I’ve found no ingredient in my meal prep arsenal to be more adaptable and diverse than the pork shoulder, also labeled as Boston butt or picnic shoulder. Whatever it’s labeled, it is indeed the shoulder of the pig – a big, meaty, marbled and complex maze of muscle and (well-purposed) fat – available at a very affordable price point.
We’ve learned that the pork shoulder is very difficult to completely mess up. But we’ve also learned that a well-smoked pork shoulder is God’s gift to the tastebuds, a truly heavenly experience, that once enjoyed, will set the bar high for all future bites of pulled pork yet to come.
Uses for Pork Shoulder or Boston Butt
Before we get into the “how,” let’s talk about the many uses for your well-smoked pork shoulder or Boston butt (which as we’ve discussed previously has absolutely nothing to do with the rear part of a hog).
Of course, there are the standard pulled pork sandwiches and meat and three plates that are common at bar-b-que restaurants. Pulled pork nachos are another popular choice as is the BBQ Pizza with your favorite barbecue sauce as a base and a good white cheese melted on top. Brunswick stew, of Georgia barbecue culture fame, is another excellent choice in colder weather especially. And I like a little pork sprinkled into my baked beans.
I also love a non-traditional pork slider at my tailgates and parties with a Hawaiian bun, arugula and our Sugar Taylor Creamy Sauce smeared on both bun surfaces.
Another favorite is the rustic skillet breakfast made with thinly sliced potatoes, pulled pork, red bell peppers, green onions, eggs and cheese. Another difficult to mess up one-pot meal perfect for using the last of your pork shoulder, the proportions are purely preferential, but I do recommend serving with diced tomato, sliced avocado, cilantro leaves and sour cream on top.
I can never get enough of pulled pork tacos – a spin on carnitas. I prefer to use a corn tortilla, radish, cilantro and pickled onions on mine with whatever sauce makes you happy. A sprinkle of cotija cheese is the finishing touch! These are also great for a game day tailgate since all of the ingredients are easy to pack separately and pop-out for a make-what-you-want-as-you-want-it taco bar.
I’m also loving this new recipe submitted to us by Chef Stuart Gates using a blender-friendly Salsa Verde for a nice composed dish he’s calling Smoked Pork Shoulder braised in Salsa Verde over Cilantro Queso Polenta. Boom!
Bonus! Smoked pork shoulder retains every bit of its goodness frozen and enjoyed later! It’s easy to freeze the meat (along with some of the juice) in perfect portions for your family in freezer storage bags or by using a vacuum seal type food storage appliance. Just pop them out of the freezer when you need the meat, thaw in a skillet and enjoy!
Smoking the Perfect Pork Shoulder
Now, let’s talk about HOW to make the perfect pork shoulder or Boston butt on your outdoor smoker.
Start with good meat.
As often as we can, we buy fresh meat directly from a reputable local hog farmer. However, good meat is also widely available in your local grocery – and it also will go on sale there. Watch the sales on the fresh meat, then freeze it until you’re ready to cook it for a real grocery budget coup.
Gather your other necessary supplies.
You’ll need the following supplies to do a great job – without a lot of hassle on this project. And it is a project, let me tell you. But one well worth the effort.
- Outdoor smoker or grill
- Cherry and pecan wood chunks or chips
- Hardwood lump charcoal
- Meat thermometer
- Paper towels
- Tin foil
- Beer or apple juice
- Sharp chef’s knife
- Disposable plastic food service gloves
- Roasting pan or disposable aluminum pan for juice
- Large tub to rub meat and pull meat
- Hot pad or glove
- June Bugg Rub (or your favorite BBQ rub seasoning)
Prepare to cook.
When you’re ready to cook, remove your butt(s) from the fridge and let them start to warm to room temperature. In the meantime, light your smoker or grill to a temperature of around 250 degrees.
Once the grill reaches temperature, go ahead and toss your pecan and cherry chunks into the fire to begin the smoke process. I suggest these two wood types together for the sweetest bark on your meat – it’s an unbeatable flavor combo!
Remove the meat from any packaging and rinse the meat thoroughly under cold running water, then dry with paper towels. Dry butts are what you need for the rub to be applied.
Using a sharp knife, create a 1 x 1 inch grid about ¾ inch deep across entire surface of your meat, a little less on the bottom side of the butt where the fat cap is thicker. This creates more surface area for the rub and will also speed up your cook time slightly by allowing more heat to reach the new surface area without compromising flavor or texture quality.
Portion about ½ cup of June Bugg Rub or your favorite BBQ rub and work it into the grid that you’ve created on the meat. I suggest wearing latex or similar foodservice type gloves for this process. Make sure the entire meat is covered in rub.
Time to Smoke
If possible, place a pan under your grill or smoker grate. You’ll want it to be deep enough to capture the juices that will render from your meat. Once the pan is situated, pour half a beer or a cup of apple juice into this pan.
Then, place the meat on the grill, fat side up (that’s the white stuff on top).
Periodically, check on your meat. Not too often, or the smoker will be more difficult to regulate, but often enough to keep some beer or apple juice in your pan, so that your meat stays moist while it cooks.
Wrap it Up!
After four to five hours (depending on the size of your pork shoulder), there should be a great, smoky, dark crust on the outside of the meat. Now is the time to wrap your meat in foil. Plan ahead because you’ll be wrapping piping hot meat and don’t want to drop it, break it or otherwise damage the meat – or yourself – in the process. I lay out my foil ahead of time and use a silicone hot pad and tongs to help me get the job done. A successful wrap creates an airtight pouch for your pork shoulder that will keep any juice (I call it “pig love”) contained. This is important to the flavor outcome of your efforts.
The Trick to Perfection
The real trick to pork shoulder perfection is to wait patiently for your pork shoulder to “break.” Don’t try to rush it. This happens when the meat is literally melting and falling apart with the softest nudge. That perfect moment in science seems to be when the internal meat temperature is 205 degrees. When the thermometer hits that number, the bone should slide out, and you should be able to literally slide a spoon clear through the piece of meat without applying any pressure.
At this phase, there should also be a LOT of liquified fats, or “pig love” as I call it. Reserve that love for later.
When you achieve this phase – and not a minute before – it’s time to remove the butts from the grill surface and into a deep pan. I reserve my liquids separately, and I cool the butts until they can be handled without burning my hands. You can wrap the foil-wrapped meat in towels and place in a cooler for up four to five more hours (great tailgating trick) until you’re ready to serve.
Once they’re cool enough to handle, I pull the butts by shredding the meat apart. At this time, remove and dispose of any fatty chunks or gristle. Add back some of the “pig love,” and add about two tablespoons of June Bugg Rub and mix the pulled pork well. The extra rub and juice give the pork that pop of flavor that takes it from dry and boring to unforgettable!
If you have any questions, or you just want some confidence and coaching – whether it’s your maiden voyage with pork shoulder or you want to take it to the next level – schedule a call with me on the Chefter app, and I’ll be happy to help you get it done right!
>> What’s your favorite way to eat pulled pork?