The Difference Between Cooking Pork Shoulder & Pork Butt

Pork butt and pork shoulder are two similar cuts of pork which is taken from the same pig part. You may hear people claiming that pork butt and pork shoulder are just one thing; the truth is, they are just similar but entirely different. These pork cuts can be cooked using similar techniques but there are differences that we will look further into.

Pork Butt and Pork Shoulder—The Differences

The major difference between these two pork cuts has to do with the size and the part of the pig from which they come. Pork butt has more marbling than pork shoulder, so it is a bit fattier. Pork shoulder is usually sold bone-in and skin on, while pork butt is usually skinless.

Despite its name, pork butt does not come from a pig’s behind—it comes from the shoulder. Its name is derived from the casks or barrels that cheap pork cuts were packed or shipped in the 1700s.

In terms of size, pork butt cuts will weigh anywhere between 6 to 10 pounds. The cut has different muscle groups in it, so it also contains a variety of textures and flavors. The entire pork butt is rectangular and contains a portion of the foreleg.

Pork shoulders, on the other hand are cut smaller, usually just around 4 pounds. The meat has a uniformed texture and taste. As such, it is great for cooking whole and slicing, while pork butt is better for making really tender pulled pork. Both cuts are perfect, however when used in chilis and stews. Because of their similarity, they can also be interchangeable in your recipes.

Where do you find these cuts on the pig?

Both pork butt and pork shoulder are cut from the upper part of the pig’s foreleg. The shoulder cut comes from the triangular part that is thinner, and the thicker part is then labeled pork butt. Combined, they become the whole pork shoulder.

The meat from this part can be tough because this is the most overworked part of the pig. The best way to cook pork butt and pork shoulder is long and slow and in low heat. Both these cuts are highly versatile and you can cook them in different ways, including stewing and braising.

Cooking Pork Shoulder

Both pork butt and pork shoulder can benefit from long, slow cooking so that they are truly tender and literally falling off the bones. As previously mentioned, the shoulder sees a lot of activity all throughout the pig’s life, so the muscles are overworked and have carried the weight of the pig. Although the meat tends to be toughed when not cooked properly, they are very flavorful compared to other cuts.

Pork shoulder can be grilled or roasted, but it is best done with some liquid in the pan and kept covered while roasting. You can cut it up and braise it in a pot or use it in stews. You can also use it for making ground pork. Pork shoulder works great in Posole, because does not easily fall apart as compared to pork butt.

Here are some tips on how to cook or roast pork shoulders right:

  • Barbecue or smoking—the most preferred method by many people, this process involves using low heat for a long time and always done with wood smoke. This can be achieved in a few ways: tossing soaked hardwood chips onto the charcoal or using logs for your pit. It is important to note that the temperature should only be within 225 to 275 degrees. Your goal is to get a dark, crusty exterior on the meat.
  • Indirect grilling—as per the name, the meat is cooked next to the fire and not directly over it. You can use a covered grill and cook at a moderate heat of about 325 to 350 degrees. This will speed up your cooking time and will give you a crusty exterior. Using a gas grill is more practical and you can toss soaked wood chips on the grill smoker box to achieve that smoky flavor.
  • Spit roasting—a pork shoulder slowly rotating on a turnspit is hunger-inducing and very inviting. The meat bastes itself, and you can expect a crisp exterior from the slow cooking. Spit roasting is typically done at higher temperatures, approximately 350 to 400 degrees. The cooking time is shorter, too.

Cooking Pork Butt

Also referred to as “Boston butt”, pork butt are smaller in size and can really turn tender when cooked for a long period under low heat because of its fat content. In Asian cuisine, pork butt is often used to make bo-ssam or roast pork Korean style. It is also a Chinese favorite for pulled pork buns and Kao Ka Moo, a Thai favorite.

You can cook pork butts in a closed grill or in an oven and to get the best results, they should be cooked slowly. Because of the longer cooking time, it is more practical to use a gas grill because a charcoal grill would mean using a lot of hot coals to keep the heat steady.

If using a gas grill or oven, preheat it to 300 degree F or set the gas grill flame to medium low. You can season it with a dry rub, or brine it, or rub spices on it and place it in a roasting tray. Add 2 cups of wine, water or stock and cook for up to 5 hours (1 hour per pound of pork butt). Do not cover the tray with anything so as not to raise the cooking temperature.

You can also use a slow cooker so you won’t have to worry about keeping the temperature steady or about basting it continuously. After seasoning the pork butt, just add a cup of liquid to the cooker, and slow cook for 8 hours. You don’t have to baste or turn it to keep it moist because the slow cooker is sealed.

Why Pork Butt is Better for Barbecue

Pork butt contains a lot of fat and connective tissues, so the meat is succulent and moist after hours of long, slow cooking. Pork butt is also more commonly available and cheaper than pork shoulders.

When choosing a pork butt, one of the things you must consider is pork quality grade. While all pork is inspected by the USDA, it is not graded for its quality, mainly because pork is produced from pigs that are bred to produce uniformly tender meat. When graded, it is usually for “utility” and “acceptability”.

 

Which is easier to smoke?

Both pork butt and pork shoulder are suitable for low and slow barbecue. Unlike other pork cuts, you cannot grill these parts for just a few minutes or an hour. The meat is tough, so it has to be exposed to up to 12 hours of low heat to tenderize the fibers of the muscle.

Both cuts are fatty, which will add more flavor to the meat and will naturally baste the meat to make it more moist and easy to pull apart.

Pork shoulders are easier to smoke than pork buts because they are smaller, hence, requiring less time to cook.

  • When to use pork butt—because it has more fat, it is great for braising, stewing and for pulled pork.
  • When to use pork shoulder—if you want crackling-crisp skin, this is your best choice because the cut is usually sold with skin on.

Final Thoughts

Both pork shoulder and pork butts are excellent barbecue and grilling choices, especially when done just right. But you still have to serve it so here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Let the pork shoulder rest for a time after removing it from the smoker or grill. This resting time greatly improves the texture and allows its delicious juices to really seep through the mean and be distributed evenly. Carefully place the meat onto a cutting board and loosely drape with aluminum foil. Let the roast sit for 20 to 30 minutes. You can also wrap the shoulder in butcher paper and then wrap again in thick towels. If you like your bark crusty, skip this step.

Pulled pork shoulder or butt is best shredded when it is still hot. Remember to use insulated food gloves when doing this.

Cook the pork butt or pork shoulder right after buying. Although it can last up to 3 days in the fridge, the meat tastes different when consumed fresh. Do not cook frozen or refrigerated pork straight from the fridge. Let it thaw or sit at room temperature for half an hour before preparing it to be cooked to ensure that it cooks evenly.

Keep in mind the no matter which pork cut you choose for your next barbecue, the key is in choosing the freshest pork. The rule of thumb is to use meat that still has a pinkish color and does not smell at all. Steer clear of meat that is pale and has dark spots on the fat. We hope that with this article we were able to give you a clearer idea on the main differences between pork shoulder and pork butt. Which one do you think will be the star of your next barbecue?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Difference Between Boston Butt and Pork Shoulder?

Which is Better for Pulled Pork, Pork Shoulder or Pork Butt?

How Do you Cook a Pork Shoulder?

Where Can I Find a Skin-On Pork Shoulder?

What Temperature Should I Cook Pork Shoulder and Pork Butt? 

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