The most important distinction between pork shoulder and pork butt is their location on the pig. Both pork cuts come from the front leg of the pig. Pork butt, also called Boston butt comes from the upper portion of the fore legs while pork shoulder is located just below pork butt above the hock of the animal.
As a grill chef, I often prepare both of these cuts for different menu items. While some may use them interchangeably, I find that the different characteristics of these cuts make them more suited for specific recipes and cooking methods that I will mention below.
In this article, I will explain how these two cuts differ and how best to cook them for the best results. Let’s take a look.
Differences Between Pork Shoulder and Pork Butt
Location on the Animal
Pig’s Front Leg Upper Portion
Pig’s Front Leg Lower Portion
Picnic Roast, Picnic Shoulder
Rectangular Shape Without Skin
Triangular Shape With Skin
Lots of Intramuscular Fat
Tougher Than Pork Butt
Intense Pork Flavor
Bigger Than Pork
Where the Cut Comes From
Both the pork shoulder and pork butt come from the front legs of the pig. The pork butt is cut from the upper portion of the shoulder while the pork shoulder is located just below it on the lower part of the front leg above the hock.
Both cuts have a variety of names:
- Pork shoulder is also called picnic roast or picnic shoulder.
- Pork butt is also called Boston butt.
Appearance of the Cut
The pork shoulder is a triangular-shaped cut of meat with a tapered end because of the part of the leg from which it is cut. Pork butt, on the other hand, is often a rectangular-shaped piece of meat with an even shape and size all through.
Pork shoulder will often be sold with the skin still intact. It can be sold either boneless or bone-in. Without the bone, this cut will be found tied in netting to maintain an even shape.
Pork butt is sold without the skin. It often contains the bone but you can have it deboned if that suits you better.
Both cuts of meat come with a fat cap that you can cut away before buying.
Pork butt contains a higher fat content and more intramuscular fat all through the cut compared to pork shoulder.
This makes it a softer cut of meat while pork shoulder generally tends to be the tougher and chewier cut between the two cuts.
Both pork butt and shoulder come from the front legs of the hog which means they endure quite a bit of exercise moving and supporting the weight of the animal. They both contain a lot of connective tissue and are fairly tough cuts.
However, the upper shoulder which produces the pork butt is a less worked region in comparison to the lower shoulder which produces the pork shoulder. It therefore has more tender meat than the pork shoulder.
Intramuscular fat equals more pronounced pork flavor so pork butt tends to be more flavorful compared to pork shoulder. During the cooking process, the fat marbling running all through the meat easily breaks down the connective tissue and meat fibers while keeping the meat resistant to drying out.
The pork shoulder also contains fat and connective tissues but in a lower quantity than pork butt. If this cut of meat is not cooked properly, it is prone to drying out and becoming tough and chewy.
The pork butt is often the larger cut of meat compared to the shoulder cut since the leg of the animal narrows in size as you go down towards the hooves.
Pork butt weighs approximately 6 – 10 pounds while pork shoulder weighs approximately 4 – 9 pounds depending on the size of the hog, the butchering methods, and whether the meat contains the bone or not.
Different Cooking Methods
Both Boston butt and picnic roast are best prepared using low and slow cooking methods since they are both fairly tough cuts of meat. Low and slow cooking methods such as smoking and braising in a slow cooker give the meat sufficient time to break down and make the meat tender.
Smoking pork shoulder with skin on and fat cap intact will result in juicy tasty tender meat with a crispy skin layer that is simply delicious.
Either pork shoulder or pork butt can also be cut into cubes and strips for stews and curries.
Both pork shoulder and butt are excellent choices to make pork roast recipes. For pork roast, however, I recommend going with pork shoulder so that you can have a nice crispy pork crackling that you can only achieve by cooking pork with the skin intact. If your recipe calls for crackling crisp skin, then boneless pork shoulder is the better cut.
One of my favorite dishes to make is barbecue pulled pork and for this, the ideal cut would be one that comes with sufficient fat to withstand long slow cooking. Both pork shoulder and pork butt have a thick fat cap that provides sufficient fat for long cooking times.
This means that both pork butt and pork shoulder are great options for pulled pork dishes, however, pork butt contains more fat marbling than pork shoulder.
It will resist drying out when cooking for long and you will end up with a more tender meal as well as a deeper and richer flavor because of the intense fat content within the muscle of the meat.
Picnic shoulder also makes great pulled pork but to improve the flavor and make up for the reduced internal fat content, I suggest marinating or bringing this cut.
Picnic shoulder and Boston butt are both relatively inexpensive cuts of meat so either cut will not break your bank.
Pork butt, however, is often more expensive since it is the larger piece.
Pork Shoulder Vs Pork Butt: Which is the Better Cut?
Pork shoulder vs pork butt is in my opinion a very close call since both cuts come from the same primal cut.
Many culinary experts do not even differentiate the two in any significant manner and often use the entire shoulder meat within the same recipe especially if the recipe involves smoking a large hunk of meat.
Pork butt is my biased choice simply because I make a ton of pulled pork sandwiches on a regular basis and with this cut.
I use this cut to get the full benefit of its fat content and also, this cut is much larger than pork shoulder.
Why is It Called Pork Butt?
Good question. The name does generate the assumption that the cut comes from the rear end of the animal which is not true. It comes from the pig’s shoulder.
The origin of the name is not agreed upon but one possible answer is that in colonial New England, inexpensive cuts of meat such as the pig’s shoulder and meat from the shoulder blade were stored and transported in large barrels named ‘butts.’
The shoulder meat transported this way became known as the ‘pork butt’ and the name stuck.
In another theory, the name pork butt was given to the cut of pork that rests higher on the shoulder since it is the wider end of the pig’s leg. The word ‘butt’ is an old English term meaning the thicker end of a tool or a weapon such as a gun.
Meat from the rear legs of a pig is referred to as ham or hams.
What is the Best Cut of Meat for Pulled Pork?
Pork butt is the better cut and the easier cut to make pulled pork from. It has a generous helping of fat and barely needs any further improvements to achieve a great flavor and soft meat.
Pork shoulder is a close second and would require some marinating to get that extra kick we all love in our pulled pork.
When it comes down to choosing between pork butt and pork shoulder, you’re essentially picking between two stars of slow-cooked dishes. The pork butt, from the upper part of the pig’s front leg, boasts a richer flavor thanks to its higher fat content and has a slightly higher price point.
On the other hand, the pork shoulder, found on the lower section, is a bit leaner and slightly tougher, but nothing a good marinade can’t fix!
Shape-wise, you’ll find pork butt in a neat rectangle, often boneless and skinless, while the shoulder sports a more triangular look, usually dressed with skin on, available either bone-in or boneless.
So whether you’re planning to braise, smoke, or pot roast, both cuts make a stellar choice for a pulled pork dish without breaking the bank. Happy cooking!