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Over the past few years of smoking meat, I have smoked hundreds of pork butts. It is simple, cheap, makes a lot of smoked meat for leftovers, and it’s a fan favorite. It is great for pulled pork sliders, throwing it in chili, on tacos, or making some pulled pork nachos.
This article goes over everything you need to know when it comes to smoking pork butt. There are many different ways to smoke a pork butt, but I will let you in on a secret, they all work. Don’t stress about the little things, follow this guide and you will turn out some great BBQ.
Understanding The Different Cuts Of Meat
When browsing the meat isle at the grocery store, it can be overwhelming. Pork butt, pork shoulder, Boston butt, picnic shoulder are the 4 most commonly used names when it comes to pork butt.
So what’s difference?
Well, not much. It all comes down to where each cut is on the pig. Pork butt, unlike the name suggests, does not come from the butt. It actually comes from the shoulder of the pig. Within the shoulder region, is where you find can find all 4 of the cuts.
Pork butt, also known as Boston butt, comes from higher on the shoulder region. Just below that is the pork shoulder also known as the picnic shoulder. But as far as we are concerned, they all make great smoked pork.
What Cut Of Meat Is Best?
When it comes to choosing which one to smoke, don’t stress so much about the cut. Any of them will work great for smoking and there is going to be a very minimal difference in flavor, tenderness, etc. I generally pick whatever the store has available.
If you want to get technical, pork butts do tend to be a little fattier since they are coming from higher on the leg. I have noticed that pork butts do tend to be slightly more tender and juicier, so if that’s what you’re looking for you might want to stick with pork butt.
But again, unless you’re out here smoking in BBQ competitions, don’t worry too much about the cut. Grab what is available and get to smoking.
What Size Should I Get?
Pork butts tend to be rather large averaging 10 lbs. per pork butt. If you want to go smaller you can usually pick up pork shoulders at the store in the 5 lbs. to 7lbs. range however, from personal experience I wouldn’t recommend going smaller than 5 lbs. When determining what size you should get it comes down to two questions.
How many people are you feeding?
BBQ catering companies usually plan for about 1/3 pound of cooked meat per person. Uncooked meat will lose about half its weight in mass once cooked. So to calculate how much pork you need, simply take the number of people you are feeding and multiply it by 1/3 and then again by 2.
Total uncooked pork needed = (number of people x 1/3) x 2
Don’t forget to add a little extra for leftovers! A wise man once said cook once eat twice.
How long do you want to smoke?
Another factor to consider is how long do you want to be smoking pork for. Pork butt typically takes an hour and half per pound to smoke meaning a large 10lbs pork butt can take upwards of 10 hours. If you want to shorten that cook time you may wan to consider smoking smaller pork butts. I can smoke a 5lbs pork shoulder in under 8 hours!
Getting Your Smoker Ready
Now that we got our pork selected, its time to get the smoker fired up. We always recommend preheating your pit before throwing the meat on. This allows any dirty smoke to burn off and makes sure your smoker is ready to go.
I get my smoker ready by filling a chimney starter (affiliate link) half full with charcoal and lighting it using tumbleweed starters (affiliate link). It’s important to make sure your are not using too much charcoal as this will cause your smoker to run too hot.
If you are using a charcoal smoker, I would recommend using the minion method when setting up your charcoal. This will allow a slow and steady fire over the course of hours.
What Temp To Smoke Pork Butt At?
You’ve probably heard that 225° Fahrenheit is the magic number when It comes to smoking meat; however, you can actually smoke meat anywhere from 225° F to 275° F.
I have smoked many pork butts at 225°, 250°, 275°, and even 300°F. I can tell your firsthand, you are not going to taste the difference between a pork butt smoked at 225° F and one smoked at 275°. Experiment for yourself to figure out what you like best, but as long as you’re between 225°F and 275°F, you will make some great pulled pork.
I would recommend starting at 250°F. It is a good middle ground and gives you a temperature buffer in case your smoker temperature drops or spikes. If you want to speed up the cook just a bit, bumping up the temperature to 275° F can cut off 30 minutes of cook time per pound of pork.
In fact, nowadays I almost always smoke at 275°F. I am able to shave off hours of cook time by smoking at 275°F over 225°F with no noticeable difference in taste. I wouldn’t recommend smoking pork any hotter than 275°F though.
Should You Use A Water Pan In Your Smoker?
Depending on who you ask you are going to get different answers. It really comes down to personal preference. I myself, find a lot of benefits in using one. It can help retain moisture, prevent temperature fluctuations in your pit, and capture fat drippings making for easy clean up.
I detail all the benefits of why you should use a water pan in you smoker here. While the article specifically talks about pellet smokers, the benefits are applicable to every type of smoker.
Prepping The Meat
What Do You Do With the Fat Cap?
The fat cap is a thick layer of fat on the outside of the pork butt. Some leave it on, some score it, some remove it. Again, like most things it comes down to personal preference. For me, I choose to remove it. The fat on the outside is subcutaneous fat and doesn’t render like the intramuscular fat does.
Simply put it’s not going to render away completely and its not something I want to eat so I get rid of it. Getting rid of it also gives me more surface area for the tasty bark. Need more reasons to get rid of the fat cap check out, “Fat Cap On Pork. Remove It? Leave it? Score it?”
Bone in vs Boneless?
Some pork butts come from the store boneless, and some come with bone in. I have smoked both and can tell you from experience, there isn’t a difference in taste between the two. If your pork butt has a bone in, don’t remove it. It will be too much work to remove it before smoking. Just let it cook as is and remove the bone at the end. If you can only find boneless at the store, that’s fine too. They will both cook the same, I promise.
What Is a Binder?
Binders are commonly used when smoking meat to help keep the rub on the meat. Mustard is the most common type of binder used. Simply rub thin layer of mustard on the pork butt before adding your rub. Don’t worry you won’t taste the mustard when its done cooking.
If you don’t want to use a binder, that is fine too, your rub should still stick to the meat. I know plenty of people who don’t use binder. Additionally, you can use other liquids such as oil or hot sauce instead of mustard. There are plenty of binders you can use. For more information on binders, check out, “Pork & Brisket Binders. How To Get Your Rub To Stick!”
Applying The Rub
When applying your rub, you want to apply liberally. Make sure every inch of your pork butt is covered in a good layer of rub. For rubs, you can use store bought rub or make your own. Each rub is going to have a different taste so find something or make one you like! Also don’t be afraid to layer different rubs.
How Long To Let Rub Sit
I typically, like most people, let the rub sit on the meat for about 30 minutes while the smoker is getting fired up. There are people leave the rub on longer and even overnight, but in reality, its not going to do much. Pork butts are such large and fatty pieces of meat that the rub has little impact on the on the inside of the meat.
Additionally, rubs have salt in them and leaving the rub on your pork butt too long can brine them leaving you with a salty tasting pork butt. A lot of smoking meat is experimenting and figuring out what you like. I don’t find any benefit to leaving my rub on longer and find it easier to prep it while my smoker is getting ready so that’s what I do.
Choosing Your Wood
Wood, just like rubs, are used to add flavor to the meat. Different types of hardwoods have different flavor profiles that can complement your pork butt. When smoking pork butt, you want to stick to a lighter woods such as a fruit wood. Apple wood (affiliate link) is on of the most commonly used types of wood for smoking pork butt.
I personally prefer to use a mixture of cherry (affiliate link) and hickory (affiliate link). Don’t be afraid to experiment or use multiple woods. Just stay away from the stronger woods like mesquite as they can overwhelm the pork. I go more into detail on picking wood in my article, “Picking The Best Wood For Smoking Meat”. It also addresses the following two questions.
Should You Soak Wood?
No, please don’t soak you wood. This is one of the most common myths in the meat smoking community. That “smoke” you see when soaking wood isn’t smoke. Its water vapor that does nothing for flavoring your meat. It also delays the burning process of wood which can result in dirty smoke.
Do You Use Wood Chunks, Chips, or Splits?
This is dependent on the type of smoker you are using and be summed up using the following chart.
|Type of Smoker||Type of Wood To Use|
|Offset Smoker||Wood splits|
|Charcoal Smoker||Wood Chunks|
|Pellet Smoker||Cooking Pellets|
|Electric/Propane/Cabinet Smoker||Wood Chips|
Smoking Your Pork Butt
How Long Does Pork Butt Take To Smoke?
How long it takes to smoke a pork butt is dependent on many factors but on average you can expect about an hour and a half per pound of pork when smoking at 225° F. Smoking at a higher temperature such as 275° F or wrapping your pork will help speed up the cook time.
The biggest take away here is to let your pork cook. As tempting as it might be to keep looking at it, you want to keep that lid closed as much as possible. Every time you open that lid, you are cooling the meat and prolonging the cook time.
Invest in a good thermometer, like this Chugod of amazon (affiliate link), so you can monitor your meat without opening the lid. I typically check on my meat once every 2 hours.
Remember, If you’re looking, you’re not cooking.
To Spritz Or Not
You will see a lot of people spray their meat every hour with their special homemade concoction of whatever. You can certainly do that, but sometimes it does more harm than good. According to the famous Aaron Franklin, you should only spritz your meat if you start to see it dry out.
If your meat isn’t drying out, then leave the lid shut and let it cook. Spritzing too often can cause your meat to cook longer. The added moisture cools the meat just as sweat cools us. Let your meat cook and spritz only as needed. Remember, if you’re looking, you’re not cooking.
As far as what to spritz with, a 50/50 mixture of apple cider vinegar and water is most common; however, people also use juice, beer, and even Dr pepper. For more information, check out my brisket spritzing article.
Somewhere along the cook, you might notice that your pork butt “stops” cooking. You will see the internal temperature all of the sudden stop going up or maybe even drop. Don’t worry, nothing is wrong, you have just reached the stall!
Meat is comprised of about 75% water. As you slowly cook the meat, the water inside the meat is pushed to surface of the meat. This in turn cools the meat leaving the meat seemingly stuck at the same temperature.
The stall typically happens when the internal temperature of your pork butt reaches about 160° Fahrenheit. There is no way around the stall, sorry. Once all the moisture in the meat has evaporated, it will return to cooking. The stall can last hours so be patient. If you are looking to power through the stall, then you should consider wrapping your pork butt.
Should You Wrap Your Pork?
Whether or not you decide to wrap your meat during the smoking process all comes down to personal preference.
In a nutshell, wrapping your meat during the smoking process will:
- Speed up cooking time (you are trapping the heat)
- Help push through the stall
- Retain more moisture (moisture has no where to leave)
However, wrapping your meat can break down the bark formation a little bit (the yummy crust on the outside).
There are pros and cons to both ways. Don’t stress too much about this, either way works well. I typically find myself wrapping my pork butt most of the time simply for the convenience of the faster cook times.
If you do decide to wrap your pork butt, only do so when the bark is where you want it. The bark should be a deep, dark mahogany color and firm to the touch. Something like the picture below. Wrapping too early prevents the pork butt from taking on smoke which can lead to a bland tasting pork butt.
For a more detailed answer to this question to help make your decision easier, be sure to check out my recent article, “Should you wrap your pork butt”. In that article I also go over whether or not to wrap in aluminum foil or butcher paper (affiliate link).
How To Tell When Pork Butt Is Done
The best way to tell when your pork butt is done, is through internal temperature. Once the thickest part of the pork butt reaches an internal temperature of 205° Fahrenheit, your pork butt will be fall off the bone tender. I use a Bluetooth BBQ thermometer like this one (affiliate link) on amazon to monitor my internal temperature.
You can always double check for doneness by probing for tenderness. If you probe it and it doesn’t feel like a hot knife going through butter, it needs more time.
If you don’t have a thermometer, don’t worry. I have an article that will help you determine when your pork butt is done without using a thermometer.
Resting Your Pork Butt
Now that the pork butt is done cooking, its time to rest it! I know you spent all those hours smoking your pork butt and you want to dig in but resting your pork butt is very important. Resting your pork butt allows for the muscles in the meat to relax and redistribute the moisture throughout the meat.
In short, resting your pork butt helps with overall flavor and tenderness! It is best to rest your pork butt for at least 1-2 hours. If you can rest for longer, great!
Here is my complete guide to resting pork butt including how to rest pork butt, how long to rest it for, and some other commonly asked questions. That’s it! Now you can have the savory taste of smoked pork butt in your own backyard.