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Premium (High-End) Pork

Published July 2011

How we tested

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, distributing flavorful juices throughout. Berkshire pigs are also slaughtered with methods that minimize stress, which causes a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles and lowers pH. Chilling the meat very rapidly after slaughter is yet another factor that affects pH, which begins to decline immediately once blood flow stops. Increasingly, commercial producers are adopting similar measures in slaughtering and processing in an effort to keep the pH of their pork as high as possible.

Bottom line: Berkshire pork won’t become a regular purchase for most of us, but we think our favorite sample is worth the occasional splurge. In the meantime, we’ll be picking out the pinkest pork at the supermarket.


The Results


Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*