Have you ever made pulled pork? If you’re reading this article, I’d say that chances are either you have, or maybe you’re here researching how to do so.
If you’re in the “I’ve made it before” camp, do you know if you cooked a butt or pork shoulder? Aha, that one might be a little tricky.
See, while both of these cuts of pork can be used to make pulled pork, the shoulder and the butt are two different cuts of meat, although they do come from the same general area on the hog.
Let’s learn more, shall we, in our detailed look at pork butt vs pork shoulder ?
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Pork Butt vs Pork Shoulder Comparison Table
- 2 Pork Butt
- 3 Pork Shoulder or Picnic Ham
- 4 Which is the Most Expensive, Pork Shoulder or Pork Butt?
- 5 Pork Butt Vs Pork Shoulder: Which Requires Most Work?
- 6 What to Look for When Buying Pork Butt or Shoulder
- 7 Conclusion
Pork Butt vs Pork Shoulder Comparison Table
Let’s put the bottom line up front, and look at the main points of comparison between these two cuts.
|Pork Butt||Pork Shoulder|
|Also Known As||Boston Butt||"picnic shoulder" or "picnic roast"|
|Where From on Pig||Top of shoulder, closest to spine.||From below the butt, the top part of the leg.|
|Description||Rectangular, uniform shape. Sold as bone-in and boneless.||Tapered, triangular shape. If boneless, sold in netting. If netting removed, meat "unfolds" into uneven layer.|
|Features||Well marbled with intramuscular fat. Often sold with fat cap intact.||Typically has less intramuscular fat and marbling. Frequently sold with skin on|
|Best Used For||Pulled pork||Pulled pork, pork roast, or pork slices.|
Thanks to Cooks Illustrated and their article comparing butt to shoulder for these main points of comparison.
Also known as the Boston butt, pork butts comes from the top part of the shoulder, closest to the spine. This shoulder cut is a large, rectangular piece of meat that has had the skin removed and is full of lots of juicy marbled fat and connective tissue.
Your butcher may leave the shoulder blade in the butt, and that’s okay, you can cook it with the bone in or the bone out.
So is it a Butt?
John from Grilling 24×7 explains that the reason that we call this cut the Boston butt is because butt is another name for a barrel and that in the past pork shoulders were typically shipped in barrels.
To make matters more interesting, butchers in Boston had a particular way of preparing this cut of meat, so eventually it came to be known as the “Boston Butt.”
Best Used For
Thanks to all the connective tissue and fat inside the butt, it needs to be cooked slowly at a low temperature; else it would be too tough to eat. For this reason, it’s commonly slow smoked for a long time until the internal temp reaches 195 °F to make pulled pork.
While we certainly don’t recommend it, it can also be slowly roasted in the oven at a low temperature to make pulled pork. Either way, it needs to get to an internal temp of 195° or more for the fat and connective tissue inside to break down to the point that the meat can easily be pulled apart.
Alternatively, you can cook this cut to an internal temp of 165 °F and serve it as a roast, sliced. The money muscle is particularly good served sliced and not pulled.
Lastly, another great use for this cut is to have your butcher slice it into pork steaks and then cook them indirect at a low temperature until the internal temp reaches 160 °F. You will still have delicious melt in your mouth porky goodness but in convenient individual sized portions.
Where to Buy Pork Butt Online
Pork butt is an extremely popular cut, so you shouldn’t have any difficulty in finding them for sale. That said, the pork butts on sale at Porter Road are outstanding.
The hogs these butts are taken from are pasture-raised, and free of any hormone or antibiotics. They also spend time in the woods, where they are free to roam and root, eating a more natural diet and working hard, that leads to a deeper flavor and impressive color than perhaps you’re used to.
A full butt from Porter Road weighs in at between 8 and 10 lbs, and if this is too much, they also sell a half butt weighing between 4 and 5 lbs.
Pork Shoulder or Picnic Ham
Just below the Boston Butt is a much smaller cut simply called the pork shoulder.
When the top part of the leg, also known as the hock, is attached it is called a picnic ham or picnic shoulder. Regardless, the skin is typically still attached.
Since the meat on the leg muscles works harder than the meat in the Boston butt, this cut will need to be cooked until the internal temp reaches 195 °F so that it is tender.
Best Used For
Just like the Boston butt, this cut is great for pulled pork. All you would need to do differently is remove the skin, and adjust your cooking time since this is a much smaller cut.
Although, just because this cut is a little tougher than the Boston butt, that doesn’t mean it’s only good for pulling. While I would never recommend cutting it into steaks, you can use it to make a roast.
Since this cut typically comes with the skin attached, it’s great to make crispy pork carnitas. Ah yes, the Mexican answer to pulled pork, carnitas is cooked low and slow and typically served in taco form. Because of the added benefit of the skin, you have the option to blast the heat near the end of the cook to crisp it up. The combination of melt in your mouth meat and crispy skin is out of this world!
Where to Buy Pork Shoulder Online
Not strictly a ‘pork shoulder’ — Snake River Farms cut the shoulder differently than is done in the US, so what you actually get is the Boston butt, picnic shoulder, foreshank, and pork collar all in one — Snake River Farms sells a huge 17 lb pork shoulder, that is 100% Berkshire (Kurobuta) pork, grown in their network of small family farms.
It is highly marbled and rich tasting, and great for cutting into roasts or smoking whole for a large amount of pulled pork.
Check Price on Snake River Farms
The Snake River Farms shoulder is a premium product at a premium price. So here are a couple of alternative places to buy that are more economical:
Which is the Most Expensive, Pork Shoulder or Pork Butt?
Prices vary wildly from region to region. That said, since the shoulder/picnic shoulder is usually a much smaller cut than most butts, it will be cheaper to buy.
My advice, don’t base your purchasing decision on which cut is cheaper per-pound, base your decision on how many people you need to feed. If you’re cooking just for your family of four, a picnic shoulder is all you really need. If you’re cooking for a larger gathering (10+ people), a Boston butt may be the better choice.
Pork Butt Vs Pork Shoulder: Which Requires Most Work?
This completely depends on the type of meal you are trying to prepare. If you’re simply planning to make pulled pork, they can both be considered 2 of the best meats for smoking, and there’s about as much work involved in preparing a butt as there is preparing a shoulder; with the obvious exception of removing the skin on the shoulder.
If you attempt to make carnitas, you will need to allow for extra steps to prepare the butt, like salting and dry brining the meat ahead of time, as well as the extra time needed to crisp the skin at the end.
What to Look for When Buying Pork Butt or Shoulder
Bestselling author and PBS host Steven Raichlen has some great advice on what to keep in mind when you buy a pork shoulder.
Skip any shoulders that are labeled as “enhanced” with water, phosphates, salt, etc. When you buy these cuts, you’re just buying meat that has been injected with brine. In other words, you’re paying for water.
Look for meat that is well marbled with lots of fat running through the muscle, is rosy in color, and is not too wet inside the package. Don’t be alarmed if it smells a little funky straight from the package, this is common with any large cuts of meat; especially if packaged in cryovac.
When possible buy heritage breeds, like Berkshire and Duroc. These breeds are bred for flavor, not size, and tend to be better marbled than other breeds.
Due to the high amount of fat found in pork shoulder, it will typically lose 40 to 50 percent of its weight during cooking. If you’re making pulled pork, a generous serving would be 6 oz. per sandwich. Do the math backward when you go to buy — i.e., if you expect ten quests you’ll need at least 60 oz. Cooked for ten sandwiches, and 120 oz. Raw before you cook.
We hope this article has at least answered some questions you may have about what the heck pork shoulder is, and how you can prepare it.
Do you think we missed anything? Can you think of any obvious pork shoulder recipes or techniques we’ve left out? Leave us a comment down below letting us know what you think!
I like your very informative article. Simple and clear to comprehend.
Thanks, Emily 🙂
When making Carolina pulled pork, I use a brine on the pork butt containing apple cider vinegar, salt, water, some pepper and hot sauce. Slow smoke and pull. Sometimes if time is short I smoke for about 3 hours and finish off in a crock pot for several hours.
Good article. Not that it changes a lot in preparing, but I just like to know the facts. Thanks, for sharing.
The roast I bought says pork butt shoulder roast, that is a little confusing.
Love your posts, another person is questioning my choice of meat so here I am to ask a professional? In our family, my mom always use pork shoulder when she makes this marinated pork skewers because she said it more tender than butt. I’ve used both, and I go with shoulder too, we slice it semi thin marinate and put them on skewers to grill. In your opinion which piece is the more tender piece.
If marinated with a view to tenderizing as well as adding flavor, I honestly don’t think there would be much difference.
The ‘picnic shoulder’ is further down the leg, does more work and so is naturally a slightly tougher cut. However, the butt does have more fat, and more connective tissue, and if this isn’t trimmed out — or rendered out by long, low n slow cooking – before making the skewers, will certainly give the impression of being tougher, even after marinating.
So I guess the shoulder is easier to prepare for tenderness, with the butt needing more careful trimming and selection of meat parts to use, but otherwise I don’t think there’s going to be much difference in my opinion.
I feel a blind taste test coming on! You both prepare some skewers each, BUT must use EXACTLY the same marinade, and cooking process. Then ask some friends and family members to taste one of each, blindfolded, not knowing which is which. This might lead to some unfriendly boasting rights for all eternity though! Lol.
You said you do not recommend slow cooking in the oven. Why not? I do not have a slow cooker and was planning on using a recipe which cooks 3-4 hours in the oven.
Because this is mostly a site dedicated to outdoor cooking, with live fire. For most people, and certainly for me, pulled pork is absolutely best with some added smoke flavor from burning wood, something you cannot do in your kitchen oven.
However, there is nothing to stop you cooking it in your kitchen oven, and I’m sure it will still be very good. You could perhaps add some ‘liquid smoke’ which is available at most supermarkets, to get even closer to ‘the real deal’ as it were. It won’t quite be the same, but will still be great I’m sure 🙂
I use both cuts to make Buckboard bacon. The butt portion benefits from removing as much accessible cartilage as possible after deboning and butterflying. Curing and slow smoking takes care of the rest. I also cure with liquid smoke and use a slow oven when necessary.
Sounds great, Stan. I’ve never actually made bacon from the butt (or shoulder.) I normally use a combination of loin with belly attached.
I use an EQ cure, and cold smoke. You can add lots of different flavors in the curing process, one of my favorites being maple syrup and bourbon, and another being a black treacle cured. I’ve also played with a cinnamon cure around Xmas time, I wasn’t too keen on that one. A herb one with rosemary, thyme etc. Was decent.
Real pulled pork has both butt and shoulder mix.
Which can you simmer with cabbage and potatoes and carrots?
Either would work in a recipe for braising. Both benefit most from long, low and slow cooking.
I have a pork shoulder Boston butt, I was going to make it on my Traeger grill, is this cut of meat better for pulled pork or will it be OK the have it as a roast
Hi Scott. You can roast it, then slice it. I’ve done this before, but to be honest other cuts of pork are better suited and take less work.
If you do it, you should debone it, remove any large bits of fat and connective tissue that you can after deboning, and then roll and tie it, so it’s a uniform shape, will cook more evenly, and be easier to carve.
It will be fatty, there will be some tough parts that people have to ‘eat around’, but you can still do it, and it is still nice. It’s not for everyone, and the only way to find out if you like it is, I’m afraid, to try it out and find out for yourself.
But yes, it’s recommended to make pulled pork from it to get the most from the meat, not to roast and then slice, which other cuts are better suited to.
Thank you for a clear, direct, and easy to follow article, Mark! This helps me understand the different cuts, thanks! 🙂
Which cut can I use for Chili Verde?
Hi, Fran. I believe boneless pork shoulder is typically used for Chili Verde, though I’m no expert on the dish I’m afraid.
My cut of meat says “Pork Shoulder Butt”, which one is it?
I’ve cooked pork before but never realized the difference. Thank you for explaining and how to cook it properly.
I’d like to know if the pork shoulder ham I use for a “Boiled Dinner” with potatoes carrots cabbage is the same?
Thanks for the kind words!
The main difference is: A pork shoulder is from a front leg of the animal, whereas a ham is from a rear leg. Also, ham is a cured meat.
My package says Pork Shoulder-Butt Roast on the Smithfield label but on the label from the grocery store it only says Pork Boston Butt Roast. So is it shoulder or butt??
Pork shoulder for Porchetta is awesome!