Your Ultimate Guide to Pork Shoulder Brine

August 20, 2022

A pork shoulder brine can help to maintain the moisture in the meat throughout the cooking process.

Even though I learned the method in culinary school, I didn't really brine my own food until much later on - it always seemed like too much trouble. Once I started, though, I couldn't go back as it took my meat dishes to the next level.

In this post I will outline what brining is, show you the best recipe, and how to get it done. Let's get started!

Pork Shoulder Brine

What is Brining?

Brining has been around forever - back in the day, before refrigerators, people used to rely on this process for preserving meat. Now, however, it serves a very different purpose.

Brining is typically reserved for lean meats such as certain cuts of pork. These meats can dry out quite easily during the cooking but the brining process tenderizes the flesh and ensures that the resulting dish is juicy and moist.

Brine is usually made up of water and salt, although other ingredients can be added to it. The salt water solution loosens the protein structure of the meat, allowing for additional liquid and flavors to be trapped in the protein during brining. This is also retained while the meat is being heated and cooked.

Wet vs. Dry Brining

When most people think of brining, they are actually thinking of a wet brine. However, you can also use a dry brine for your pork.

With a dry brine, you make up a salt mixture but dont add any liquid to the batch. Instead, you rub this mix into the pork which draws the natural moisture in the meat out. This moisture mixes with the turkey juices and then is reabsorbed by the muscles.

raw pork meat

The brine mixture breaks down the proteins in the muscles, preventing them from losing liquid while cooking.

Now, which one is better?

Well, I like both. A wet brine is a tried and true method and you are bound to get a moister dish. Nevertheless, I do find that a dry brine can be easier to work with and involves less hassle. I have also found a dry rub to offer up more flavorful meat.

If you are short on time and have less than a day to prep your pork, however, I would suggest that you go with a wet brine.

Pork Shoulder vs. Pork Butt

Before I move on, I also want to discuss the difference between a pork shoulder and a pork butt. Far too many people get these cuts confused, imagining that they refer to the same piece of meat.

Despite the name, pork butt - also known as Boston butt - and pork shoulder are both from the shoulder area of the pig. However, the pork butt is taken from higher up on the foreleg. As such, it has a higher level of fat.

The reason that this distinction is important is because you dont typically brine a pork butt. If you are smoking it, you might but this tends to be unnecessary due to the fat that adds moisture to the meat during the cooking process.

Should I Brine a Pork Shoulder?

People are often surprised at the idea of brining pork as they tend to associate the process with poultry. However, if you are making smoked pork shoulder, you should definitely brine the meat beforehand.

The long smoking times increases the risk of dried-out meat. When you brine pork shoulder, you greatly reduce the risk of this happening.

Should I Brine or Inject Pork Shoulder?

If you have been researching marinating techniques then there is a chance that you may have come across injecting. This is where you use a meat injector to deliver the brine solution under the skin and directly into the meat.

Some people prefer a solution of apple cider vinegar while other prefer a more traditional salt and water solution. Others still, prefer to add melted butter, herbs, and spices to the mix.

The main advantage over brining is that this method works much more quickly. You only have to inject the solution five to ten minutes before the pork goes into the smoker. With brining, the pork has to marinate for much longer.

Now, which method is better? Well, this is really all down to preference.

When it comes to pork shoulder I would advise you to use a traditional brine. If you are smoking pork butt, though, the injection process can elevate the flavor and texture of the meat.

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How Long Can You Leave Pork in Brine?

This is a tricky question to answer and you will often find a wide variety of answers for brine times.

The rule of thumb that I like to follow is one hour per pound of pork shoulder.

Technically, there is no minimum amount of time for brining pork shoulder. The less amount of time that you leave the meat in the brine, though, the less moisture and flavor added.

pork cut intoto pieces

Most people prefer to let the pork sit in an overnight brine or for between 8 and 12 hours. Personally, I prefer keeping in the meat for 12 hours at a time, at most.

As for the maximum amount of time, I would say that this is 24 hours. Remember, it is possible to over brine pork shoulder. When you do this, the meat will become very salty and may be considered inedible.

As I have mentioned, brining time is associated with the size of the pork shoulder. Most of these cuts are around 6 to 8lbs. If you are working with a smaller chunk of meat, though, you will need to adjust the time accordingly.

For anything less than 6lbs, I would advise you to not let the meat sit in the brine for more than 8 hours.

How Long Should You Brine Pork Shoulder with Dry Rub?

The dry method for pork shoulder brine takes only slightly longer than the wet brine, but I still know people who will allow the rub to marinate from 2 to 3 days. I think this is a bit much - not only do you run the risk of salty pork, but the chance of microbe growth is higher as well.

I would say that 8 hours is fine for tender meat, but you can go up to 12 if you want.

What You Need for Pork Brine?

Here are some of the things that you will need for various pork shoulder brine recipes:

Kosher Salt

I have always made brine with kosher salt and I suggest that you do the same as well. It simply makes for a better brine liquid and rub.

If you dont have kosher salt, it is possible to substitute table salt instead for the pork shoulder brine. It is important to remember to use less salt in this case, though. Typically, measure out 25 percent less salt if using table salt.

Liquids

The traditional brine recipe calls for just water. However, these days, you will find people adding various liquids to boost flavor. This includes apple cider, apple cider vinegar, apple juice, broth, and even beer.

It is up to you to decide which route that you want to take.

Herbs and Spices

There is no set ingredients for the herbs and spices. The common additions are peppercorns, rosemary, garlic, and bay leaves. You can feel free to omit or substitute depending on your desired flavor profile.

A Large Container or Bag

For the wet brine, the pork needs to be covered. I prefer to use a large zip-lock bag, but you can use a large Tupperware container with an airtight lid.

The dry brine can be left uncovered.

The Top Pork Shoulder Brine Recipe Variations

Here are the different recipes you can use to brine pork:

Traditional Pork Shoulder Brine Recipe

For 6 to 8lbs of pork shoulder.

Ingredients

  • 10 cups of water
  • 3/4 cup of kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 4 sprigs of rosemary
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 tablespoons of black peppercorns
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/2 an onion or 1 tbs. of onion powder
  • 6 cloves of garlic or 2 tbs. of garlic powder
  • 1 tbs. of paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. of cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbs. of cumin powder

Method

Step 1

Bring the water to a boil and add the sugar and salt. Once all the crystals are dissolved, take off heat.

Step 2

Add the other ingredients and stir until the spices have dissolved. Allow to cool completely.

Step 3

Once the liquid has cooled, place the pork shoulder in a Tupperware container or in a ziplock bag. Pour the liquid in until the meat is completely covered. Close the container or bag tightly.

Step 5

Refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours. Remove the meat from the brine and smoke as desired.

Apple Cider Brine Recipe

This solution can be used for a cider brined pulled pork recipe as well. This is suitable for 6 to 8lbs of pork.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups of water
  • 6 cups of apple cider or apple juice
  • 2 cups of apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup of kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup of brown sugar
  • 4 sprigs of rosemary
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 tablespoons of black peppercorns
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/2 an onion or 1 tbs. of onion powder
  • 6 cloves of garlic or 2 tbs. of garlic powder
  • 1 tbs. of paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. of cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbs. of cumin powder
apple cider vinegar for brine

Method

Step 1

Add the liquids and salt and sugar into a large bowl. Stir continuously until the crystals are completely dissolved.

Alternatively, you can bring the water and cider or juice to a boil, adding salt and sugar and combining until dissolved. Once the mix has cooled down, you can then add in the vinegar.

Step 2

Add the rest of the ingredients. If using powders stir until they are dissolved.

Step 3

Place the pork shoulder in a bag or container and then cover with liquid. Close the bag or container. Refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours.

Dry Brine Rub Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 tbs. of kosher salt - more or less, depending on size of pork shoulder
  • 1/2 tbs. of baking powder

Method

Step 1

In a bowl, mix baking powder and salt together.

Step 2

Use paper towels to pat the pork shoulder completely dry. Move the meat to a platter or large dish.

Step 3

Pat the rub onto the pork shoulder making sure that it is completely covered in a layer of seasoning. Place in the refrigerator, uncovered, for up to 24 hours.

Tips for the Perfect Brine Pork Shoulder

Here are some tips and tricks that can help you get it just right:

Choose the Right Cut

Yes, it all begins with the right cut of picnic shoulder. Look for a pinkish-red color. There should be some marbling in the meat. Avoid any cut that is pale or that have dark spots on the fat. On average, a cut that is between 6 and 8lbs is a good size for brining.

Allow Your Brine to Cool Completely

If you are heating your brine, then it is key that you allow the mix to cool completely before you place the meat into it. Remember that warm and lukewarm temperatures are perfect for bacteria to thrive in. Therefore, putting meat in such conditions and then leaving it can cause your pork to spoil.

It is best to stay on the safe side and wait for the brine to cool all the way through.

Cooling Down the Brine Quickly

Lets face it, you dont really want to have to wait until the brine cools down to put the meat in. After all, brining takes long enough to don't want to lengthen this process even further!

In this case, I would tell you to use ice to cool down the brine quickly. Once the sugar, salt, and powders have been dissolved, add in about 4 cups of ice to get the temperature down. If you do decide to use this method, though, use 4 less cups of water in the initial brining process.

Otherwise, you run the risk of diluting the brine too much.

Keep the Meat Fully Immersed

The last thing that you need is for only parts of your pork brine to penetrate the meat. This is why you should make sure that once the pork is in its resting place that you check to see that this is the case. Also, once it is in the refrigerator avoid moving it or jostling it around.

If you are worried about getting this right, then I would suggest placing it in a solid container. This way you have more control over how the liquid stands in there.

Leave the Dry Brine Uncovered

One of the reasons that people opt for a dry brine is because it creates a crisper bark during the smoking process. When you leave the meat in the fridge without a cover, the surrounding air pulls moisture from the skin. This allows the skin to crisp up when being cooked.

Just make sure that you dont keep any highly scented food in the fridge at the same time. The pork shoulder may end up absorbing the flavor.

This is all that you need to know about pork shoulder brine! Now that you have all the details, whipping up your brine shouldn't be any problem at all. Go ahead and try it out for yourself!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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