Technomic’s “Spotlight on Center of the Plate” report revealed that 66% of people who enjoy pork and beef are choosing to eat pork at least once a week! Pork’s unlimited versatility, affinity for seasonal produce pairings, comfort style cooking techniques, and reasonable price point has chefs pouncing on this rare merchandising and margin opportunity. “We sell everything but the oink!” is a commonly heard boast in nouveau, millennial-operated butcher shops, and while inconceivable just five years ago, little used off-cuts like ear, trotters, and cracklings are gracing all menus, from the corner bar to the country club dining room. Let’s root around and see what’s changed to suddenly raise the value of our porcine pal!
A Breed Above
Consumers are demanding to know where their food is coming from and the story behind it. Artisan butchery, environmentally sustainable products, and heritage animal breeds were among the top trends chefs cited in the “2016 National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot Culinary Forecast.” A heritage breed, like an heirloom vegetable, is one that has maintained its unique characteristics from generation to generation by controlling reproduction, the best examples of which are Berkshire and Duroc. Berkshire pigs, also raised in Japan and known as Kurobuta, are a black skinned breed traced back to Berkshire County, England. Known for its copious amounts of intramuscular fat, it is often referred to as the “Kobe beef” of pork, noting its remarkably juicy and tender texture. The Duroc breed, a red-skinned variety bred in New England in the early 1800’s, is known for its darker hued meat that in contrast to conventional pork has a much richer flavor. Chefs are proudly showcasing both breeds on their menus citing these nuanced differences. Because the programs used to raise these breeds inherently address many of the aforementioned trends like sustainability, chefs consider them the perfect menu items. With no end in sight for the farm to table movement, it seems the sky is the limit for these newer breeds of pork.
A Cut Above
The most popular cut of pork is the upper shoulder (known ironically as the butt or Boston butt), and due to its perfect ratio of marbling to lean muscle it’s ideal for making sausage and smoking low and slow for pulled pork. Right under the butt is the picnic ham or arm roast, a cut sometimes smoked and pulled depending on who’s doing the cooking, and also ground for sausage. Next in popularity is the ham or rump, its lean nature lending itself to curing and brining, and is best sliced cold for sandwiches or slow roasted and carved hot to order. The pork loin, from the animal’s back, is lean and tender, and the source of boneless or bone-in pork chops, best grilled or seared using high heat. Next to the loin is the rib, sold as a roast or parted into chops, often with an inch or two of the bone trimmed and exposed, known as “Frenched.” The ribs, both baby-back and spare, are BBQ icons, and the shanks, commonly offered as “pork osso bucco,” have enjoyed an uptick in interest recently as well. Pork belly, braised or slow roasted until tender, has exploded in popularity, and its cured and smoked version is everyone’s favorite, bacon!
Of course there’s much more than the familiar cuts, and the trend of nose to tail butchery is making the most out of all of them. The ear can be boiled, sliced, and fried to make crispy pork fries, and the jowl (cheek), found in American soul food, can be cured to make guanciale, a staple in Italy. There is little on the pig that can’t be used; even the connective tissues and bones can be used in stocks, particularly when making the very trendy tonkotsu ramen broth.
Packing in Flavor
Braising, roasting, frying, and grilling are reliable cooking methods when it comes to pork. But there are other methods that can show off your kitchen’s mastery of technique while boosting flavor. Marinades, brines, and rubs offer a way for you to differentiate from the competition. These allow you to layer flavors while often also tenderizing and moisturizing the meat to take it to another level of delicious. One excellent way to utilize marinades, brines, and rubs is with on-trend global flavors. African, Latin American, Southeast Asian, and Mediterranean work especially well with the versatility of pork. Korean spices such as gochujang and Vietnamese staples such as fish sauce are bold flavors that pork can stand up to. Or combine flavor profiles: think pork carnitas bao buns or Korean barbecue pork tacos.
When constructing pork offerings, seriously consider seasonally available produce. Reports from Maines’ partner Markon make it easy to know what’s available now, and what’s right around the corner. Sensitivity to seasonality lends a layer of environmental awareness to your menu, and adds value by showing your customers you’re engaged and interested in bringing only the freshest products to the table.