If you’ve ever been confused at the grocery store trying to figure out a pork shoulder vs a pork butt, you’re not alone. If you are looking to make mouthwatering barbecue pork in your own backyard, you don’t want to get the wrong meat.
Both cuts come from the primal pork shoulder cut, but you will get very different results if you try to cook them the same way. They differ in how lean they are as well as how the butcher prepares them for sale. So be aware of the differences when you head over to the meat cooler. Otherwise, you might end up with something completely different than what you set out to accomplish.
In this article, I’ll be walking you through the differences between the two cuts, which is best for turning into pulled pork, and what you can do with either cut.
The pork shoulder you find in the grocery store is also sometimes known as the picnic shoulder or picnic roast. It is the lower portion of the shoulder primal, connecting the pork butt to the top of the pig’s front leg. When the pig was alive, this was the harder-working portion of the shoulder area. When you go to the store and find a pork shoulder, it will almost always still have the skin on.
The picnic shoulder is a lean, tough piece of meat due to its hardworking nature. It has a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, which impacts how you can cook it. Low and slow cooking methods are best to achieve tender pork. However, you want to finish the shoulder over high heat to get that skin to crisp up.
Pork shoulders have the bone still in, which will help keep the meat moist while you finish over the direct heat.
If you are confused as to why the upper portion of the shoulder primal is called a pork butt, you’re not alone. You might be further confused as to its nickname, the Boston butt. Whether the pork butt was named after wine barrels known as butts (yes, there is an actual measurement for a buttload of wine, somewhere between 475 and 500 liters) or simply just being the butt-end of the shoulder, it is one of the most popular cuts of pork for barbecue.
As for the origins of the Boston nickname, it possibly came around much like other regional names such as the New York strip steak or St Louis spare ribs. Butchers in the Boston area trimmed the pork shoulder in such a way that became a national standard once railroads made shipping cross-country easier.
So what is a pork butt? It is the portion of the shoulder primal that is above the pork shoulder. It is a well-marbled piece of meat due to not working as hard as the lower shoulder.
You can purchase a pork butt bone-in or boneless depending on your preference, but it is more commonly sold with the bone in. A bone-in pork butt can be helpful when smoking pulled pork, because you will know that the pork is ready to pull when the bone slips out of the meat without much resistance.
Despite coming from the same primal cut, these two cuts of meat behave differently. There are two major differences that help us to understand what to do with these cuts. While pork butts are fairly common, you do want to do some preparation if you grab a pork shoulder.
Even though the pork shoulder and pork butt are from the same primal cut on the pig, the pork shoulder did more work and therefore is leaner than a pork butt. More intramuscular fat means the pork butt will be more tender when smoked low-and-slow while also standing up well to higher heat.
Pork butts, whether bone-in or boneless, are typically a rounded, fairly uniform rectangle. This allows for fairly even cooking when smoking which means you won’t have to worry about certain areas finishing before others. Pork butts typically have a thick fat cap on top of them. Pork shoulders are almost triangular in shape, usually with the skin on top. The regular shape of the pork butt makes it easier to cook.
Pork butt is better for making tender pulled pork. The intramuscular fat in the pork butt will render throughout the low-and-slow process used to make pulled pork. This increases the tenderness of the pork, making it easier to pull apart into shreds.
The beauty of pulled pork is that it’s pretty simple. You choose the flavor profile you want and then use the appropriate dry rub. If you want simple flavors to highlight the pork flavor, salt and pepper is best. There are a number of rubs out on the market with differently flavor profiles from sweet to spicy and in between. A number of pitmasters will use a binder like yellow mustard to help the rub stay adhered.
You can smoke a pork butt at temperatures between 225-275° F, taking care to monitor the internal temperature for the stall. You can wrap the butt in aluminum foil or food-grade butcher paper to help speed up the process once the internal temperature stops rising, somewhere near 160°F. Once the pork butt reaches around 200-205°F, take it off the smoker and let it rest in a cooler for a minimum of 30 minutes. Then shred and enjoy!
Pork butt is a versatile cut of pork whether you want to make pulled pork or not. Its fat content helps keep the meat moist whether you are cooking low and slow or slicing and grilling over direct heat.
The most notable use for pork butt is pulled pork, but it goes beyond that. You can slice a pork butt into pork steaks for grilling. If you love tacos, you can smoke your pork butt, braise it, then sear the shredded pork to get a non-traditional take on carnitas.
CookingChannelTV.com has a simple recipe for pork steak that can be done by slicing a pork butt into one-inch thick steaks. The recipe calls for seasoning with salt and black pepper, then finishing with barbecue sauce so it caramelizes then doesn’t burn. You can substitute the salt and black pepper for your preferred dry rub as well.
Heygrillhey.com details how to make smoked carnitas from a pork butt. It does take more time because you do marinade the pork butt and then need to crisp the shredded pork in a skillet. However, you will end up with a smoky take on carnitas perfect for tacos or nachos.
While the picnic shoulder may not have the same level of internal fat as as pork butt, you can still smoke it to get pulled pork. You can also slice the smoked picnic shoulder to serve rather than pull it. Don’t forget that you can finish it over direct, high heat to get that skin to crisp up as well.
If you ever run to the grocery store and find they are all out of Boston butts but have picnic shoulders, you can still create great pulled pork like this recipe from howtobbqright.com. The mountainkitchen.com details how David smokes a picnic shoulder and different ways of serving it, including sliced.
While both cuts of meat can be used to create great BBQ, the simplicity of preparation and versatility due to the marbling of fat makes the pork butt such a highly sought after cut of pork. Whether you want pulled pork, pork steaks, or smoked carnitas, the pork butt is the way to go.
Still Pork Hungry? Check out our Pork Belly Burnt Ends.
- Which is leaner, Pork Shoulder or Butt? The pork shoulder is leaner due to the amount of use the muscles get during the pig’s life. It works harder and less fat develops.
- Is pork butt expensive? No, it is not. You can commonly find it in a grocery store for between $1.79 and $2.50 a pound with sales dropping the price to $0.99 a pound sometimes. Compared to some other prized meats for smoking, pork butts are a great way to get a lot of food without breaking the bank.
- Where to buy pork butt? Thankfully, pigs have two front shoulders where the pork butt comes from, so they’re widely available. Most local and chain grocery stores will have pork butts regularly available. You can source higher-end breeds online or from specialty shops, but your hometown grocery store will usually have them as well.