Barbecue University™

Boston Butt Basics, Part 2

Pork Butt

In the last blog, Boston Butt Basics, Part 1, we discussed the anatomy of pork shoulder. So now you know the difference between a Boston butt and a picnic. You know what to look for when buying pork shoulder and you read how to season it with a mustard rub, smoke it, and serve it, South Carolina-style with Mustard Sauce.

So it’s time to, er, bone up on pork shoulder grilling and smoking techniques and some basic prep before you fire up the grill.

Prepping a pork shoulder:

  • Keep the shoulder refrigerated until you’re ready to cook it. Some pitmasters advocate letting the meat come to room temperature first, but I disagree. Lukewarm raw meat is an invitation to disaster.
  • If the pork shoulder comes with skin, I like to cut it off, season the meat, and then retie the skin to the pork shoulder with butcher’s twine. (For example, see the lechon asado from Puerto Rico in Planet Barbecue). Loosening the skin in this manner helps it crisp better than leaving it attached to the meat. Still not crisp enough for you? Try direct grilling the meat side of the skin the last few minutes of cooking.
  • For extra flavor and moistness, you can brine the pork shoulder for a day or two before smoking or grilling. For a fruit flavor and to encourage browning, replace part of the water in a standard brine recipe (2 cups kosher salt dissolved in 1 gallon of water) with apple juice, and add a little molasses, maple syrup, or brown sugar. Pat the shoulder dry before roasting or grilling.
  • Another way to add flavor and moistness is to inject the shoulder with apple juice, melted butter, and/or your favorite injection sauce. Use a kitchen injector (it looks like an oversize hypodermic needle) to inject thin injector sauces. Use our wide-mouth injector and spike to inject thick flavoring mixtures, like a Jamaican jerk spice paste.
  • Generously rub the outside of the pork butt or picnic with your favorite rub, working it into the interstices between muscles. Note: If you have previously brined the pork, use a low-sodium or salt-free rub to avoid oversalting the meat. At this point, you can wrap the meat with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight before grilling, which will partially cure the meat. Or grill or smoke it right away, in which case the rub will act like a seasoned salt.
  • If the bone has been removed, tie the pork shoulder at intervals with butcher’s twine to help it maintain a compact cylindrical shape and to prevent exposed surfaces from drying out.

To smoke or indirect grill?

Barbecue tradition calls for pork shoulders to be smoked low and slow, but if you stick an oven thermometer in many professional pits, you’ll be surprised to find cooking temperatures in excess of 325 degrees.

Low and slow smoking (done at 225 degrees) produces exceptionally moist, tender, smoky meat and requires 5 to 8 hours (depending on the size of the shoulder), but little in the way of direct intervention.

Smoke-roasting (indirect grilling at 325 degrees with wood chips on the coals to generate smoke) shortens the cooking process (to 2 to 3 hours) and gives you crisp and tasty burnt edges in addition to moist smoky meat. This is the method I prefer.

Finally, there’s spit-roasting, which is well suited to well-marbled cylindrical roasts like Boston butt. The slow gentle rotation of the rotisserie spit bastes the meat with its own melting fat. Yum.

Putting it all together:

  • If smoking, set up your smoker according to the manufacturer’s directions and preheat to 225 degrees. If desired, put a drip pan with water, beer, or apple juice under or next to the meat.
  • If smoke-roasting, set up your grill for indirect grilling and preheat to 325 degrees. Place a drip pan under the grate between the mounds of coals. Yes, you can add water, beer, or cider to the drip pan.
  • Soak several cups of smoking wood chips or chunks, such as apple or hickory, in water, beer, or apple juice for 1 hour. Drain, then put about 3/4 cup on each pile of hot coals.
  • Add fresh charcoal every hour or as needed to maintain 225 degrees. (Leave the firebox open for a few minutes until the charcoal lights.) Continue to add wood chips or chunks every hour for the first 3 to 4 hours of smoking, or the first 2 hours of smoke-roasting.
  • How much time will your pork butt or picnic take? A good rule of thumb is about 1 hour per pound. But always allow more time than you think you’ll need.
  • If desired, spray the pork with apple juice, cider, or root beer after the first hour or so of cooking. (Give the “bark”—crust—on the outside time to set before moistening.) Or use a barbecue mop to swab on a mop sauce. But avoid opening the grill or smoker too often. You know what pitmasters say: “If you’re lookin’, you’re not cookin’.”
  • Like brisket, pork shoulder often “stalls” at temperatures around 165 degrees F. (The internal temperature will actually drop briefly—caused by evaporation of the juices on the surface.) Don’t panic. The temperature will eventually begin to rise again.
  • If your intention is to serve the pork sliced, you can remove it from the grill when it reaches an internal temperature of 170 to 180 degrees F. If you want to chop or “pull” the pork (tear it into meaty shreds)—always my first choice—the internal temperature must be between 190 and 200 degrees F. Anything less, and the collagen and connective tissue will not have broken down sufficiently. Insert the temperature probe of an instant-read meat thermometer in several places to ensure doneness. Make sure you do not touch bone with the tip of the probe, or you will get a false (higher) reading.
  • So how can you tell if a pork shoulder is ready without an instant-read meat thermometer? Using tongs or, wearing insulated food gloves, find the bone and give it a tug. When the meat is the proper temperature, the bone will pull free with almost no resistance.
  • Give it a rest. Transfer the meat from the smoker or the grill to a foil pan or platter and let it rest in a warm spot, loosely tented with foil for 20 to 30 minutes. (If you are not yet ready to serve, you can hold the meat in an insulated cooler for up to 2 hours.)

There are a lot of options when it comes to sauce. In eastern North Carolina, they use a vinegar hot pepper sauce. In western North Carolina, they use vinegar sauce slightly sweetened and reddened with ketchup. In barbecue- and whiskey-obsessed Lynchburg, Tennessee, they’re partial to a sweet, sassy sauce spiked with Jack Daniel’s.

Do you have your own suggestions for conquering Boston butt? Share them with our community on the Barbecue Board.

Read Boston Butt Basics, Part 1.