Pork butt and pork shoulders are misleading names and tend to be confusing, especially for new cooks. Pork butt is a cut of meat not from the pig’s rear, and the pork shoulder isn’t the whole of the pig’s shoulder but a section. Both cuts come from the shoulder with the pork butt.
So, who’s in charge of naming these cuts confusingly? Well, he must enjoy seeing people at sixes and sevens. As relatively fatty and tough cuts, these two cuts from the pig’s shoulder benefits forms long, slow cooking methods like braising, stewing, and roasting.
However, these cuts are not the same, and the pork butt is often preferred and here’s why:
Pork Butt vs pork Shoulder – the Key Difference
Before discussing the difference between these two meat cuts, we must understand where they are cut from on the pig.
First, the butcher breaks down the carcass into large portions called primal cuts – with the pig’s front shoulder being one primal cut. This is separated and then split into pork shoulder and pork butt, which are two sub-primal cuts.
The pork butt lies above the shoulder blade of the pig and directly behind its head. While this cut is called a pork butt, it’s actually from the front and not the animal’s hindquarters. The shoulder, or sometimes called picnic shoulder, is located directly below the pig’s butt on the leg and runs down just above the hock, hoof, or front of the animal.
Pork Butt: Boston butt
Pork Shoulder: Picnic roast, Picnic shoulder
Pork Butt: well-marbled with an ample amount of intramuscular fat
Pork Shoulder: slight tough except it’s properly cooked due to less fat
Pork Butt: Even rectangular shape
Pork Shoulder: Triangular-shaped
Pork Butt: Pulled pork
Pork Shoulder: Pork roast with crackling
Now, you know that both pork shoulder and pork butt come from the animal’s front leg. Although both come from the same area, they have different amounts of fat marbling and toughness.
Understanding the differences between pork shoulder and pork butt will make purchasing your pork from the butcher hassle-free. Besides, you know which cut to go for, for a particular recipe.
As said earlier, the pork butt comes from the upper part of the animal’s shoulder blade, which sits directly behind the pig’s head. This cut is well-marbled with quality intramuscular fat since the animal does not overly utilize the area’s muscles.
Thus, the pork butt is a tender, flavorful piece of meat compared to the other subprimal cut – pork shoulder. This cut is usually sold with the flat cap and the shoulder blade bone still in it. Therefore, this cut is suitable for low ‘n’ slow cooking like braising or smoking.
The aftermath of low ‘n’ slow cooking coughs up the internal fat to ensure a flavorful, juicy pulled pork. There are other ways of preparing a pork butt, aside from the popular low ‘n’ slow cooking.
If you’ve your butcher cut the Boston butt into pork steaks or shaved thin, then you can grill or stir fry. This sub-primal cut has a top meat-to-fat ratio of 70/30 or 80/20 for meat grinding and sausage making.
Pork butt shouldn’t be hard to come by; just visit any good butcher with a high-quality source.
Just below the pork butt is a smaller cut called the picnic ham, or commonly known as pork shoulder. When the hock or the upper part of the leg is attached to this cut of meat, it’s called picnic shoulder or picnic ham. Nonetheless, the skin is always attached to the pork.
Unlike the Boston butt, this meat from the leg muscles is overly utilized. Thus, it’s best to cook until the internal temperature attains 195 degrees F for tender results. Similarly, the pork shoulder is a decent choice for pulled pork. With this much smaller cut, you might have to remove the skin and adjust the cooking time.
Although the pork shoulder is tougher than the Boston butt and might not be ideal for cutting into steaks, this cut is good to make a roast and much more than for pulling. That’s not all: coming with skin attached allows you to make crispy pork carnitas with the picnic ham. The skin allows you to blast the heat just about the end of the cook for crispier results.
Pork Butt – Best Use
Due to the uniform shape and fat marbling of the Boston butt, this cut is ideal for just about all low ‘n’ slow-cooking methods. Smoking, roasting, stewing, or braising are other ways to prepare the Boston butt. Regardless, the end results will be pull-apart-tender meat.
Usually, when the pork shoulder meat (primal cut) is mentioned, we recommend using the Boston butt since it’s well-marbled and tender than the pork shoulder or picnic shoulder.
Pork Shoulder – Best Use
The pork shoulder usually comes with the skin on, making it ideal for recipes requiring crackling or crispy pork skins. The best way to prepare the pork shoulder is low ‘n’ slow cooking, especially recipes calling for a high-heat finish or reverse sear to attain the desired finish texture. Pork shoulder is ideal for whole roast, char siu, and carnitas.
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Things to Consider for When Purchasing Pork Shoulder
Any primal cut of pork shoulder labelled as “enhanced” with salt, phosphates, water, etc should be skipped – why? They are usually injected with brines, which means you are probably paying for water.
Also, consider well-marbled with incredible amounts of fat running through the muscle without a wet package. Keep in mind that it might smell a tad funky. This is totally normal with large meat cuts. Also, opt for heritage breeds such as Duroc and Berkshire when possible. These heritage breeds are bred not for size but flavour, which means they are well-marbled compared to other breeds.
Pork shoulder and pork butt are both good pieces of meat to make a plethora of dishes. However, your desired outcome and recipe should determine the type of cut to purchase.
If you want to purchase a rich, well-marbled cut of meat, your best bet is the pork butt. But if the recipe requires a crispy skin, the pork shoulder is always a good choice.
We hope this post has answered some questions regarding Boston butt and pork shoulder and how to pick the right one.