Full recipe and video tutorial for how to smoke a pork butt and make the ultimate pulled pork sandwiches. Also included is our favorite uses for leftover smoked pulled pork.
Smoked Pork Butt (also known as pork shoulder, Boston butt, and Boston Roast) was one of the very first things we cooked when we bought our first smoker several years ago. It was and still remains one of our very favorites to cook, despite the intense commitment to time (not to mention $$$) it takes to prep and cook the darn thing.
Surprisingly, the only time we’ve actually shared a recipe for smoked pork butt was ages ago. We’ve learned a lot since then! A LOT. Since that first post we’ve probably cooked over 200 different pork butts (for our own personal consumption as well as a number of event’s we’ve cooked at for our catering company, Ember and Vine).
So today we thought we’d share some of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in the years since our first pork butt. Our key was experimentation, and that is what we want to encourage here.
How to smoke a Pork Butt
There are a few cuts of meat that tend to challenge any pitmaster. Brisket certainly is one, but the other I hear a lot about is pork shoulder, or pork butt. Over the years, I have cut my teeth on many hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of this meat and I have to tell you that if you spend some time understanding the process, you can nail it on your very first try. Here are a few things we have learned when cooking a pork shoulder.
With any cut of meat, you have to understand where it comes from. In technology speak, it’s often “garbage in, garbage out”. The same applies to barbecue. And with pork this is especially the case.
Let me explain.
With beef, it is generally accepted that marbling is a key to flavor. So you have USDA cuts like choice or prime leading you to a “higher quality” beef. With pork, it’s not that easy. You have to go out of your way to get to the story behind the cut.
What to look for? Marbling, just like beef.
With pork shoulder or butt, the marbling is so key to a long cook where you essentially are rendering all that fat out, in order to get moisture into the meat. We use a local farm, where we have cut into the shoulder to see what that marbling looks like. So look for fresh pink color with no odor. The fat cap and the meat should be firm.
Many will say to leave a hefty fat cap on the top of the shoulder and make sure it’s bone-in. First, let’s understand that you’re cooking the front shoulder of the pig, versus the ham which is in the rear. The top of the shoulder will have a bone blade, and where it connects with the skin, and it will have a large fat cap. I have found that a super thick fat cap does not render out, resulting in a fairly large mass of fat when you’ve cooked it for 10+ hours and the loss of some potential surface area for bark (or that exterior flavor crust created by the smoke).
So my recommendation is to cut that fat cap to barely a ¼ inch on the topside. I actually prefer to shave it down to a razor thin layer.
The remaining fat will still melt, and you will get more flavor all around the meat, and that bone will also help add flavor as well. So don’t leave too much fat. Not to mention you still have fat inside the meat that is also rendering for flavor and moisture.
To Inject or not to Inject?
We prefer to inject (using a product like this). We use equal parts apple cider vinegar and apple juice or water to get moisture and flavor into the interior of the meat.
You can brine instead. But any way you look at it, adding an injection or brine adds superior moisture and allows you to infuse specific flavor. You like heat? At some hot sauce to the injection. But in the end it’s adding moisture into the meat, that when warmed up will try to escape the meat and add that flavor all throughout the interior of the meat versus just the rub on the exterior.
You don’t have to, but we found that, in our experience, just adding more of that moisture allows the meat to sweat a bit as it cooks, adding more smoke, and keeps the interior of the meat moist and flavorful. When injecting use a food injector and inject the liquid into 1-inch virtual cubes of space, you’ll see the pork expand or bulge. This is fine. Remember, you are going to be cooking this for several (10-14 hours depending on size), so that liquid will help keep the meat moist over that long duration of the cook.
Acidity matters for pork. So we start with a Dijon mustard glaze to allow the rub to stick.
For a 7-pound pork, you may need no more than 3 tablespoons (adjust based on the size of your pork). For 8-10 lbs you may need to add an additional tablespoon. Coat the meat after trimming with the mustard paste. Then add your dry rub generously (we love this one, or see the dry rub from the video below in the full recipe).
More sugar? The more bark or sweet crunch you will get. Want more savory? Lessen the sugar and add more salt, garlic or onion powder. The key is this layer of rub keeps the flavor intact during an extended cook.
The Spritz or Mop
Make sure you have a food safe spray bottle. Fill it with equal parts apple cider vinegar and apple juice (or just apple cider vinegar and water, which is our preference to cut down on excess sweet. Or just get creative with your mixture)
After three hours of smoke, you spray with this spritz every 15 minutes until you wrap. This cleans off any ash that may have developed, but also coats the pork with a small liquid layer. The smoke flavor loves to attach to moisture. So this adds a lot of smoke flavor due to the chemistry of how smoke flavor works. We will spritz until the wrap. It takes only seconds to spritz, so you won’t be loosing much heat when you open up your cooker.
This is where things get real (or at least really controversial). Some purists, many whom I highly respect, do not wrap. They smoke it for a long time. I elect to wrap, and make sure I do so after the stall. The stall is the awkward point in cooking a shoulder when the meat sweats liquid while cooking, cooling it down. You have to make sure to not overreact to the stall when cooking, instead embrace it and cook through it. When the pork shoulder internal temperature reaches around 165 it is likely out of the stall.
This is the thermometer we used as seen in this picture
So pick wisely. When wrapping use a large sheet tray, aluminum tray, large glass baking dish, or simply foil over a large tray to make it easier to wrap.
At this point we are eyeballing a nice bark, and simply finishing off the pork like it’s in the oven. When we wrap, use that large tray and add a small bit of the mop liquid into the dish. Then cover the shoulder with foil tightly until it’s done. If you don’t wrap, that is fine. You’ll see more bark develop and the potential is there to lose the moisture, but for me I find the texture and the cooking that happens while wrapped is what I like.
Now that it’s wrapped, it’s now about getting it to the final cooking temperature. I love taking the pork shoulder to 203 degrees Fahrenheit. Really when you insert your thermometer, it should feel like it’s going into room temperature butter. This is where marbling comes in. Marbling is rendering out while cooking and becoming liquid awesome flavor. So if the probe goes into the meat smoothly, then you know all that fat flavor has melded into the meat. Pull wrapped at 203 and then rest it. Ideally in a cooler, with no ice, wrapped in a towel you don’t mind getting dirty. This allows the pork to slowly come down in temperature.
This cool down period is so key! Letting the pork cool allows all the cells you just expanded while smoking, and contract and pull that delicious fat and moisture back into the cells for awesome BBQ. Let it rest for about an hour. In a cooler it can last warm for four hours, in case you are done early. Just give it at least one hour to cool.
If you have given your meat enough time to properly cool to temperature, you can pull with your hands. When we’re cooking at an event and have several to pull, we use this tool that attaches to a drill (it’s friggin awesome). It makes it SOOO easy to finish the job.
But when we’re cooking just one at home, we love these gloves. They make it very easy to pull, and the gloves are dishwasher safe.
Remove the pork from the cooler and foil wrap. Take out to bone and start pulling. As you pull you may find some minor pieces of fat or cartilage that you want to discard. Get it pulled to you desired consistency and then cover again until ready to serve.
Want a little extra flavor? Add apple cider vinegar after it’s pulled. Or add your favorite BBQ sauce if you want. The key is to enjoy that pork shoulder and flavor and not over-smoke it.
Time to eat…
***Pork butts come in a variety of sizes and weights. They can get BIG! The “Boston Butt” is typically what we use, the nice rectangular shoulder meat. The “picnic” looks like a ham, it’s the upper part of the leg, with less meat. Usually if cooked, it’s cooked separately.
For the purpose of this recipe (below) for the home BBQ enthusiast, we kept the size average, around a 8-10 lb cut.
Lessons we've learned about how to smoke pork butt (pork shoulder), and a recipe for smoked pulled pork.
- 1 8-10 lb pork shoulder, or boston butt
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup salt
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 tablespoon dry mustard
- 1/2 tablespoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- Mix rub ingredients together in a medium bowl. May not use all the dry rub, based on the size of your pork butt. Apply liberally, and save any leftover in a sealed jar.
- 1 cup of apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup apple juice
- discard any leftovers, do NOT use any remaining for the spritz
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup water
The night before cooking, prepare pork. Remove excess fat cap, and any glands. Rinse with cold water and then place onto a cookie sheet, and inject the meat. Discard any liquid that pools in the pan and then pat dry the pork.
Apply mustard and then dry rub thoroughly. If you don’t have time to do the night before try to apply at least an hour before cooking. You’ll see the rub begin to liquefy as the moisture connects with the meat.
Preheat smoker to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. We use apple or cherry wood, then switch to oak or charcoal. Insert a thermometer if you have a remote probe, and leave in place.
Place the pork fat cap side up (if you left the cap on) and smoke for about three hours. You’ll see a bark begin to develop. After three hours, spritz (or spray) every fifteen minutes. After about five hours total, check the temperature. When the pork hits on or around 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s likely coming out of the stall and ready to wrap. This will change from meat to meat, you will see the temperature hover and only go up in a few degrees per hour. It pushes through the stall when you start to see the temperature increase in a much faster pace (between 165 to 175).
As you complete the stall, (remove the thermometer at this point if you have one) place the pork into a pan, add a small amount (two tablespoons) of your spritz into the pan and wrap in foil tightly. Put the thermometer back on place.
Continue cooking wrapped until the internal temperature is between 200 and 203. The thermometer should slide right in as if it is room temperature butter. If you are using a probe, then insert a toothpick or a small knife for the same effect.
Remove from smoker (leave wrapped), and then wrap in a towel (one that you are okay with getting dirty). Place into a cooler (with NO ice) and let it rest for an hour. It will act as a warmer and keep the pork warm for hours, so if you are planning an event, better to be done early and let it sit.
After one hour, remove from cooler and begin pulling. Remove the bone (it will just slide right out clean), and then pull with your favorite tool or with your hands. It is likely there will be some cartilage or other fatty pieces, be sure to pull those out (it’s not a good texture).
You may also opt to add a few tablespoons of BBQ sauce to mix in as well, or just top your pulled pork sandwiches with it. See BBQ sauce in notes, and also a link below the video.
Serve and enjoy!
*** Serving Tip: Pull meat as close to service as possible, once you pull, it starts to cool down fast. If you need to reheat, put back into smoker or oven covered with a little apple cider vinegar.
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Additional Recipes From the Video:
A few of our favorite tools
The following are some of our favorite tools to help us make killer pulled pork! Most are pictured above.
- These Silicone Gloves by Ekogrips: (as pictured above) these are fantastic when working with hot meat. The best part of them is that they are dishwasher safe, so you are assured you are working with clean and safe gloves. There are several silicone gloves out there, but these are the ones we use.
- This Pork Puller: When we’re cooking several pork butts for a crowd we use this pork puller for speed and ease. You just attach it, just like a drill bit, to your drill and pull away. So easy and so awesome!
- A Good Digital Probe Thermometer: Temperature is key when cooking a large piece of meat like a pork butt. Every transition we make is determined by a specific temperature, so it’s vital to have a good thermometer. We also use the iGrill Bluetooth Thermometer. They’re both excellent.
- For injecting our meat, we use an injector, like this one.
Other Uses for Pulled Pork
When you’re experimenting with pulled pork, like we tend to do, you may find yourself with some leftovers. Here are a few favorite uses for leftover pulled pork:
Pulled Pork Hash: The ultimate brunch!
And so much more!
Try it on pizza, pulled pork sloppy joes, pulled pork mac and cheese. The options are endless!
What about you?
What are your favorite tips, tricks, and/or tools for making amazing pulled pork?
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For more tasty recipes, BBQ tips and tricks, check out the Recipe Index.