Friday, July 1, 2011

How to: Pork Butt 101

I get questions from friends and family on how to cook a pork butt quite often. Questions like: What rub do I use? How long do I cook it? What temperature do I cook it at? Can I do it on a gas grill?

Well today I'm going to try to explain how I do it and hopefully answer some of these questions. There are lots of ways to cook butts and no one way is the "correct" way. Again this is how I do it. I like the results as do family and friends, but hopefully this will help some of you start cooking and experimenting with variations.

What you will need.

  • If your cooking pork butt you need a pork butt. The pork butt is actually the shoulder of the pig. It is also called a Boston butt. The Virtual Weber Bullet site has a great section explaining what the pork butt is and where it comes from. A pork butt looks like this before it is cooked. 
  • You will also need a cooker (gas, charcoal or wood burning). I prefer a combination of charcoal and wood as I get a good smokey flavor from it.
  • Charcoal, wood or a full propane tank to cook with.
  • Your favorite rub
  • Mustard
  • Honey
  • Mop sauce (recipe below)
  • Meat thermometer
  • Oven thermometer
  • Foil
  • Large pan
  • Food service gloves (I like these as they keep my hands clean and make clean up easier. I wear them when handling the raw meat.)
  • Spray bottle
  • Food brush
  • About 6-8 hours to cook.
Thats the list of things you will need for the cook. Wait. What. No sauce? If done right, you don't need any sauce for the meat but can add it if you want. I would say get whatever your favorite type of sauce is and use it. I use homemade sauces. My mustard sauce is from Dr. BBQ's Big Time BBQ Cookbook and my tomato based sauce is from the Joy of Cooking.

Prepping the meat
Take your butt -pork butt that is- out of whatever packaging it is in. I do this over the sink, that way the juices that come out don't get everywhere. Set the butt in the pan fat-cap side up.

What is the fat-cap? The fat-cap is that big white thing on one side of the butt. That is all fat. DON'T trim it off.

Trim off any pieces of the pork that are dangling. You'll have to feel around the butt to do this. sometimes there are little pieces of meat that hang off that you will want to trim because they cook to fast and get tough and gross.

Once the butt is trimmed you are ready to paint the mustard on it. In a little bowl mix about 1/2 cup of mustard with a 1/8 cup of honey to make a honey mustard sauce. Paint the entire butt with this mixture. This helps the rub stick to the butt and I think it helps the bark set up better.

What is bark? Good question. When the butt cooks it creates an outer "shell" from the rub and mop on it. It is YUMMY. My bark tends to be dark but it can range from a nice mahogany red color to a dark brown, almost black. When the pork is pulled you mix it in with the inside meat and it gives it great flavor. See the picture below.

After the butt is slathered with the honey mustard you need to put the rub on it. Shake it all over the butt so the whole piece of meat is covered with rub. Even on the fat-cap side but you don't need as much there as you probably won't eat much if any of that, it's fat after all.

Once this is done make sure it is sitting fat-cap side up and put it in the fridge over night… or you can leave it out for an hour before putting it on the cooker. I do this part the night before I cook and put the butt in the fridge over night to let the rub pull out the juices and settle on the meat. I pull it out of the fridge before I get the fire going on the cooker and add a little more rub to it. This is about an hour before I'm ready to put it on the fire.

Cooking the meat
To cook the butt we are going to use indirect heat. Indirect cooking means the fire isn't directly under the meat. On a gas grill you would only light one side of the cooker. On an offset smoker you just use the fire box and on a charcoal grill you will need to se the coals on one side of the grill to keep the meat from getting burned. If you have a bullet cooker you will have a water pan between the meat and the fire to help regulate the temperature.

If you do have a charcoal cooker I recommend the "Minion Method" to get your fire set up.

Patio Daddio BBQ has a great article on his blog about smoking using gas. If you are using a gas grill I recommend reading it.

Place your oven thermometer on the side you are going to be cooking on. You want your cooker to get up to 225º and stay between 225º-250º while cooking. This is the temp you want on the side away from the fire.

Once you reach temperature you can put your meat on the cooker. Remember put it on the side without the fire with the fat-cap up. Close the lid and relax. The hard parts over… or is it.

Why do you put the fat-cap up? Glad you asked. As the meat cooks the fat renders both inside and outside the meat. As it renders, it drips down the meat, imparting more flavor to it. It also drips onto the hot metal of the cooker and the smoke created imparts more flavor to the meat.

I check fire and mop the meat every hour. Remember though "if you're lookin', you ain't cookin'." I try to check the temp and mop it at the same time and do it quickly. That's why I use a spray bottle to mop.

The mop I use is a 1/2 cup each of:
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • soy sauce
  • apple cider vinegar
  • olive oil
  • water 
  • apple juice 
Shake it all up, put it in a spray bottle and spritz the meat every hour.

If your temperature is dropping you will need to add some fuel to the fire. Not a lot. I usually add about 4-6 briquettes to keep the fire going. Some cookers will take more fuel then others and the outside weather conditions will affect the heat output and fuel consumption. Experimenting is the only way you can figure out what works best with your cooker… or joining an online forum and asking others who have similar cookers.

Is it done, yet?
After about five hours I will check the temperature of the meat. Pork is done cooking at about 160º but if you pull the butt off the fire then it will be too tough. You want the internal temperature of the meat to be around 195º. At that temp it is ready to pull and should pull nicely. You can go higher to 200º-210º but I like 195º.

If after five hours, it is not near 195º I would check the temperature in another 2 hours. Some butts can take 12 hours to cook. I have never had one take that long but others I know have. Also there is a time when the temperature of the meat stalls. It maintains an internal temperature for awhile and doesn't get hotter. It's ok, just let it keep cooking and keep mopping it.

YEAH! It's done.
Now that the internal temperature is at 195º get some of your foil and wrap the butt up in it and let it rest for about 30 minutes. It will continue to cook due to the heat of the meat but it also allows the juices to redistribute in the meat. The meat will be hot when you unwrap it. I will let it sit for another 30 minutes unwrapped before I try to pull it so it cools some.

Pulling the butt.
The first thing you want to do is pull out the bone from the butt. If the meat is done the bone should be showing more as the meat has pulled away from it. grab it and pull it out. It should remove easily. If it doesn't the meat wasn't quite hot enough. No worries, as long as it is over 165º it is cooked to eat. It won't pull as easily but it should taste good.


You will also want to remove the fat-cap. It should slide right off. I pick through that because there is some really good meat hiding in the layers of the fat. I also like to take some of the bark that was created from the fat-cap and mix it into the pulled pork for extra bursts of flavor.

You can use your hands or two forks and pull the meat apart and put it in the pan. I have a pair of silicon gloves I use for this. they are great. Keep the bark mixed in with the rest of the meat because that adds punches of flavor throughout. Once it is pulled you are ready to serve it to all the drooling people at your house.

If you have any questions about this post a comment and I will try my best to answer.


  1. I just bought a smoker. As soon as I finish putting it together and season it, I'm gonna need to smoke something. I was thinking ribs, but dang, this looks Awesome and it's been a while since I've done pulled pork