Smoked Pork Shoulder

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The pork shoulder (A.K.A. Boston butt or pork butt) is the choice cut of meat to smoke when it comes to a Memphis style of BBQ; here’s everything you need to smoke this cut of meat like they do in Graceland.

Ifs, ands, or butts

Being as how this is a dish deeply entrenched in the annals of southern cooking, there is a lot of chagrin to the piece of meat being called a “Boston Butt”. There’s not really a definitive reason for this. The most logical is that, similar to the butt of a rifle or such, this is the large end the anatomical area from which this meat is cut, which is not near the rear by the way. The primal cut is the front leg, tapering down from the shoulder (butt area) to the end of the leg. The lower portions being even more whimsically called the picnic, then the hams and the hocks.

illustration of pig

You will often find it more simply labeled shoulder in the grocery, and in reality it is a split butt cut, around 5 pounds. The shoulder label becomes obvious when you see that it has the bony tip of a shoulder blade still in the roast.

If you are serving a large crowd, over 8, you can go to a butcher for an entire shoulder. Or buy two splits.

raw pork shoulder from grocery

This is a very well marbled cut with an excellent fat cap across the top. Because it has the fat ‘cap’ we arbitrarily call that the top, in case you wondered. While it can be a nice roasted dish, this is an exceptional piece of meat for very slow cooking.

The hard decisions

Bone in or boneless?

Sometimes you can buy this as a boneless cut, and you can certainly bone it out at home. But why? Personal preference is about the only reason. There’s a point to be made for evenness in cooking, but with the amount of time this will spend in the smoker that is only slightly relevant. The bone is a decent thermometer for cooking, since the meat is properly done when it slides out easily. Some people find it a pain to deal with at the finished temperature and like to get the bone out of the way up front, so we’ll go through the process.  If you are buying the whole shoulder, don’t bother.

With a split shoulder, the bone is visible on one end of the roast.

Starting along the smooth bottom of the bone closest to the end of the roast, run your knife along that, cutting the short way through the end of the meat.

Continue doing this, creating a flap that will expose the flat side of the bone, working with the meat fat cap side down.

The next step is to work through the curved parts of the bone, mostly done through feel and experience, until you can remove the bone.

pork shoulder tied with butcher’s string

You’ll want to trim the fat cap down to about ¼ inch. That leaves just enough fat to moisten the meat and carry flavors without leaving large globules when the time comes to pull the pork  Once you have the bone removed and fat trimmed, tie the roast back together with cotton twine or butcher’s string.

Prepping the Shoulder

When your roast is trussed up trimmed and ready, time for the glamour shot. Memphis barbecue is all about the rub. And where ribs can be cooked in a ‘wet’ style, the shoulder is almost always cooked dry, simply rubbed with spices and smoked. You then bring in the sauce when it is time to serve your meal.

memphis rubbed shoulder ready to smoke

Start with the bottom of your roast, sprinkling liberally with your rub.

For the ends, you can kind of dip it in the seasoning that fell off or missed the bottom. This also where you want to be literal about the term rub, and use your hands to work in the seasoning.

Gloves are a good idea here too. Take your rub and make certain that you have lightly worked it into every inch of the end surfaces of your roast, until the meat is just barely visible. Smooth a liberal layer on the top and you are ready to fire it up.

Smoking the Shoulder: Time is the essence

By now you should have your smoker pre-heated to 225 degrees.

If you have a thermometer system that can stay in the roast throughout the cooking process, now is the time to place them with the sensor well into the center of the meat.

Place the roast in the center of the rack with good smoke circulation. Close it up and walk away, probably for the next eight to ten hours.

raw pork shoulder on the smoker with temperature sensor

If you have been around barbecuing you have probably heard about ‘the stall’, generally starting at 165 degrees. This is the point where the juice and water from the interior of the meat have pushed out and are evaporating at a rate that holds the temperature of the meat at a constant, for as much as an hour or two.  Eventually the heat wins out and the cooking starts again.

With brisket in particular, people will use the crutch of wrapping the meat in foil or peach paper, keeping the heat in, and getting past the stall. That is not generally done when cooking Memphis style pulled pork. Patience will win out, and you will have a better product with more flavor if you just let it set in the smoker until the temp starts climbing again.

You are looking toward a final internal temperature of 200-205 degrees.

Completing the Cook

cooked Unpulled pork shoulderWhen you get to the end, in addition to temperature, the fork twist is an easy way to judge doneness. Stick a simple dinner fork into the top of the roast and turn it forty-five degrees. If it turns easily your pork is ready to go. But wait for it. Really.

Remove the pork from the heat and let it rest 30 minutes. Your best bet is to put it in a dish that will accommodate all the pork when you have pulled it, like a 9”x13” baking dish with low enough sides to work in. That way when you pull the pork, any juice and flavor that may have escaped gets worked right back in.

cooked Pulled pork with bbq sauce and rub

If you tied the meat, cut the strings and remove them. Cooked properly, your pork is easy to pull with just a couple forks. There are some fun ‘claw’ devices in the market that will make the pulling process much faster if you like.

You can use your hands if the temperature is comfortable for you. The short version is that you want the meat shredded, and with a little patience you’ll easily get there.

Plainly tasty

Once pulled you can sauce it, or serve it and let the folks sauce it on their own. Stuff it in a soft bun or bread and you have an exceptional pulled pork sandwich. In Memphis you can find pulled pork served in a number of more unique ways. It is a great topping for nachos made with fresh cooked kettle chips.  It has been used as a pizza topping, and you will even find it as the core of a spaghetti with BBQ sauce and pulled pork.

Plain, sauced or re-imagined, reward the patience it took to create a great dish and enjoy!


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