There are many ways to prepare pork, but we’ll let you guess which one is our favorite (sizzle).
That’s right—sausage, ham, salami, ribs, chops, roasts, loins, belly, suckling—this is one versatile (and tasty) beast. Plus, it leads us to truffles!
Pork meat is usually treated in three ways:
- Fresh (pork chop): The meat has not undergone curing, smoking, salting,
- Cured (prosciutto): The meat is preserved by salting with a brine or dry rub
and then stored, or “cured,” for a period of time.
- Smoked (bacon): This generally occurs after the meat has been cured.
Like cows, most pigs are corn-fed. Hormones are outlawed. Antibiotics may be given to prevent disease but they must be “flushed from the system” before slaughter.
According to Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia, these “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics (added to the everyday feed and not because a pig is specifically sick) is leading to undigested antibiotics leaking into the waste stream and into our water, creating a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
“The most important questions you can ask your butcher,” continues Eckhouse, “are 1) was the pig raised in confinement? [99% of pigs are raised in high-stress individual confinement pens] and 2) have the pigs been fed subtherapeutic antibiotics?”
Pasture-raised heritage pork is the be-all end-all these days, if you can find it. Centuries-old breeds like Berkshire, Duroc, and Tamworth have dark, marbled,
and intensely flavored meat. The U.S. is becoming known for producing the best fresh pork.
BERKSHIRE: most popular, best all-around; sweet, meaty, well-marbled
DUROC: supple, juicy, full-flavored
TAMWORTH: best for bacon (ample belly) and cured sausages
RED WATTLE: intense flavor, good meat-to-fat ratio for salumi and air-cured meats
OSSABAW: wild, gamy flavor; high percentage of healthy monounsaturated fat
Ask your butcher whether the pig was raised in confinement (99% are) and if it was given subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics in its everyday feed.
Buy natural or heritage pork (see links above) to avoid the introduction of antibiotics in the meat, not to mention enjoy a much better flavor.
When buying processed pork, like bacon, look for a brand that does not use nitrates or nitrites, which are used to prevent bacterial growth and to maintain the meat’s red color. The use of these additives has been linked to the development of certain cancers.
Most people know to cook pork until it reaches a certain temperature—this is due to the risk of trichinosis, a parasite that can live in pork. Though it is now quite rare to contract trichinosis, make sure your pork is cooked to 160 degrees.
Vendor Spotlight: La Quercia
No commission here; just respect. When I first heard a couple in Iowa was making a cured prosciutto in Iowa to rival the goodness I had come to know from Parma, I was skeptical, to say the least. And then I tried it, and was converted. Herb and Kathy Eckhouse were living in Italy when they came up with the idea to use the bounty of pigs in Iowa to make their coveted prosciutto americano.
So what’s the La Quercia difference?
- La Quercia prosciutto is made only from Berkshire pigs (one of the oldest and most revered breeds for its lean yet flavorful meat) while most European producers use mixed breeds, making the quality variation greater and the average quality lower (only 2% of pigs killed in Iowa are valid candidates)
- La Quercia prosciutto is lower in salt
(though the full flavor could have fooled me)
- La Quercia does not press the ham, so it retains it original fiber and texture, something the Eckhouses believe adds to the quality of their ham
- The Berkshire pigs are antibiotic-free and slaughtered within 200 miles of
- La Quercia only works with producers who treat the animals humanely and they employ green practices on their farm as much as possible
- La Quercia also makes the only organic prosciutto, pancetta, lardo (lard), and guanciale (unsmoked bacon made from pig cheek) in the United States
La Quercia is currently available in some specialty stores. Ask your local deli to look into carrying it if they don’t already, or order directly.