Pork Part 2 — Lifehacking Tips for Cooking Excellent Pork Dishes with More Affordable Cuts.
Consumers have long been looking for alternatives to the most prized part of the pig — the pork belly. In this article, I have decided to find substitutes without compromising taste and bite.
Before we dive into the anatomy of a pig, let’s talk about prices. Premium retailers like AA meat shop and Sanbanto are retailing it at RM39 per kilo. Different supermarkets are selling pork belly between the range of RM30-RM46 per kilo. But let’s make this article about everyone. The wet markets in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya sell pork belly at RM24–26 per kilo today. This price has skyrocketed from RM20 last year because of two major factors.
- A broiler takes 40 days to produce while a pig requires 180 days to grow to its full potential. Broilers, or mass-produced chicken, are injected with growth hormones until the day of consumption. That makes them much cheaper to produce. In comparison, free-range or organic chickens take over 60–70 days to reach the same size. Even these healthy birds are within the RM20–30 per kilo price range.
- Last year one of the biggest farms in Malaysia recently closed its doors, reducing pig count by at least 20,000 heads. In our country, where most farms only rare between 3,000 to 5,000 pigs, it is a significant drop.
The story goes that the owner’s land was near the Iskandar development area. He got someone to evaluate the value of his plot of land, and it turns out this land was worth over RM100 million. This meant it would make the retiree an instant millionaire. So, he sold it without hesitation. His decision pushed pig prices up by 20% within three months of closure.
The third issue is with you and me. The general consumer hardly knows how to use other parts of the pig. Ask a friend what comes to mind when you talk about pork and chances are 7 out of 10 people respond with ‘bacon’, ‘siew yoke’, ‘char siew’ or ‘bak kut teh’! Which part of the pork do you think was used to make these scrumptious dishes? The belly!
A pig has only 8–10 kilos of belly, and until we can produce pork belly in test tubes, you can expect prices to continue with an upward trend.
The whole pig weighs 100 kilos and the belly is only 10% of its weight.
What about the other parts?
Sausages. Awww yes! Local producers only use a mixture of butt muscles and pure fat to produce sausages, hams, jerky(bak kua), pork floss, and meat balls. That is another 40% of the pig.
We are now down to 50%…
The ribs and loin consist of another 12–15% of the pig. These are also some of the popular parts used for barbeque ribs, dim sum ribs, bak tuk teh, steaks, and chops.
There is still another 35%.
I am going to talk a lot about this 35% that you and I hardly pay attention to. I admit, I am guilty of forgetting these cuts.
First advice — Please, do not pork substitute with chicken.
Poultry will never live up to the taste and complex flavours that pork gives unless you science the hell out of it! The remaining 35% comes from the shoulder, which includes eight different cuts. In Western countries the shoulder is only sectioned into five or six parts. Limiting usage to making sausages, broths, stews, and barbecues.
Have you ever wondered why your neighbourhood economy rice is so cheap? These vendors use these parts to their advantage, and so can you. Once you have learned how to use these cuts, you will realise they are gold!
The whole shoulder consists of the butt, arm, brisket bone, doggy bone, ribs, collar bone, shoulder meat, and front hock. Except for the ribs and the butt, each of these parts are roughly 15–30% cheaper compared to the belly.
You must be wondering “why is the butt part of the shoulder?” Ironically, the butt is where the neck is. The Westerners call it a butt while most Asians call it the neck. The neck is often used in Western recipes where ‘low-n-slow’ is called for. Recipes like pulled pork, slow roasts, and Japanese cha siu. Another great way to use this meat is for stews. You can embrace it anytime when you have no pork belly. It is the perfect substitute because you can cook it exactly the way you would cook a pork belly. For quick solutions, have a pack of pork neck for shabu-shabu or have it with instant noodles!
The neck has great amount of marbling, which also makes for great steaks.
Try this recipe at home. Ask your butcher for a 1.5-inch thick slice of pork neck and remove the skin. Marinate it with salt, pepper, paprika, and rosemary for two hours. Then pan fry it over low heat for 10 minutes each side, with a little oil. What you will get is a juicy and succulent piece of steak that tastes much better than the loin.
THE SHOULDER ARM
The arm is a tricky bugger! Known to butchers and aunties as the ‘but keen teen’, the left half is super lean and the other has the perfect fat to meat ratio — the thirty/seventy. Thirty percent of fat and seventy percent of lean meat. They call it so because it is the pig’s armpit which, like ours, never sees daylight. The lean part is so lean, it allows you to cook soup with it. Most Cantonese aunties in Malaysia know this too! Just ask your butcher to remove the skin and you are good to go.
What do you do with the fatter part? Easy! Grind it, dice it, or slice it thinly. You can make pork bolognese, meatballs, top it up on steamed tofu, or stir fry with ginger and spring onion.
My personal favourite is to use it for bak kut teh. It is, after all, what some BKT shops use to substitute the belly anyway. By doing so, you have a cost saving of thirty percent. The trick here is timing. Not all pigs are created equal, but a general idea is forty-five minutes plus ten to fifteen minutes. If the lean part has minor marbling, then you should only need forty-five minutes. Otherwise, longer. This makes eating BKT at home with the shoulder arm almost 50% cheaper than eating out.
This leads us to the next crucial part of BKT. I know the cook in you is asking “Where got people eat BKT without bones one? Walau, you sure you know your stuff or not?” Enter the collarbone. The cheaper and softer cousin of the rib.
Not all butchers sell this cut to consumers because it is easier to sell to eateries, who are not too picky. Before proceeding to purchase this cut, there are few things to consider. Size and meat to bone ratio. Try to eyeball the collarbone before buying it because poor judgment may lead to a waste of good money. Make sure it is a 50:50 meat to bone ratio. Any less meat is not worth buying. Once you have found a good piece, ask your butcher to cut it to slightly larger than bite-size pieces. Do not settle for anything larger because it will be heavy to lift with a chopstick, and it will take too long to cook.
If you still love your ribs then you should buy the ribs on the shoulder, which are meatier and better for barbeques. Which leads us to the next item.
THE SHOULDER RIB
The ribs located at the shoulder are meatier and more flavourful than the ribs located at the belly. Few people know the difference because we just know it as a rack of ribs. Bound with mild marbling, the shoulder ribs suits barbaques, low-n-slow roasts and braises. What you should not do is use them for soups, steaming, or steaming because it will be oily.
THE SHOULDER MEAT
Sorry but I lost my photos somewhere and could not find it. Neither did I have time to take more photos again so bear with me for the next few minutes.
This guy is the second leanest part of the shoulder. The first being the leaner side of the shoulder arm, which I mentioned earlier. Grind it for fried meat balls with sweet and sour sauce or any ground meat recipe that requires a longer cooking time.
These guys are the economy rice owner’s best friend because they are one of the cheapest meats. Whether it is sweet and sour pork, deep fried butter pork, curry pork, pork stewed in soy sauce, the shoulder meat will do the job. Just add a tiny bit of sodium bicarbonate and it will work. Those stir-fried dishes served up by economy rice shops are also done with shoulder meat. I have also tasted pretty amazing ‘hong bak’ with this meat in Klang.
Why is this cut so cheap? It is not bad meat but chefs find it difficult to work with because of its unforgivable nature. It is lean and has a lot of connective tissues that requires careful attention. Cook it 10 minutes short of perfect and you will end up with a stringy texture. Overcook it by 10 minutes and you have a tough piece of meat.
However, there is good news! Apart from grinding it, you can stew or braise it too. If done right, connective tissues break down and create a soft texture suitable for low-n-slow cooking methods. My personal favourite is pork rendang. It is crazy tedious but the result is worth the effort. I have done it a dozen times and believe me when I say it is a crowd pleaser.
THE FRONT HOCK
Braise, stew, deep fry, roast or make a thick broth with it. We all know what a pork leg can do, but there is a difference between the front and back leg. The front hock is leaner and less heavy than the back leg, and works the same wonders. This means you do not need to buy so much if you only have two to three mouths to feed. It is also good news for those who hate eating fat but love your mom’s vinegar braised pork leg.
The front hock also has collagen in its joints which makes stews richer, stickier, definitely tastier. Again, the trick here is timing. Generally, even if they are the same size, the front hock requires less cooking time than the back leg.
THE DOGGY BONE AND BRISKET BONE
These bones are mostly used for soups. While the doggy bone has a huge marrow in the middle, it also produces an oily soup. But that is not all bad. Simmer this bone long enough, and you will get a rich broth that you just cannot resist adding to pastas. This is also the bone chefs make demi-glace, stocks and the decadent osso bucco. Although I have tried pork osso bucco, I still prefer the real osso bucco made with beef bones because it encompasses a deep flavour that pork lacks.
The brisket is slightly less oily but sweeter if there is meat. And for that, it makes a good herbal soup. However, the brisket might be too subtle for some. Unfortunately, the way Malaysian butchers cut the brisket bone limits its usage to only soups. Western cuts would make a large piece of steak, but we hardly consume pork steaks, do we?
Different butchers cut these bones differently, so if you want more meat tell your butcher before he randomly chops one up, otherwise you will get a death stare or buy what you do not want, or both.
You do not want death stares from someone fluent in the language of knife.
So, after forgetting everything you just read, let me do a simple recap.
1. Shoulder cuts are cheaper except for the ribs and neck.
2. Timing is everything. Perfect your cooking time and you will save a whole lot of money in your lifetime.
3. Stewing/Braising — You can use all shoulder meats, the collarbone, and ribs.
4. Meat to fat ratio — Neck has the best ratio. Great for burgers and sausages. Shoulder arm is leaner. Perfect for leaner meat balls. Shoulder is leanest and has connective tissue. Best for longer cooking times.
5. Bones — Brisket bones for soups only. Doggy bone for soups, broths and osso bucco. Collarbone for stews, never for soups. Front hock has same uses as back leg, only leaner. Ribs are best for barbecues, stews, and grilling; never for soups or steaming.
BONUS LIFEHACKING TIP
If you want the 30/70 ratio of ground meat but still want to pay less because you have a huge party to feed, here is my last tip. Ask the butcher to grind up 1kg of shoulder arm with 150gm of fat and you will get there.
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Hi, my name is JD. I am a pork enthusiast and have been working with pork for six years. If you need my advise on working with pork, feel free to drop me a message below. Or head over to my FB site fb.com/ahtuckroastpork and click like to support my work. Thank you!