Pork Butt (or shoulder) is one of the classics. Slowly smoked for hours, North Carolina refers to this beautiful piece of meat as barbecue. Texas just calls it pulled pork. Regardless of where you are from, smoked pork butt is called delicious.
This recipe will allow you to substitute whatever rub you want, but the method of smoking this pork butt is tried and true. There are many ways to smoke a pork butt, but I believe the method of low and slow followed by a wrap to be one of the best.
Pork Butt is probably one of the most forgiving pieces of meat out there. It is chock full of fat and collagen, ready to be melted. You can overcook it, and it’ll still come out pretty decent; It’s perfect for beginners.
Buying your meat…
So most of the time you will hear people say Pork Butt or Pork Shoulder. Most people might not know that there is actually a difference!
Pork Butt: Cut from the upper portion of the “shoulder”, this area has more fat and is thicker than the Shoulder. Ideal for pulled pork.
Pork Shoulder: Cut from the lower portion of the “shoulder”, this area tends to have less fat and is generally skinnier than the Butt. Ideal for sandwiches or ground pork.
While a Pork Shoulder would be just fine for most folks, the ideal meat for pulled pork is the Butt due to the fat content. Don’t get me wrong though, if all you have is Shoulder, go for it.
Estimate approximately 3/4 pound per person. Remember, you can always cut a 10 lb butt in half! I actually recommend it.
Picking your meat: Most of the time you’ll find that pork is vacuum sealed and will have a funny smell. Generally, the smell is normal and will go away with 10 minutes of airing out on the counter-top; however there are times when it is not. A lot of times in grocery stores you’ll see pork has a very pale color. Stay away from this nonsense. You want the color to be more pink/red than gray/white/pale. This will give you the best flavor.
We are going to start 24 hrs before we want to begin cooking and dry brine it.
Trim the fat cap: Trim the fat cap until it is approximately 1/8″ thick or remove it completely. If your smoker tends to run hot or has heat coming from one side, you can leave the cap a little thicker and point the cap at the heat for a little insulation. Not necessary though.
Trim the hard fat: Trim the hard fat, this will not melt like the softer squishy fat.
Dry: Pat the pork butt dry as you can with paper towels.
Salt: We are going to dry brine the butt with 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound. Make sure all the salt adheres to the pork, more on the meat and less on the fat. (You’ll find that after 24 hrs, all the salt is gone on the meat and is still crystallized on top of the fat. Neat little science experiment: Salt does not dissolve in fat, so salting the fat cap is a waste of salt.)
Refrigerate: Set the pork in a pan or baking sheet uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Let the salt do it’s magic!
Smoked pork butt is best cooked low and slow at 225 degrees F indirect heat. I highly recommend a water pan due to the longevity of the cook. Some people choose never to have one. I believe they are much more important when dealing with inconsistent heat sources like charcoal or wood. They really help stabilize the temperature in the chamber.
Per “the code”, we don’t cook to time, we cook to temperature. This cook is no different but always makes it so much more difficult to time when something will be finished.
Personally, I like to get a 10 pound pork butt from the store and cut it in half. I will vacuum seal and freeze one half, and cook the other. Usually it’s just me and my wife so a half butt will be PLENTY (sandwiches for days!) and typically makes for a slightly faster cook.
There are several factors that go into how long it will take for your delicious hunk o’ meat to be ready. I’m not going to list all of them, but the main ones are below.
Fat Content: A highly marbled and fatty piece of meat will cook slower. This is a good thing because this is the low and slow and you want the fat/connective tissues to slowly dissolve and distribute themselves amongst the muscle fibers. Remember, lean pieces need to be in and out of the heat as fast as possible for max juiciness.
Size and shape: Size should be no brainer; the larger it is the longer it’ll take to heat the center. Shape though is tricky. A relatively flat pork butt may cook faster, but if tied up into as round a shape as possible, it may take longer… BUT it will have a much more even cook with less dry bits. Your decision.
Humidity: The more humidity, the faster the cook. This generally affects “The Stall” more than anything.
Wrapping: Wrapping, aka “The Texas Crutch”, helps power the meat through the stall, and can take hours off the cook time.
Spraying: How often you spray/spritz will also modify your cook time. There is debate on spraying your meat.
So How Long?
For a standard smoked pork butt, you can expect 2 hrs PER POUND to cook completely. My buddy earlier this year told me had a cook where his 8 lb went 24 hours before reaching temperature. I’ve cooked a couple hundred Butts in my lifetime, and I’ve had a few super tough ones that almost hit 20 hours.
If you have experience smoking a pork butt going 24 hours or longer, I’m going to put money on you cooked lower than 225 degrees F smoker temp and you did it on purpose or you didn’t have a reliable digital thermometer and used the dial installed on your smoker.
Whatever the reason, I don’t want to go past 24 hours. Your butt stopped accepting smoke about 20 hours ago, and all you are doing is drying out the outside and likely overcooking the inside. Below is the measurements I logged on one of my different recipes where I didn’t wrap it. I wanted a crustier crunchy bark, so no wrapping but longer cook. This took ~12 hrs @ 250 degrees F for a 7 lb pork butt. (Stall was about 1.5 hours @ 160 degrees)
For this recipe we are going to wrap it after approximately 4 hours. This is because I want a decent level of bark but I also want a shorter cook. This method is also best for when you want to time it to be done by a certain time; the wrapping really helps with consistent cooking.
Your Butt has been dry brined for 24 hours: you are ready to smoke!
Get your smoker ready: Get your smoker rolling at 225 degrees F and setup for indirect heat.
String it: This step is optional, but I believe it helps. You want the cross section of your butt to be as uniform as possible, so I like to string it up into a roll with butcher string.
Rub it: Apply the rub to your beautiful pork. Get all sides, even the fat cap.
Install Thermometer and place in smoker: Insert your probe into the center. A reliable thermometer is essential!
Wrap it: Monitor the temperature and set it up to alert you when the internal temperature is approximately 155 degrees F. We want to check the bark and see if it is to your liking. Once it’s where you want it, wrap in butcher paper with only one or two layers. Smoked pork butt takes some practice to determine how you like your bark.
If you do not have butcher paper, aluminum foil will work as well. I prefer butcher paper because it allows the meat to breathe a little better and doesn’t hold in all the liquid which is essentially boiling or braising the meat. So if you want, poke a hole or two on the bottom so the foil doesn’t fill with liquid.
Increase smoker temp to 250 degrees F and continue cooking until the meat internal temperature is 200 degrees F. Pull off the smoker and let sit for 20-30 minutes in the paper.
That’s it! Shred your beautiful smoked pork butt and serve!
Smoked Pork Butt
- 1 Pork Butt (or Pork Shoulder)
Rub (~ 1 tbsp/pound) – Makes ~3/4 cup
- 3 tbsp Packed Dark Brown Sugar
- 3 tbsp White Sugar
- 2 tbsp American Paprikia (for color)
- 1 tbsp Garlic Powder
- 1 tbsp Onion Powder
- 1½ tsp Ground Black Pepper
- 1½ tsp Rosemary
- ½ tsp Cayenne Pepper (optional, it's a little zip, but not much)
- Trim most of the fat off the butt.
- Salt entire butt at 1/2 tsp of Kosher Salt per pound.
- Let sit in refrigerator for 24 hrs, uncovered.
- Setup smoker for indirect heat at 225 degrees F. I recommend hickory wood.
- Using Butchers Twine, wrap butt tightly to get a uniform shape. (Optional but helps)
- Pat butt dry and cover in rub (approx 1 tbsp/pound) and place in smoker.
- When internal temperature is 155 degrees F, wrap in butcher paper. Increase temperature to 250 degrees F.
- When internal temperature is 200 degrees F, remove from smoker and let rest for 20 minutes inside the butcher paper.
- Unwrap and pull the pork using two forks. Serve in a bun or on it's own. Add your favorite BBQ sauce.