Best Pork Cut For Pulled Pork

While many of us will smoke a variety of meats over the course of a year, perhaps the greatest demonstration of our mastery of flame and (smoke) fume comes from the ability to create pulled pork. While our friends in Texas may disagree with good reason, for much of the rest of the country pulled pork is the quintessential proof of the advantages of true barbeque.

When faced when the decision to smoke meat for pulled pork, there is an intense debate over which cut you should use. While located very closely to one another on the animal, pork shoulders and pork butts offer two distinctly different smoking experiences. As we all know, variables like marbling, fat caps, and bone structure all contribute to the final outcome of pulled pork. We are going to take a look at what you should know about each piece, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of both cuts, before offering which we think offers the best pulled pork.

Shoulders vs. Butts

Like I said earlier, a pork shoulder and a pork butt come from the same general location of the pig. As anyone who has ever tasted a filet mignon and a flank steak can tell you, location matters more in the field of cooking meat than it does in real estate.

The Pork Butt

We will start with the pork butt. For starters, keep in mind that the pork butt does not actually come from the hindquarters of the animal; that would be the ham. Instead, the pork butt comes from the area above the shoulder blade of the animal. The butt gets its name from the fact that during the period while America was still a British colony that the cuts of meat would be stored in a barrel known as a ‘butt.’ Many of these barrels were packed in New England, especially Boston.

Anatomically, it is the area right behind the hog’s ears. Typically a boston butt has one bone, the shoulder blade. That bone helps to release more porky flavor throughout the smoking process, and acts as the ultimate guide of doneness; it’s not called “fall off the bone tender” for nothing. Because of this location, it is relatively underworked while the animal is alive, meaning that the meat has potential to be especially tender. I say ‘potential’ because due to the location, there is a lot of connective tissue. However, as you all know, achieving optimal barbequing results means transforming that tough connective tissue into the sort of savory juices that can make a piece of meat truly amazing. Melting that connective tissue is what allows the bone to slip out easily when the meat is done cooking. Heavy marbling throughout the butt will increase this considerably. Make sure to not get marbling, the little flecks of fat throughout the pinkish-red meat, confused with larger fat deposits. While some large fat deposits are okay, too big of a fat cap (a frequent problem on boston butts) means that you’ll just end up smoking lard.

The Pork Shoulder

Located just below the pork butt is the pork shoulder. If the pork butt are the trapizoid muscles, then the pork shoulder is the deltoid. Because of the fact that it is quite literally the shoulder joint, there are more bones in a shoulder than in a boston butt. This can make the meat more flavorful when cooked properly, but also makes for a more finicky piece of meat. None of your guests will want to see a bone in their pulled pork, and it is much more likely with a pork shoulder than within a boston butt.

It is from the pork shoulder that a lot of the movement that propels a pig originates from. While pigs are moving around, that means that the pork shoulder is getting worked frequently. This results in much more connective tissue, which means that there is more collagen to melt into the meat. That said, too fast of a cooking process can cause that moisture to evaporate, resulting in an incredibly dry cut of meat. As such, barbequing and smoking are ideal ways to cook a pork shoulder.

That said, those extra bones and bountiful connective tissue can play to the advantage of the experienced smoker. The pork shoulder can be much less forgiving to variations in temperature and time than a boston butt, but the final result can be significantly more flavorful and more moist.

Test It Yourself

Reading about the differences between pork shoulder and boston butt is one thing, but is quite another to try smoking them side by side to see which is better. The two cuts of meat are pretty economical for their size, and it can be a great excuse to have a few friends over. Best of all, most smokers have enough room for multiple cuts of meat, so there is really no excuse not to try and see which route you prefer.

Buying the Meat

The first steps to making great barbeque, whether you decide to use pork shoulder or boston butt, is to make sure that you are buying top quality meat. Examine the marbling of the meat, as well as the completeness of the cut. By completeness, I mean if the piece of pork has been cut; that could affect cooking times even between two similarly sized pieces of meat. Also, avoid any meat where the fat cap is overly pronounced.

Preparation

Once you get home, it is time to prep the meat. A number of barbeque pros swear by injections, but it is really a matter of personal taste. Others will suggest brining or even dry brining the pork. While that is up for debate, you should absolutely give the meat a dry rub. This can be bought through a vendor, or you can make your own. This is a great opportunity to play with flavors to find out what works well, though be advised that something built for the fattiness of a boston butt may not match the texture of a pork shoulder, and vice versa.

Almost as important as the rub is how heat is applied. For starters, none of us what our pork to taste like lighter fluid, so it is best to find another way to light the charcoal. Speaking of charcoal, make sure that you are using natural charcoal; that meat is going to be exposed to the wood and fumes for hours, so while briquettes may work well for a hamburger, they could negatively affect your pork.

To Smoke or Not to Smoke?

Some purists will claim that the smoke from the charcoal alone is enough to flavor the meat, but an industry of smoke wood providers would beg to differ. Like your dry rub, experiment with what is out there to find a great wood, or even a combination of woods. Fruit and nut woods go well with pork. Keep in mind that your wood should smoke, not burn. We often wrap our wood in aluminum foil to keep it smoldering for longer. Finally, figure out if you want to smoke only part of the way or the entire time; it can be frustrating to have to maintain temperature and smoke for hours upon end, but the end result can be worth it.

Cooking

Settle in and get comfortable, as barbecuing pork shoulders and boston butts is going to take a while. In this, there is no real advantage for either piece of meat. You can get a faster product by cooking at 325, but purists will judge you. Instead, stick between 200 and 250, especially when using smoke.

Pulled pork can take up to 16 hours to smoke, but with a little luck yours won’t take quite that long. In case you’ve never done it before, know that the meat plateau is a fact of life; at around 150-170, the meat will slow its cooking for anywhere from two to six hours. This is the time during which those connective tissues turn into rich juices, so don’t even think about rushing it. Once your pork hits around 195, wrap it in foil and let it set for a few minutes before shredding.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the best cut for making pulled pork is the one that you are most comfortable with, but for most beginners, I highly recommend a nice boston butt. It is a more forgiving cut, takes a variety of flavors from rubs and smokes easily, and is still guaranteed to impress your guests. That said, a pork shoulder is still more forgiving than many other cuts of meat, so if you can only get that, don't despair! Many a great barbeque stand has survived only on pulled pork from boston butts, after all. We hope that you have enjoyed this article, and look forward to hearing about your own smoking experiences. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. Otherwise, if you enjoyed reading this, please feel free to share it!

​Frequently Asked Questions

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​What is the Difference Between Pork Shoulder and a Boston Butt?

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