The Miracle of Turning Boston Butt Into Pulled Pork
Along with brisket and pork ribs, pulled pork is one of the core dishes of the American barbeque canon. Compared with brisket and ribs, it’s relatively cheap and foolproof – a great first project for a smoking newbie. It’s a versatile dish; try it with only a bit of bbq sauce and sliced onions, use it for tacos, or top a pizza with it. We aim to walk you through choosing and prepping the right cut of meat and then getting your technique down pat. Let’s get started!
We Start With The Right Cut Of Meat
It goes by several names: among others, you may see it sold as Boston butt, pork butt, pork shoulder. No, it’s not actually the pig’s butt – it’s part of the shoulder. Bone-in or boneless will work, though many home cooks believe that the bone-in variety will result in a more flavorful and moist finished product. Be aware that bone-in will take a bit longer to cook and will obviously yield less meat than boneless. Look for fresh, pink meat with good striations of fat.
Boston butt works well because it’s a tough muscle that breaks down into something tender and succulent when exposed to long, low, and constant cooking environments. To be more precise, the collagen within the muscle’s connective tissue breaks down with time and steady heat. You’ll be cooking the meat to a temp well above pork’s recommended minimum safe temp of 145 F, and desired texture is the reason why.
The size of the butt is an important consideration. Too small, and it could overcook and dry out easily; too large, and you’re looking at an eternity minding your smoker. Three to five pounds is the sweet spot, and if you need more meat and if your smoker has the capacity, you can always cut a larger butt into four-pound chunks. Another reason to limit the chunks to no more than five pounds: the “bark” or crust on the exterior is arguably the best part of the dish, and you want to maintain a reasonably high ratio of bark to interior meat. Limiting the size of the chunks to four pounds or so ensures more surface area for your rub (a source of flavor) and for bark to develop during the cook.
Trim off excessive exterior fat. You want the bark on the meat and not on the fat. Don't worry - the butt will still have sufficient fat content.
It’s best to plan ahead and dry brine the meat overnight. In essence, this is only a matter of rubbing a quality kosher or sea salt over the chunks of butt and allowing them to sit in the fridge overnight. As counterintuitive as it may sound, this process will lock in moisture and give you a juicier result. Use around half a teaspoon of salt (again, kosher or sea) per pound of meat, spreading evenly.
Some cooks will spread some sort of oil or paste over the meat before spreading the bbq rub. The theory is that the liquid will 1) add flavor to the meat and 2) help the dry rub adhere to the meat better. Olive oil, mustard, and tomato paste are all commonly-used. Opinions on the practice vary a great deal. For the first cook, let’s go with olive oil plus the dry rub to ensure limited moisture and a crispy bark.
Select a dry rub that pairs well with pork. Sweet and hot notes are great, and there are a wide variety of commercial rubs with this profile. If you have a spice grinder at home, consider trying your hand at your own rub. Mixtures should contain a high ratio of sugar because the sugar chars a bit and creates the perfect bark. If you dry brine, make certain to use a rub with no salt.
Give the chunks of butt a liberal and even dusting of the rub, and then we can start thinking about the cook.
Bring The Smoker Up To A Steady Temp
Now that the preparations are finished, the cooking process begins. Light the charcoal in your smoker of choice and close the lid. Using a thermometer probe suspended just above the grate by a grate clip, monitor the air temp until it reaches 225 F. At this point, we need to interrupt the cook for a PSA - the thermometer set into the exterior of your smoker probably isn’t very accurate. Our contemporary world is filled with technological wonders: space travel, organ transplants, and also wireless BBQ thermometers. This type of thermometer is what you want and need. A good one will allow you to set one probe for the air temperature (referenced previously) and then another for the internal temp of the meat.
Returning our attention to your smoker, we’re shooting for a reasonably steady cooking temperature of 225 F temp. Add chunks of hardwood or wood chips to the charcoal – the flavors of apple and pecan work very well with pork, but you can very well use other wood to get the smoke flavor you want for your smoked boston butt. Many smokers have trays to fill with water. The water evaporates and keeps the internal environment moist. If your smoker has such a tray, fill it to capacity. If it doesn’t, considering adding a dish filled with water. A tray under the meat will keep drippings from burning the bottom of your smoker and will preserve them in case you later want to use them for a sauce or gravy. As a side note: you can use an electric smoker, too, just follow the steps according to the cooking rules,
Let's Get Cooking
Bring the chunk or chunks of butt to the smoker grate and try to keep them well away and at an equal distance from the charcoal. Place a thermometer probe into the deepest part of the largest chunk and make sure the air temp probe isn’t touching the meat. Close the lid, pop a top, and monitor the air and meat temps. If your air temps are fluctuating by 20 degrees or more, continue to adjust your vents and check the seal of your smoker lid. Sometimes it helps to spritz a bit of water on the exterior of the smoker to bring the temp down.
Opening the lid will cause the temp to initially drop dramatically and then rise quickly after you return the lid due to the influx of oxygen. Avoid opening as much as possible, though you may wish to spritz every hour with apple juice or soda to flavor the meat and to keep it moist. If you do this, use a very fine mist and be careful not to over-saturate the bark.
Why Is The Meat Temp Stalling?
Maybe three hours into the cook, the internal temp of the butt will stop rising. This commonly happens at a temp of 165-170 degrees, and it’s called "the stall”. The meat is perfectly safe to eat at this point, but the texture will be suboptimal. What to do?
You have two options. The first is to open the vents and raise the air temp to 275-300 F. You’ll eventually push through the stall, but it may take several hours. A better option, the “Texas crutch”, can help you get through the stall much more quickly. There’s not much to it – you simply wrap the butt in two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil with a light splash of flavorful liquid. Common liquids used include apple juice or apple cider vinegar, soda, and beer. The meat temp probe should remain inside so that you can continue to monitor the internal temp. Raise the air temp to 325 F and keep chugging until the internal temperature of the butt reaches 195 F. This may take another 1-2 hours.
When the meat reaches the target temp of 195 F, unwrap it and allow it to sit on the grate for maybe five minutes to allow the bark to firm up. Wrap the butt up again and place in a cooler under a clean towel for a couple of hours to allow the meat to rest.
Shred And Serve Your Pulled Pork Butt
Pull the pork butt from the cooler and shred on a butcher block. Forks work for this task, but meat claws will give you a better texture. Crispy, caramelized bits of the bark will be interspersed into the moist interior meat.
At this point, your clan may not be able to resist just digging in, or you may have other plans for the pork. It's great in a variety of dishes: the previously-mentioned tacos and pizzas or also in casseroles, with scrambled eggs, in pasta dishes, and sandwiches. Of course, you can't go wrong by serving simply with sides of coleslaw and potato salad. You'll need to make the tough decision of whether to serve bbq sauce or yellow mustard or not; if you nailed the flavor and texture of the final product, you may just want to skip it altogether.
Wrapping Things Up
Pulled pork is a go-to cook for even the most seasoned pit veterans. It's forgiving, inexpensive, and in the end, heavenly. When you experience the miracle of smoking a Boston butt into succulent pulled pork, it'll become one of your go-to cooks, too. We hope you liked this pork butt recipe and you're not as afraid of smoking meat as you might have been before. The whole smoking process is pretty straightforward and the cook time is relatively short, just grab a couple pound butt for smoking pork, choose your favorite wood to get the distinctive smoke flavor, add some side dishes and there you have it. Pork shoulder roast has never been so easy, and pulled pork sandwiches will become your new favorite lunch food. It's not the only thing you can make with pulled pork, so if you're interested, make sure to check our other pulled pork recipes on the blog.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Boston Butt
Boston butt is the nickname for a portion of the pork shoulder. The front pork shoulder is divided into two large pieces - the upper piece is Boston butt and the lower piece is called the picnic shoulder. The Boston butt is the most commonly used piece of pork for pulled pork.
Should You Make Pulled Pork from a Boneless or Bone-In Pork Shoulder?
Most Boston butt cuts are boneless, although sometimes they contain the blade bone. If you are making pulled pork from bone-in pork shoulder, it will take a little bit longer but some say it is more flavorful. If you are short on time, you should definitely opt for the boneless shoulder.
What Temperature Should You Smoke a Boston Butt?
The smoker temperature for pulled pork should be done between 200 to 225 degrees F. This is the most efficient temperature to cook at a low-and-slow temperature while still having enough heat to create a bark. It should take about 1.5 to 2 hours per pound of uncooked meat for the pork to be finished.
What Temperature Should You Cook Pork for Pulled Pork?
Pork is safe to eat at the internal temperature of 145 degrees F, but you want to cook it much hotter than that for shreddable, tender pulled pork. You should pull the pork butt when it reaches the internal temperature of at least 180 degrees F, but preferably wait a little longer until it reaches 195 degrees F.
What’s The Easiest Way to Shred Pulled Pork Butt?
Using meat claws is the easiest way to turn your cooked Boston butt into a pile of shredded pork. It doesn’t disturb the meat too much but gets in there just enough to make perfectly shredded pieces. If you don’t have claws, you can use tongs or two forks but it will take longer.