What Cuts to Get When Butchering a Pig: A Complete Guide

What cuts to get when butchering a pig? Well, you can choose numerous cuts from the shoulder, pork belly, loin, ham, and head.

I have a little bit of experience in sectioning a pig and so I can walk you through the steps.

In this post, I will outline major and minor sections for you. I will also provide some guidance on how to butcher a pig. Let's begin!

What Cuts Are in Half a Pig?

Butcher slicing meat

Here is a brief summary of what you can expect with a portion of a pig. These are just the primal cuts - I will discuss each section in greater detail later on. The main five sections are:

  • The Shoulder Section
  • The Loin Section
  • The Belly Section
  • The Ham Section
  • The Head Section

What Do You Get When You Butcher a Whole Hog?

Most people buy or butcher just half a pig. However, what if you were to get the entire pig? What cuts would you get then?

Well, you would get the exact same cuts as with half the animal - but just double the amount.

In case you are wondering what the point is of getting the whole animal, the answer is simple, you get more meat.

So, should you go ahead and get an entire pig?

Well, this all depends on the amount of meat you can feasibly prepare, eat, and store. If you are catering to a large gathering then a whole pig makes sense. This is true if you have a big, pork loving family. In many cases, you can get a discount on the whole carcass.

On the other hand, if you aren't planning on big cookouts anytime soon or just don't have the space to store so much meat, then it may not make as much sense.

Primal and Subprimal Cuts

Now, what cuts to get when butchering a pig? Well, here is a breakdown of the main portions as well as the smaller cuts that you can get from them:

Shoulder

The section behind th head from the top of the front leg to the trotter on the same side is known as the shoulder. The shoulder muscles are large and quite tough. This is because these get the most amount of exercise. Although the meat is quite lean here, there is quite a bit of fat as well.

Due to this, these sections of meat respond best to low and slow preparation such as barbecuing, braising, and stewing. This allows to break down connective tissues and allow the meat to become nice and tender.

The most common cuts in the shoulder are pork shoulder which is also known as picnic shoulder and pork butt. Pork butt may also be referred to as Boston butt.

  • Picnic Shoulder: this is a fatty cut, with plenty of flavor. You can have it bone in or boneless, depending on your preference. This is one of the cheaper pieces as it does require a significant amount of preparation time.
  • Pork Butt: this is a cut from the upper section of the front shoulder. The most common way to use Boston butt is as pulled pork. It may be sold with or without the shoulder blade still attached. As with the pork shoulder, there is lots of connective tissue here and must be cooked slowly, over a low heat. In addition to other methods of cooking, slow roasting is an option with this cut. One of the reasons that this portion is so popular is because it is easy to cook. All that fat means that it isvery difficult to overcook the meat.

Loin

Cuts taken from the loin are probably what people are most familiar with. There are also a considerable number of cuts that come from this area as well. The meat from here is quite tender as the muscles don't get much exercise.

While it is quite common for the pork loin to be cut up into sections as chops or cutlets, it can be roasted as a whole, too. Just above the loin, there is a fatback that can be used for lard or salt pork. It can also be added to ground pork and sausage.

Ribs, loin chops, and pork chops are taken from this area.

  • Baby Back Ribs: these are cut from the part of the ribcage that is closest to the spine. They get their name from the fact they are quite small. The meat on them is lean as well. They taste best when grilled or roasted.
  • Rib Chops: these are taken from the rib portion of the loin. These are sometimes sold as boneless pork chops. These are quite fatty which means they are loaded with flavor. These can be grilled, pan fried, or braised.
  • Country Style Ribs: these are removed from the blade end of the loin, close to the picnic shoulder. Don't let the name fool you, these are boneless. They also have a significant amount of meat and it is quite tender. Grilling, pan searing, and braising is the way to go here.
  • Tenderloin: this is a thin and long cut of meat taken from the center of the loin. It is found under the backbone of the pig. It is lean and flavorful, but you do have to be careful when cooking it as it quite small and doesn't contain much marbling. It is best as roasts, but it can be pan seared or sauteed.

Belly

This cut is aptly named as it actually comes from the belly of the hog. This part of the pig is quite popular as after it has gone through a curing and smoking process, it is known as bacon. All types of bacon are made from this section including Canadian bacon, slab, rasher, jowl, and more.

However, there is so much more to pork belly than people realize. It can be diced and used for stir-frys or can even function as steaks. Pork belly is particularly favored in Asian cuisines.

  • Spare Ribs: these are taken from the ribcage that is closest to the sternum. They have a portion of the breastbone attached and are less curved than loin back ribs. They work best when barbecued or roasted.
  • St. Louis Style Spare Ribs: these are essentially spare ribs that have been trimmed down. As a result, they have a more uniform shape. This makes them easier to cook evenly. These, too, can be barbecued or roasted.

Ham

This is the backmost portion of the pig, from the hips to the knees. The meat here can be sold or consumed fresh, cured, or smoked.

  • Shank: the leg of the pig is divided into shank end and the rounded sirloin end. The shank is covered with a great deal of fat and skin. As such, you often have to score it before cooking it. The shank is best enjoyed after roasting.
  • Sirloin: this is a rather bony section but it does make up for it with its delicious flavor. You can roast this cut although you should be warned that it can be tricky to carve once done.

Related Reading

Head

I left this for last because not everyone considers the head to be a cut of the pig. This is largely because people can find it distressing to eat this particular part of the animal and tend to avoid it.

This is a shame because it does have a lot to offer. You can get pork jowl, which is cured and smoked pork cheeks. The meat from the head can also be cooked down to form head cheese, a spicy pork loaf. This may sound odd, but it is actually a delicacy.

Related Reading

Other Cuts

Most people tend to focus on the primal and subprimal segments when they think of proper cuts. However, there are plenty of other portions that can be enjoyed.

One of these is the ham hock, which is also known as pork knuckles, they aren't used as other cuts on this list. While they are prized for their tendons and flavor, they are typically added to stews to thicken them up and add taste. As such, you will find them added to sides such as baked beans and collards.

Slicing of fresh raw meat

Many people also consider the organ meats to be a certain type of cut. This is because pieces such as kidneys can be mixed with ground pork and seasonings to make delicious sausage.

You can also use the spine bones for pork rillette. This is where you would take the bones and some fat and add in spices and alcohol. Cook these ingredients down and then separate the fat, but preserve it. Peel the meat from the bones, place it in a jar, pour the fat on top, and wait for it to solidify. It can be enjoyed with bread.

Then there are the trotters which are the pig's feet. While they can be served on their own, they are often added to stock for additional fat and flavor.

Should You Butcher a Pig By Yourself?

Now, usually I am all about DIY and I encourage others to get their hands dirty when it comes to prepping, cooking, etc.

Butchering, however, is another story entirely. Even as a professional chef, my skills are limited in this area. Yes, I know how to cut, trim, etc. but actually cutting up an entire or even a portion of an animal is something that I have only tackled a few times.

The reason that I would caution you against handling this task on your own is that this can take a great deal of skill. Most butchers have spent a while mastering this art. Diving right into this could mean that you lose a lot of valuable meat.

If you are determined to give a try, though, the below guide should help you to get started. Personally, I would recommend a lesson or two from your butcher or sticking to expertly carved meat from your local butcher shop.

A Guide to Butchering a Hog

If this is your first try, I would suggest starting with half a pig as a whole animal will be too much to handle right now.

What You Will Need?

Remember to always use a sharp knife as you will then have to make less effort when cutting through tough meat and tissue.

Now, a lot of people wonder if they should be using a saw to get through all of these tough sections, but I would advise you to avoid it. It is far better to rely on a sharp knife and your own strength.

There are a few different problems with sawing. First of all, even hand saws generate a lot of heat due to the continous up and down motion of the blade. This can cause the muscles to oxidize faster and it isn't something that you want.

On top of this, whenever you saw through bone, you risk getting bone dust in the meat which can compromise the texture. So, all in all, it is far better to just use a good knife.

Of course, when it comes to thick bone, you have no choice but to use a saw. However, you should always wait until you have to use it.

That being said, you should also be mindful of where the hand not holding the knife is at all times. This is especially important when pushing the knife down with force or tugging it upward through muscle. Make sure that your hand is well out of the way.

The Cutting Pathway

When you are ready, the first thing that you should do is to remove the leaf lard. This is found near the pork loin. You should also remove the kidneys at this point - you can choose to discard them or keep them to use in sausage later on.

The next thing you will do is remove the flank section. Once you have done this, move your knife along the lumbar vertebrae, up to the sacral vertebrae and to the aitch bone. This is fairly easy to do as it is a natural path to follow.

Once you cut through these connections, you should be able to lift and cut out the tenderloin.

The next step involves cutting through the shoulder section. This involves cutting through the ribs. Now, when deciding where to slice through, you have to think about how the meat is going to be used.

Typically, most butchers would count between the fifth and sixth rib before slicing through. However, if you need the meat for charcuterie, then you would require specific muscles to be elongated. In this case, you would slice between the sixth and seventh rib.

Once you have cut through, you can joint so that you don't have to use any other instruments to remove the section. Next up, you will be removing a bit more of the flank section.

Try skinning the meat and move the skin out of the way. It is really tough to slice through and there is no point in making that effort. When you do this, you will see the last verterbrae in the lumbar section. Joint it and you should be able to remove it without too much hassle.

Now you have to separate the belly from the loin. As you are doing this, make sure that you are cutting so that you get a good portion of tail and rib bone. This will come in hand when you are slicing up pork chops later on.

As you have separated the main segments, it is time to focus on the smaller edible cuts.

You can start by removing the trotters off the legs. Next, find the joint between the ulna, radius, and the humerus bone. Cut across here and use the weight of the above segment to break that portion off.

The next thing that you should do is to locate the natural curve of the spine. It is at this point that you will be separating the butt and the shoulder. You will carefully slice along this curve until you get to the bone.

At this point, you may want to use some kind of saw to get through more easily. Once you are done you have two cuts - the top half is the picnic and the bottom is the butt.

Then, you can remove the spine. It is up to you whether you want to get rid of this area. If you want to keep it, you can make pork rillette.

Then you move along the longissimus muscle right along the shoulder blade. The knife should slice through this area smoothly. You will come across some excess fat here - cut it off but it is up to you whether you want to use it later on or throw it away.

Remove the longissimus muscle completely. Take out the scapula area as well.

Next, move along the natural seam, snipping off pieces of skin as you go. You are then left with a portion of meat that can be turned into pork roasts. Continue along the seam and take out the area of spare ribs.

The remaining area can function as a full roast.

The next area to attend to is the belly. Make careful cuts here around the spare ribs because the belly meat is quite useful. Remove the abdominal muscle and the gland in this area.

Next up is the loin. Cut between the vertebrae so that you will not have to saw through muscle. After this, you slice through each vertebrae, keeping some of the rib bone in. Then, saw through the base of the spine. Cut around the vertebrae.

For the final portion, you will start by cutting off the trotter. Then, you de-bone the sirloin by removing the sacral vertebrae and the part of the hip that is still connected to the aitch bone.

Remove the aitch bone and then slice away the tibia from the femur. Then you remove the sirloin steak. After this, it is matter of slicing the ham section into cuts that you can cook.

This area requires a bit more skinning than others. There is also quite a bit of fat here. Trimming is a personal choice. Some people only marginally trim while others like to make sure that most of the fatty layer is gone.

The cuts should be based on how you are planning to prepare the meat. If you don't have any specific plans now, then leave them as larger chunks. Once you have decided on your dish, then cut it down to suit your needs. This way, you can guarantee that you will have as much flavor as you need.

maturing meat by hanging the carcass from a hook

What is the Most Valuable Cut of Meat From a Pig?

The center cut of the pork loin is often considered the most sought after portion of the pig. If it is cooked just right, for the proper amount of time, you end up with a tender and moist section of meat.

Due to this, this cut is also the most expensive option.

How Much Meat Do You Get From a 250 Pound Pig?

Now, you should be aware that the information that I'm about to give you is based on retail cuts - aka what ends up in your grocery store or even your local butcher shop. If you are butchering the hog yourself, then you may be a bit more careful with what you cut away, resulting in a greater final mass.

In general, though, you can expect to lose up to 43 percent of meat. Some of this is because only around 72 percent of the animal is made up of edible cuts.

The rest of the loss can be attributed to moisture loss, fat trimming, bone dust, boning, and grinding.

This is what you need to know about what cuts to get when butchering a pig. As you can see, there are far more segments than you might have imagined.

Now that you are all caught up, though, you can choose to butcher your own meat. If not, you can simply be a better judge of what you need when you are down at the local butcher.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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