Many cuisines have a signature pork dish, and seldom does it involve a premium cut like pork tenderloin or pork rack. Baeckoffe, soppressata, carnitas, paté de campagne, char siu bao, North Carolina pork barbecue: all of these are best made with pork butt (the butcher’s name for pork shoulder) because of its flavor and its ratio of fat tissue to lean.
From the carnivore’s point of view, four-legged farm animals share certain important traits: more flavorful but tougher (and less expensive) meat around the legs, hips, neck, and shoulders, and milder, more tender meat along the length of the spine. The first set of muscles, which the animals use to stand and graze, needs more oxygenated blood flow (resulting in more species-characteristic flavor) and develops more connective tissue. These tough strands of collagen break down in long, slow cooking processes to keep the lean meat moist and thicken cooking liquids (baking gelatin is extracted from the ankles of pigs and cows). Alternatively, they are ground finely enough to render them inoffensive to the palate when making sausages and patés. And pork shoulder, with its swath of fatback near the spine and good intramuscular marbling, provides the near-perfect balance of fat and lean so essential to charcuterie.
The muscles along the spine (the loin and tenderloin) become the cuts worthy of going on the grill or in the sauté pan: pork chops, lamb saddle, porterhouse steak. They get less of a workout in the animal’s daily routine, and thus need less blood flow and support from connective tissue. To illustrate the point further, think of veal: pale and tender, with mild flavor, from an animal that gets little or no exercise at all.
The latter cuts will always hold sway on a menu, but because they are, by and large, pan-ready, relatively little satisfaction can be had in their successful preparation—at least compared to the lengths to which one goes to spin gold from an amorphous chunk of meat like pork butt. The chef has to keep it interesting for the guests, his cooks, and himself by maintaining a balance.
But back to the pork shoulder: in this chapter you will come to understand its versatility as we brine it, smoke it, roast it, braise it, and grind it, all to completely different effect. Pork shoulder is cheap, so spend an extra fifty cents or dollar per pound to buy something from a nearby farm or a butcher you trust. The quality of the meat AND the quality of the fat will, in large part, determine the success or failure of your finished dish.