Pork shoulder and pork butt are often thought to be the same cut of meat, but although they are situated in the same area of the pig, they are different and, in this article, we will be comparing the two. Both have excellent qualities, but what you use them for can vary tremendously. 

What Sections of the Pig are these Cuts from?

Believe it or not, both pork butt and pork shoulder come from the shoulder. Pork butt doesn’t come from the rear end of the pig despite its name. Each shoulder is called a primal cut which the butcher will cut in two to make the pork shoulder and the pork butt. The pork butt is behind the head of the pig and lies just above the shoulder blade. The pork shoulder is below the pork butt running down to just above the front hoof so is tapered in shape.

Pork butts are usually heavier than pork shoulders. They can weigh anything between 6 and 10 pounds, while pork shoulders are usually smaller and will weigh around 4 pounds. This means that it takes less time to cook a pork shoulder.

What are the Characteristics of Pork Butt?

Pork butt is sometimes called Boston butt because in colonial days it was transported from New England in containers called butts. It wasn’t a popular cut of meat at that time, so it was exported. How times have changed. It’s now one of the most popular cuts of meat. 

Pork butt isn’t a muscle that’s used a lot and as a result, it is a fatty meat which has plenty of marbling. This means that it can be a very tender and moist piece of meat. 

Pork butt is usually sold with its shoulder blade intact and a fat cap on one side. You can trim the fat cap as it doesn’t add much to the cooking process. The marbling inside the meat is what adds moisture and flavor. 

You can ask the butcher to slice pork butt into steaks with the bone intact. If you buy it without the bone you will probably get it in netting. When the netting is removed the pork will fold down to an uneven layer. However, if you are using the meat for pulled pork, it will be easier to pull without the bone. 

Pork butt is a cut that can be cooked both low and slow or hot and fast. If you are cooking steaks you will want to cook the meat quickly. However, if you are cooking the intact cut, you would be best cooking it on low heat. Smoking is one of the best ways to cook pork butt. It might take all day, but it is worth it for the tender, flavorful, and juicy meat you will end up with. You can also braise or roast this cut of meat. 

You can also cook pork butt in a closed grill or even in the oven if you haven’t got an outside grill. Again, to get the best results, cook low and slow. If you are using an outdoor grill, gas is a good option. It takes a long time to cook and if you are using charcoal, you will have to monitor the coals as they will get used up quickly. If you are using a gas grill put it on medium-low heat. If you are using an oven, preheat it to 300F. You can put a dry rub on the butt to give added flavor to the meat. The rub can be as simple as salt and pepper, or you can add herbs. It’s a good idea to put the meat in a roasting tin with 2 cups of water, stock, or wine. This will give the pork extra moisture, so it turns out moist and tender.

Another option is a slow cooker. You won’t have to worry about basting or keeping the temperature at a certain level. All you have to do is add some seasoning to the pork and put in some liquid like stock or wine. You can leave it to slow cook for around 8 hours without even having to check the meat or turn it because the slow cooker is sealed.

You don’t need to rest pork butt if you are using it for pulled pork. Put on a pair of insulated gloves and get pulling!

Pulled pork is gaining popularity everywhere. Just think of the pull-apart pork slathered in barbecue sauce piled high into a toasted bun. It is extremely popular in the Southern states of the US and there are competitions for the best pulled pork. Pork butt is nearly always used in these competitions. 

Another use for pork butt is in sausages. This is because it has a perfect meat – to – fat ratio. It’s either 80/20 or 70/30 which is ideal for sausage making as well as meat grinding.

Pork butt is rectangular which makes it ideal for cutting into equal pieces if you want to make a stew or a dish like a chili con carne.

The great advantage that pork butt has over pork shoulder is that the combination of fat and bone insulates the meat and stops it from drying out despite cooking it for many hours. 

What are the Characteristics of Pork Shoulder?

Pork shoulder is often called a picnic shoulder or picnic roast. It is a well-used muscle unlike pork butt, and this makes it a tougher piece of meat. It has less fat than pork butt and because it is so tough, it needs to be cooked low and slow to tenderize it. It could also benefit from an injection of some type of liquid like pork broth or apple juice. Not only will it give the meat added flavor, but it will give well-needed moisture.

Pork shoulder is usually sold with the bone and the skin is left on. Some people say that the skin is the best bit of pork shoulder. If you turn the heat up high at the end of cooking, the skin will crisp up and be delicious. Who doesn’t like a bit of pork crackling? The bone is useful as it does help to keep the meat moist.

Pork shoulder is triangular shaped so is best off being cooked whole. If you try and cut it up for a stew you probably won’t get evenly shaped pieces but that doesn’t matter if you want to cook something like a Posole. This is a Mexican stew with hominy and pork and garnished with limes, cilantro, avocado, radishes, chili peppers, or peppers, or a mixture of these ingredients.

Smoking pork shoulder is popular and is usually done with a wood pellet smoker which will give your meat a smoky taste. You can even choose the flavor of the chips you want. We think that fruity flavors like apple and cherry go well with pork shoulder. Alternatively, you can put soaked hardwood chips on top of the charcoal. Whichever fuel you use, you will have to keep the temperature between 225F and 275F. 

You can also indirectly cook your pork shoulder. With this, the meat is cooked next to the heat and not directly above it. If you have a gas grill, just put one burner on, and if you have charcoal, put the charcoal to one side. For indirect cooking, you will need to have the heat on around 325F to 350F. A good thermometer and meat probe are important for getting the temperature correct.

Another option is spit roasting. What’s more inviting than a pork shoulder slowly rotating on the spit. Because it is way above the grill, it needs a slightly higher temperature to slow cook. Look for a temperature of around 350F and 400F.

If you have cooked a whole roast pork shoulder, it will need to rest when you take it off the grill. Resting allows the juices to seep into the meat and get distributed evenly, making it moist and tender. What you need to do is place the pork on a cutting board and then loosely cover with aluminum foil. Let it rest for between 20 minutes and half an hour. 

Final Thoughts

Both pork butt and pork shoulder are good cuts of meat and can be used for a variety of dishes, but what you want does have to be directed by the cut you choose. If you are looking for a marbled piece of meat that just falls off the bone, choose pork butt. If you want a roast with crispy skin, pork shoulder is the top choice.

Whichever you choose, you should cook it straight after buying it. You can keep it for 3 days in the fridge, but it does change the flavor. It is tastier if you cook it the day or the day after you buy it. The meat you buy should be pink in color and without a smell. Avoid meat that is pale and has dark spots.

We hope that you enjoy the summer cooking whichever cut of meat you choose.