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What Is Pork Shoulder?
Pork shoulder is the primal cut that comes from—you guessed it—a pig’s shoulder, above the forelegs. The National Pork Board calls it “the top portion of the front leg of the hog.” It’s typically broken down into two cuts: the top, or blade shoulder (aka Boston butt), and the lower, arm shoulder (aka pork shoulder or picnic roast).
Meat from this hardworking region is dark in color due to oxygen-storing myoglobin, and tough due to lots of connective tissue. It’s also full of fat, and can be extremely flavorful if cooked properly: low and slow, which breaks down the collagen into gelatin and melts the fat. Because pork shoulder contains a lot of fat, it has a more pronounced pork flavor than leaner cuts, like pork chops.
What's the Difference Between Pork Shoulder and Pork Butt?
Determining whether a cut of meat is pork shoulder or pork butt can be really confusing, and the only way to know what you’re getting is to both talk to your butcher and carefully read your recipe, which will usually indicate the size of the shoulder and whether it should contain bones and/or skin.
Pork shoulder is the name for the large primal cut that encompasses the entire shoulder. It’s also used, confusingly, to refer to the two smaller cuts from the shoulder:
- The blade shoulder (aka pork butt, Boston butt), which comes from higher on the foreleg (closer to the backbone and shoulder blade bone) and is full of intramuscular fat (marbling!). It’s uniformly rectangular in shape and often sold with a fat cap. Boneless pork shoulder is available, but cooking pork shoulder with the bone-in maximizes flavor and texture.
- The arm shoulder (aka picnic ham, arm pork roast, or pork shoulder roast) comes from lower on the foreleg: the part where the shoulder meets the pig’s “arm,” and is therefore uneven and triangular in shape. It has less marbling than the blade shoulder but is usually sold skin-on, so it’s good for making crackling.
The bottom line: Any cut from the shoulder will be tough and fatty and should be cooked slowly. For most recipes, pork butt and pork shoulder can be used interchangeably.
5 Ways to Cook Pork Shoulder
- Smoke: The long indirect heat from smoking is perfect for barbecue pulled pork shoulder. Apply a dry rub about 12 hours before you plan to cook and remove the shoulder from the fridge one hour before smoking. Heat your smoker to 250°F and smoke until the thickest part of the shoulder is 195–205°F, about 90 minutes per pound of meat. Let rest for at least an hour, wrapped in butcher paper or aluminum foil. Shred for pulled pork. Learn how to smoke pork shoulder—and more—in barbecue pitmaster Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass.
- Braise: Slowly braise pork shoulder on the stovetop (or transfer to a moderate oven) with wine, chicken stock, and aromatic vegetables and spices. The braising liquid keeps the shoulder from drying out. Chef Thomas Keller braises pork shoulder à la matignon with celery root, apples, and onions, slow-cooking the ingredients in a cocotte, or cast-iron pot. He serves the fork-tender dish with crispy potato rösti.
- Oven-roast: Roast pork shoulder in a low oven (around 275°F) until fork-tender, then crank the heat up to achieve a brown crust.
- Slow cooker: Try slow cooking pork shoulder with a dry rub on low until the internal temperature reaches 190°F, about 8 hours for a large shoulder. Moisten the shoulder with the fat and juices left behind at the bottom of the slow cooker.
- Sous vide: Use a water bath with an immersion circulator set at 158°F. For pulled pork, cut pork into 2 ½-inch cubes and add to a freezer bag with a dry rub. Cook for 24 hours, using a lid to prevent evaporation. Pull the pork directly in the bag.
8 Ways to Serve Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder
Shred slow-roasted pork shoulder for:
- Tacos: Serve with tortillas, tomatillo salsa verde, cilantro, avocado, cotija cheese.
- Sandwiches: Serve with soft white bread and coleslaw
- Pernil: serve with Cuban mojo sauce, black beans, rice, and fried plantains
- Polenta: Serve with red wine–tomato sauce, grated parmesan, and fresh parsley
Try thinly sliced slow-roasted pork shoulder with:
- Creamy mashed potatoes
- Boiled potatoes and green beans
- Roasted root vegetables such as parsnips and carrots
- Sautéed bok choy or other greens
Easy Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder Recipe
Prep Time15 min
Total Time5 hr 45 min
- 1 bone-in pork shoulder (about 7 pounds)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 2 heads garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
- 2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- White vinegar, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 275°F. Season the pork shoulder generously with salt. In the bowl of a food processor, combine black pepper, garlic cloves, rosemary, and sage and puree. Drizzle olive oil while the food processor is running until a smooth paste forms.
- Use your hands to spread the garlic paste over the pork shoulder. Transfer shoulder to an oven-safe roasting bag and set inside a roasting pan, or make your own "bag" by covering a roasting pan pan and the shoulder in aluminum foil. Roast until tender, about 5 hours.
- Transfer drippings from the roasting bag or foil-lined roasting pan to a medium saucepan. Discard the roasting bag or foil and return the pork to the roasting pan. Use a ladle to skim fat from the top of the cooking liquid and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower to a simmer.
- Increase oven temperature to 400°F and return the pork to the oven and roast uncovered, basting frequently with the simmering juices, until nicely browned, about 30 minutes. Pour any extra juices over the pork and let rest at room temperature for 10–15 minutes. Slice pork or shred using a fork.
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