Pork Shoulder: Tips from the Butcher

Pork shoulder/butt was the first cut of meat I ever barbecued and over the years I bet I’ve smoked upward of 100 butts. There is just nothing better than smoked pulled pork. Clearly, the pork shoulder is one of my favorite meats to barbecue! I love it because of its versatility and ease of cooking, plus it makes enough pulled pork to feed a large, hungry crowd. I love that smoky flavor and how the meat just shreds into tender strands. That’s what keeps me coming back to it time and time again.

photo of pork shoulder

Pork shoulder is relatively inexpensive and it can be found at your local market or butcher shop. Whether you’re a novice smoker or a seasoned pro, a pork shoulder will never disappoint.

Pork shoulder has always had a prominent place in the meat counter during my 35+ year career as a butcher. Any good meat case will always display whole or half-cut shoulders. Butchers can also fabricate shoulders into pork steaks, ground pork, boneless stew, and of course sausage. I feel pork shoulder is the best meat for sausage of any kind due to its perfect meat-to-fat ratio.

photo of pork shoulder being used for sausage

Where is the “butt” located?

photo of pork being trimmed into pork shoulder

Pork shoulder is cut between the fourth and fifth ribs of the animal and may weigh between 14 to 18 pounds. It is divided into two parts.

First is the upper part, which is the widest portion of the shoulder and is known as the “Pork Butt” or “Boston Butt”. This usually weighs between 7 to 9 pounds and includes the blade bone. Next is the lower part, aka the “Picnic Shoulder”, which also contains the front shank.

photo of pork shoulder being trimmed from pig

The entire shoulder is well-marbled and has a lot of connective tissue. You must smoke a butt “low and slow” in order to break down the connective tissue. This will leave you with unbelievably tender and flavorful meat!

photo of two whole pork shoulders

Buying and storing

It seems to me that it’s getting harder and harder to find a bone-in pork butt, especially at a big-box retailer. I don’t know why! Once you find the right meat counter, always read the label when buying your cut of meat. Avoid ones that say the meat is “Enhanced”. These have been injected with a solution of water and other ingredients such as salt, phosphates, antioxidants, and flavorings. You don’t want to pay for water.

People often ask where to buy pork shoulder. I always recommend you source out your local butcher shop. For the most flavor, you want to buy a bone-in butt and make sure that the fat side has a nice, even layer on the top. Additionally, look for meat that has a pinkish-red color with nice marbling. Refrigerate the meat as soon as you get home in the coldest part of the fridge (below 40 degrees) until you’re ready to use it, for up to three days.

You can also freeze it up to six months in an airtight container. If frozen, defrost the Pork Butt in the refrigerator. It will take approximately one day for every 4 to 5 pounds of meat. Make sure you place the butt on a pan in the fridge so it doesn’t drip on anything during the thaw.

How much meat should I cook per person?

An 8-pound butt, when cooked and shredded, will yield about five pounds of meat and serves 10 to 14 people depending on how you serve it. Don’t be afraid to cook too much! It freezes exceptionally well and makes for wonderful leftovers. It’s perfect for nachos, quesadillas, even for breakfast with a couple of fried eggs. You simply can’t have too much!

photo of pulled pork sandwich

How to prep a pork shoulder

Remove the butt from its original wrapping and trim any excess fat down to about a ¼ inch. Score the fat so the rub can get deep inside. Next, apply some seasoning. This could be your favorite pork shoulder rub, or you can always make your own. A simple blend of garlic powder, salt, and pepper will do the trick just fine.

Moist and cold meat absorbs more smoke, so after your meat is seasoned, refrigerate it until you’re ready for the smoker. Some people wait only a couple of hours for the dry rub to work its way into the meat, while others leave it in the fridge overnight. Either way, give it some time before you smoke the pork butt.

When your BBQ pit is up to temp and burning some delicious hickory wood, wood chips, or whatever you use, put the pork in the smoker. As it cooks, you’ll want to mist the meat occasionally with a spray bottle to help with flavor and moisture. I like to use a cold liquid like apple juice mixed with a little olive oil.

How long to smoke a pork shoulder

Mastering how to smoke a pork shoulder takes time and patience. An average size butt will take approximately 8 to 10 hours at 225 to 250 degrees, maybe longer depending on your BBQ pit and weather conditions. A good rule of thumb is 90-120 minutes per pound. I like to hit an internal temperature of 195-200 degrees and then rest for at least 30 minutes to one hour. BBQ is all about slow cooking, so it’s done, well, when it’s done. You cannot rush smoked pork shoulder!

photo of finished smoked pork shoulder

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