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If you think that the names “Pork Butt” and “Pork Shoulder” are indicative of meat cut from those particular anatomical areas of a pig, think again. How did these names come in to use? Only the butcher knows! First things first. Where exactly are these cuts of meat taken from? Let’s take an in-depth look at the where and how of these meat cuts and then what they can be used for.
When preparing cuts of meat, a butcher will initially do “primal cuts” where large portions of muscles are cut. Each front of the shoulder is removed as a primal cut. Then the primal shoulder cut is divided into two cuts known as “sub-primal”. These two portions are known as pork shoulder and pork butt. So evidently, the “pork butt” does not originate near the rear, or the hindquarters, of the pig. The name originates from the barrels that inexpensive cuts of pork were shipped in the 1700s.
Pig butt can be found immediately behind the head of the pig and above the pig’s shoulder blade. The shoulder cut is the portion of muscle located directly under the pig butt, which runs down the leg to just above the hock or the front hoof of the pig.
Both butt and shoulder cuts are taken from the front leg of a pig, and even though both are part of the primal cut, they differ in consistency, fat marbling, and toughness.
Pork butt is also called Boston butt. This particular rectangular cut of meat is very well marbled and is characterized by intramuscular fat of outstanding quality. The quality of the fat in Boston butt is because this muscle is used very little during the life of the pig rendering it quite tender and flavorful. The Boston butt is good sized and can range anywhere from six to ten pounds.
Usually, pork butt in a butcher shop will be sold complete with the shoulder blade bone still intact and with a cap of fat on one side. This cut of meat is ideal for smoking, braising, or low and slow cooking in general precisely as it is. Low and slow cooking takes advantage of the internal fat in the meat, making it juicy, tender, and perfect for pulled pork.
However, this is not the only type of cooking you can do with Boston butt. This sub-primal cut can be further divided into pork steaks for grilling, baking or pan-frying, or it can have the bone removed and be shaved to a fragile consistency for a stir fry. Boston butt can also be ground down to create sausages as its fat to meat ratio is usually 30/70 or even 20/80 making it perfect for sausage making.
Pork shoulder is also called a picnic shoulder or a picnic roast. The picnic shoulder is found directly underneath the pork butt on the animal. The picnic shoulder runs directly from the pork butt down the front leg to the beginning of the pig’s hoof. A typical picnic shoulder weighs in at about four pounds and is excellent, whether cooked whole or sliced for cooking.
This particular portion of the muscle is used repeatedly by the animal during its lifetime, making it less fatty and denser in its consistency. This can translate into tougher meat, depending on how it is cooked. This sub-primal cut is generally sold with the bone and with the skin. Due to its potential toughness, it should be cooked low and slow. It should be finished briefly over high heat to render the skin crispy before eating.
Since this cut has an irregular shape, it should be cooked in its entirety with the bone, which will help it remain internally moist. A well-prepared pork shoulder can afford juicy, tender meat with a crispy exterior. It can be grilled, braised, or roasted with a bit of liquid. Smoking is also a great option, as well as roasting it on a spit. Cutting it into cubes will give you a tasty stew when cooking it stovetop for one to two hours. Finally, the pork shoulder is the perfect choice for cooking in the pressure cooker.
When Is Pork Butt the Preferable Choice?
With a uniform shape and uniform fat marbling within the meat, pork butt can be prepared basically with all low and slow cooking methods. This tender and tasty meat cut can be braised, roasted, stewed, or smoked, and you’ll have tender meat that you can easily pull apart in every case.
Should a recipe refer to a primal cut of pork, Boston butt is the obvious choice. It should, however, be cooked in pieces of the same size to ensure the outcome. It is also an excellent choice for both barbecuing or smoking.
When Is Pork Shoulder the Best Choice?
If a particular recipe requires crackling or crispy pork skin, you will want to use pork shoulder. Nonetheless, it also should be cooked using a slow method over low heat to ensure tenderness. Many recipes may indicate a “reverse sear” to give the skin a tasty, crispy texture. To achieve a reverse sear, you can use your broiler on the slow-cooked pork for about five minutes until the exterior is charred to liking. You can also use a torch that is handheld to char the outside. Recipes that are contemplated for pork shoulder will state so expressly. It is ideal as a whole roast.
The shoulder is usually the preferred choice for ground pork because you have more control over the fat amount included in your ground meat.
While cost varies from region to region, a pork shoulder may generally cost less because a pork shoulder will probably be smaller in size. Depending on how many people you need to cook for, a larger piece of meat like the Boston butt may be a better choice. At this point, you’ll need to calculate which choice of meat costs less per pound and decide if you want one more substantial piece or perhaps smaller pieces.
Does One Meat Cut Require More Preparation?
Ideally, both are best for slow cooking. Both butt and shoulder require more or less the same amount of work, so the amount of time involved depends on the recipe you have chosen. The only difference between the two is if you need to remove the skin from the pork shoulder, as the Boston butt comes without the skin attached.
What Should I Look for When Buying?
If you have a good butcher whom you trust, you can tell him or her what recipe you intend to prepare and ask for advice if you are going to a meat department at the grocery store, attempt to avoid any meats that have been “enhanced” with salt or phosphates.
When deciding between Boston butt vs. shoulder; in pork butt, look at the color. Is it rosy and fresh looking? Does it have lots of marbling with fat visible throughout it? The better the marbling, the better the flavor.
Pork shoulder, which has a high content of fat, will lose as much of half of its weight during cooking, so keep this in mind when choosing the size in ratio to how many people you will be cooking for.
What is the best cut of pork for pulled pork?
While pulled pork can be obtained by cooking any kind of fatty pork, the ideal choice is pork shoulder. Pork shoulder is well marbled with fat and connective tissues making it easy to slow cook and pull apart once finished.
Is pork shoulder right for pulled pork?
While it’s easier to use pork butt for pulled pork, pork shoulder can be used as well. Pork shoulder should be slow-cooked as it is a more robust piece of muscle. If it is cooked slowly, the gelatin in the shoulder will melt during cooking, and this should not be rushed. By placing this cut of meat in a cooking pan or Dutch oven with just enough liquid (beer, broth, etc.), and by covering it, you can let the meat cook for several hours in the oven. You should not uncover it or open it. The pork will be done when it flakes off the bone, giving you the perfect pulled pork.
Is there a difference between pork shoulder and pork shoulder blade?
Yes. If it’s a question of pork shoulder vs pork shoulder blade, while pork shoulder is the top portion of the animal’s leg, there is also an arm portion of the shoulder, which is lower, and is often called an “arm pork roast”. The upper portion of the shoulder, closer to the pig’s head, is called a “blade roast” because it contains the shoulder blade bone. A pork shoulder is a lower placed cut of meat that runs the length of the pig’s front leg from just below the pork butt to the top edge of the hoof. The blade roast originates in the higher part of the shoulder, is well-marbled and extremely tender.
What is the correct temperature for cooking Pork Butt or Pork Shoulder?
Pork can be cooked at 145°F but this temperature is a bit low for both pork butt and pork shoulder. As these two cuts are characterized by thick connective tissue found in muscle, you will need more heat to break it down. A temperature of approximately 195°F should do the trick.
Tips for Preparing Cuts of Pork
- Fresh cuts of pork can be kept if they are well wrapped in your freezer for up to about six months.
- Fresh pork can be kept in your refrigerator anywhere from three to five days. Raw pork, which is ground, should not be retained for more than two days.
- Pork should not be eaten either raw or undercooked because it can lead to trichinosis.
- If the pork has turned grey or black, it has spoiled and should be tossed.
- Cooked pork can be kept in the refrigerator for one to three days.
- Freezer burn of your pork is safe to eat but may alter the taste and texture of the meat.
- It is advisable not to cook your pork after taking it directly from the fridge, but to let it sit for approximately half an hour before cooking to arrive at room temperature. This should ensure a more even cooking of the meat.
- Pork is at risk of drying out as it cooks because it loses its juices. When cooking in the oven, make sure to cover your pork roast with a baking or oven pan cover. If you don’t have one, try aluminum foil to reduce any shrinkage and keep your meat moist while you slow cook it.
- While you can cook a pork shoulder with the fat side either up or down and achieve good results, if you cook it with the thick side up, the juices will baste the meat while it cooks.
- As pork shoulder has a layer of fat, it bastes itself and therefore is almost impossible to overcook.
- If you have your pork sliced into steaks, be careful that they don’t dry out and become tough. Pork steaks are usually quite lean and cook very quickly.
- Herbs and spices that go well with pork include garlic, sage, rosemary, fennel, thyme, dill, and even curry powder. Paprika, chili powder, and cayenne pepper are also excellent choices.
- Side dishes that complete a main dish of pork include potatoes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, or even baked beans.
The Bottom Line
Both of these cuts of meat are delicious to eat. The choice to use one rather than the other depends entirely on the recipe you are using and the desired outcome you want for your dish. If you prefer a naturally tender piece of pork that is well-marbled, pork butt is the optimal cut. If your recipe requires a nice crispy, flavorful skin, pork shoulder is excellent. Whichever cut of this meat you choose in the end, both pork butt and pork shoulder will guarantee a tasty meal for family and friends.
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