Also known as "Boston butt" or "picnic shoulder," pork shoulder is an inexpensive cut of well-marbled meat that comes from the top portion of the front leg of the hog (despite the name "butt"). You can choose boneless cuts, which cook in a shorter period of time, or bone-in cuts, which have a little more flavor. The "Boston butt" has a bit more fat, making it super tender, while the "picnic shoulder" has more connective tissue, requiring slightly longer cooking time. Either one can be used in any recipe.
The shoulder is a heavily used muscle, so the meat is fairly tough. Cooking it low and slow melts the gelatin and softens the muscle fibers, resulting in falling-apart tender meat. Make sure to set aside enough time, as cooking a four- to seven-pound roast can take all day. But, a little time spent cooking this roast results in great leftovers you can easily freeze for future quick meals.
The Basic Steps
1. Warm it up: Remove the pork from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
2. Get ready: Preheat the oven to 300 to 325 degrees F (with the rack in the center), prepare your smoker, or pull your slow cooker or favorite Dutch oven out from the cupboard.
3. Trim the fat: Trim the thick layer of fat from the outside of the roast (but make sure to leave a thin layer, as this will help the pork to baste as it cooks).
4. 'Tis the Season: Season the pork with salt, pepper, and any other flavors you like. The seasoning choices will depend on what you want for the end result: if you're making tacos, sprinkle it with cumin, chili powder, and oregano. If you want to use the pork for several different types of meals, keep it simple with just salt and pepper.
4a. Sear it good. This is an optional step, but if you have the time, adds a lot of flavor. Heat a little oil in a large skillet or your Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear the pork heavily on all sides until golden brown.
5. Getting Saucy: If braising on the stove top, roasting in the oven, or cooking in a slow cooker, place the pork in the pan fat-side up. Add enough liquid to the bottom of the pot to come halfway up the pork. Use chicken or vegetable stock, beer or cider, vinegar, or apple juice for the most flavor.
6. Cover it up: Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pot, and transfer it to your oven or smoker (or keep it on the stove top). If using a slow cooker, simply put on the lid.
7. Cook away! Roast, braise, or smoke the shoulder until it is falling-apart tender. Depending on the size of your roast, and whether it's bone-in or bone-out, this could take 2 to 6 hours in the oven, or up to 8 hours in a smoker. If using a slow cooker, cover and cook on High for 5 to 6 hours or Low for 8 to 10 hours.
Pork Shoulder Recipes
Pulled pork, slow-cooked and torn into shreds, is a favorite when tossed with barbecue sauce and piled onto sandwiches. However, you can also mix this shredded meat into pasta, casseroles, top pizza, toss it into a stir-fry, make enchiladas or tacos, and so much more. Here are our favorite recipes to get you started:
Pork shoulder is great beyond pulled pork for barbecue. In Pork and Shiitake Mushroom Ragu, the pork is cut into chunks, and then slowly braised with herbs, tomatoes, and spices.
Cooked low and slow in the oven, Dee's Roast Pork for Tacos, has a bit of kick from green chilies, chili powder, and taco seasoning. Make sure you have plenty of tortillas and pico de gallo on hand for serving.
Perhaps the easiest way to cook a pork shoulder, using a slow cooker won't diminish the flavor (just the clean up). Slow Cooker Texas Pulled Pork gets a bit of zing from cider vinegar, a touch of sweet with brown sugar, and a lot of flavor from traditional barbecue spices. Pile this tender shredded meat on a buttered roll and dinner is served!
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