© Denzil Green
Pork is actually a red meat, if only because all meat from "cloven-hooved animals" is categorized as red. Unlike sheep which also provide wool, or cows which also provide milk, pigs only provide meat. Yet, even that isn't entirely true: though only 75% of a pig can be made into meat, the rest of the carcass is also put to many uses: lard, bristles, gelatin, etc.
A female pig is called a sow. A sow can produce two litters of pigs a year, with 8 to 30 piglets per litter. The natural lifespan of a pig is between 10 to 15 years. Most pigs are slaughtered between 4 and 7 months of age, and certainly by 8 months. The heavier ones are sold for bacon. A hog is a pig that weighs over 50 kilos.
Pastured pork comes from hogs that are allowed to graze in pastures or woods. They eat acorns, plants, bugs, snakes, and roots.
Some farmers in North America still keep purebred, pedigreed pigs. These are often old breeds, as opposed to ones which have been cross-bred since the 1980s to produce pork with less fat in it. In America, these pigs are actually registered with the National Swine Registry, so that you can actually trace your meat. Many swear that the meat from them is fattier and better tasting.
Pigs used to be raised to have extra fat on them. Pigs would have a layer of fat on them up to 3 inches (7 1/2 cm) thick. The fat could be sold as fatback, lard and salt pork. It was an extra, bonus product from the pig that would be used in many ways. In the 1940s, North American pigs had 2 3/4 inches (7 cm) of backfat on them; as of 2006, they had an average of less than 3/4 inch (2 cm) of backfat. In America, the fat in pigs was reduced from 1980 to 2000 by over 30 percent. From the 1950s to 2000, it was reduced by 75% overall.
The decreasing amount of fat occurred partly owing to the market for lard having been lost (see history section below), and partly in direct response to perceptions of pork as a "fatty" meat by a consumer market that had a luxury that their ancestors did not -- considering dietary fat a bad thing. For all human generations prior to them, it had been a struggle to get enough of the dietary fat necessary for the fat-soluble vitamins their bodies needed. Through the last half of the 1900s, consumers fled from pork, despite all the marketing campaigns tried by pork producers. Pork started to regain a following around 2003, however, helped out by the Atkins diet, and swankier restaurants started featuring it again.
Whole pig, trussed and spitted
© Roy Schuurhuis
Many wags point of the irony of consumers demanding ultra-lean pork that won't cook properly -- and then sitting down with a bag of chips and a tub of sour cream in front of them.
Pork from male pigs can have a "piggy", "gamey" or "boar" taste and scent that pork from female pigs doesn't have.
Pork is not aged beyond what aging it has undergone during shipping.
Pork contains naturally up to 30 percent water, Sometimes it is "seasoned" (i.e. injected) with saline brine (salt and water.)
This has, in theory, two benefits:
- The reason promoted for the saline injection is that consumers tend to overcook pork, and that the injections help prevent it from drying out so much by making the meat "self-basting." The problem is that many people will cook it past the point where that's going to help anyway, and beyond that, there's the more obvious point that water doesn't keep meat moist, only fat will;
- A reason not made quite so public is that the saline injections pump up the weight of the meat to the sellers' advantage. Injecting saline brine into pork can increase the weight of the meat up to 60%.
A pig carcass is divided by butchers into these "primal" cuts. Primal cuts are not sold to consumers; they are sold whole to retailers.
- Back legs
Choose one of the following for a full-size chart:
A pig has 14 ribs in all on each side. The top part of the ribs that connect with the spin are called baby back ribs. They are called baby because they are smaller than the spare ribs lower down; the term has nothing to do with age of pig. The meat on baby backs will be lean and tender. Don't overcook these, or they will go very dry.
Spare ribs come from the belly area of the pig. Here, the rib bones have become wider than they were up near the spine. Spare ribs have more fat on them than baby back ribs. They come from same area of the pig that pork belly and American bacon come from. The meat on spare ribs is actually not very tender, but with the marbling of fat that they have, they respond well to low and slow cooking.
It is important to clarify the difference between bacon, gammon and ham.
- Bacon is cured meat that is still considered raw and in need of cooking. It can be either thinly sliced meat from the loin (back) or belly, or can be an entire side of cured pork. The side of pork may or may not have the hind legs removed before curing. When destined to become a side of bacon, a pig will have its head removed, then be split in half down its backbone;
- Gammon, like bacon. is cured meat that is still considered raw and in need of cooking. It can refer to the hind leg that was removed from a side of bacon after curing, or it can mean small cuts of meat taken from that leg after it is removed. A whole gammon leg weighs up to 22 pounds (10 kg), making it tricky to cook in a home oven. Gammon is usually milder in flavour than bacon or ham owing to more delicate cures being used;
- Ham, like gammon, comes from the hind leg of the peg. It is also cured, but either more slowly or through air-drying. The cures are usually more elaborate than those used for bacon or gammon.
Some recommend starting the day before, scoring the rind, pouring boiling water over it, basting it with vinegar, and letting it sit in the refrigerator over night. The next day, you rub the oil and salt on.
The most broadly recommended "done" temperature for pork is still a minimum of 71 C / 160 F.
No hormones are licenced for the production of pork in America and Canada. There is no genetically modified pork as of 2006 in America and Canada.
Pork used to be susceptible to carrying a parasite called "trichinae". It also infects deer and bears. The parasite can infest humans and cause a disease called "trichinosis". The disease was finally analysed in 1860.
One modern theory holds that it was trichinosis, and not Salieri, that finished off Mozart. Sometime before his death, he mentioned an upcoming pork dinner, and from what we know of his death, the gestation period and the symptoms match those of trichinosis. Poor Mozart; composed and composed, but done in by a pork chop?
In 1943, the American National Institute of Health reported that 1 out of every 6 people in the United States were infected with trichinosis. Trichinosis is a reportable disease in America. Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands consider themselves free of trichinae. Southeast Asia is also considered trichinae-free. Canada is essentially free from trichinae in domestic pigs aside from in Nova Scotia.
Trichinae is the reason that people used to cook pork to death.
With most North American meat now being government inspected, the likelihood of this parasite reaching your fridge is very low, unless you buy directly from farmers or have home-farmed pigs. The UK, Canadian and US governments have very strict regulations on the raising of pigs to prevent trichinae infection in the animals. Cured hams and canned pork are require cooking by the processors to government set temperatures. In short, as long as you are buying pork from government-inspected sources and following cooking directions, there is no cause for worry.
That being said, there's no reason to ever stop playing it safe. Trichinae is killed at 58 C (137 F .) Owing to the vagaries of people's thermometers, oven thermostats, etc (home cooking thermometers, remember, aren't regulated by any standards board), health boards recommend cooking pork to a minimum of 71 C / 160 F.
The problem is, those extra 13 degrees ( 23 degrees in Fahrenheit) make a huge difference -- because at that temperature, pork loin is overdone and starts to dry out and toughen. Ideally, it should have still a touch of pink in the centre. Do yourself, and pork, a favour. Get a meat thermometer, the instant-read kind, and when the thermometer says the pork is safely cooked, get it off the barbeque, out of the frying pan or out of the oven, and onto people's plates.
Using new "Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point" (HACCP) protocols, many food safety organizations are now saying that pork should be cooked to 63 F (145 F) and held there for 15 seconds, though a few are saying 68 C / 155 F for 15 seconds, These temperatures, these people say, are still far above the temperature at which trichinae is killed off, while still allowing consumers to have juicy moist pork with the leaner meat that is available today.
Some pork cuts, such as Pork Shoulder, you'll want to cook to a higher temperature anyway to render all the fat and collagen.
The higher temperatures that pork used to be cooked to all the time were also needed to render out the fat in pork, but now with all the fat being bred out, the meat just dries out at those temperatures.
Some sources still recommend an even higher temperature that used to be quoted: 76 C / 170 F.
Store cooked pork in the refrigerator and use or freeze with 4 to 5 days.
Pigs in the Middle Ages weighed at least 3 to 4 times less than they do now. At the most, a pig could have been counted on to provide 100 to 110 pounds (45 to 50 kg) of meat. . Domestic pigs were allowed to forage in the forests, and often interbred with their wild boar cousins there. Pictures from the times show pigs with bristles and small tusks on their snouts. Casertano Pigs are an example of this today.
Distinctive breeds of pigs didn't really come along until selective breeding started in the 18th century.
Pork was not considered a light meat; it was a dark red meat from the diet and the exercise the pigs had. The front part of the pig was considered to the best, owing to all the exercise the pig got primarily driven by the hind legs. Now, it is the opposite: the hind is preferred.
Columbus brought eight pigs to the new world on his second trip there in 1493. The pigs multiplied so much that some even went wild again. They spread out throughout Central America. English settlers brought and bred more.
Pigs used to be grouped as either lard pigs or bacon pigs. The lard ones were smaller and thicker, had short legs, and developed a lot of fat. They were fed corn, and grew fast. Bacon pigs were leaner and had more muscle. They fed legumes, grains, and roots such as turnips, and grew more slowly.
Lard pig breeds include Choctaw, Guinea Hog, and Mulefoot. Bacon pig breeds include Berkshire, Duroc, Hampshire, Poland China, Tamorth and Yorkshire.
North American pig breeds were mostly lard ones.
Before the World War Two, Americans consumed 14.9 pounds (6 3/4 kg) of pork per person a year (by 2000, it was down to 1.9 pounds / 850g.)
During World War Two, lard was diverted from the domestic market to the war cause for use in making explosives. Because lard wasn't available, people switched to other fats, such as vegetable oils. New manufacturers sprang up to supply these vegetable oils. After the war, there was obviously a lower demand by the military for explosives, and at the same time, owing to new technologies, what explosives were being made were being made now with chemicals instead of animal fats such as lard. Lard returned to being available for the consumer market. But the vegetable oil producers began advertising their oils as more healthy than lard, so that they wouldn't lose their new-found market share (only 60 years year would health science realize that lard had in fact being healthier than many of the trans-fat vegetable oils all along.) Consequently, pork producers faced a double-whammy. They had lost both the government market for their lard, and their consumer market. This meant that pork producers had to switch breeds, from lard pigs, to bacon pigs.
It used to be that you didn't eat pork after March and April, simply because in the spring and summer you would let them breed and raise piglets, and consequently the slaughtering was done in the fall.
 Jean-Louis Flandrin & Massimo Montanari, Eds. Food: A Culinary History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, page 170.
Literature & Lore
"Pork contains the largest percentage of fat of any meat. When eaten fresh it is the most difficult of digestion, and although found in market through the entire year, it should be but seldom served, and then only during the winter months. By curing, salting, and smoking, pork is rendered more wholesome." -- Fannie Merritt Farmer. Chapter 16. Pork. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. Boston: Little Brown, 1918.
"Any part of the piggy
Is quite all right with me
Ham from Westphalia,
Ham from Parma
Ham as lean as the Dalai Lama
Ham from Virginia, ham from York,
Trotters Sausages, hot roast pork.
Crackling crisp for my teeth to grind on
Bacon with or without the rind on
I'm not a vegetarian.
I'm neither crank nor prude nor prig
And though it may sound infra dig
Any part of the darling pig
Is perfectly fine with me." -- Noel Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973)
"High on the hog" means you get the desirable cuts from the pig, such as the loin or ham, as opposed to the fatty belly or tough shanks and trotters.
McLaughlin, Katy. Now, It's the Other Red Meat: Atkins Craze Gives a Boost To Fattier, Tastier Pork. New York: Wall Street Journal. 13 January 2004.
Pork Cuts Canada: Retrieved from http://www.porkpeople.com/cgi-local/frames.cgi?f=learningcentre 15 August 2006.
Virus warning over undercooked pork after three die: Britons were warned not to eat undercooked pork after three people died from a rare virus. London: Daily Telegraph. 22 October 2010.
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