Let’s start by understanding a little pig geography to help define the differences between a pork shoulder and a pork butt. And, no, the butt doesn’t come from the rear end. Confused? Read on, McDuff....
Pork butt is cut from high up on the front anatomy of the hog, above the foreleg. It’s in the shoulder region and sits above the cut known as pork shoulder. It doesn’t make sense, but once we understand the differences between the two, the names won’t get in the way.
Both cuts are muscular and tough, as well as being fatty. Slow cooking at a low temperature for a long period of time brings out the best of both. Yet there are differences in the cuts of this lean protein.
Variations on Pork Butt
Pork butt, Boston butt ‒ both names are used to describe the rectangular piece of meat the butcher hands you. It’s well-marbled with a lid of fat running over the top. This fat melts into flavor as it’s cooked. It also has a lot of connective tissue that needs to slowly tenderize, which is why slow cooking is best for this cut. The butt may be sold with its shoulder blade intact. Don’t cut it out; it adds to the flavor of the meat as it cooks.
If you’re making pulled pork, the butt needs to cook in the oven until the internal temperature reaches 195 Fahrenheit, or more. Only then can you be assured that the tissue and muscle have broken down and that the meat is tender. Use a fork and try pulling the meat apart to judge the doneness.
Pork Shoulder Differences
The pork shoulder sits below the butt and at the top of the foreleg. Alone, it’s called a pork shoulder. With a part of the leg known as the hock attached, it’s known as a picnic ham or picnic shoulder. A distinguishing feature of the shoulder is that it’s capped with a covering of skin.
The triangular shape of the pork shoulder won’t affect its preparation, but the skin needs a bit of attention if you want that extra-special crackling your diners will swoon over.
Similarities in Preparation
Both the butt and the shoulder should be patted dry with paper towels before seasoning. Room temperature is ideal for roasting the butt, and adding vegetables under and around it increases the flavors. A sprig of sage or rosemary scattered on the bottom of the roasting pan raises the butt flavors up a notch.
The shoulder is another story. Yes, it should be patted dry, but send it into the refrigerator for at least an hour, if not overnight. Don’t cover the meat. The skin needs to be totally dried out to “crackle.”
Take a very sharp paring knife and score the skin diagonally. Be gentle ‒ you don’t want to penetrate the meat, just the skin. Rub the skin with olive oil and season well with good coarse sea salt. Do the same underneath the skin and on the sides of the shoulder.
Snapping the Crackling
When your pork shoulder is ready, put it in the oven at 475 degrees Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes. This gets the skin roasting and starts to dry it out further. It’ll bubble and pop, but that’s what you want. Reduce the heat to 375F and roast the shoulder for another hour. Before taking it out of the oven, crank the heat up again for another 10 minutes, or until the crackling is a rich, honey color. Remove it from the oven and let the roast sit for about 15 minutes before carving.
Slice the crackling from the meat and cut it into pieces. Scatter them around the roast after you’ve sliced it and put it onto your serving platter. Make gravy from the juices at the bottom of the pan, and you’ll have a stunning meal.