In Praise of Pork Shoulder, Part 1: How to Buy It

In Praise of Pork Shoulder, Part 1: How to Buy It

The pork shoulder has everything a grill or smoke master could wish for. Heft. Flavor. Affordability. And remarkable ease of preparation. Although a whole pork shoulder tips the scale at 14 to 18 pounds and a Boston butt (the top half of the shoulder—the cut most commonly sold at the supermarket) at 5 to 7 pounds, this large hunk ’o meat always comes out tender. And that’s true whether you smoke, indirect grill, or spit-roast it—methods commonly used by hog-o-holics around Planet Barbecue.

But not all pork shoulders are equal, and to get the biggest bang for the buck, you need to know about anatomy, animal husbandry, seasoning and grilling techniques and gear. We’ll cover all those topics in this three-part series.

1. Pork should taste like pork:

Hogs used to be bred for flavor. Today, most supermarket pork is an industrial product raised for maximum growth in minimum time so it can be sold quickly and cheaply. Even odder, the average hog today contains 31 percent less fat than it would have 20 years ago. And we all know that that fat carries flavor. So what’s a ’cue fanatic to do? Well, first of all, when buying pork, choose the best marbled piece you can find. Better yet, look for a heritage breed (see below), which is bred for flavor and fat.

2. Buy pork that’s raised humanely and with respect:

You, flavor-loving food dude or dudette, don’t want your pork to taste like chicken breast. You want it to taste like pork. Furthermore, you want your hogs raised humanely and with respect.

Family farmers have heard you: A growing number raise pork the old-fashioned way—mostly outdoors—focusing on heritage breeds (see below). When you buy your meat from your local butcher or farmers’ market, the vendor should be able to answer any questions you have about how the meat was raised and processed.

Meanwhile, if your only information comes from labels on pre-packaged meat, here’s a quick summary of commonly used terms:

Natural: Ideally, a term used to describe meat that contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Unfortunately, there is no USDA certification for “natural,” so it may simply be a marketing term with no quality standards to back it up.

Enhanced: Some processors inject pork with a solution containing water, salt, sodium phosphates, and other flavor- and moisture-enhancing chemicals. They can increase the weight of the package by as much as 15 percent. (Which increases your cost.) These added ingredients must be listed on the label. If you’re looking for the flavor of brined or injected meat, you’re better off doing it yourself.

Raised Without Antibiotics or Administered Hormones: Like humans, pigs are routinely inoculated to prevent disease. The claim “without antibiotics” might look good on the label, but it is not something the USDA currently monitors. As for hormones, their use is not permitted by law in the raising of pigs, so the claim is virtually meaningless.

USDA Organic: This label certifies that the animals were raised without antibiotics on 100 percent organic feed and that they had access to the outdoors.

Grass-Fed: Warrants the pigs were raised entirely on pastured grass and not fattened on grains (the latter being the diet of choice on industrialized feed lots).

Certified Humane: This phrase indicates the pig was raised without antibiotics on an approved diet (not necessarily organic) and with enough space to perform “natural behaviors.” Compliance is monitored by an independent—not governmental—organization.

Free-Range: Currently, the USDA only certifies free-range poultry. There are other independent organizations, however, that monitor animals’ well-being. Look, for example, for the terms “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane,” or “Food Alliance Certified.”

Pork shoulders

3. Respect for heritage:

Often referred to by its Japanese name, kurobuta (“black pig” literally), the Berkshire is the crown prince of hogs, with generously marbled, dark-pink, rich-tasting meat that makes supermarket pork seem downright bland. (Think of it as the Kobe beef of pork.)

Below are other examples of heritage breeds, each with its own distinct texture and flavor. Look for them at specialty butcher shops and farmers’ markets. One of the trailblazers in the campaign to save heritage breeds is the Slow Food offshoot, Heritage Foods USA. On their website, they even sell pork shoulder samplers so you can compare the differences between breeds.

Red Wattle: Originally from New Caledonia in the South Pacific, this breed gets its name from its jowly appearance and rusty red color. Prized for its ham and beefy-tasting meat.

Mangalitsa: This Hungarian transplant is the antithesis of “the other white meat.” Extraordinarily well-marbled, tender, flavorful meat and high-quality lard.

Tamworth: Described as “robust and gutsy” by Heritage Foods USA—in other words, porky. Because it’s naturally leaner than some heritage breeds, it yields excellent bacon.

Duroc: This breed is especially prized for its shoulder meat and its spareribs. The meat is a dark reddish pink color with good intramuscular marbling (read “juicy”) and high pH, meaning it retains more moisture during processing, storage, and cooking. Milder tasting than some heritage breeds.

4. Choose the right cut:

A whole pork shoulder extends from the bottom of the front leg to the top of the shoulder, excluding the trotters (feet). Commercial smokehouses buy and cook the whole shoulder, but at the retail level, you’re more likely to find the top or bottom section of the shoulder.

Boston butt (also known as pork shoulder butt) refers to the top of the shoulder, a gorgeous hunk of protein with tender meat and generous marbling with a blade bone running through part of it. If you happen to live in St. Louis, this is the section from which pork steaks (also called blade steaks) are cut.

Shoulder ham (also known as a picnic ham) refers to the bottom of the shoulder, including the top of the foreleg. It is not quite as well-marbled as the pork shoulder butt, but responds well to low and slow cooking.

5. Buy enough for leftovers:

“Cook once, eat twice.” Words to live by for all of us. The amount of pork to buy to ensure there’s enough left for a second meal depends on a number of factors, of course. How many people do you intend to feed and how would you gauge their appetites (big eaters, men, women, children)? Will you be serving side dishes with the pork? Or buns? For pulled pork, the standard rule of thumb is one-third to one-half pound of meat per person. When cooked and shredded, a bone-in pork shoulder will lose around 40 percent of its weight. For example, a raw 10-pound pork shoulder (or two 5-pounders) will yield about 6 pounds of finished meat, serving 12 to 18 people.

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