Pork shank is a cut of meat taken from the lower portion of a ham. Traditionally, the word “ham” is reserved for a pig’s back thighs and leg region and usually comes in three sections, one of which is the shank. Cuts from the upper region near the back are called “rump” or “butt,” while “center” cuts come, perhaps not surprisingly, from the middle portion. Most butchers sell pork shank still attached to the leg bone. It tends to be lean but tough, and often takes a lot of time to prepare. Slow roasting, braising, and simmering are some of the most popular ways to cook this type of meat.
Where the Cut Comes From
Most world cultures eat pig in some form or another, though there are many different ways to butcher, name, and prepare the meat. Recipes and preparations can vary widely from place to place, but in most cases how the cuts are made — which is to say, the actual mechanics of the butchering process — are more or less the same everywhere. The shank portion may not be called “shank” in every language or in every marketplace, but as a style of cut it can almost always be readily identified.
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Pork shank is essentially the bottom portion of a ham. This is often referred to as the “lower leg” region, but this is usually in reference to the leg meat, not the leg itself. Most pigs have very small, skinny legs that don’t have much meat on them, and when these are sold for food they are usually referred to as “hock” or “trotters” if they include the hooves. The upper thigh is the most important part of any shank cut. In most cases it is sold on the femur, or major leg bone, but that bone is often sawed off at about the animal’s knee. Sometimes shanks are sold with the legs and even hooves still attached, but not always.
Ham is usually a tender, juicy piece of meat, but this isn’t always true where shank is concerned. This cut usually contains a lot of muscle and connective tissue, which can make it somewhat tough when cooked. It does have a layer of fatty skin, but it is nonetheless often leaner than pieces from other areas because the lower leg contains more muscle than fat.
Cooking Tips and Techniques
Shank’s tough, muscular texture means that many of the most popular methods for cooking ham and other pork products may not get good results. People often try to cook shank for as long as possible in order to break down some of the connective tissues.
Braising is one of the most popular cooking methods. Cooks start out by searing the outside of the meat, usually in a skillet, then putting it in a deep, covered pot with some amount of liquid. Water will work, but stock, broth, or wine can make the dish more interesting. The whole thing is then slow cooked on the stovetop for several hours. A counter top slow cooker appliance can also be used for this method.
Slow roasting usually happens in the oven. Cooks normally use a special roasting pan that elevates the meat slightly, but people who don’t have something like this can often get similar results by regularly turning and rotating the meat as it cooks. The main idea is to allow the oven’s heat to slowly and evenly penetrate the shank. Cooks will often baste the meat with the drippings or juices that come out during the cooking, which helps keep things moist and tender. Cooks can also get similar results in the barbecue or over an open flame like a spit. Spit-roasted pork shank is usually made outside, and often has a distinctive smoky flavor.
Pork shank can also be cooked directly in soups, stews, or sauces. A chef might add a raw shank to a pot of soup, for instance, and the heat of the soup will cook the meat right off the bone. All the cook needs to do is fish out the bone and any detached connective tissue.
People often add different vegetables and spices during the slow-cooking process as a way of infusing the meat with different flavors, and it’s common to serve the dish with a light gravy made from the liquid remaining in the pot or pan. Some preparations call for the meat to be left on the bone for serving, but it can also be chopped into more bite-sized or steak-sized pieces. A lot depends on the recipe and what else is being served at the same meal.
Shank's lower fat content means that it is often a better choice than other cuts, at least from a nutritional perspective. It tends to have fewer calories by weight than most other comparable cuts, including the center ham portion and the rump. Its dense concentration of muscle fibers also means that it is relatively high in iron, manganese, and B vitamins, among other nutrients. People usually need to be careful not to eat to much of the muscle sinew or ligament tissues, though, as these can be difficult to digest and may cause intestinal discomfort if consumed in large quantities. Most of these fall away naturally during cooking, but not always.
Where to Find It
Each pig produces two shanks, which are usually for sale wherever pork products are sold. People who do not see this cut for sale in their regular grocery store or butcher shop usually only need to ask; shanks may not be displayed, but they always exist somewhere. Butchers can also special order them in many places, particularly for customers who are looking for a specific size or weight.
As far as pork products go, the lower leg portion tends to be relatively inexpensive and can be an economical option for many cooks. Considering the size of a pig, a whole shank, especially if it has the foot attached, can be quite large and difficult to cook without a really big pot, oven, or spit. As a result, chefs often cut the shank into smaller, more manageable pieces before cooking. Butchers can usually do this, too, which can be a good option for people who want to leave the meat on the bone but who don’t have a knife sharp enough to cut through the femur.