Friday, May 18, 2012

Pork Shoulder Breakdown

Put your banjos away.  It's not that kind of breakdown.  It is a song, though, a song of praise to a noble piece of meat, versatile, delicious, and cheap.  While the price of local, small-producer beef can be frighteningly high, excellent pastured pork remains a carnivore's bargain.  My quest for meaty nirvana used to center around the search for the perfect steak, and while great steaks are now easier to come by than ever before, I often pick pig over cow when I think of firing up the grill (honestly, I think about firing up the grill just about every day...).  For the ambitious cook, pork is much more versatile than steak.  What do you do with a steak?  Grill it or fry it, maybe make a sauce.  You probably want to just taste the great beefy flavor of a pricey bone-in rib-eye, and there's nothing wrong with that.  But pork is much more an ensemble player than a steal-the-spotlight diva.  You want to add flavors to the meat, because pork accommodates various seasonings so well, and you want to put interesting sides on the plate, because pork plays well with others.

Shoulder bone out.

Pork chops, pork steaks, spareribs, fresh ham, country style ribs, pork belly--I like them all (pork loin or tenderloin, less so).  When you pick up a pork shoulder you've got a cut of meat that has the qualities of nearly all those other cuts, except perhaps the spareribs.  Here's how I deal with a pork shoulder roast of a little more than four pounds, four pounds five ounces, to be exact.  At $4.19 a pound at Seward Co-op , the roast cost $18.01, and will provide the two of us with four meals.  Eight person-meals for $18.01 equals $2.25 per.  A steal, in my book.

This was a so-called "Boston butt," a misleading term, since it comes from the front of the hog, not the rear as "butt" implies.  The butt or Boston butt is the upper part of the shoulder, while the lower part is called a picnic shoulder or sometimes just a pork shoulder roast.  Here's the National Pork Board's explanation for the puzzling terminology, which I found on this appetizing website :

"In pre-revolutionary New England and into the Revolutionary War, some pork cuts (not those highly valued, or "high on the hog," like loin and ham) were packed into casks or barrels (also known as "butts") for storage and shipment. The way the hog shoulder was cut in the Boston area became known in other regions as "Boston Butt." This name stuck and today, Boston butt is called that almost everywhere in the US,. except in Boston."

A good boning knife comes in handy here, and I love my Global flexible boning blade, but a sharp paring knife will work, too.  The butt has just one smallish bone in it, and you extract it by keeping the knife close to the bone, working all around it.  It's kind of oddly shaped, so slightly tricky to remove, but with a little perseverance it comes out in just a minute or two.  It weighed five ounces, leaving me with four pounds of meat.  The bone isn't wasted, by the way--I smoked that to add flavor to a soup or bean pot.

Then, by cutting along the very obvious fat and membrane line between the two major muscles, you get what we see above.  On the left, a 2 1/2 pound piece that could be roasted or smoked whole, although here I'm going to break it down further, as you'll see; and the dimly lit piece on the right, which I ground up for sausage and Chinese preparations (like mapo doufu, fish-fragrance eggplant, ants-climb-a-tree).  You could get a couple more grill-worthy pieces off the righthand piece, too, or chunk it up to make stew.  And, of course, you can roast or smoke the shoulder entire, turn it into pulled pork, carnitas, or various other delicacies.  My purpose here is to demonstrate the versatile nature of this cut.

So I cut that solid block into four cutlets of about six ounces each (I quite amazed myself with my butchering exactitude, as each cutlet was exactly 5.75 ounces), and a one-pound chunk that I intended to smoke-roast.  And here's what that looked like when I did:

The cutlets are great grilled, broiled, or fried.  I recently wrote about a steam-grill technique that produced exquisitely good results.   These aren't dainty pieces of meat, and the cooking of them does not require extreme precision, which is another thing I love about pork shoulder--it's not going to be ruined if it sits on the grill for another minute or two, or five, or that matter, unlike that pricey T-bone that will lose much of its appeal if it goes a tad past medium-rare.

Last night we feasted, absolutely feasted, I tell you, on that smoke-roasted chunk, thinly sliced and bathed in an extremely interesting burnt honey-rhubarb gastrique, with cassoulet cakes and sautéed wood nettles and ramps, details to follow.  Tonight I'll fry off a quick sausage I made from some of the ground pork (added salt, some fennel, some really nice powdered chile from New Mexico, garlic, shallot), add some chopped wild greens and serve that on pasta in a dish inspired by this recent David Tanis "City Kitchen" column.

That's the pork report.  Good eating to all.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

Funny, I just made a deposit on our 1/2 pig for the year. We'll get her in October.

The downside of buying by the half is you're committing to breaking the pig down into pieces frozen "as you like it," which means little if you're accustomed to buying your meats a la carte at places like your co-op. So I inevitably get a call from some nice lady at the butcher's to walking me through the process, asking me gently if I like my butts and my picnics and how big. (As if.) So it's been a lesson, finding/dethawing/cooking these big chunks of whatsit!

But having it not frozen and just waiting for you to cut it apart? Maybe I am missing something by buying it from my farmer. Hmm.

pig out, man!

Atenderloin said...

Great post, as always, Brett. Any chance we'll be seeing your take on a porchetta shoulder roast sometime?

It's a deer camp favorite for us, and I'd love to see where you take it.

s said...

Yum, what a lovely hunk of meat! I too am not that familiar with pork cuts, but I did get the opportunity to go to town on my very own pork shoulder at a sausage class this winter. This is a perfect review, it's just how they taught us!

Charles Leck said...

Oh, how wonderful sounding. I'll give it a try this summer. Thanks for continuing to work so hard on this blog. It means a great deal to a lot of us.

Farmer Dave said...

Boston Butt is my favorite cut - very tasty with a plethora of options for prep and execution. Smoking a whole bone-in is my preferred method but I found another yummy angle:
Obviously, take the basics and spin them as you like with what ya got - tasty!
PS - ya gotta make the BrewFarm scene again soon - lots of new "pork-friendly" beers a-flowin'!



Paul Rauber said...

Inspirational! Good tips on a favorite cut. Brett, on another matter, could you email me? I need your assistance re. a story in Sierra magazine. Thanks PR

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: I've never gotten into buying mass quantities of meat. We got half a lamb a couple years ago, and it took us forever to get through it. But as we settle in to country life, I could see doing the half a hog thing.

Lucas, I don't believe I've ever done the classic porchetta--always makes me think Iron Range. I'll look into it.

Hi Sara: We're still doing a fair bit of our food shopping in town, and that was a Pastures A'Plenty roast from Seward Co-op. Basic sausage making is really so simple--and not as scary as it's made out to be, when you do it yourself with quality ingredients.

Thanks, Charlie! Great to see you at Mill City.

Hey, Dave: Yes, I like to smoke a whole shoulder at least once a summer. We'll definitely check out doings at the Brew Farm, too.

Paul, thanks for stopping by. Pork shoulder is definitely one of those cuts where you benefit from a little DIY and know-how in the kitchen. Fabulous taste for next to nothing--speaking of which, in calculating cost/meal, I forgot about the pound of ground meat I stuck in the freezer, so that number is probably down under $2.00/person/meal.

Cheers, all~ Brett