody rosemary, and then broil it with green beans and potatoes. The best part? We make Korean barbecue tacos with the leftovers.

Just keep in mind, tenderloin is the most delicate of the pork cuts, so have your meat thermometer at the ready while cooking it!

Ham

Moving on to the leg of the pig, which yields a cut that needs no introduction: ham! Here at Gelson’s, we offer everything from ham steaks to an everyday spiral-sliced roast and special old-fashioned, bone-in whole ham for the holidays. We season these pork legs, and then slow cook them in our state-of-the-art smokers — the resulting savory flavor and juicy texture is unbeatable.

What do we like to make with ham? Anything and everything. Omelettes, eggs Benedict, ham steaks with mashed potatoes, and of course, sandwiches. We frequently make sliders of the Hawaiian ham and cheese and Cubano varieties — and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the best ham and cheese sandwich ever. You can also get fancy with your ham. Think: serrano ham-wrapped scallops with beurre blanc.

Bacon

Everybody loves bacon! This revered, cured pork cut comes from the side of the belly, which is delightfully fatty (read: always tastes fantastic). But the key to truly exceptional bacon is to cut it so the slices have the right ratio of fat to lean meat — which, we’re proud to say, Gelson’s premium bacon has. It puts our in-house bacon right up there with some of the best brands in the country in terms of taste and quality. What types do we offer? Everything from straight-up, no sugar-added slices to hickory-smoked strips, and Sean’s personal favorite, thick-cut applewood smoked bacon.

Speaking of Sean’s personal favorites, he says the best way to cook bacon is to stick it in a skillet, fry it up, and call it a day. “It always comes out great — you don’t need to do anything else.” But if you need to cook a ton of bacon all in one go, for a big brunch, say, baking the strips in the oven will be a huge time-saver.

Bacon is also an excellent way to add some flavorful fat to leaner proteins, like chicken breasts. And we love using it to bring some smokiness and crispy texture to a plate. Case in point: this chopped broccoli salad, which is riddled with bacon bits, and bacon-wrapped dates (the sweet, chewy fruit plus the savory, crunchy pork is *mwah*). And of course there’s delightfully chunky, maple-y sweet bacon jam. You can’t go wrong!

(Oh heck, here are some more bacon recipes — you can never have too many.)

Ground Pork

Yet another fun fact: we grind our pork in-house at Gelson’s, so we can make sure it’s as fresh as possible. Ground pork is typically made from the arm shoulder — the area of the pig right below the blade shoulder — as well as the trimmings from all of the different pork subprimals our butchers prepare throughout the day.

You can absolutely use ground pork on its own with aromatics like ginger, sage, and fennel. Think: breakfast and cased sausages, or our favorite, Sichuan-style dry-fried green beans. But for the most part, ground pork is used in addition to other ground meats, like beef, to enhance the flavors of a dish —particularly in sauces, meatloaf, or meatballs, like in Rao's famous recipe.

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