I love taking advantage of opportunities to learn more about where our food comes from, so I was excited to join the National Pork Board for a trip to Central Illinois to visit pig farms and to learn about cooking with and buying pork.
How to Buy Pork
One day of the trip was spent in the kitchen with Chef Neel Sahni. He taught us the tricks to buying the perfect piece of pork, and he did a butchering demonstration to teach us about different cuts of pork.
When you are shopping for pork, you want to pick pork that is reddish pink, firm, and that doesn’t have residual liquid in the packaging. Take the pork out of the meat case, sometimes that lighting can make the meat look more pink than it really is.
The color of pork indicates the water holding capacity of the meat. Pork that is darker in color has more liquid. This means that once cooked it will have more moisture and flavor.
Check the meat for marbling which indicates fat content. Fat is flavor, so you want to select meat that is marbled with some fat.
Check the labels for the USDA stamp that indicates that every animal is inspected before processing. Unlike beef, there is no grading scale for pork, but there are specific labels that indicate if the meat is organic. In the United States it is illegal to raise pigs using hormones; some pork might have a label indicating the meat is hormone free, but that label isn’t necessary.
Once cooked, pork loses about 20% of its weight, take this into consideration when determining how much meat to purchase.
Different Cuts of Pork
Chef Neel Sahni gave a presentation about cuts of pork. When you are selecting a cut of pork it is important to know that different cuts of pork need to be prepared differently.
Ham (bone in, boneless, smoked, or fresh) is best when grilled, broiled, or roasted.
Ribs (Spareribs and St. Louis-style) should be barbecued or roasted. Country-style and pork back ribs can be braised, barbecued, or roasted.
Larger cuts of pork such as Pork Shoulder (also called Pork Butt), Shoulder Blade Roast, and Picnic Roasts can be sautéed, stewed, barbecued, or roasted. Pork Shoulder is great for making pulled pork.
Loins and chops including New York Pork Chops, Ribeye Pork Chops, Porterhouse Pork Chops, and Sirloin Pork Chops can be sautéed, braised, grilled, or broiled.
Sirloin Pork Roasts, Racks of Pork, Top Loin Roasts, and Center Rib Roasts should be grilled, broiled, or roasted.
Pork tenderloin is best when prepared by sautéing, grilling, broiling, or roasting.
Both Pork Tenderloin and Sirloin are more lean than chicken breast and are heart health certified by the American Heart Association.
How to Cook Pork
Cook whole muscle pork (pork that isn’t ground) to 145 degrees, and let it rest for three minute before serving. It is ok for the pork to have a light pink color. This cooking temperature is approved by the FDA. It is not necessary to cook whole muscle pork to 160 degrees, that often results in pork that is too dry and less flavorful.
Purchase pork no more than a week prior to cooking and always check expiration dates.
My Favorite Pork Recipes
Pear and Blue Cheese Stuffed Pork Tenderloin – Pork tenderloin is butterflied and filled with white wine poached pears, shallots, blue cheese, and rosemary.
Roasted Pork Loin – Seasoned with mushrooms, shallots, thyme, and tarragon and served with a gravy this is an elegant meal to serve at a dinner party.
Caramelized Onion and Blue Cheese Stuffed Pork Tenderloin – This recipe is all about rich flavors. The pork is stuffed with caramelized onions and blue cheese and served with a mushroom gravy.
BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches – An easy slow cooker recipe that feeds a crowd.
Ham and Pea Soup – A rich and creamy soup and a perfect way to repurpose leftover ham.
Visiting Pig Farms
A highlight of the trip was visiting Borgic Farms where I learned that pig farming is a more complex and technologically advanced operation than I had imagined.
In the past, pig farms raised pigs from farrow to finish, which is the industry term for raising pigs from birth until they are ready to go to market. Now, farmers have learned that it is more efficient to specialize. At Borgic Farms, pigs are raised from birth until they are weaned, and then they are bought to another farm where they are cared for until they go to market.
The Borgics team up with 60 different family owned farms that raise their pigs from weaning to finishing. The Borgics still own the pigs and they provide the feed. The Borgic’s partners own the barns and provide water and daily care for the livestock. After we visited Borgic Farms we got to visit one of these operations run by Dereke Dunkirk.
Partnerships like the one between the Borgics and Dereke allow more families to stay in the farming business by providing them with long term contracts and guaranteed income. These partners are also able to use the manure to fertilize their fields. Most of these farmers grow crops like corn and soybeans in addition to caring for pigs.
A key theme that came up again and again was sustainability. The farmers strive to run their farms as sustainably as possible. Part of that process is collecting manure to use as natural fertilizer. Borgic Farms and their partners collect manure to be used as a natural fertilizer. Many farms are incorporating solar power to increase sustainability. Currently, pork production accounts for just 0.46% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Another major takeaway was the passion that everyone had for farming, it was clear that the farmers we met had their dream jobs. Not only do they love their jobs, they love caring for pigs. They make sure that every pig is seen every day, no small feat when there are 10,000 pigs at a farm.
That night we had dinner with a few Illinois pork farmers where I met Gary Asay. When I asked him if he eats the pork from the pigs he raises on his farm he said no, he shops at the grocery store just like me. He explained that he knows enough about pig farming in the United States to happily support other producers and to shop at the grocery store.
This post is sponsored by the National Pork Board; all opinions are my own, Thank you for supporting the brands that make The Kittchen possible.