Pork Cutting: Shoulder Primal

This is the best primal, without question.  It is the source of the best pulled pork, the best roast pork, the best sausages, the best confit, the best…  you get the idea.

Below is a pork shoulder, as it looks straight from the side.  You can see the neck bones on the left, followed by the first few thoracic vertebrae and ribs.  At the bottom is the front hock.

The pork shoulder primal

The neck, back, and rib bones separate surprisingly easily from the meaty shoulder.  I start by cutting behind the feather bones, then follow the chine and ribs…

Cutting behind the backbone on the shoulder

…which all come off it one piece, like so:

The neck bones and riblets, removed from the pork shoulder

Next I remove the hock.  As with the hind hock, I prefer to separate at the joint.  First I feel around for the joint.

Finding the front kneecap to separate the hock

I cut to expose the joint, then lean on the hock to snap the connection.

Separating the hock from the shoulder

Here’s the shoulder primal with the removed hock:

Pork shoulder with removed hock

Next we remove what is my favourite roast from my favourite primal.  This cut goes by many, many different names:

  • Unfortunately the most common terms are the Italian ones.  There are two Italian words for the cut.  First is capocollo (variously spelled capicollacapicola  and so on in North America), which is a combination of the words capo (“head”) and collo (“neck”).  The second is coppa, which means “nape.”  It is one of the most important cuts in Italian salumi, or air-dried meat.
  • In Germany and Austria the cut is called the Schopf, which translates to something like tuft, or crest.
  • In North America I’ve seen this cut marketed under any and all of the Italian words, as well as a “blade roast,” which is a bit confusing, as it doesn’t contain the shoulder blade.
  • Cooks often refer to the cut as “pork neck,” though to me this is inaccurate, because it is only a small portion of the neck.
  • It is in fact the back of the neck.  Thankfully the English language has a term for the back of the neck: “nape.”  That is what this cut of meat should be called by all English-speakers.
Let’s remove the nape roast from the shoulder primal.  There is a natural seam, indicated by the tip of the knife in the photo below.

Locating the natural seam at the shoulder blade

I follow this seam up the shoulder, rolling back the meat as I go.

Separating the blade from the pork shoulder

Here is the nape, removed from the shoulder primal:

Blade roast removed from the shoulder

The nape has fantastic marbling within and between its various muscles, and when cleaned properly it forms a beautiful, perfectly cylindrical roast.  Here is a cured, smoked Schopf from an Austrian butcher shop:

Selchschopfer: cured, hot-smoked pork nape

Next we make use of another natural seam that is more or less ignored in North American meat-cutting.  The true shoulder of the pig, that is, the meaty hunk containing the shoulder blade and arm bone, separates cleanly from the surrounding fat and meat.  I refer to this piece as the true shoulder or shoulder proper to distinguish it from the shoulder primal.

Shoulder removed

In the photo above, the fatty slab at left has a bit of meat on the bottom left hand side.  This is a flat, uniform cut which the Austrians call the Fleischtasche (literally “meat bag,” but better translated as “meat pocket.”)  The name derives from its traditional preparation, which is to make an incision and stuff the cut with, say, ground pork and onions.  Here is the removed, cleaned meat pocket:

The Fleischtasche, or meat pocket, removed from the shoulder primal

To bone out the shoulder proper, I make a cut to expose the face of the shoulder blade bone:

Exposing the blade bone

Next I cut around the blade bone and expose the joint between the blade and the arm bone.

Exposing the joint between the blade and arm bones

Now I cut out the blade bone as cleanly as possible.  I find this to be the most difficult part of cutting a pig.

Pork shoulder and removed blade bone

There is only one bone remaining: the arm bone.  Once this is removed we have completely boned out our pig.

Pork shoulder with removed arm bone

The shoulder primal has yielded us the following:

  • a hock, to be brined and hot-smoked
  • chine, riblet, blade, and arm bones for stock
  • a blade roast (what I call the nape roast)
  • a picnic roast (what I call the true shoulder roast)
  • fat for sausage or curing