Pork Butt vs Pork Shoulder – What’s the Difference Between Them?

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.

a cut of pork shoulder on a wooden chopping board, with a kitchen knife next to itSee, 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 our detailed look at pork butt vs pork shoulder ?

Pork Butt

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.

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.

Pork Shoulder/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!

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 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.

Conclusion

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!

Happy grilling!

Mark Jenner

Hi. I'm Mark Jenner, owner and creator of FoodFireFriends.com.I grill and smoke food outdoors at least three days a week on a wide range of equipment, have done so for years, and love nothing more than cooking good food, over live fire, enjoying it with friends. The aim of this site is to educate and help others to do the same.

9 thoughts on “Pork Butt vs Pork Shoulder – What’s the Difference Between Them?”

  1. 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.
    Yum, yum

  2. 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 then butt. Ive used both and I go with shoulder too, we slice it semi thin marinate and put put them on skewers to grill. In your opinion which piece is the more tender piece.
    Thank you.
    Lynn

    • Hi Lynn,

      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.

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