Pork Shoulder vs Pork Butt: How Are They Different?

November 2, 2022

Pork shoulder and pork butt differ in terms of size, shape, texture, flavor, cooking methods, and more!

As a professional chef, my friends often come to me with their questions about various cuts of meat. I have found that people are most confused by these two popular cuts of meat.

In this post, I will explain pork shoulder vs. pork butt and provide details about how they are unique as well as how to prepare these cuts. Let's get started!

Pork Shoulder vs Pork Butt

What Is Pork Shoulder?

The pork shoulder is more aptly named. It is taken from a section that is right above the front leg of the pig. The cut has a triangular shape.

It is sometimes referred to as a picnic shoulder or picnic roast.

What Is Pork Butt?

Contrary to its name, pork butt actually comes from the shoulder section as well, above the pig's shoulder blade. It contains part of the neck, shoulder, and upper portion of the leg of the pig. It is moderately tough and contains a lot of connective tissue.

The pork butt is often referred to as the Boston butt.

raw pork on a parchment paper

Is Boston Butt The Same As Pork Shoulder?

Considering that pork butt and pork shoulder seem to come from the same place, it is only natural to wonder if they are the same cut.

No, they are separate cuts. It would be accurate to say that the Boston butt is a part of the pork shoulder. It simply comes from a thicker portion of the muscle.

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The Differences Between Pork Butt and Pork Shoulder

Here is a more in-depth look at pork butt vs. pork shoulder:

Appearance and Shape

The pork shoulder has a more triangular shape to it, giving it an uneven appearance. It can be sold bone in or boneless.

Boneless pork shoulder will typically sold in netting. When the netting is removed, the pork shoulder meat will unfold into an uneven layer.

The pork butt is a rectangular shaped piece of meat. This makes the overall shape of it more uniform.

The Texture

Pork butt is known for being well marbled and having quite a bit of intramuscular fat. This cut of meat is usually sold with a thick fat cap on top of it.

Pork shoulder, on the other hand, doesn't have nearly as much marbling or intramuscular fat on it. When sold, it usually has the skin on.

The meat in this section can be quite tough, however. Due to its position, the shoulder gets quite a bit of exercise which results in tougher meat.

The Taste and Flavor

In general, pork butt is considered to be the more flavorful cut. As mentioned, this cut has quite a bit more fat marbling and this always translates to a more pronounced pork flavor.

Does this mean that the picnic shoulder doesn't have flavor? Not at all! It just isn't as noticeable as the taste of Boston butt.

Pork Bone

Uses

The most common way to use pork shoulder is cooked whole and then cut or sliced. This is why you will often make pork roast out of it. However, you can also use it to make ground pork. In some instances, you can even cut pork steaks from this section.

Pork butt, on the other hand, is best cooked whole but later shredded or chopped into smaller pieces for the best results. This is why it tends to be used for pulled pork dishes.

Method of Cooking

Technically, both pork butt and pork shoulder respond well to slow cooking methods. This is because they are both made up of rather tough meat.

When cooked at a lower temperature for a longer period of time, the muscle and tissue can break down, producing a more tender meat.

However, pork shoulder works just as well when cooked at higher temperatures as with grilling or roasting. Due to this, it is more commonly prepared using these methods.

The Price

Both the pork shoulder and pork butt are fairly cheap cuts of meat. This is one of the reasons that they are so popular.

When buying pork shoulder, though, you may spend less money. This is only because this is a smaller cut and, as such, you are purchasing a smaller amount of meat.

What Is The Best Cut Of Pork For Pulled Pork?

Pork butt is usually the best cut for pulled pork.

As you can imagine, you need a tender cut of meat to make pulled pork. This is what allows you to pull it apart easily and for it to have that gorgeous texture.

Naturally, the low and slow cooking method helps with this quite a bit. However, it is the texture of the meat that contributes the most.

As stated, pork butt has a lot more fat in between the meat. As this fat melts, it lends moisture to the surrounding tissues, creating a softer texture.

At the same time, the fat and the fat cap protect the lean meat from high heat. This allows the meat to cook more slowly but also prevents it from drying out. This added moisture makes shredding the meat a great deal easier.

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Cooking With Pork Butt vs. Pork Shoulder

There aren't hard and fast rules for when you should use pork shoulder vs. pork butt and vice versa. After all, you are free to use either cut of meat as you see fit.

However, you are more likely to use certain cooking methods with each cut based on traditional recipes.

For instance, pork butts are used to make pulled pork. There is more than one way to make this dish, however.

You are probably most familiar with using a slow cooker to stew the meat and then shred it. However, you can also smoke the pork butt at low temperatures. Once it has been rested, it can then be pulled apart.

The usual pork shoulder recipes are pork roast. As this cut of meat has skin on it, when cooked at high temperatures, you get delicious crispy skin. This is why you will often use pork shoulder to make crispy pork crackling.

Pork Tenderloin

Can I Use a Pork Shoulder Instead of Butt for Pulled Pork?

Yes, you can! In fact, you will often find that pork shoulder and pork butter are used interchangeably.

As I mentioned, pork butt does have more fat and more flavor but this doesn't mean that you can't use pork shoulder.

As I also stated, both the pork shoulder cuts and pork butt cuts hold up well to slow cooking.

When using pork shoulder instead of pork butt, I would advise you to maintain as low of a cooking temperature as you possibly can. Similarly, keep a close watch on the internal temperature.

Taking these precautions will help to prevent the pork shoulder from overcooking.

To maintain the moisture content, I would also suggest wrapping the pork shoulder. This will help to trap moisture close to the meat and prevent it from drying out.

Can You Roast Pork Butt?

Yes, you can roast pork butt. In fact, this cut holds up to higher temperatures quite well. Due to its high fat content, you are going to find it quite tough to dry it out.

It can be roasted by itself or you can add some vegetables into the mix as well.

Personally, though, I find that braising, stewing, or smoking is the way to go with this cut. This methods just produce an incredibly tender cut of meat that just can't be replicated at a higher temperature.

Why is Pork Shoulder Called Pork Butt?

If you have ever wondered why pork butt is given such an odd name when it comes from the front section of the pig, you certainly aren't alone.

To make matters even more confusing, it doesn't appear as there is a single explanation for it.

Some people believe that New England butchers took less prized cuts such as the upper portion of the front leg and placed them in barrels known as butts. Eventually, it is theorized that the name Boston butt caught on.

While this may seem like a logical explanation, there aren't any historical facts to back this theory up.

The more likely scenario is that the pork butt was a fairly thick cut of meat, similar to that which you would find near the rear of the pig. Therefore, they began to refer to this shoulder section as the butt.

The truth is that we may never really know where this unusual moniker came about. All we can resign ourselves to doing is to stop getting it mixed up with the pork shoulder!

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Wrapping It Up

If you have been confused about pork butt and pork shoulder, I hoped this post cleared it up for you. After all, the key to a well produced recipe is knowing the right ingredients - including proper cuts of meat - to use.

Once you can tell the difference between the popular cuts, you will be one step closer to making the best ever dishes!

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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