The Best Way For Smoked Pork Shoulder
Is there anything better than a delicious, perfectly tender, perfectly seasoned pork shoulder? It’s great as-is, of course, when accompanied by sides like coleslaw and corn on the cob, but it also turns up the flavor on almost anything else you’re eating.
Think about adding some pulled pork to your morning omelet or sprinkling some over a baked potato. And one of my all-time favorite recipes is pulled pork tacos. The way the flavors of the smoked pork, sweet salsa, and cotija come together is—in a word—magical.
Making this magic possible, however, is a labor of love. It takes the right ingredients, the right toolkit, and a lot of patience to smoke a pork shoulder. You can’t rush the process or skip steps or you risk losing all of that wonderful smoked flavor. There are many pork recipes on how to cook a Boston butt, pork butt, pulled pork sandwiches, other cut of meat with bbq sauce or bbq rub. You can grill pork steaks or pork roasts. But today we're talking about how to smoke pork.
Still, despite the intense commitment, I love to cook and eat pork shoulder. Here’s how I make the best pork shoulder on the block—or, dare I say? The world
What You’ll Need to Make the Best Smoked Pork Shoulder on the Planet
18 lb. pork shoulder – Meat selection is KEY here. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t choose a good shoulder, your results will be lackluster at best. So, what are you looking for?
- Size. I think 8 pounds of meat is the sweet spot. A pork shoulder that’s any bigger is difficult to smoke to perfection—it takes longer, for one, but you also run the risk of drying out the edges of the shoulder before the inside is done.
- Color. The meat should be pink and odorless. You should also look for a firm fat cap.
- Marbling. Just like good beef, you want your pork shoulder to have nice marbling. By cooking so slowly, you’re going to be rendering out all that fat and locking moisture inside.
- 1 ½ quarts apple cider or apple juice
- Equal part water
- Optional flavors: hot sauce, garlic, onion, etc. Any flavor you like.
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 9 tablespoons brown sugar – You can adjust the amount of sugar in the rub to suit your tastes. The more sugar, the more sweet bark you’ll get. If you want it more savory, you can reduce the sugar and add more salt, garlic, and onion
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons onion powder
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 ½ tablespoon black pepper
- 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- ¼ cup Dijon or yellow mustard
You’ll also need a lot of time. While the prep doesn’t take that long, you’ll be smoking the meat for 10-14 hours, and then you need at least another hour to let the meat rest.
Preparing the Meat
Step 1: Trimming
I like to trim the fat cap down to about ¼ inch thick on the outside—the thinner the better. The reason for this is because if you’ve chosen a quality shoulder with nice marbling, the meat will stay nice and tender without the need for a large mass of fat. Plus, the fat cap does not tend to render out anyway, which means you miss out on potential bark surface area for not that much pay out.
Step 2: Injecting
I inject the meat with a mixture of apple cider vinegar, water, and a little bit of Cholula hot sauce, but you can add any flavors to the apple cider vinegar/water combination that you like. Why inject? I find it adds more moisture and flavor into the meat. In addition, the brine acts similarly to fat, meaning that as it heats up it, the meat sweats a little, allowing more smoke and flavor to get inside.
Try to inject the liquid into 1-inch cubes of meat space. I inject about a teaspoon of liquid in with each stab. You’ll likely see the shoulder bulge a little as you work. This is perfectly normal—remember that since you’re going to be cooking this shoulder over a long period of time, this moisture will help keep the meat flavorful and tender.
Place the remaining brine mixture into a spritzer bottle.
Step 3: Adding the Rub
Take the Dijon mustard and spread a thin layer over the entire surface of the meat. This will allow the rub to stick better and add some additional flavor and acidity to the pork.
Mix all of the ingredients for the rub together and then spread generously to cover the whole shoulder. Don’t be stingy with the rub—try for a nice, even, thick coat over the meat. I find that a patting motion, rather than a sprinkling or dipping motion, works the best to pack on the flavor.
Also, here are a few tips on the perfect rub for all the tender and juicy recipes:
Smoking the Shoulder
Step 4: Wrapping
Now you’re ready to cook. Place the pork shoulder into a large baking pan. An aluminum tray works well for this, but you could use a glass baking dish or baking sheet. Insert the probe of the meat thermometer into the center of the meat.
Here’s a quick tutorial on how to use the thermometer.
I know this is controversial for some purists, but I wrap my meat during a certain point in the smoking process to help lock in flavor and moisture. You don’t have to follow my example, but if you do, the baking pan makes things easier to wrap
Step 5: The Smoke
Bring your smoker up to 210 degrees Fahrenheit and place the meat in the center. Now, leave it alone for a while so as not to disturb the bark that’s forming.
After about two hours of smoking, use the spritzer bottle to lightly spray the meat. Keep things moist by spraying every 30 minutes or so after that. The liquid also acts to bring more smoke flavor into the meat. Depending the what kind of smoke flavor you want, add the wood chips accordingly. Continue to do this until you wrap the meat.
Step 6: The Stall
It’s after this point in the cooking process that I wrap my meat. You’ll know you’re at the stall when you see the meat sweating liquid, bringing the internal temperature of the meat down. Just keep watching through this process—don’t overreact to it.
Once it’s over—you’ll know it is when the meat reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit—loosely wrap the meat with aluminum foil for the rest of the smoke.
Finish your pork shoulder by bringing it to 200 degrees Fahrenheit for maximum tenderness. You’re going for temperature here, not time, so allow the meat all the time it needs and don’t rush things.
Step 7: The Pull
Allow your tender pork to rest for at least one hour before pulling to allow the juices to settle into the meat. If you tear into it too early, you’ll lose a lot of moisture.
Shred the meat with a pair of forks or your hands. Remove bones, cartilage, and fat to get the pork to your desired consistently. Once the pull is done, cover the meat again until you’re ready to serve it.
You can adapt this guide to fit your own needs and tastes, use an electric smoker or a slow cooker, use apple wood to get a different smoke flavor, modify your pork shoulder recipe, or pair it up with some cool ideas for healthy veggie grilled recipes. During the summer and fall months, I like to keep a pork shoulder roast on hand at all times for spicing up all kinds of recipes. Let me know what you thought of the process and if there’s anything you do differently.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many People Can You Feed from One Pork Shoulder?
A standard rule of thumb for cooked, pulled pork is 5 to 8 ounces of meat per person. With bone-in pork shoulder, it's safe to assume you lose 40 percent of the raw weight during the cooking process. This means that a 5 pound pork shoulder will yield 3 pounds of finished meat, or about 6- to 9-servings.
Why Brine a Pork Shoulder Using a Meat Injector?
Brining pork shoulder increases its moisture content, creating a juicier, more flavorful product. It's beneficial to use a meat injector because it can reach the meat on the inside. This allows the brine to add a depth of flavor that cannot be achieved with an exterior dry rub.
What Temperature Should You Smoke a Pork Shoulder?
A pork shoulder is best cooked at a smoker temperature between 210 degrees F to 225 degrees F.
How Long Does it Take to Smoke a Pork Shoulder
You will need about 60-90 minutes per pound to fully smoke the pork shoulder. It is always best to leave yourself extra time. This gives you time to rest the shoulder for at least an hour before slicing or pulling the meat. Resting allows the juices to redistribute within the meat instead of spilling out onto the cutting board.
What Temperature is a Pork Shoulder Done?
If you are slicing the pork, you can remove it from the grill at 180 degrees F. To pull the pork, the internal temperature should reach 200 degrees F. After 165 degrees F, you should wrap the pork shoulder in aluminum foil for the rest of the smoke to protect the pork from drying out.