So, should you be cooking pork butt fat side up or down? The best placement is fat side down or right where the heat’s coming from (which is from below in most cases). That way, the fat cap shields the real meat from direct heat and doesn’t get burned.
Personally, what I always do first is trim off that “false fat cap.” This is the thick fat on the pork butt you’re supposed to trim away. I trim that off until I have just ¼ inch of fat left. That’s expected to be the regular fat that is rendered during cooking.
Then I slap that Boston butt on the grates with the remaining fat layer facing the smoke or heat. I’ve never had it messed up this way. In this article, I’ll break it all down for you on how to position your pork butt for the best result.
Should You Smoke Fat Side Up or Down?
Since the heat from the smoker is coming from below, I cook my pork butt with the fat cap facing down. The fat cap acts as a protective shield in this placement method, keeping the butt safe from scorching.
Another good reason for this is when the fat starts to render, having it on the bottom keeps your rub in place. Otherwise, you might end up with your flavorful rub getting washed off the butt by the melted fat as the meat cooks. You can’t have that!
But I won’t lie – there are those rare lazy moments when I go fat cap up. Why? Most times when you’re cooking fat side down, the fat cap sticks to the cooking grates. So they’ll need some scraping and cleaning when you’re done.
Also, when it’s time to flip or take the smoked pork butt off after long hours of smoking, it can get clingy to the grates with the fats causing a flare-up and messing up the smoker. So, yeah, fat cap down has its moments. But it comes with a messy clean-up time. However, I’ll show you how I’ve been getting around this problem recently later in the article.
Fat Side Up or Down: Deciding Based on the Heat Source
When deciding if your pork butt should go fat side up or down, it’s all about where the heat is coming from.
If you use cooking equipment with a top heat source like an oven, you can lay that pork butt fat side up.
But if your heat is coming from down below, whether it’s pellet, electric, gas, kamado, or a regular charcoal grill, the rule of thumb is fat side down. That fat cap becomes your tasty buffer against the heat rising from below.
Now, if you’re rocking an offset smoker with fire coming in from the side: point that pork fat side towards the firebox. It’s all about adapting to the direction of the flames.
Why Should the Fat Cap Face the Heat Source?
While some people are quick to trim them all off while prepping the butt, the fat cap on the meat isn’t just there for show. First off, we all know that the fat cap gives the meat some moisture and flavor. That’s why we leave some on the pork butt. But it’s not just about flavor. That fat cap also guards the meat against indirect heat.
Imagine this: you plunk a fresh pork butt down with the meat facing the indirect heat. That meaty part is going to cook first. Keep it that way throughout, and you’re looking at some dry, maybe even burnt meat.
But flip that pork butt around with the fat cap towards the heat, and it holds back the direct heat. The fat takes the heat hit while the meat gets cooked at a lower, gentler temp. So, if you’re dreaming of that melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork perfection, you better make sure that fat cap’s facing the heat.
Taking Off the Fat Cap
When you take a closer look at pork butts’ fat cap, you’ll notice there are three layers in it. Which one are you leaving and taking off?
- The outer tough fat (we’ll call it the “false fat cap”).
- A super thin meat layer (let’s call it “false lean”).
- The fat closer to the meat can render and make things delicious (right under that “false lean”).
The renderable fat which is the last layer under the meat is what you want to keep. You could be less aggressive and keep the false lean and a bit of the false fat cap left and your pork would still come out tender. It’s just a matter of how much effort you want to put in on that day.
But that tough outer fat doesn’t do well at rendering, and it’s not exactly a pleaser in terms of taste. And let’s be honest, people generally prefer a mouthwatering bark over biting into a hunk of fat.
It’s similar to trimming meats like brisket or picanha, which have thick fat caps, you leave about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of fat. Any more, and you’re looking at folks trimming off these giant fat globs, which is a waste.
Also, dry rubs won’t penetrate the fat. So your meat doesn’t get the full flavor treatment. While most rubs only go into the meat by one or two millimeters, they help create that crave-worthy bark and “crust”.
So, when it comes to pork butt and that false fat cap, a little trimming can go a long way in making your BBQ even better.
How to Smoke Pork Butt Fat Side Down?
Next, I’ll walk you through the steps to achieve mouthwatering, tender, and flavorful pulled pork with the fat side-down approach.
Materials You’ll Need
- Pork butt (choose the size that suits your needs)
- Smoker (charcoal, electric, pellet, or whichever you prefer)
- Wood chips or chunks (for smoking)
- Meat thermometer
- Aluminum foil
- Seasoning rub of your choice
- Your patience (if you truly want a good result)
Step 1: Prepare Your Pork
Start by selecting a quality pork butt or pork shoulder. Look for one with a good fat cap intact.
Trim that pork butt or pork shoulder fat side. But leave a thin layer, around 1/4 inch, on the fat cap side.
Step 2: Season Your Pork Butt
Apply your favorite rub or seasonings generously to all sides of the meat. I like the Flying Swine Slap Butt Rub Seasoning. It has an apple flavor, and it’s versatile for other meats should you have some leftovers.
Be sure to massage it in, so those flavors penetrate deep into the pork.
Step 3: Preheat Your Smoker
Fire up your smoker and bring it to a stable temperature. For pork butt, aim for a range between 225°F and 250°F (107°C – 121°C). This low and slow cooking is key to achieving that tender texture.
Step 4: Place a Drip Pan Under the Cooking Grate
Now it’s time to get that pork butt in there, fat side down. If your smoker has multi-layer grates, grab yourself a disposable aluminum drip pan or a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. These are your insurance against messy grates and flare-ups.
Now, slide that drip pan or foil right under the lower grate where your pork butt’s going to lay. It’s going to catch all those drippings from that pork butt’s fat cap.
Step 5: Place the Pork Butt on the Grates
With that in place, carefully place that pork butt fat side down on the grate above where you have the foil or drip pan.
This position still lets that fat work its magic as a heat shield, keeping that meaty moist, and delicious. It’s like having your cake and eating it too – all the benefits of fat-side-down smoking, minus the mess.
Step 6: Keep an Eye on the Heat and Fuel
Keep a close watch on that smoker’s temperature, and tweak it as needed to stay in the sweet spot. And don’t forget to keep the smoke flowing – toss in some more wood chips or chunks according to what your smoker needs.
Step 7: Smoke It and Play the Waiting Game
Smoking pork butt isn’t a fast-food drive-thru stop; it’s an adventure that takes hours. You’ll need around 1½ to 2 hours of smoking time for each pound of pork meat. Your cue that it’s done? When the internal temperature hits about 195°F to 205°F (90°C – 96°C). Get yourself a good meat thermometer for that and check the thickest part of the meat.
Step 8: The Foil Option (If You’re Feeling It)
Feeling a bit impatient or want that extra tenderness boost? Around the time your pork butt reaches the “stall” phase, which usually happens at about 160°F (71°C) inside, you can wrap it up in aluminum foil.
Step 9: Take It Off the Heat
Once the internal temperature of the meat is at that doneness range I gave out earlier, take it off the heat and let it rest for around 30 minutes. Now you can serve it however you want with your favorite side.
If you’re up for a pulled pork, shred the smoked pork butt using forks or claws. Then serve it up with your favorite barbecue sauce or sides.
Tips for Smoking Pork Butt Fat Side Up
If you still want to go ahead and smoke with the fat side up, here’s what to do:
- Less is more: To correct that spice wash-off concern while smoking fat side up I mentioned earlier, my advice is to go easy on the rub. Remember, with rub, less is more. If you go too heavy, the meat’s going to look like Tammy Faye sunbathing with her thick makeup on. So, keep it subtle, and if you need more flavor, just sprinkle on some extra dry rub.
- Rub it right: Don’t dump it all in; instead, use some muscle to rub it in. Another cool trick is to cut cross-hatch marks into the fat cap on the pork and work that rub into the cuts. That way, you’ll have fewer spice wash-off worries!
- Let it melt: When the meat is down in the smoker with the fat cap up, the heat melts off most of the cap. Yeah, let it melt on the face of the pork and down the sides a bit. That leaves you with pork that’s perfect for pulling. After this starts to happen, you need to move to the next step.
- Half and half: By half and half here, I mean smoking with the fat side up for the first half of your cooking session. After about four to six hours, flip the fat side down.
The Half and Half Method
Doing a “half and half” method when smoking meat, like pork shoulder, has some tasty science behind it. Here’s why:
First Half – Fat Side Up
Placing the fat side up initially helps let the meat get the flavor and juice needed for long smoking hours.
The fat melts, renders deep in the meat, and then slides to the side.
This bastes the pork, infusing it with moisture and rich flavors. So, that means you wouldn’t need to baste the pork as it smokes.
Second Half – Fat Side Down
After about four hours or when you’ve got enough fat-dripping action, you flip the melting fat cap side down. Then the meat side face up.
Now, with the fat cap down, the meat gets more direct exposure to heat. This helps to form that delicious crust, also known as the “bark,” on the outside of the pork.
The rest of the fat melts away, leaving you with meat that’s incredibly tender and perfect for pulling.
The verdict is, it depends on where the heat’s coming from.
If your heat’s rising from below (like in most smokers), go fat side down. That fat cap becomes the shield, keeping your meat safe from scorching. Plus, it helps your rub stay put, so it’s not washed away by the fat. But it’s fine if you want to go fat side up. Just check out my tips again on how to do this.