It’s all about the pork – types, cuts and preparation

Well, after last week’s post, I felt I was confident that I knew my gammon.  It’s is some sort of cured pork that you eat at Christmas – I mean, how complicated can that be?  But while chatting to Moira, I discovered that she wasn’t familiar with the term, and I discovered that I was hard-pressed to come up with any techincal info about it.  Which got me thinking that in fact many of my American (or non-British colonial!) readers might also not be familiar with it. (In fact, I found gammon on one of those US vs UK English translation sites – the ones that helpflly tell you that an elevator in the US is a lift in the UK!) And in the course of my discussion with Moira I also discovered that I was hard-pressed to explain what exactly a gammon as opposed to a leg of pork as opposed to a ham is.  So that got me thinking… what about stuff like Kassler chops, which are common in supermarkets back in South Africa but unheard of here.  Or Boston butt which I ADORED as a child but have never seen in the UK??  Suddenly the chasm of my ignorance yawned before me.  Talk about pig ignorant 😉

So I did a bit of delving and learned some really interesting bits and pieces.  For a start, pig breeds can broadly be classified into two types – lard breeds and bacon breeds.  The lard breeds were bred primarily for, well, their lard.  They fatten up quickly on corn and their meat contains large quantities of fat, deemed to be improve the taste and keeping qualities of the meat.  Bacon breeds are, by contrast, leaner and more muscular.  They were traditionally fed legumes, grains and dairy by-products which causes them to grow more slowly and put on more muscle than fat.

Why do you need to know this?  Well, because the definitions you find on the web will tell you that gammon is a leg cut from a “bacon pig” – and here I was thinking bacon could come from any old pig!! 😉  So that’s tidbit number one.  Then of course, there is the issue of the naming of the pork cuts.  Using this nifty diagram, I worked out that my gammon was from the area of the rump just behind the sirloin, as opposed to the shank which is a ham further down the leg and usually has a tapering end.  Progress!  Moving on then to the definitions that I found for gammon, some of them were as simple as saying that gammon was ham and the terms referred to whether the meat had been cooked or not (!!). The most comprehensive one that I found was on a rather neat site called Ted Can Cook, and reads as follows:

“the hind leg of a bacon pig, cut square off the side of bacon and not rounded like ham.  It is brine-cured and may then be left smoked or unsmoked.”

(Incidentally, the site also contains rather a good glossary of cooking terms once you scroll down a bit.  And below that is an equally nifty list of English vs American food terms.  Who would have guessed that graham crackers are digistive biscuits?!) I also found the redoubtable Delia Smith’s definition of gammon which was detailed and informative, as is to be expected:

“A bacon joint is a piece of cured pork, made with any cut of meat, unlike gammon. Correctly, gammon is the hind leg cut from a side of bacon after curing and traditionally the cure should be the mildest, but we are getting into the habit of calling any bacon joint suitable for boiling and baking a piece of gammon.”

Right.  So what’s this curing business then?  Well, think about the difference in taste between a slice of roast leg of pork, and a slice of Prosciutto and you’ll get an idea.  Curing was developed as a way to prolong the shelf-life of meat before refrigeration was available and there are two basic ways to do this.  One is to wet cure or brine cure which involves immersing your pork in (and these days, possibly also injecting it with) brine (a salt and saltpetre solution) before leaving it to mature; the other is to dry cure which involves rubbing a mixture of salt, sugar and spices on the meat and then hanging it in a cool dry place (which is how Prosciutto and Jamon Iberico are made).  From what I can see, gammon is can be either brine-cured or dry-cured but the end result still needs to be cooked, unlike Prosciutto.

That more or less covers gammon, I’d say.  That only leaves my other two beloved porcine cuts – Kassler chops and Boston butt.

I am always surprised how much of an influence German food has had on South African cuisine.  We South Africans with European ancestors all tend to think we are either English or Dutch, but of course things are a lot more complicted than that.  We had a huge influx French Huguenots who have indelibly marked Franschoek inland from Cape Town ad their own; we have a huge Portuguese community; and even people who may have come here via Holland were not in fact Dutch.  No, like my forebears, they came in service of the Dutch East India Company, but were from elsewhere.  The first of my ancestors who came to South Africa was born in Prussia (in a town which today forms part of modern Poland) in about the 1690s, making him far more German than Dutch – and there must have been many more like him.  From them we get (I suspect) our obsession with boerewors sausage, and beer – and our Kassler chops.  If you Google Kassler chops, pretty much 100% of your results will be South African sites – they are a common feature in butchers, supermarkets and on restaurant menus.  But come over to England and they are unheard of.  However, check out some German deli sites and you will find… Kassler Rippchen, bone-in smoked pork chops (as illustrated in item 800 here).  So I can only assume that these chops (which my mom used to cook on a bed of cabbage and onions, smothered in apples) are another bit of our German heritage.  Mystery solved!

As for Boston Butt, I have memories of these babies – boneless pieces of cured pork rolled into a rugby ball shape and kept in that shape by a string net tied tightly around it.  My mom used to pot-roast them and serve the sliced meat on mashed potatoes and with apple jelly – one of my favourite combinations!  But I have never seen them in this country and even a native Bostonian had never heard of them.  So what’s the deal??  It would appear that this is an American import and contrary to what the name suggests, it is pork shoulder.  I also learned that it is the cut of choice for pulled pork barbecue, since it’s marbled with enough fat to keep the meat moist while cooking.  It can be bought either bone-in or boneless.  And as for the, erm, unusual name, the US National Pork Board gave this answer in response to a question submitted to O Chef:

“In pre-revolutionary New England and into the Revolutionary War, some pork cuts (not those highly valued, or “high on the hog,” like loin and ham) were packed into casks or barrels (also known as “butts”) for storage and shipment. The way the hog shoulder was cut in the Boston area became known in other regions as “Boston Butt.” This name stuck and today, Boston butt is called that almost everywhere in the US,… except in Boston.”

Things you didn’t know you didn’t know.  And if you feel you still haven’t spent enough time reading up on all thinks piggy, for the last word on everything ham related check out the Cook’s Thesaurus entry.

If you are looking for some delicious ways to prepare pork, look no further than my recipes for…

mustard crusted pork chops with caramelised apple rings

quick pork chops with sherried mushrooms

roast Christmas gammon

gammon steak with spicy pineapple slices

Mexican pork pibil (cochinita pibil)

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  1. Lisa K says

    Thanks for this post. After reading the Gammon post I asked a South African friend what a Gammon was and he replied with the “cured pork” defination.
    Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

  2. says

    There is the old saying that the only part of the pig you don’t eat is the oink. One of our favourite parts is kassler, sometimes we have as chops, other times we get it boned and rolled then roast it. My brother-in-law once ate ALL the crackling of such a roast. We get ours from a Swiss butcher in Australia, most European style butchers carry it, but there seems to be two types, cooked and uncooked. I don’t know which one you eat, but we definately prefer uncooked, it’s much juicier after cooking.

  3. Anna says

    Hi Jeanne:
    Yes, I remember eating a lot of gammon (a treat back then) in the 60s and early 70s – my mother boiled it first to drain off the salt I think. But, as time passed it seemed to become a bit of a joke as a dated, old-fashioned thing along with such dishes as prawn cocktail and Steak Diane.
    SOuth Africans are a real multicultural group – my mother’s family came to Durban via Dublin, and then east coast United States, sailed to South Africa after the American Civil War. Your Eastern European roots can be clearly seen in the food combination of meat, cabbage and apples. Interesting, thanks.

  4. says

    Now that I’ve been gammonized, I’ll be entertaining people left and right with ham facts. I knew something was missing from my witty repartee!
    I need to tell you that I *never* heard the term ‘Boston Butt’ growing up in Massachusetts unless someone was referring to MY gammon, if you know what I mean…nyuck, nyuck. 😉

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  6. Isabel Meyer says

    i figure the only piggy i came across these holidays, were us “pigging out”… oi vey and now paying the price in gym 😀 though my brother did a wicked spareribs (smoked on the weber). but at least i can pretend to know what i’m talking about, next time in the “Foodies” company. 😀

  7. says

    Hi Lisa
    Yup, that’s about as far as my detailed knowledge went before writing this post! But if blogging has taught me only one thing, it’s never to assume that people all know a particular foodstuff by the same name – hence the piggy essay! Glad you liked it :-)
    Hi Tankeduptaco
    Hmmmm, yes, I imagine I would also eat all the crackling, given half a chance!! My brother and I practically used to come to blows over pork crackling… We used to get the uncooked kassler chops – in fact the cooked ones were a rarity and available only (as you mention) at continental butchers, whereas the uncooked chops are on offer at most supermarkets.
    Hi Anna
    Yes – we really are the rainbow nation in ever possible sense of the word!! I also learnt recently that there were a number of Scottish missionaries who settled in the Cape and quickly intermarried with the local Afrikaner population. This means today that you are quite likely to meet a MacDougall who speaks hardly a word of English! Also interesting about your mom coming via the USA – my husband’s side of the family also swung through there at the time of the gold rush, before heading south to Cape Town.
    You are right about gammon becoming deeply unfashionable – especially the pineapple-and-cherry special that I remember from my youth! Aaah, don’t you miss the days when grapefruit cocktail (tinned, of course) as a starter and crepes suzette for dessert were the height of sophistication? 😉
    Hey Moira
    Boston butt as an anatomical term – who would have imagined… “You get your Boston butt out of that chair and get a job, y’hear me?!?” hahahaha. Glad to have added a porcine dimension to your small-talk – we do what we can to help :o)
    Hi Isabel
    Thanks for stopping by! Pigging out – don’t even mention it!! And seeing as it’s winter over here, the temperature gives you an endless excuse to eat MORE! Plus you know you won’t be out of baggy jerseys until late May, if you’re lucky, so who’s going to see the results of my pig-out anyway?? Mmm, smoked spareribs on the Weber… We did those back in July and they are the BEST! Will have to make a plan to eat LOTS of ribs when we go home for a visit in Feb…

  8. says

    Well, I can tell you that the best sausage I ever ate was from a sow I’d met the day before. I used to date a pig farmer in Knox City, Texas. I guess those pigs were lard pigs. Interesting post!

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  10. Toby says

    Thank you for your postings here, I’m enjoying scrolling my way through them – now do you know where I can find good Kassler in the UK!!! Kassler Poitjie is my absolute favourite and I’m missing it!
    Many thanks,

  11. says

    Hmmmmm, I knew we had a lot more in common than meets the pig….I mean eye… ancestor on my dads side also hailed from Prussia….a member of the aristocracy nogal….a black ummmm sheep! This was a very interesting article. I haven’t seen a Boston Butt in ages. My mom always used to make those…and also Ham Hocks! xx

    • Jeanne says

      LOL – now you have me craving Boston butt, preferably served with apple jelly… And hey, I never knew about the aristocratic Prussian connection! Family history is so fascinating…