Putting pork on the menu used to be a pretty straightforward proposition. You would buy unlabeled, commodity pork from a broadline distributor and menu ribs or loin chops that required simple cooking techniques. Not any more. While chops are still popular on menus, today’s diners are demanding more variety, bigger flavor and higher quality. And chefs are delivering, cooking up cuts like bellies, shanks and medallions that call for more innovative preparations. Add to that the growth of the niche pork market, featuring specialty brands, certified all-natural products and heritage breeds, and purchasing pork becomes even more complex.
The pig carcass is divided into four primal cuts by the processor. Some operations order these primals and break them down further in the back of the house, while others prefer purchasing sub-primals (the butt or sirloin, for example) or market-ready cuts, such as a case of loin chops or country-style ribs.
Pork cuts destined for restaurants come chiefly from the loin, shoulder, side and leg of the pig. The loin used to dominate, says Larry Cizek, director of culinary and niche market development for the National Pork Producers Council. But in the last few years, some formerly overlooked cuts have zoomed in popularity. These include shoulders, bellies, cheeks and jowls—all parts of the pig that benefit from long, slow cooking to bring out their rich flavor.
The shoulder includes the front leg and the section on top of the leg. It’s divided into the pork butt or blade shoulder and the picnic or arm shoulder. When braised or stewed, the muscular butt cooks into a tender, flavorful piece of meat. The fattier shoulder is frequently used for barbecued pulled pork or cured and smoked into ham. Both parts of the shoulder can also be roasted or sliced into steaks and grilled.
The side provides ribs. The meaty section at the bottom is the brisket bone; when removed, the resulting cut is St. Louis Style ribs. The belly and the meat that is cured for bacon also come from the side.
The loin extends from the shoulder to the hind leg, covering more than 17 of the leanest, most tender cuts. These include the tenderloin, sirloin chop, loin chop, rib roast, baby back ribs and Canadian bacon.
The leg is located at the rear of the pig and includes the rump and hind leg. The upper part is the butt half, while the lower portion is the shank half. Both are typically turned into smoked or cured hams, although fresh legs are coming into foodservice as roasts and osso buco. The outside and inside muscles of the leg can be cut into cutlets, strips and cubes.
Pork with a plus
Value-added” is the buzzword in the meat industry, and pork is no exception. Dennis Goettsch, VP
of marketing for the foodservice division of Hormel, estimates that pre-seasoned, pre-marinated and pre-cooked pork products are growing at twice the rate of traditional pork cuts. The main reason: they take pressure off the back of the house. Minimum-wage employees can prep these items, it’s easy to maintain portion size and there’s less chance of cross-contamination than with raw meat. Here are the categories that are setting the trend and products you’ll find in each.
Leading the value-added lineup in usage are wood-smoked pork butts, shoulders and ribs—a bonus for restaurants not equipped with smokers.
• Carolina Classic BBQ and Baby Back Pork Ribs (Gwaltney)
• Austin Blues Pulled Pork and Barbeque Ribs (Hormel)
Latin, Italian and Asian flavor profiles dominate value-added pork.
•Smoked Pulled Pork in Island Lettuce Wraps (Tyson)
•Asian Style Sesame Pork Tenderloin (Swift)
• Pork Osso Buco (Hormel)
• Café H Barbacoa (Hormel)
Marinating and brining
Many pork cuts come seasoned and soaked for added flavor and juiciness.
• Always Tender marinated pork rubbed with jerk seasoning (Hormel)
• Marinated Shoulder Roast in several flavors (Smithfield)
• Zesty Garlic and Herb Pork Tenderloin (Swift)
Bacon and sausage
Precooking and bold seasonings move these products away from breakfast and into lunch and dinner applications.
• Café H Jalapeño Bacon (Hormel)
• Fully Cooked Bacon (John Morell and Tyson)
• La Herencia Chorizo Sausage (Swift)
• Louisiana Red Hot Smoked Sausage (Valleydale)
Ideation: Pig on the plate
Sugarcane Skewered Pork Loin
Several of the new appetizers at Wish in Miami Beach, Florida, are adaptations of dishes executive chef Michael Bloise discovered during a recent trip to Vietnam. Inspired by the country’s roadside hibachi stands, he created Sugarcane Skewered Pork Loin. Brined medallions of pork are threaded and grilled on sugarcane stalks then served on a salad of baby greens, Thai basil, bamboo shoots and rice noodles dressed with a soy vinaigrette. “The flavors and textures of this appetizer are in perfect balance,” Bloise says.
Haute Hash and BLTs
Located in Perry, Iowa—the heart of pig-farming country—the Hotel Pattee’s menu features plenty of pork. Executive chef Shad Kirton feels it meshes well with his “comfort food with an edge” theme, reflected in such specialties as Grilled Pork Chops with Triple Pork Hash. “I like to incorporate several types of pork into one dish, contrasting the flavors of smoked and unsmoked meat, for example, or the textures of crisp bacon with soft braised shoulder,” Kirton says.
Baby Backs Front and Center
Meaty St. Louis-style ribs have long been a bestseller at the Columbus, Ohio-based Damon’s Grill. But as part of a menu extension this year, Brett Freifeld, director of food & beverage excellence, has added baby backs to the menu. They go through a 21-step cooking process, including marinating, steaming, saucing and grilling to guarantee tenderness and succulence. Damon’s sweet-tangy barbecue sauce—“a flavor that keeps our customers coming back,” Freifeld says, adds the signature touch.