Pork Shoulder vs Pork Butt – What’s the Difference?

Pork Shoulder Versus Pork Butt

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What is the difference between pork shoulder and pork butt? From the names, you might assume these two cuts of meat come from very different parts of the pig. But pork butt is actually from the front end, and pork shoulder is only part of the pig’s shoulder.

The pork butt and pork shoulder actually both come from the shoulder area of the pig, but the butt is higher up. Both are usually sold in large pieces, so they’re perfect for making pulled pork sandwiches or other barbecue dishes.

But the butt has more fat, creating a wonderful and tender addition to your barbecue.

With this guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about pork butt and pork shoulder – starting with where they’re actually found on the big.

We’ll also tell you the best way to cook each cut, and what to buy depending on the meal you’re making. Read on for a mouthwatering guide to cuts of pork!

Pork Shoulder vs Pork Butt – Head to Head

Pork shoulder and pork butt are two frequently confused cuts of meat, and the reason for it is about to become pretty obvious. Despite what the names might suggest, both pork shoulder and pork butt come from the shoulder of the pig.

So, how do we get two cuts of meat from one part of the pig?

Initially, when the pig is butchered, it’s broken down into big parts. The front shoulder of the pig is then cut further, making the shoulder and butt.

The pork butt, perhaps surprisingly, sits higher up the foreleg, towards the head of the pig on the top of the shoulder blade. This makes it a fattier meat. The pork shoulder sits below the butt, and continues to the hoof. This is the leaner cut.

Pork shoulder and pork butt may be found next to each other on the pig, but there are some clear differences. For the most part, pork butt is considered to be the superior cut. We’ll go into the details of both cuts below.

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About Pork Shoulder

The pork shoulder is the lower section of the pig’s leg and shoulder, sitting below the butt. Pork shoulder is sometimes known as picnic shoulder, or picnic roast.

The picnic shoulder is the cut of meat that runs from the foreleg through to the hoof. This gives the shoulder a long and tapered triangular shape. The pork shoulder is typically sold with skin on.

If pork shoulder is sold boneless, it might come in netting, as the meat unfolds.

Pork shoulder is a leaner and tougher meat. It’s easy to see why when you consider where the shoulder is on the pig – it’s a working muscle. This makes it less fatty, especially when compared to the pork butt.

Picnic shoulder might be considered the lesser cut of meat, but it does have its uses. Sliced or shredded, pork shoulder is fantastic in tacos, burritos, and ramen.

About Pork Butt

The pork butt is a juicy piece of meat. Despite what the name suggests, the pork butt is found at the front of the pig. It sits at the top of the foreleg, above the pork shoulder.

Pork butt comes in a uniform, rectangular shape, and can be called Boston butt. It’s a prime cut, covered in an attractive marbling. Marbling, or intramuscular fat, are those white marks seen on the surface of meat.

Using a low and slow cook, this fat renders, causing the meat to become tender and moist, with an added boost of flavor.

This is why pork butt is a top choice for smokers. A long time in the smoker can turn a pork butt into something special. Pork butt is also best for pulled pork, but it’s quite versatile.

Pork butt can be sold bone-in or boneless, and you can ask for it sliced into steaks. You can also get pork butt with the fat cap intact.

When to Use Pork Shoulder

The best time to use pork shoulder is when you want crisp crackling. You can buy pork shoulder with the skin on, and this is the best way to get it. Cooked low and slow, with a reverse sear of a sudden burst of heat, pork shoulder gets that delicious crispy texture on top.

Pork shoulder is also a good slicing meat, especially if you want something to pack out tacos and burritos. Cook with the skin on to get that crunchy pork, and sprinkle this on top of your tacos. It adds another layer of texture and flavor.

Another way to use pork shoulder is in ramen. The slightly tough texture of pork shoulder melts away in the ramen broth.

When you’re making your own ramen, try using pork shoulder instead of beef brisket. 

The Mountain Kitchen has a fantastic recipe for grilled pork picnic shoulder.

Or try this Cuban-Style Oven-Roasted Pork from Cook’s Illustrated.

When to Use Pork Butt

When To Use Pork Butt

Pork Butt is a versatile and delicious cut that responds well to a low and slow smoke. Thanks to all that rich marbling, pork butt grows moist and tender the longer that it’s cooked.

Pork butt is great for smoking because it has a lot of fat marbling. Smoking pork butt will give you a nice, moist, flavorful end result.

Any form of slow cooking tends to work well with pork butt. Barbecue smoking a pork butt is going to leave you with a tender cut that falls apart, but braising, stewing, and even roasting can give you terrific results.

For some of the best pulled pork around, you have to use pork butt. Once cooked, the deliciously soft meat can be pulled apart, and the rendered fat gives it that extra rich flavor.

All Things Barbecue has an incredible recipe for pork butt carnitas.

Or try this recipe for Chinese Barbecue Pork (Char Siu) from the American Barbecue Association.

In most cases, if a recipe calls for pork shoulder, the best cut to use is pork butt. The only time pork shoulder is necessary is when you’re after that crispy skin.

Is Pork Shoulder or Butt More Expensive?

While both cuts are relatively well-priced, they do vary in cost. In general, pork butt is more expensive than pork shoulder.

The pork shoulder is typically a smaller cut, which is part of the reason for the lower price. But as the pork butt is fattier, it loses more weight as it cooks.

Still, a pork butt will often produce around 10 portions, while a pork shoulder is good for roughly a family of four.

That said, don’t buy your pork cut based solely on price. Pork butt might be more expensive, but the end result is a moist and tender meat, with a big hit of flavor.

Pork shoulder is a decent cut, but the real selling point is that crackling-crisp skin. If you plan on discarding the skin, then you’re better off going with pork butt.

Which Is Easier to Cook?

Both pork shoulder and pork butt are fairly easy to cook. They both benefit from long, slow cooking methods, so there’s no need to rush them through the oven or grill. Go slow, and you can end up with a fantastic pork roast.

If you’ve got a smoker, you’ll find that pork shoulder might be a little more difficult, because you have to deal with the skin. One of the best ways to cook pork shoulder is with a reverse sear – a sudden burst of heat at the end. This will give you crispy skin.

The other option for cooking pork shoulder is to remove the skin. For example, if you plan on making pulled pork. This makes things a little more complicated, but nothing that most barbecue lovers can’t handle.

Pork butt is a bit easier to cook, since there isn’t any skin involved. You just want to make sure that you get the right temperature throughout the entire roast. Because of the uniform rectangular shape, pork butt cooks evenly compared to the tapered shoulder.

Cooking pork butt really depends on just how complicated you want to make it. The cut works unbelievably well for smoking, giving this amazing moist meat with little effort.

But it’s also a cut that works with complex flavorings, and dry brining. And if you fancy a simpler grill, butt can be sliced and eaten as pork steak.

Final Thoughts

There’s a surprising amount of difference between choosing pork shoulder vs pork butt. But let’s start with the similarities: both are great options for cooking over low temperatures, and both are delicious.

But if you’re looking for a tender and juicy cut, then it has to be pork butt. Pork butt, or Boston butt, has rich marbling and a uniform shape. Any experienced grill master should be able to turn a pork butt into a thing of beauty.

That’s not to say that pork shoulder doesn’t have its benefits. Cooked slowly, it turns tender, and that crisp skin is mouthwatering.

So what’s the verdict? Do you prefer pork shoulder or pork butt?