Smoking a pork butt to make delicious pulled pork is a Southern delicacy, one enjoyed for centuries. Not many American foods can claim that distinction. It’s the ultimate in down-home cooking – ultra-tender, juicy shreds of pork, dripping with fat, slathered in barbecue sauce, piled high on a bun. Partner it up with something crunchy and acidic, wash it down with a cold beer, and you’ve got the taste of summer and relaxation.
Pulled pork is popular everywhere, especially at my house, pork butts are more closely associated with the Carolinas and surrounding regions. The most traditional Carolina methods involve smoking a whole hog, but that’s extremely impractical. Invite me over if you try it, but that’s beyond my capabilities. Smoking just the pork butt is more characteristic of western North Carolina, and is very much in reach for a home smoker and dedicated meat geek.
It’s not just good luck that makes smoked pork shoulder work. This dish is a beautiful confluence of meat and method that you could study forever, but we’ll just take a quick skim through how pork shoulder and butt smokes, and what you can do to make it the way you like it.
What is Pork Butt?
The best pulled pork is most commonly made from pork butt, which is also known as Boston butt, Boston shoulder, or pork shoulder. In some places, it might be called pork shoulder roast or country roast, among other names.
As you can see, the butt has nothing to do with the ass, which we call the ham (your hamstrings are in about the same place, with a related etymology).
Did old-timey muscle-namers not know their ass from their elbow? As it turns out, in colonial times, pork produced in New England was shipped out of Boston in barrels of a particular size called butts. The shoulder was not popular for eating in Boston, so it got exported a lot. The name of the barrel got attached to the name of the cut, giving us the Boston butt. Since that says nothing useful for the customer, the term morphed into pork butt over time.
Etymology aside, the pork butt comes from the shoulder of the pig. It includes several different muscles and lots of connective tissue. Pork butt usually comes on the bone, and weighs 6 – 8 pounds.
What Makes Pork Butt (or Shoulder) Good for BBQ?
Pork butt is working muscle that the pig uses all the time, so it’s tough in texture but with a deep robust flavor. What makes it work as a great food is the large amount of connective tissue. That collagen will, over the course of long slow cooking, break down into gelatin. That gelatin turns the tough meat into deliciously tender meat. Pork butt is also full of delicious fat that fills the finished dish with flavor.
Even better, pork butt is cheap and easy to get anywhere. Anywhere in the country, smoked pork butt (or pork shoulder, picnic butt, Boston butt, etc) is the perfect combination of flavor and price to feed a big gathering.
National Retail Pork Butt & Shoulder Bone in Pricing Per Pound
|Northeast||CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT||$1.27||$0.99 - $1.89|
|Southeast||AL, FL, GA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV||$1.38 - $1.99||$0.99 - $1.09|
|Midwest||IA, IL, IN, KY, MI, MN, ND, NE, OH, SD, WI||$0.98 - $1.99||$0.99|
|South Central||AR, CO, KS, LA, MO, NM, OK, TX||$1.68||-|
|Southwest||AZ, CA, NV, UT||-||$1.49|
|Northwest||ID, MT, OR, WA, WY||$1.69||$1.35 - $1.99|
Average national price for bone-in pork butt is $1.29 per pound while picnic bone-in comes in at $1.37 per pound. Pricing as reported for 2021 as of 4/09/21 by the USDA.
Combine the tenderness of this cut, with how cheap it is, and how much food you can get off a single smoked pork butt (usually 4-6 pounds) and you have a prime contender for barbecuing. These characteristics also make pork butt one of the most common cuts of pork for virtually anything, form carnitas to bulgogi.
Goals when smoking a pork shoulder (butt or picnic)
The end goal is the best pulled pork – meat that’s tender enough that it can be pulled to shreds by hands.
To get there, the meat needs to get up to 195°‒205°. That’s an extremely high internal temperature for meat — compare to a well-done steak at 160° or dark meat chicken around 170°. In order to get there without reducing your meat to cardboard-flavored jerky, you’ve got to cook low and slow. This makes it possible to render the maximum amount of intramuscular fat and break down the maximum amount of collagen into gelatin.
Done properly, the result is a smoky, soft, fall-off-the-bone and melt-in-your mouth-tender hunk of meat ripe for sandwiches. See our complete guide on making the best smoked pork butt here.
The best pulled pork will be tender and juicy on the inside of the meat, but the best part is the bark mixed in with delicious chunks of fat. The bark should be crispy, salty, a little spicy, and packed with smoky flavor.
The exterior of the pork cut should be covered in delicious bark – a combination of spice rub, smoke, and the Maillard reaction.
There’s a lot going on there, but the Maillard reaction is what happens as the proteins and sugars in a food start to break down and brown. Starting around 150° and peaking around 300°, this is what makes the delicious and complicated flavors of seared steak and browned onions. A great pork cut will have lots of it, with great flavor and texture.
Selecting a Pork Shoulder for Smoking
If you really intend to create the smokiest, softest, most-flavorful hunks of porcine goodness ever slathered in Carolina vinegar sauce, you’ll need to start by selecting the highest quality piece of meat available. As every meat geek knows, where you source your meat and who you source it from matters.
If possible, skip the grocery store and head to your trusty local butcher, and ask for the finest pork butt (or whatever they call it in your area) they have. It’s worth spending the money for high-quality pasture-raised pork from a reputable farm and butcher.
I prefer to cook bone-in pork butt with the entire shoulder cut as I find the meat comes out more tender, but if you want to go boneless, I recommend you have the butcher remove the bone for you. It’s a complicated bone, and a professional is going to lose less meat and keep a better shape than you can.
If heading down to the butcher isn’t an option, don’t fret, an everyday store brought pork shoulder is just fine. After all, there’s something to be said for yielding a large quantity of great tasting BBQ for pennies on the dollar.
Ask ten people how to serve pulled pork and you’ll get ten different answers.
Depending where your barbecue heart lies, you might have a vinegar sauce, a tomato sauce, or a mustard sauce. For the less-affiliated folks, you might have all three served on the side.
In North Carolina, you’ll serve it on buns, slathered in either Eastern-style sauce (a vinegar-based pepper sauce, free of the usual tomatoes) or Lexington-style sauce (similar, based on vinegar but also tomato sauce, like the classic BBQ sauce found in Texas or Kansas City).
In South Carolina, you’ll see people slathering it with a yellow, mustard-based vinegar sauce called Carolina Gold, which is equal parts sweet and tangy.
In other parts of the country, like Texas, you’ll find it being slathered with whatever sauce each diner prefers. Each region also has its preferred sides – of which there are many.
Side dishes vary by region too, but rolls are usually a good start. A mellow starch, like hushpuppies, is a good partner for the super-flavorful pork. Something acidic and crisp is good too, like pickles, or a slaw. Make sure to keep the beer fridge full too.
It’s tough to take sides on barbecue, and this is really opening a can of worms, but below we feature our 3 favorite ways of serving pulled pork, straight out of their respective regions local playbook.
Eastern Carolina Style
As mentioned, in the eastern half of the Carolina’s, pulled pork sandwiches are traditionally served on buns with the region’s traditional vinegar-based sauce. You then complement the meal with coleslaw and cornbread. Lexington-style BBQ is traditionally served with a “red slaw” consisting of cabbage, vinegar and ketchup, as opposed to mayo, as well as a serving of fries – and that Southern standby, hushpuppies.
Go West for a helping of Lexington-style BBQ, and the sides start to get a bit interesting. Here, pork can be served on buns, or it can be chopped finely (not pulled, per se) and then piled high next to a serving “red slaw” made with cabbage, vinegar and ketchup (as opposed to mayo), and then finished by a generous helping of hushpuppies. Or, you can swap out the hushpuppies for a dinner roll.
Texas-style (sort of)
Texas BBQ fans, hold up there. We know there are dozens of different Texas BBQ styles out there, so bear with us. But the general rule in Texas is that sauce doesn’t matter as much as the flavor of the meat, so for a Texas-style pulled pork, you’ll want to serve your sauce on the side, accompanied by a bowl of beans, pickles and raw onions. You’ll also very frequently find it accompanied by a traditional, slightly-sweet German potato salad. It’s delicious.