Pork Chops: Boneless, Bone-In, and More

by Elizabeth Skipper | April 17th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

porkIs there a difference between boneless and bone-in pork chops, besides the bones? Is one type better for a certain type of cooking, or are they interchangeable?

Yes, there is; but there’s more to the question. Or rather, that’s not the only question. There’s more than one kind of pork chop, so that’s where you need to start.

A pork chop is simply a cut of pork taken crosswise from somewhere along the entire pork loin, which stretches from the front end of the animal by the shoulder to the end of the backbone by the hip. There are four different kinds of pork chop, depending upon where along the loin that cross section is taken from.

Starting at the shoulder, you have a blade pork chop. Because the shoulder is dark meat with a fair amount of connective tissue, this cut is good braised.

Next along the loin are rib chops, which are primarily one large “eye” of loin muscle. This chop is flavorful and tender, which makes it good for quicker methods of cooking like grilling or pan-frying.

Third is the center cut, which contains both loin and tenderloin muscles. There is a bone separating these two muscles which makes it a little tricky to cook, but it’s a tasty cut. It’s great cooked on the grill.

The sirloin chop, from the far end of the loin, contains several muscles: the loin, the tenderloin, and part of the hip of the pig. Any time there are multiple muscle groups in a cut of meat, cooking it gets a bit more complicated. This is generally considered the least desirable pork chop; I’d braise it very gently.

Do you have all that? Good. Now… there’s a new meat-naming system in the works that aims to simplify things for consumers. The word “chop ” means “steak”, and whether from a pig or a cow, they come from the same part of the animal. Are you with me?

Beginning this summer, the nomenclature will be gradually changing over to porterhouse, New York, Ribeye, and T-bone chops, rather than blade, rib, center cut, and sirloin chops. I’ve been trying to determine exactly which is which, without complete success. Supposedly, this will make it easier on the consumer because it will make the different kinds of pork chop clearer. What was wrong with the system I outlined above?

The idea is that because people are familiar with these terms from the world of steaks, it will inspire them to purchase the same cuts from a pig because they’ll already know how to cook them. A more sinister, at least to me, side of the story is that pork sales to other countries are declining because of concerns about possible traces of a feed additive called ractopamine, used to make meat leaner. That’s surely one reason why the American consumer is being encouraged to buy more pork via this renaming strategy.

Ah, but let’s step away from those ugly issues. You also asked about whether the chop being on the bone or not makes a difference. Besides affecting how a chop is best cooked, yes, it does. Meat cooked on the bone is both more nutritious and better tasting. It’s more nutritious because trace minerals and elements leach from bone into the meat during cooking. It’s better tasting because meat cooked on the bone doesn’t dry out as easily as a boneless cut, so it’s juicier. And any fat found next to the bone contributes to flavor and tenderness in meat.

I hope this hasn’t been too confusing. As always, if you’re unsure about what cut of meat to buy or how to cook it, ask your butcher. There is a resurgence in this country of the meat cutter’s trade, a proud and honorable one. If you can’t find an independent meat shop in your area, let your local grocer know you expect to find someone knowledgeable behind the meat counter. Best of all, find a local producer and buy from him or her. A farmer raising meat for our tables in a responsible, humane way will be happy to educate you about his product and how to make the most of it.

  1. Jeannette says:

    Great Article.
    I see many on the Food Network who salt their meats before searing. I thought that salt brought out juices.
    Why do people do it, or should we not do it?

  2. Jeannette says:

    Great article, very informative. I was unaware of the reasons for changing the names of cuts of meat.

  3. Glad you find the information useful. It seems things get shaken up and changed around every twenty or thirty years or so; some of what I learned in cooking school about grading meats (among other things) is no longer valid, so you have to keep current.

    As for when to salt meat, I was taught to do it this way: Dry your meat, let’s say it’s a steak, carefully with a paper towel so it will sear properly. Add it to a preheated pan that’s lightly filmed with oil – the oil should be shimmering, almost but not quite at the point of smoking. Leave it undisturbed about five minutes, or until it has formed a nice brown surface. At this point it will readily release from the pan, so turn it over and salt and pepper the seared side.

    After a few minutes of cooking, you’ll see beads of collagen begin to form on that side. Now you’ll either turn the heat down a bit to allow the meat to cook to the desired degree of doneness, or put it in a 350 degree oven to finish cooking. It should rest, loosely covered, off or out of the heat for a few minutes before serving, to allow the meat juices to redistribute themselves throughout the meat. Otherwise, they’ll rush out as soon as the steak is cut into, and it will be dry.

    I’ve since learned another way, and that is to salt the meat at least an hour before you want to cook it. This will draw the juices to the surface of the meat, as you rightly point out. However, they’ll dissolve the salt, creating a brine, and within the hour that brine will be reabsorbed into the meat. This will flavor the meat and tenderize it – pretty neat, eh? Try it next time you have a piece of meat to grill or pan-broil and a little extra time, and let me know what you think!

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