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Pork, fresh
Why Eat It
Varieties
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Pork has suffered for years from a reputation as a high-fat meat (in large part because many pork products, such as sausage, include a good deal of fat). Yet recent research has shown that, in many cases, "fat as a pig" is no longer an accurate statement. Improved ways of breeding, feeding, and raising pigs mean that fresh pork, on average, is 31% lower in fat, 29% lower in saturated fat, 14% lower in calories, and 10% lower in cholesterol than it was several decades ago.

Pork's improved fat profile does not mean that it's as lean as skinless turkey or chicken breast or lean fish. Only the leanest cuts approach the low fat content of these meats; other lower-fat cuts are comparable to the leanest cuts of beef. Still, pork is an excellent source of B vitamins--it's the leading food source of thiamin, a B vitamin necessary for the conversion of carbohydrates into energy and important for normal functioning of the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Pork also supplies good amounts of iron, zinc, and high-quality protein. Moreover, the fat in pork is slightly less saturated than that in beef.

As with beef, the guidelines for including pork in your diet are to choose lean cuts, eat small portions (3 to 4 ounces cooked), and trim all visible fat before cooking. Unlike beef, you can't rely on a grading system for pork to give you a clue to the fat content of the cut. Because fresh pork is consistent in quality, there is no grading system used. Like beef, pork is inspected by the USDA for wholesomeness.

Varieties

Like beef, pork is divided into primal, or wholesale, cuts that refer to the part of the animal. Pork is subdivided into retail cuts, which are the ones found in the market. For fresh pork, the cut determines the fat content and cooking method. Only one-third of the pork produced each year is sold fresh. The rest is cured, smoked, or processed. Curing was once a method of preserving meat so that it would be available throughout the winter. Today, pork is cured for flavor (see "Pork, cured").

Leg: Fresh hams are from this section of the hog. The whole leg can be sold as a ham that weighs 10 to 14 pounds. More often, it is divided into butt half and shank half (the butt half is much meatier). These cuts are sold with or without the bone. You may also find top leg (inside roast). Sometimes slices are cut from the leg and sold as leg cutlets. Fresh ham supplies 45% of its calories in the form of fat. It can be roasted, though it is sometimes dry; for that reason, braising is a better method. Top leg can be roasted or braised, and leg cutlets can be broiled, braised, or sauteed.

Loin: The loin has the largest number of fresh cuts and also the leanest, with meat that is tender and flavorful. The loin is divided into three parts: blade loin, nearest the shoulder; center loin, and sirloin, nearest the leg. You may also find top loin chops. The cuts from either end are not as tender as the center loin, and thus the center loin is most expensive. You'll find both roasts and chops with or without the bone. Thick chops--an inch or more in thickness--can be broiled, sauteed, or braised. Roasts can be roasted or braised.

Tenderloin: This is sometimes sold on its own as a roast, though more often it is included as part of loin or sirloin chops. It is about a foot long and 2" in diameter at its thickest point. It is well worth searching for; not only is the meat exceptionally tender, but the tenderloin is the leanest cut of fresh pork, with just 26% of its calories coming from fat. Roast or braise the whole tenderloin; it cooks rapidly. Or slice it into medallions and saute the slices.

The loin is also the source of the impressive crown roast, which is two center rib roasts fastened together in a circle to form a hollow that can be stuffed and then roasted. Crown roasts are usually ordered from a butcher, since the backbone must be removed or cracked and the rib ends must be trimmed. Country-style ribs are not true spareribs, but are cut from the shoulder end of the loin. Meatier and leaner than spareribs, they can be braised, broiled, or roasted.

Shoulder: From this section come two large pork roasts, Boston (or shoulder) butt and picnic shoulder, which is really the foreleg of the pig. A Boston butt roast is flavorful, but contains a lot of sinew; it is best braised to dissolve this connective tissue. Picnic shoulder can be roasted or braised. You can also cut these roasts into chunks, marinate them, and grill or broil them for kebabs.

Side: The only fresh cut from this section is spareribs. These are quite fatty (and should be eaten infrequently). They are best roasted, broiled, or braised; you can reduce the fat in spareribs if you parboil them before cooking.

Shopping

Look for cuts of fresh pork that are well trimmed of fat; retailers are now trimming the external fat on pork to about 1/8". The meat should be pinkish-gray to pink in color; the leg and shoulder cuts tend to be darker than the loin cuts. Pork tenderloin is deep red, however. The fat should be creamy white. The bones, if present, should be red and spongy at the ends; the whiter the bone ends, the older the animal was when it was slaughtered and the less tender the meat will be.

Storage

Since the fat in pork is less saturated than that of beef, it turns rancid faster. Fresh pork will keep for two to three days in the refrigerator depending on the size of the cut (smaller cuts spoil more quickly). Keep pork in its original store wrapping in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Cooked pork will keep in the refrigerator for four to five days.

Preparation

Trim all external fat from pork before cooking. Be sure to wash everything that comes in contact with the raw meat in hot soapy water to guard against contamination.

Because of many warnings over the years about pork and trichinosis, many cooks think it is necessary to cook pork to the well-done stage to eliminate this risk. Today, however, trichinosis has been virtually eliminated; most hogs are not fed food scraps (which can carry the parasite), and those that are, by federal law, are fed scraps that have been cooked to destroy parasites. Moreover, most hogs are raised on sanitary lots. These changes have led to a decreased infection rate among hogs; according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, as little as 0.1% of the pork supply nowadays may be infected with Trichinella spiralis, the parasite that causes trichinosis.

Researchers have also discovered that this parasite is destroyed at 137°F, and so the recommended internal temperature of cooked pork has been lowered from 170°F to 160°F (which allows for a margin of safety). At that stage of doneness, the meat is still juicy and slight traces of pink may remain. When cooking a roast, you can remove it from the oven at 155°F and let it stand for 15 minutes before carving; during that time, the temperature will rise to 160°F.

Roasting and broiling: As with other meats, cooking times for pork depend on the size and thickness of the cut, the cooking method, and whether the meat is boneless or boned. Always use a meat thermometer to make sure the pork is fully cooked.

When broiling pork loin or chops, place the meat on a rack 4" from the heat; ribs should be placed 5" from the heat.

Nutrition Chart

Fresh Ham/3 ounces roasted

175
Total fat (g)
6.9
Saturated fat (g)
2.4
Monounsaturated fat (g)
3.2
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.7
Dietary fiber (g)
0
26
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (mg)
82
Sodium (mg)
55
Thiamin (mg)
0.7
Riboflavin (mg)
0.3
Niacin (mg)
4.2
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.3
Selenium (mcg)
42
Zinc (mg)
2.6

Pork Tenderloin/3 ounces roasted

139
Total fat (g)
4.1
Saturated fat (g)
1.4
Monounsaturated fat (g)
1.6
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.4
Dietary fiber (g)
0
24
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (mg)
67
Sodium (mg)
48
Thiamin (mg)
0.8
Riboflavin (mg)
0.3
Niacin (mg)
4
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.4
Selenium (mcg)
41
Zinc (mg)
2.2

Center-Cut Pork Chop/1 broiled

149
Total fat (g)
6
Saturated fat (g)
2.2
Monounsaturated fat (g)
2.7
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.4
Dietary fiber (g)
0
22
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (mg)
61
Sodium (mg)
44
Thiamin (mg)
0.9
Niacin (mg)
4.1
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.4
Selenium (mcg)
35


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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