Nowadays, chefs and consumers pay top dollar for specialty pork breeds. But are those pedigreed labels a true indication of quality—or just a premium price tag?
Published July 1, 2011. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 12: Fall Classics
After years of advertising pork as “the other white meat,” pork producers have started to change their tune. Nowadays, fat, flavor, and even deeper color are making a comeback, with chefs and consumers paying top dollar for specialty breeds touted as being fattier, juicier, and far more flavorful. But we were skeptical: Are those pedigreed labels like Berkshire (known as Kurobuta in Japan) and Duroc a true indication of quality—or just a premium price tag? (Once mail-order shipping is factored in, specialty pork can cost at least twice as much as supermarket meat.)
If color was any indication of better quality, we were certainly on the right track. Three of the five bone-in chops we mail-ordered were cut from 100 percent Berkshire pigs, and their pigments were strikingly crimson-colored compared to the supermarket chops we bought.
The other two mail-order samples, both blends of Berkshire and other “heritage” breeds like Duroc, were less dark, though not as ghostly pale as the supermarket meat. But it wasn’t until we’d pan-seared all six samples that we were won over by the pricey pork. While the supermarket chops were comparatively bland and chewy, and the heritage samples weren’t markedly better, the Berkshire pork was juicy, smoky, and intensely pork-y—even bacon-like. (Just to be sure we’d taken cooking variations out of the equation as much as possible, we repeated the test by bringing the chops to exactly 135 degrees in a sous-vide machine before briefly searing them. The results were nearly identical.)
We were sold on the Berkshire pork, and wondered if its better flavor and juiciness were related to anything more than just the specific breed. As it turned out, the meat’s deep pink tint was more significant that we thought. According to Kenneth Prusa, professor of food science at Iowa State University, that color really is an indication of quality. It reflects the meat’s pH, which Prusa pinpoints as the “overall driver of quality” in pork. In mammals, normal pH is around 7. But Prusa told us even small differences in pH can have a significant impact on pork’s flavor and texture. Berkshire pigs are a bred to have a slightly higher pH than normal, which in turn makes their meat darker, firmer, and more flavorful. In fact, a high pH can be even more important than fat in determining flavor. Conversely, pork with low pH is paler, softer, and relatively bland.
In addition to genetics, pH is influenced by husbandry conditions, along with slaughtering and processing methods. Berkshire pigs are raised in low-stress environments that keep them calm. And the calmer the animal, the more evenly blood flows through its system, dis...
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