A Guide to Deciphering a Butcher’s Pork Cut Card

For the uninitiated, a blank processing cut card can be a daunting ordeal, but don't get stressed—it all breaks down to meat.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: Nina Stössinger/Flickr

When we brought our first pair of pigs onto the farm, my wife and I honestly didn’t have a solid plan for raising them, as they’d been an unexpected housewarming gift from some farmer friends. Our first order of business was hurriedly constructing a fenced-in area to hold the little hogs (the fence was not electric, our eventual containment preference following a series of breakouts), then finding a local supplier of overpriced, hand-mixed feed (we soon took to using our own hands to mix their food).

Though we didn’t necessarily want to consider it when those little guys were frolicking in the pasture (and occasionally strolling down the driveway), the day came when we had to find a place to process our pigs so we could feed our family instead of oversized hogs. Luckily for us, a sustainability minded slaughterhouse existed less than an hour from our farm, so we reached out to set our processing dates. They sent us back a cut card, which we eyed with mild confusion and terror.

We’ve filled out myriad cut cards since, but, looking at one on my screen right now, I can understand our initial confusion. In case you’re thinking about raising hogs, I’m here to walk you through what you’ll get from your processor when you set your dates.

A cut card is simply a set of rough instructions for the butcher to follow when taking the saw to an animal’s carcass. Different parts of the body yield different cuts, and individual body parts have the potential to become one of several different packaged products.

The first item on many cut lists is chops. Pork chops come from the loin of a pig, or the top of the body. Options are bone-in or boneless; if you choose boneless, you have the option to receive back tenderloin as either sliced or whole. Some processors let you split the loin into some chops and some boneless, usually half and half, which can give you a nice variety for market. We usually opted for all bone-in chops, which many of our customers liked for their ease of grilling.

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Next come the hams, a hog’s back legs. You can opt to get these back whole or sliced into ham steaks. If you have a market for holiday hams, you can opt to smoke and cure one or both whole. Otherwise, I’d recommend ham steaks—whole, uncured hams are very difficult to sell at market based on their size and price.

The belly can provide a few different cuts, but unless you or your customers are really into smoking meat, this part is best sliced and cured for bacon. Pork belly can be very fatty when cooked and plated, but everybody loves bacon.

Speaking of bacon, custom processing gives you the option to break the boundaries of “bacon” with a few additional options, such as the jowl, or fatty face (cheeks, basically). Opt to smoke and cure this for jowl bacon, which gives you a wide slice that fries up crispy in the pan. Because bacon is the first item to sell out at market, it’s good to have as much available as possible.

The shoulder is another area that can produce bacon, albeit in drier, meatier slices. You won’t see this option on some cut cards, though, as this part of the pig is typically delivered as Boston butt, a large, tender piece of meat that does wonderfully in either a smoker or slow cooker. If you want it as bacon, though, call and ask—a processor can do this for you.

Ribs are ribs, plain and simple. A whole rack can be appealing to the right buyer, but half and spare ribs can feed more customers.

Picnic hams are the front legs. They’re smaller and easier to sell whole, or you can slice them into ham steaks. The lower part of the leg where it meets the hoof is the hock—these are nice in a stew, though they don’t hold as much appeal for the average customer.

It’s worth noting that you can specify “ground” for any of these parts, and some processors will let you determine which percentage of what cuts you’d like delivered as such. But even if you opt to have everything sliced and packaged, you’ll have some meat left over at the end to grind, and most processors give you some sausage options. Casing is usually extra, but it’s also not difficult to persuade people to give a package of bright, red chorizo links a try. We’ve liked to divide our sausage into a variety of offerings—Polish and breakfast links, and sweet Italian packaged were our go-to choices. You’ll often be asked to provide some secondary choices, too, in case the processor runs out of seasoning.

After you return your cut card, you need to start planning your load-in. That’s a whole ‘nuther ordeal.

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