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BBQ 101: Smoked Pork Shoulder (Pulled Pork)

Dish of pulled pork… deliciousness.

Pork Shoulder is a member of the smoked BBQ “trinity”.

It has been said that there is a trinity of barbecued meats that all pit masters should have a good handle on. These are, of course, beef brisket, pork ribs, and pork shoulder.

Each of these members of the trinity have been barbecued slow and low by pit masters across the country. However, certain regions are more well-known for how they prepare their meats. For instance, Texas is known as the capital of barbecued beef brisket. Midwestern areas such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and Memphis are known for their pork ribs. And the Carolinas are known for barbecuing pork shoulders.

Today, we’re going to go deep into the techniques and tricks to making a kick-ass smoked pork shoulder at home with your Weber Kettle Grill.

Luckily, it does not take a rocket scientist to master barbecuing this piece of meat. Let’s get to it.

What to look for when buying pork shoulder.

Boston Butt and Picnic Roast are major pork cuts.

Pork shoulders are large and as a whole can run up to 15 to 20 pounds each. Usually, however, your local supermarket or wholesale club will sell two sub-cuts of the pork shoulder: the Boston Butt and the Picnic Roast.

The Boston Butt is located around the pig’s shoulder blade while the Picnic Roast is located just below the Boston Butt.

Both sub-cuts are delicious so you can’t go wrong with either. The Boston Butt is a good, solid roast but is a little more expensive than the Picnic Roast. The Picnic Roast tends to be fattier and has the skin attached. Whether that’s a bad thing depends on your preferences for how you like your barbecued meats and whether you’re into making and eating crackling.

Calories & Fat Percentage (6 oz serving)
Boston Butt450 cal64.3%
Picnic Roast520 cal69.2%

Neither the Boston Butt nor the Picnic Roast is going to be confused with a lean cut of meat. However, both of them are comparable to ground beef. Boston Butt’s nutritional macronutrients are similar to 85/15 ground beef, while the Picnic Roast is similar to 80/20 ground beef.

Smoking pork shoulder is different from grilling pork and requires a different internal temperature.

To get perfect barbecued pork shoulder, you need to cook your pork shoulder until it reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees. This is very different from the typical advice when grilling pork chops or tenderloins, when you want to reach the “safe zone” of about 145 to 160 degrees but not go higher because otherwise you’d dry out the meat.

However, when slow-cooking pork shoulder over indirect and low heat you will not dry out the meat. Instead, all of the fat and connective tissue contained within the pork shoulder will have an opportunity to render. This has two main effects: first, it softens the meat, and second, it moistens the meat internally. This results in tender sliced pork or fall-apart pulled pork.

Cooking a pork shoulder to the normal 145-160 degrees will not produce tender slices or fall-apart pulled pork. Quitting the cooking process at that lower temperature would result in tough and chewy meat with unrendered fat and rubbery connective tissues to chew on. Not good.

Now let’s get to the process of producing delicious smoked pork shoulder.

There are four main steps to smoking both Boston Butts and Picnic Roasts:

  1. Trimming
  2. Dry Brining
  3. Morning Prep
  4. Smoking

Let’s dive into them.

Step 1: Trimming

Barbecuing pork shoulder to perfection is not hard, but it does require time. In fact, the process begins the night before you put the meat in your smoker because it’s important to salt the meat overnight. We’ll get into that in Step 2 below. But in order to do that, you must first trim the shoulder of excess fat.

The Boston Butt is a pretty clean piece of meat with no skin attached. There may be some excess fat on it in places, however, and you should trim it. But be careful to leave a thin layer of the fat on the roast so some self-basting action can happen.

The Picnic Roast, on the other hand, has skin attached to one side and a fairly thick layer of fat on the other side. Pork skin is thick and is a perfect natural roasting pan. So leave it on. Trim the fat to a thin layer and remove any connective tissues that you see.

Step 2: Dry Brining and Dry Rub

Here’s how the pork shoulder with our standard dry rub looks pre-smoking.

If you’ve spent any time reading up on barbecue or watching those pitmaster cable t.v. shows, you know that there are a ton of great barbecuers out there and they all seem to do things differently. With barbecue rubs, it’s no different.

When it comes to the proper techniques, there are a lot of opinions out there and generally the people who have them are pretty adamant about those opinions. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds if you go too far down that rabbit hole of research. For simplicity’s sake, here are your two basic options:

  1. Dry brine the pork shoulder. That means apply salt – and only salt – to the pork shoulder the night before you smoke it. Then in the morning, apply a salt-free dry rub before putting the shoulder in the smoker.
  2. Include salt in your dry rub. And then apply the dry rub to the pork shoulder the night before you smoke it. If you’re using a commercial dry rub, then this is likely what you’ll be doing.

The reason why you put salt on the pork shoulder the night before you smoke it is to allow the meat to retain moisture better. There is science behind this and it relates to osmosis. In short, over a few hours, salt gets drawn into the meat and a layer of moisture gets pulled to the outer part of the meat. This then protects the meat inside from drying out during the cooking process. We’re not going to get into it further here but you can do a Google search if you’re truly interested. In simple algebraic terms, the science breaks down like this: more moisture + long cook time = deliciously moist pulled or sliced pork.

However, that science also tells us that all of the other spices you put in your dry rub other than salt will not be pulled into the pork shoulder overnight. Thus, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you put other spices on the pork shoulder the night before.

Step 3: Morning Prep

In the morning – and it will be early if you want to eat at a reasonable time – get your smoker set up and ready for action. If you smoke with charcoal and wood chips, then get that charcoal going and soak the wood.

I like to use a remote thermometer while I smoke so that I can work in the yard or around the house and not have to run down to the smoker every so often to ensure the temperature is good. I use a Redi Chek brand remote thermometer and it works great. It has prongs for both meat and grill temperatures so you can monitor both at the same time. And you can find all sorts of models on Amazon.

So it goes without saying that my prep includes getting the thermometer in place.

After the equipment is ready and the charcoal is heating up, I put together a quick injection. Injections are great because they add more moisture to the meat before cooking. As I pointed out in the previous section, more moisture is good especially when cooking for 10-12 hours.

Pork injections can be anything from simple to complex. Heck, you can simmer onions and garlic in a broth with apple juice, vinegar, and spices and then let it sit overnight to let the flavors meld. Or you can quickly throw together many of the same ingredients in the morning and inject it at two-inch checkerboard intervals around the pork shoulder and call it good. And it will turn out awesome regardless.

Some people suggest you take the roast out of the fridge an hour before it goes in the smoker. This is pretty common advice, actually. But the mythbusters out there have pretty much agreed that there is no real benefit in doing so. And, in particular, when you are smoking meats. Again, it’s a technique you can experiment with and see for yourself what you think is best.

After the pork is injected, it is time to apply the final rub. This application of flavor is essential so that a beautiful, tasty bark develops on the pork shoulder during smoking. I like to lather the pork shoulder in spicy brown mustard so that the rub adheres better. And then use a standard dry rub that I’ve developed that has a little sweet and spicy kick to it.

After that, you’re ready to rock and roll.

Step 4: Smoking

I’m not going to go deep on the process of smoking the pork shoulder here. The key points are pretty simple:

  1. Smoking takes a long time: basically 1.25 to 1.5 hours per pound.
  2. Ensure that the cooking temperature remains steady in the 225-250 degree range.
  3. The pork shoulder will get to 160 degrees and plateau – for a while. Do not gnash your teeth or wring your hands. It will rise.
  4. Remain patient. Do not take the shoulder out before it reaches its optimum temperature: 190 degrees for sliced pork, 205 degrees for pulled pork.

There are two additional points that reasonable minds can differ on. And I’ll hit on those next here.

First, you may be wondering whether you should be applying a mop to the pork shoulder. A mop is basically a vinegar-based liquid that some believe is essential to ensuring that the meat it is applied to stays moist. Others say that’s hogwash and that any mop you apply will quickly evaporate and therefore it doesn’t matter at all.

I do not think it matters much in terms of keeping the bulk of the meat moist. I’ve done it both ways and there really is no detectable difference, especially if you dry brined and injected the meat.

On the other hand, I do think mopping keeps the bark from forming as well as it does without the mop. That is because the mop keeps the outer layer moister during the cooking process.

Nevertheless, whether you mop or not really is a personal decision. The pork shoulder will turn out delicious regardless.

Second, the plateau is real and sometimes it can get a little nerve wracking when you are trying to get the pork shoulder up to the right temperature by a set dinner time. After all, the pork shoulder is the main attraction and it simply is not right for it to show up late to the party.

To avoid any issues, I recommend checking the internal temperature of your pork shoulder about three hours before dinner time. If it is still firmly in the plateau range of 160 degrees, then put it in a roasting pan and cover it with heavy duty aluminum foil. Kick up the heat in the smoker to 300-350 degrees or put it in the oven at 350 degrees. These simple steps should get the pork shoulder out of the plateau and up to the desired temperature in time for dinner – and that includes the mandatory 20-30 minutes rest time after you pull it off.

Now, where there is a difference of opinion out there on using a roasting pan and aluminum foil cover is that some pitmasters always use it, while others do not. The key difference in how the pork shoulder comes out is in the bark. When you cover the pork shoulder, the bark does not get as dry or crispy and the final product actually is a bit moister. Again, it comes down to personal preference. I personally like to keep the cover method in my back pocket for when time becomes an issue.

Now you know everything you need to in order to master the craft of smoking the pork shoulder.

If you have any questions, you can always hit me up on social media. And sign up to receive updates on what is going on over here at Buck Magnussen.