Ultimate Guide to Barbecuing a Pork Butt
Everything you need to know about yielding a delicious and tender pork shoulder on your smoker, grill or oven.
If you asked us what happiness is, we’d tell you it was digging into a delicious pulled pork sandwich. Worries just melt away as we take the first bite of hot and juicy, fall-off-the-bone tender meat, piled high on top of a bun and slathered with the world’s best barbecue sauce.
No, really pulled pork is just that good.
But what’s the secret that old-time barbecue professionals use to get meat to be that good – that tender, that tasty, that smoky?
Well, it’s really no secret at all – just technique. With the right preparation, the right technique, a bit of time and some patience, you too can create the Perfect Smoked Pork Butt. We’ll show you how.
A History Lesson: Where Barbecue Got Started
Barbecue, as we know it here in the United States, has been around since the 16th or 17th centuries; the first historical records mention “barbicue” date to 1672. People who couldn’t afford prime cuts of meat (like the sirloin) found that slow-cooking was an easy way to render cheap (read: tough and chewy) cuts of meat (beef, pork, chicken) tender and delicious.
After getting its start in the later southern States, along the Gulf of Mexico, and soon spread up north to Missouri, west to Texas and Oklahoma, and East to Tennessee and the Carolinas – where pork was – and still is – supreme.
Carolina BBQ traditionally calls for slow-cooking an entire pig over an open pit of hot coals, which could take anywhere from 24-48 hours for best results. Today, most Carolina BBQ shops and chefs serve up smoked pork butt – whether it’s pulled or chopped before serving.
Why Pork Butt? Actually – What Is A Pork Butt?
First, let’s clear something up: a pork butt isn’t the pig’s butt.
It’s from the shoulder area, which is why you might see it referred to a shoulder roast, Boston shoulder or pork shoulder. Sometimes it even comes with a shoulder bone attached.
So why call it a butt?
Because back in the day, this cut of meat would often be loaded by butchers into brine-filled barrels, prepping them for shipping to other parts of the country. Barrels were called butts a lot back then (from the Latin buttis) and somehow the meat picked up this most-unfortunate nickname.
What about the “Boston” thing? The packaging-in-butts thing was mostly done in New England and Boston back in the days before the American Revolution. So eventually, people just started calling them Boston butts.
If you think that calling it a “butt” is kind of mean – it’s not some cruel joke. What we’re more upset about is that people found this excellent and delicious part of the big “undesirable” back then. We think it’s one of the best.
Why Pork Butt?
Now Answer The Question – Why is Pork Butt So Good?
Pork butt has traditionally been one of less “desirable” parts of the pig because on its own, it’s tough and chewy. Since nobody wanted it, it was cheap and easy to get unlike prime cuts, such as the ham.
It still is, too. You can easily walk into almost any grocery store and pick up a decent pork butt for just a few dollars per pound.
Is “cheap” the only reason people like to smoke pork butt? Nope – it’s fat content is also prime for slow-cooking.
Pork butts have everything you want in a piece of meat being thrown on the smoker; lots of lean meat, plenty of tasty fat and tons of collagen and connective tissue.
As anyone who has ever wrecked a steak knows, collagen, fat and connective tissue turn rock hard and chewy when cooked too quickly over high-heat. When slow-cooked over very low heat, however, and principles of good barbecue are used, collagen and fat have plenty of time to break down and render.
If done right, the result is a juicy, tender hunk of meat that can be chopped, shredded, pulled or easily chewed without breaking a sweat.
The best part being, of course, how good it tastes.
Selecting the right pork butt
As with all things worth eating, smoking a pork butt perfectly starts with taking the time to prepare beforehand. That means more than salting and seasoning, too; you need to pick the right pork shoulder to begin with.
Here Is What To Look For In a Pork Butt For Smoking
- Avoid fillers and solutions, whether they contain water, salt, phosphate, or whatever. Get the most untouched and unmodified pork butt possible, containing meat and nothing else. If you get one with saline solution pumped into it, it may be cheaper, but you’re just paying for less meat. All the extra water is just going to evaporate as it cooks, anyway, leaving you with a significantly-smaller finished product than you were expecting.
- Get your pork butt from the most reputable butcher or farmer you can. Knowing exactly where your meat comes from is the only way to guarantee quality and taste. If the nearest big-box grocery store or meat section is your only real option, look for a heritage breed – like Berkshire or Mangalitsa. These are significantly higher-quality than no-name grocery store brands and a heck of a lot tastier.
- Whenever possible, get it fresh. Ideally, the pork is a vibrant pinkish color; it should look “healthy” and fresh, not dull, greying or old. Buying from a butcher or local pig farmer can make a huge difference for this.
- Bone-in, or No Bone? It doesn’t really matter – whatever your personal preference is. If you’re a beginner, No Bone is usually easier.
How to Prep A Pork Shoulder
There’s a million-and-one ways to prepare a pork shoulder before tossing it on the smoker, but there’s no need to get all fancy; the easiest and best way is to season it with a dry rub.
This dry rub always includes tons of salt and pepper. And we mean tons; that thing should be speckled with black, white and grey by the time you’re don seasoning it. Paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, maybe even some brown sugar are also trusty parts of a good pulled pork dry rub.
So mix up enough of those dry rub ingredients in a small bowl, pull out the pork butt about an hour before smoking and start – No, actually – wait. Don’t start seasoning just yet. There’s still more to do.
Trimming the Fat Pad: It’s A Matter of Preference
When you pick up your pork butt from the store or the butcher, it will have a thick layer of fat on one side. This is called the “fat pad,” and can be left on the pork when smoking or trimmed away.
One reason to trim the fat is to yield a larger portion of the outer surface which is flavored with a delicious rub. One of the delicacies of bbq is the bark that develops on the outside of the meat throughout the smoking process. So unless you’re planning on eating the fat, you’re wasting about 1/3 of of the tasty bark.
Proponents of leaving the fat pad on believe that it helps keep some moisture in slow-cooking, but most of the time, there is no discernible difference between a roast cooked with the fat, and one cooked without it.
Despite what some people think, fat on the outside will not cook into the meat; it just doesn’t work that way. At the most, the extra grease drippings hitting the fire might create some delicious smoky flavor.
If you decide to take the fat off before cooking, it’s easy; just take a sharp knife and trim it as closely to the meat as possible.
Does Pork Butt Need to Be Tied?
If your pork butt comes with the bone, and you decide to leave that bone in while smoking, then no – the pork butt does not need to be tied.
If it doesn’t come with a bone, or you decide to remove the bone before putting it on the smoker – then you can tie it, if you like. Tying up a pork butt keeps it neat and compact and can help keep any odd ends or flaps of meat from drying out. But, it’s not strictly necessary.
Cooking a Pork Butt: Smoker, Grill, or Oven?
Slow-cooking a pork butt calls for low temperatures (around 225F to 250F), and it can be done either on a traditional smoker, a regular gas or charcoal grill, or even in the oven (the easiest, but least exciting, way to do it).
If you have a smoker and know how to use it, grab yourself some of your favorite wood chips or logs – applewood, hickory and oak are traditional for pulled pork. But you can use whatever you want – pecan, maple, walnut. A bit of sweet woodiness goes well with pulled pork. Fire that thing up until it maintains a steady 225F to 250F in the pit.
Cooking On The Grill
If you don’t have a smoker, but do have a trusty old gas or charcoal grill, you’re still in luck; you can slow cook your pork shoulder with the magic of 2-zone grilling.
It’s easy; you build a small fire on one side of your charcoal grill and place the meat on the other, where it cooks via indirect heat – just like it would in the smoker. Place your wood chips beneath the meat, and you’ll also get plenty of smoke and flavor.
This works on a gas grill, too; you simply turn on the burner on one side of the grill and leave the other off, creating a 2-zone setup for indirect cooking.
Cooking In The Oven
This is the easiest way to cook a pork butt; it won’t have all the great smoky flavor, but it’ll be quick and painless. Just turn the oven on to your desired temperature (225F), stick the shoulder roast in the pan and then stick it in the oven.
Why 225F? Wouldn’t Hotter Be Faster
When it comes to low-and-slow cooking, 225F is king. It’s generally considered the sweet spot where the meat cooks slowly, but isn’t dried out by hot, direct heat. It also gives you a little bit of breathing room in case the pit temperature fluctuates while cooking.
Some people prefer to smoke pork butts at 250F, as this speed up the process a bit and can shave an hour or two off cook time. Boston butt is one of the more forgiving cuts of barbecue meat, so it can handle a bit more heat; you might even see some people push it to 275.
Investing in a wireless meat thermometer can really help with this.
Getting Through The Stall: It’s Worth It
A couple hours into your smoke, you’re going to run into The Stall – where the temperature inside the meat’s temperature sits at 160F and doesn’t budge for several hours.
This is annoying, but it’s not a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing – and a natural part of the cooking process; the moisture in the meat is evaporating faster than the meat is cooking and is cooling the pork. In essence, the pork butt is sweating.
Depending on the size of your pork butt and how hot your smoker/grill is, the stall could last several hours. You might see the thermometer reading go up just a few degrees in those several hours, but once the meat has gotten to about 170F, it will begin to rise faster.
If you really want to get through the Stall and finish your meat as fast as possible, you can wrap the meat in foil, crank the heat up to 275-300F and blast through it. This technique is sometimes called The Texas Crutch; your pulled pork may end up being a little bit less juicy and the bark on the outside won’t be as crispy, but it could save you a couple hours of effort.
If you have the time and patience, however, we highly recommend sticking it out; The Stall is responsible for much of the crispiness of the bark. The crispiness is the result of what’s called the Maillard Reaction (it’s science, okay) and takes time; sitting out the Stall gives the meat more time to go through that reaction.
When To Pull A Pork Butt Off The Smoker
The ideal target temperature for pulled pork is 205°F. If you’ve been cooking it low-and-slow, your pork butt will be at its tenderest, juiciest and most-shreddable at 205°F. Some people pull it off the smoker at 195°F or 200°F and let carry-over heat keep cooking it for a few minutes, but we think those extra few minutes to reach 205°F are worth the final product.
At this point, your pork should be black, brown and crispy all over. Remove it from the heat and set it on large plate or cutting board, and cover with aluminum foil. Let is rest for about 30-45 minutes, allowing the juices to settle evenly throughout the meat.
If you’ve left the bone in, give it a tug; if the pork is perfectly done, the bone will easily pull right out. If you’re not serving right away, you can stick it in a cooler – covered in foil – to keep it warm for a couple hours.
Serving the pork butt
Shredding your smoked pork butt is easily one of the most fun parts of the process. Put on a pair of clean silicone BBQ gloves, grab the meat with both hands, and start pulling; the meat should rip apart cleaning and easily.
You can also use a pair of BBQ claws or a couple of forks – but using your hands is more fun.
As for serving it? There are dozens of ways to choose from. Our favorite is in the tradition of good old-fashioned Carolina BBQ, which has a few styles of its own.
Eastern Carolina BBQ
Eastern Carolina-style pulled pork means piling the shredded pork up on a bun, and then slathering it with some traditional Carolina BBQ sauce – a vinegar-based sauce that is usually tangier, sweeter and a bit spicier than your classic tomato-based sauce. There’s also a mustard-based sauce called Carolina Gold. Alongside the sandwich, you toss in some coleslaw or cornbread.
Lexington-Style Carolina BBQ
Lexington-style barbecue is found in the Western Carolina’s and Tennessee. Here, you can get your pork chopped, pulled, on a bun or off. What really matters is that it topped with a spicy red sauce made ketchup, vinegar and pepper, and is served alongside a generous helping of hushpuppies (talk about comfort food).