A Complete Guide to Smoking a Pork Butt (Shoulder) – From science, cook times, internal temperatures, methodologies, and our favorite pork rub and sauce recipes.
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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, but is 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 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 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, pork butt 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 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.
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.
Now that we’ve defined a bit of what we’re looking for, let’s see how to get there. The details of your preparation are going to vary based on your style of smoker or grill, so you’ll need to fill in a bit to turn these concepts into exact directions.
Choose the Pork Shoulder
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.
Your first step is to remove most of the big fat cap from the pork. Fat is where the flavor and texture come from, but the big slabs on the outside aren’t the bits doing the work. It’s the little bits of fat inside the muscles that are creating that juicy goodness. Trim the fat cap down to ⅛”‒¼” with a boning knife. This way the smoke penetrates into the actual meat on that side. Save that fat for sausage making – there’s nothing better for the job – after all, you paid for it.
If you’ve chosen a boneless pork butt, you’ll need to tie it back up into roughly its original shape so it holds together during cooking. You’re going to need food-safe twine in cotton or linen. Use plenty of it, too. Better safe than sorry.
There’s a seemingly-endless variety of pulled pork recipes to choose from, some of which call for seasoning or brining the cut a day in advance, and others which recommend simply throwing some salt or pepper on top and quickly throwing it on the smoker.
Now, by “some salt and pepper,” we mean a lot of salt and pepper. All pulled pork needs to be liberally seasoned before smoking. For salt, you’re shooting for about 1/2 a teaspoon per pound. Then tons of pepper and whatever other seasonings strike your fancy are also welcome. Just make sure if you are presalting the meat that whatever additional seasonings or rubs you’re adding don’t contain additional salt.
Whether you’ve got a fancy dedicated smoker or a basic kettle grill, you can make this happen. With a dedicated smoker, do your thing. With a grill, you’ve got to set up for indirect heat. The meat goes on one side and the heat goes on the other. For a gas grill, you’ll use just one burner. For a charcoal grill, you’ll put the charcoal on just one side, with a disposable aluminum drip pan on the other side.
Time and Temperature – How do I know when my butt is cooked?
No matter what your hardware is, you want to be cooking at 225° for about 1½ hours per pound. The time is very variable, and depends on your exact piece of meat and environment, so you’re going to be judging when it’s done by internal temperature. Use a probe thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, and plan to call it finished when it reaches 195°‒205°.
225° is widely considered the Holy Grail of smoking temperatures, providing the perfect level of controlled, low heat to slowly soften and melt the connective tissue without drying out the lean meat. Of course, as with all things barbecue, there’s still a lot of debate: many meat geeks will argue that 250° is better, if for no other reason than because it speeds up the process. I always recommend 225° when smoking pork for novices. Also, invest in a good thermometer for reading the internal temperature of your grill. The factory temperature gauges on grills are rarely reliable.
Keeping your smoker or grill at an exact temperature can prove troublesome for newbies, but don’t let it scare you off. In no time at all you’ll dial in how much fuel and oxygen your grill or smoker requires. From there, it’s just a matter of figuring out how often you need to add in more fuel (briquettes). As long as the smoker stays between 225° and 250°, you’ll be fine. If ambient temperature spikes do happen (as they do), reduce the ambient temperature to keep things under 300°. There’s enough mass here that a few short spikes won’t ruin a smoked pork shoulder. This is also a good reason to pick up a nice BBQ thermometer – it could save your butt.
The Stall – Why is my pork taking so long to smoke?
So things are going well so far. You’ve got the heat dialed in, the internal temperature of the meat is steadily rising, and you’re mentally setting a dinner time, but then something happens: the temperature just sits around 150° and won’t move. There’s nothing wrong with your thermometer – you’ve encountered The Stall.
As the muscles cook, they contract and push out water starting around 110° and finishing around 160°. That water gradually makes its way to the surface of the meat and starts cooling the meat through evaporation, much like your body cools by sweating. Around 150°, this cooling starts to cancel out the cooking power of the 225° environment. At this point, the pork can’t cook until one of a few things happen: the water cooks off, you wrap the meat in foil to prevent evaporation, or you crank up the heat.
2 Hacks to Fast-foward Past the Stall
Your first option is to do nothing until the meat has exuded all the water it’s going to. This might take 2 to 4 hours, but the results are well worth it. This period is perfect for developing collagen on the interior and bark on the exterior. If you’ve got the time, just grab another drink and let it be.
If you haven’t gotten it by now, we’ll summarize: the Bark is the best part of a pulled pork.
It’s crispy and salty, a little spicy…and just jam-packed with smoky flavor. Every crunchy bite is a treat and pulling apart the bark of a pork butt with your hands to reveal all that gooey, juicy and fatty pulled pork is incredibly satisfying. You can break up the bark and mix it in with all that shredded pork…or just rip off big, salty chunks and chow down with your fingers.
#1 Higher Temperature
The Stall happens because the cooking power of the smoker comes into balance with the evaporative cooling of the water. You can beat it by pushing on the cooking power side of the balance. Crank up your heat to about 310° and keep a very close eye on your temperature readings. Once the meat gets up to about 170°, bring the heat back down to 225° to glide into a smooth finish.
The downside of this method is that it’s high-risk. Overdo it, and you’ll ruin your meat. You also miss out on prime collagen development time, making your meat a little less tender.
#2 The Texas Crutch
The Stall is caused by water evaporating into the air, so you can beat it by removing the air. It sounds like it should be a wrestling move, but the Texas Crutch is to wrap your meat tightly in aluminum foil for two hours or so. This keeps the water from evaporating and shuts down The Stall.
The downside is that your meat is now braising instead of smoking. Nothing wrong with a good braise, but it’s not what we’re going for here. The Texas Crutch inhibits the formation of bark, so if you love that stuff, you might want to avoid this move.
Finishing – When is a Pork Done?
Target internal temp is 195°‒205°, but you should augment the number by feeling the meat. Grab the bone with a protected hand and give it a little twist. If the bone moves really easily, you’re ready. If it still offers resistance, you need a little longer to pull it properly. If you’re cooking a boneless butt, use a fork to gauge resistance. If the meat pulls right apart, you’re there.
Cooking Internal Temperatures for Pork Doneness
|Pull Temperature||138 - 140 °F||135 - 137 °F||195 - 205 °F|
|Done Temmperature||145 °F||145 °F||200 - 210 °F|
|Rest Time||3 - 5 min||15 min||30 min|
If you’re used to cooking steaks, you might be thinking about carryover heat and pulling your smoked pork early to coast into the good zone. That’s a concept that doesn’t really apply here. Carryover is an issue when the inside and outside of your meat are at radically different temperatures, like a rare steak with a 400° exterior. Here, the inside of the meat is 200° and the outside is 225°. They’ll equalize a little, but not enough to matter.
Holding – My Pork is Done, What Now?
Smoked pork butt is a wonderful thing, but there are no guarantees.
Maybe you get a long stall, or maybe it cruises through quick. Maybe your smoker was a little cold, or a little hot. In any case, you should start your pork shoulder with plenty of time to spare, and be prepared to hold it for serving later.
2 Hacks for Holding
Food service guidelines say that hot food should be kept over 140°F — lower temperatures encourage the growth of bacteria. Your smoked pork is well over that now, so you just need to keep it in an insulated environment so it holds onto that heat. You’ve got two devices around the house that can accomplish that right now.
#1 Using the Oven
The oven is the obvious choice. Set it as low as it will go, wrap the pork in foil tightly, and pop it in. The problem is that home ovens can’t really hold a low temperature that well. You’ve already got a thermometer in the meat, so keep an eye on it. Your oven might be OK, or you might need to cycle it: 15 minutes on the lowest setting, 30 minutes off, and don’t open the door.
#2 The Cooler Method
The better choice might be an ordinary cooler. Modern coolers, especially the fancy ones, are extremely well-insulated. Wrap up the cut in foil, a few towels, and put it in the cooler. If your weather is on the cool side, you can charge up your cooler by filling it with hot tap water first to heat it up. In any case, keep an eye on the thermometer.
For more adventures with a cooler, check out The Food Lab and see how to cook sous-vide steaks with a cooler!
When it’s time to eat, start by removing the bone. It should slide right of the meat. Give it a tug and twist, it should come right out. You can then pull the meat apart into shred-like chunks, using claws, a couple of forks, or the old-fashioned way – with your hands.
The main ingredients in pulled pork is the cut of pork, smoke, and time. Everything else is details, but the details matter. There are three components that you need to get onto your pork – salt, sugar, and spices. The salt brings out the flavor of the meat and the flavor of everything else you put on it. It also draws moisture out of the meat which enhances browning. The sugar also draws moisture from the meat, but its main job is to brown and add flavor to the bark. Brown sugar adds molasses flavor since modern brown sugar is just sugar and a little molasses, so it’s a natural partner for BBQ. The spices are the fun part.
You’ve got a few strategies when it comes to getting these ingredients into your pork and a world of spice blends out there (plus three in this article). You can combine them together like Legos to build your perfect pulled pork.
All of these strategies start with a trimmed whole bone-in pork shoulder cut.
- Plastic wrap
- Baking dish
- 2 tbsp Kosher salt
- 2 tbsp White sugar
- 2 tbsp Brown sugar
- Mix 2 tablespoons kosher salt and 2 tablespoons white sugar in a small bowl. Rub the mixture all over the surface of your pork so it’s completely covered. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and place in a baking dish or other vessel to catch the drips.
- Refrigerate pork butt overnight.
- Remove and discard plastic wrap. Let rest at room temperature while you prepare the spice rub. Mix 2 tablespoons brown sugar with one of the spice mixtures in a small bowl. Rub spice rub all over the pork butt.
- 5 cups Ice cubes
- 4 cups Water
- 1/2 cup Diamond Crystal Salt
- 1/4 cup White sugar
- 4 whole Onions chopped course
- 6 tbsp Morton’s Kosher Salt
- 2 tbsp Brown sugar
- 8 cloves Garlic smashed
- 2 sprigs Fresh rosemary whole
- 1 bunch Fresh thyme whole
- Bring 2 pounds (4 cups) of water to a boil on the stovetop. Add 3¼ ounces salt (that’s about ½ cup Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, 6 tablespoons Morton’s Kosher Salt, or 5 tablespoons Morton’s Table Salt). Add 1¾ ounces (¼ cup) white sugar and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Take the brine off the heat and add 2 pounds (4 heaping cups) ice. Let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
- Add 4 onions, chopped coarse; 8 cloves of garlic, smashed; 1 bunch fresh thyme; and 2 big sprigs of fresh rosemary. Note: change this part up as you like it, just make sure to use lots of your flavor ingredients. It’s an inefficient process, so you’ve got to overdo it to make an impact.
- Transfer the pork butt and brine into your brining container (or maybe use the pot you cooked the brine in). Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Remove the pork butt from the brine and let sit on a wire rack to drain while you prepare the rub. Mix 2 tablespoons brown sugar with one of the spice mixtures in a small bowl. Rub spice rub all over the pork butt.
I Forgot Until the Day Of! No worries, here’s your play:
Relax, it’ll be OK. You’ll need an hour for the salt to do some work on the outside and really start to adhere, but you can make a fine pulled pork without an overnight brine. You’ll also need something for the rub to stick to, so you’ll start with a layer of yellow mustard. That’s mostly water, so it’ll cook off, plus the vinegar will do a little work on breaking down the surface of the meat.
- Mix together 2 tablespoons kosher salt, 2 tablespoons white sugar, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, and one of the spice mixtures in a small bowl.
- Rub the pork shoulder all over with ¼ cup yellow mustard. Rub spice rub all over the cut. Let it sit and rest at least 1 hour before cooking.
- ¼ Cup Cup Sweet Paprika
- 2 Tablespoons Ground Black Pepper
- 2 Tablespoons Dry Mustard
- ½ Teaspoon Chili Powder
- ½ Teaspoon Garlic Powder
- ½ Teaspoon Cayenne Powder
- 2 Tablespoons Sweet Paprika
- 2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
- 1 Tablespoons Ground Cumin
- 2 Tablespoons Ground Coriander
- 2 Tablespoons Mexican Oregano
- 2 Teaspoon Sweet Paprika
- 1 Teaspoon Ground Allspice
- 2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
- 2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
- 2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
- 1 Teaspoon Ground Cardamom
BBQ Sauce Recipes for Pulled Pork
Vinegar-Pepper Sauce (Eastern North Carolina)
- 1 Cup Cider vinegar
- 1 Tablespoon Brown sugar
- 1 Teaspoon Red pepper Crushed
- 1 Teaspoon Salt
- ½ Teaspoon Black pepper
- ½ Teaspoon Cayenne pepper
Tomato Sauce (Western North Carolina)
- 1½ Cup Ketchup
- ¼ Cup Molasses
- 3 Tablespoons Cider vinegar
- 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- ½ Teaspoon Salt
- ½ Teaspoon Pepper
Mustard Sauce (South Carolina)
- 1 Cup Yellow mustard
- ½ Cup Cider vinegar
- ¼ Cup Brown sugar
- 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 Tablespoons Hot sauce
- ½ Teaspoon Salt
- ½ Teaspoon Pepper
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.