Wondering if there’s a difference between pork shoulder and pork butt? These cuts are often mistaken for one another, and their deceptive names only add to the confusion. Let’s see what sets them apart and what are the best ways to use them!
Their labels are not exactly suggestive to their origin. Pork shoulder is just a portion of the actual shoulder of the animal and pork butt doesn’t come from the swine’s rear.
The guide below will settle the pork shoulder vs. pork butt dispute and also includes information on the type of recipes each cut is best used for.
Side By Side Comparison
|Pork Shoulder||Pork Butt|
|Fat & Marbling||Balanced fat content with subtle marbling.||Fattier cut with intense marbling.|
|Shape||Triangular, tapered shape often sold with skin on.||Rectangular uniform shape, typically with the top fat layer intact. Available with and without bone.|
|Taste||Mild meaty flavor.||Intense flavor.|
|Texture||Slightly stringy and chewy.||Moist and tender.|
|Low and Slow with seasoning, dry rub, or marinade.||Low and slow smoked|
Slice and grill
Roasting, Stewing or Braising
with seasoning, dry rub, or marinade.
|Other Names||Picnic Shoulder||Boston Butt|
|Cost||Slightly cheaper.||Slightly pricier because of the larger size.|
What Is Pork Shoulder?
Pork shoulder, also known as “picnic roast” and “picnic shoulder” comes from the lower end of the shoulder and has a tapered, triangular shape. It’s often sold with the skin on.
The shoulder is a hardworking area with lots of connective tissue, and that’s why the meaty parts of the pork shoulder cut are tough. It also has a reasonable amount of fat with subtle marbling in some areas.
Flavor-wise, it has a deeper, richer flavor than lean cuts such as pork chops and pork loin.
What Is Pork Butt?
As I already mentioned, pork butt comes from nowhere near the rear of the pig. In fact, it’s the upper section of the pig’s front shoulder and has a rather uniform, rectangular shape.
Both pork butt and pork shoulder are parts of the hog’s frontal shoulder, just different areas.
Pork butt, also called “Boston butt” has more fat and marbling, and is often sold with the fat cap intact.
It has some connective tissue, although the high fat content makes this type of meat less susceptible to drying.
Yes, pork shoulder and pork butt are both parts of the pig’s frontal shoulder. They’re close neighbors, but not the same.
Here are the key differences between these two cuts:
Fat And Marbling
Pork shoulder comes from the lower part of the front shoulder, and that’s an area that works harder than most, so it has a balanced fat content with subtle marbling.
Pork butt is richer in fat and marbling and both cuts also have plenty of connective tissue.
The pig’s shoulder becomes narrower as it gets closer to the animal’s hooves, which is why the pork shoulder cut has a triangular shape with uneven thickness. In most cases, you’ll find this cut sold with the fat cap still on.
Pork butt comes from above the shoulder blades and has a rectangular, uniform shape. It’s usually sold with the skin off, with or without the bone, but the top fat layer is kept intact.
Pork butt (Boston butt) is a fattier cut compared to pork shoulder (picnic roast) so it will have a more intense flavor.
Of course, the cooking method, spices, herbs, and other ingredients you use when cooking will also affect their final flavor.
Despite the lower fat content of the pork shoulder, if cooked properly, it will turn out incredibly delicious!
The pork shoulder is a hardworking area with lots of muscle meat. Compared to pork butt, it’ will’s be slightly stringier and less tender. But a good long, low temperature smoke will turn super tender! Check out the photos of the shredded pork shoulder below.
Because of the high fat and marbling content, pork butt meat is softer and juicier.
Both pork shoulder and pork butt are affordable cuts of meat and they’re perfect as a budget-friendly option for feeding a crowd.
Pork butt is often larger than pork shoulder and for that reason, it can be more expensive.
It’s a good idea to calculate the number of servings and if you want any leftovers before deciding which one to buy.
Tip: If you have a Costco nearby, they always have a two-pack with a butt and shoulder for very reasonable prices. They always seem to be very fresh and we use them all the time! (When my wife lets me wander Costco unsupervised, that is!)
When To Use Pork Shoulder?
If there’s one thing pork shoulder and pork butt have in common, is they are well suited for low and slow cooking methods.
They both have plenty of connective tissue that needs to break down for the meat to become tender.
Here are the best ways to use pork shoulder:
- Any slow cooking method: roasting, braising, stewing, slow smoking and grilling.
- Any recipe that calls for crispy pork skin.
- Holds its shape and can be sliced whole.
- Can be used for any recipe that calls for pulled pork.
- Raw pork shoulder can be cut into cubes and used for soups, stews, and chili.
When To Use Pork Butt?
Pork butt and pork shoulder are often used to make pulled pork.
The second one is better suited for pulled meat because of the high fat content and pronounced marbling, which results in a more intense flavor.
When cooked low and slow, the fat and connective tissues will have enough time to break down. The result? Tender, flavorful, and easy to shred meat.
Here are the best ways to use pork butt:
- Best suited for making pulled pork, and recipes that use it.
- Any slow cooking method: roasting, braising, stewing, in the slow cooker, slow smoking and grilling.
- Can be sliced into steaks for grilling.
- Can be cut into strips or cubes for ramen, soups, and stews.
How to Choose
The two cuts of meat work for many of the same purposes. Cooked low and slow, either meat can be used for tacos, pulled pork, or shredded pork. Pork shoulder will crisp up more on the exterior if you leave the silver skin on. Pork butt will be soft and tender and pull perfectly. It also has more flavor and dries out less easily.
All other things being equal, you will find that pork butt is more tender, stays more moist, and has a more intense flavor from all that fat and marbling.
If you want to braise pork, add it to soups or stews, or slice it up for a tender treat from the grill, go with pork butt.
If you are concerned about nutritional value, pork butt has more fat and more cholesterol than pork shoulder, so many consider the shoulder cut to be better for you.
No matter which of these two cuts of pork you choose, look for bright red or pink meat with clean white fat. Choose the roast with the highest amount of fat and marbling for the best flavor. If the meat has odd coloring, avoid it.
How To Make The Perfect Pulled Pork
Whether you prefer pork butt or pork shoulder for pulled pork, if you follow the proper steps, it will turn out just right.
Cooked at low temperatures over a long period, any of these cuts can give you tender meat that’s easy to pull apart.
If you never made pulled pork or you think there’s room for improvement, consult our handy printable Pulled Pork Cooking Cheat Sheet.
It’s a free download, and it covers all the details you need to make yummy pull apart meat regardless of the cut you choose!
How to Cook Pork Shoulder
If you want crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, use a reverse sear method. This will involve crisping it up on high heat at the end.
To smoke pork shoulder, plan to put it in the smoker for 8-14 hours at a low temperature. The lower the temp, the longer it will take, but the better the results. I aim for 225°F.
Adding a dry rub is a great way to add extra flavor. To crisp up the exterior, bump it up to high heat in the end.
How to Cook Pork Butt
Pork butt can be cooked in several ways. You can smoke it low and slow, such as with the pork shoulder.
If you don’t have time to smoke a large piece of meat, you can put it in an Instant Pot or crock pot to turn it into pulled pork. You can also slice it up into pork steaks and grill it.
Finally, you can add it to soups, stews, or any braising liquid and cook it that way.
Tip: Add a little liquid smoke to your crock pot when you don’t have time to run the smoker all night, but you want a little bit of smokiness in your meat.
Tip: To cook pork butt or pork shoulder in your Instant Pot, cut it into large chunks, toss it in a dry rub, and place it in the appliance on a trivet. Add one cup of water to the pot. Cook on high pressure for 37 minutes. Release the pressure and pull the meat apart. Serve on buns with BBQ sauce.
How To Serve The Pork
Pork Shoulder or pork butt can be served pulled or shredded on buns with BBQ sauce and coleslaw.
After it is cooked and pulled, it can also be added to soups, rice bowls, or eaten straight. The leftover meat can be used in enchiladas, carnitas, tacos, rice bowls, or on nachos.
Serve your pork shoulder or pork butt with baked beans, corn bread, or waffle fries. Lots of people like to add coleslaw to their pulled pork sandwiches as well.
If an intense flavor and super tender meat is what you’re after, pork butt is the best cut for making pulled pork.
Pork shoulder (picnic roast) also works well for pulled pork. Because it’s leaner, it will have a subtler flavor and a slightly chewier texture than pork butt.
As tender as your pulled meat turned out, once you pull it apart, it can dry out if you don’t serve it right away.
You can keep pulled pork moist by adding a bit of liquid (reserved juices, water, apple juice, chicken stock, BBQ sauce) and keeping it covered.
You can also put it in a slow cooker on the lowest setting along with the liquid if you want to keep it moist and warm at the same time.
Yes, you can definitely overcook pulled pork, like any other meat. When slow cooking a whole cut of pork for pull apart meat such as pork shoulder, or pork butt, it will go through several stages:
– At 130°F (54°C) internal temperature, the fat starts to render.
– At 160°F (71°C) internal temperature, the collagen starts to break down.
– At 195°F (90°C) internal temperature, the meat is tender enough to be pulled apart.
You can allow it to cook longer, until it reaches 200-205°F (93-96°C) if you prefer your meat softer.
Cooking your pulled pork over 205°F (96°C) will probably result in dry, tough meat and affect its overall quality.
90 minutes per pound is the average. It can take as little as an hour per pound and as much as 2 hours per pound depending on the fat content, size, shape, thickness of the meat.
Your goal temperature for pulled or shredded pork is 197 -205ºF. If you want to slice and eat it, 190º works.
Cooking the meat low and slow gives the fat and connective tissue time to melt and infuse the pork with more flavor and moisture as it cooks.
Yes. Place the leftovers in an airtight container and freeze them for up to three months.
If you freeze it shredded, you can thaw it directly in a skillet or microwave and use it for sandwiches, grain bowls, salads, and baked potato toppings.
For soups, stews, or meat pies, you won’t even need to thaw it; just cook it with the other ingredients.
You can either slice, shred, pull or dice up the leftover pork and place it in airtight containers before placing it in the refrigerator for two days or the freezer for up to three months.
Reheat it in the skillet or microwave for thirty seconds at a time until it has reached a safe temperature of at least 145ºF.