Pulled pork sandwiches. Pork chili. Carnita-style pork tacos. There are so many delicious possibilities with perfectly smoked pork shoulder! And perfection comes down to timing.
The good news is that smoking a delicious, tender pork shoulder is not that hard to do. It does take some prep work and planning, but you can make the tastiest meal on the block using simple ingredients. And your smoker, of course!
The following guide covers everything you need to know to pick out the best pork shoulder, prep it, brine it, and smoke it to perfection!
What is Pork Shoulder?
I’m going to tell you next how long to smoke an 8 lb pork shoulder but first, you need to know which cut of pork shoulder you’re working with. Yes, there is more than one kind of pork shoulder and the cut can affect the smoke time!
Butchers break animals down into large muscle groups called primal cuts. Pork shoulder is a primal cut from, you guessed it, the pig’s shoulder. This primal cut is divided into two sub-primal cuts: picnic shoulder and pork butt, also known as Boston Butt.
When we ask for pork shoulder, what we’re really asking for is pork butt (a.k.a Boston Butt) or picnic shoulder. Though similarly tasty, there are some differences worth noting.
Pork Butt vs. Picnic Shoulder
Pork Butt (a.k.a. a Boston butt) is a square-shaped cut of meat from the upper shoulder region of the pig. It’s a fatty piece of meat with nice marbling and is less tough and sinewy than picnic shoulder. The fatty marbling is perfect for slow cooking. It’s typically sold bone-in and skinless.
Picnic Shoulder is the lower shoulder and leg of the pig. Since the pig uses this muscle region a lot, it is tougher than pork butt and requires low and slow cooking. The main reason people opt for this cut over pork butt is its skin. The skin renders, gets crispy, and helps keep the pork moist.
Pork Butt is the more popular choice. It’s easier to handle and cut since it doesn’t taper down the leg like picnic shoulder. However, if you want crispy, smokey skin, opt for the picnic shoulder.
How Long to Smoke 8 lb Pork Shoulder
In general, you smoke pork shoulder for 1 hour and 15 minutes per pound at 250 degrees F. So, you’d smoke an 8 lb pork shoulder for about 10 hours. However, allow enough time for 12 hours, especially if you’re smoking a tougher picnic shoulder instead of a pork butt.
Remember, cook time for meat is only a rough gauge. The real determining factor of when it is ready is the internal temperature. You want an internal temperature for pork shoulder of 190 – 200 degrees F.
Pork is “pullable” at 180 degrees F but it likely won’t be tender enough at that temp. 190 F seems to be the magic threshold for tenderness.
But don’t just throw a pork shoulder into the smoker and forget it for half a day! To smoke the best pork shoulder, you need to prep it and show it some TLC during the smoking process.
I’m going to tell you from start to finish how to make tender, perfectly-smoked pork shoulder. I’ve got some great tips for you so you don’t have to “do better next time”. Get it right this time!
How to Choose a Great Pork Shoulder
If you want great pork shoulder, you have to first pick out a great piece of meat.
Picking out the perfect pork shoulder is simple if you look for the following: marbling, color, feel, and a bone. This is true whether you’re choosing a pork butt or picnic shoulder.
Like picking out a great cut of beef, you want to look for marbling in a pork shoulder. These are the ribbons of fat that render down during the smoke, adding both flavor and moisture into your meat.
You want to look for pork that looks fresh and has a vibrant pink color. Avoid any meat that does not appear fresh (looks dull or brown) or has a foul odor.
Be sure that the fat cap and meat are firm to the touch. The fat cap is a top layer of hard white fat. If it feels soft, err on the side of caution and do not buy it.
Yes, you can cook a tasty boneless pork shoulder. But the bone-in cuts have a lot to offer.
Bone adds flavor to the meat during a long cook. It also helps to ensure an even cook by keeping the shoulder held in place.
Finally, the bone can also act similar to a temperature gauge. When the pork is done, you’ll notice that the bone easily slides out clean from the meat. I do not recommend using the bone method in place of the meat thermometer, but it’s an additional tool at your disposal!
How to Trim a Pork Shoulder
When it comes to flavor, the marbling of fat inside the meat is more important than the thickness of the fat cap. When smoking the meat, you want to have a fat cap, but not too thick of a layer. A good rule of thumb is to cut that cap to no more than 1/4-inch thick so it can render down during the cook.
(Remember, the fat cap is the white layer of fat on top of the meat.)
That way, the delicious smoke flavor can reach more of the meat. You’ll still have a fat layer to keep the meat moist, but the smoke will also penetrate more of the pork. The marbling of fat inside the meat will add a ton of flavor.
To trim your pork shoulder, lay it on a cutting board with the fat side up. Using a sharp knife, gently (and carefully) cut off the top portions of the fat cap until it reaches no more than 1/4 inch of thickness.
If you want to cut more, you can! It’s your pork, after all. You may even want to try cutting it to different levels of thickness for other cooks and see which one you prefer.
Once you trim the fat cap, trim excess fat on the sides of the meat. If you see red or purple glands on the edges of the meat, you’ll want to cut those off, too. They can add an unpleasant texture to the meat if you leave them on.
The Secret to Mouthwatering Smoked Pork Shoulder
The following outlines all of the steps from start to finish for smoking a tremendous 8-pound pork shoulder with great flavor. It’ll surely be the hit of the BBQ!
Prep the Pork Shoulder
Before smoking the pork shoulder, trim off any excess fat as described above. Remember to trim down the fat cap to a 1/4 inch or less thickness.
Brine the Meat
Brining your meat is an optional step, and not everyone does it. Some people skip the brine and inject their meat with an apple cider vinegar/apple juice mixture. I included a simple recipe for both at the end of this article if you need one.
Brining meat can help it stay moist since it prevents dehydration when cooking. Simply put, brining your meat leads to a moister piece of meat.
If you choose to brine, you’ll have to prepare a day ahead. The total process takes a long time, about 12-16 hours. But the prep time is a matter of minutes.
You place the pork and brine ingredients in a large ziplock bag or container with a lid. I like using a bag because I can squeeze out the excess air.
Place the bag in the refrigerator. I prefer to set it in a tray or larger dish in case the bag leaks.
For an 8 lb pork butt, you’ll want to brine it for about 12 hours or up to 18 hours. More significant cuts of meat take more time. If you only have overnight, that is okay. Something is better than nothing!
After I brine the meat, I always pull it from my plastic Ziploc bag, pat it dry with paper towels, and throw it (well, place it gently!) into a foil pan.
Foil pans make an excellent drip pan when you smoke your meat! Smoking can discolor your regular pans and be a real hassle to clean up.
Foil pans are easy to use and you can toss them when you are done smoking. Or, better yet, rinse them and recycle them. The great thing is, you can purchase them in bulk from your local Costco!
You are now ready to start the next step!
Inject the Meat
Many people choose to inject their meat in place of brining it. This is an excellent option if you do not have two days to make a brine and marinate your pork butt.
Or, you can do both! Either way, brining or injecting your meat with a vinegar/juice mixture will keep your meat moist.
Injecting your pork shoulder adds flavor throughout the meat’s interior and not just to the outside.
You can use my vinegar/juice recipe below or add something with your own flavor profile. Some people even add a spicy hot sauce to bring on the heat!
To inject liquid into your pork, use a food injector. You want to inject the liquid mixture in a 1-inch spacing pattern.
During the process, you may notice your meat plump a bit. That’s okay. The excess liquid will go back into the meat during the long cook, helping to keep it moist.
Add a Dry Rub
Adding a dry rub to your meat can add delicious layers of flavor to your smoked meat. But before you add the dry rub, be sure to slather on something for the rub to adhere to.
You can use many ingredients to provide a base for your dry rub. However, you want to make sure that it is acidic. Acids work as tenderizers, breaking down fibers in food during the smoking process. It also adds flavor as it cooks.
I like to use mustard as my acidic, dry rub base. But you can also use fruit juices (like lemon), beef stock, wine, or olive oil. The base needs to be liquid, even if it is not overly acidic. (Yes, mustard is considered a liquid… kinda weird, huh?)
Once you slather the base over the entire pork shoulder, add the dry rub. It will stick to your base.
Good dry rubs for pork contain a sweet element. Usually, that is refined or brown sugar. During the cooking process, the sugar will add barking to the outer layer of the meat. Barking is the dark caramelization that occurs when sugar cooks.
If you want your dry rub more savory, no problem. Cut back the sugar and add in more savory flavors like salt, paprika, onion powder, and garlic powder. There is no one perfect recipe, and you can adjust it to suit your personal preferences or cravings!
How to Smoke Pork Shoulder (From Start to Finish)
This pretty simple cooking process is the same whether you are using a pellet smoker, pellet grill, or electric smoker. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time to smoke the meat so that it reaches 190 to 200 degrees F.
Be prepared to get your smoker’s temperature set and turned on sometime in the morning, as the total cook time will take anywhere from 10 – 12 hours. There are several steps to cooking the pork shoulder but generally speaking, plan on 1 hour and 15 minutes of cooking time per pound of meat.
Also, be sure to choose the wood chips thoughtfully. If you’re using my pork shoulder recipe below, I recommend using apple wood chips to compliment the sweet notes in the meat injections.
Overview of Smoking Steps
The following are the general steps to smoke your meat after you’ve prepped it as I outlined above. I’ll then explain each step in more detail.
- 1. Smoke at 250 degrees F for 3-4 hours
- 2. Then spritz meat every 30 min until internal temp reaches 165 degrees F
- 3. Wrap the pork in foil
- 4. Smoke again at 250 degrees F, until the internal temperature reaches 190-200 degrees F
- 5. Let the meat rest for 1 hour
- 6. Pull or slice and serve
1. Smoke #1
Set your smoker for 250 degrees F. Place your pork in the smoker, and insert the meat thermometer. Plan to smoke it in this step for about 3-4 hours.
2. Spritz It
After about 3-4 hours, spritz the meat using a spray bottle containing your brine/injection mixture. Cover it in a mist lightly. Continue to spritz it every 30 minutes until the internal temperature of the pork shoulder reaches 165 degrees F.
(There’s a spritz mixture recipe at the end of this article if you need it.)
3. Wrap the Meat
Once your meat’s temperature reaches at least 165 degrees F, take it off the smoker. Wrap it tightly in butcher paper or aluminum foil. Reinsert the meat thermometer into the meat, and place it back on the smoker.
4. Smoke #2
Continue to smoke the pork butt at 250 degrees F until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 195 – 200 degrees F. If you let the pork go until about 200 degrees F, it will be more tender. The second smoke can take 5 – 6 hours, depending on your cut of meat.
The most important thing about cooking meat safely is to ensure it reaches a high enough internal temperature. Time is a guide but does not necessarily indicate food safety.
5. Let the Meat Rest
Once your meat reaches the right temperature, pull it off the smoker. Store it in a covered area, such as an oven or microwave (without heat) or a cooler (without any ice).
Letting the meat rest allows the pork to cool slowly while still keeping the juices and moisture inside the meat.
6. Pull or Slice the Pork
To pull the pork for sandwiches, simply use a fork and gently run it across the meat. It should pull into long thin string-like sections perfect for pulled pork. Just add your favorite barbecue sauce!
If you come across fat or cartilage, toss it as you go.
What is the Stall?
At some point during the cook, you might notice that your meat’s internal temperature appears to stall. It may take a couple of hours for the meat to rise more than a few degrees in temperature.
The temperature stalls because as the meat cooks, the liquid sweats out. That sweating cools the meat down.
Don’t worry if the internal temperature stalls. If you know that the smoker is still on and working, just let the meat cook and you’ll see the temperature start to rise again.
Complete Pork Shoulder Recipe [Infographic]
The following recipe includes everything we discussed to make the perfect pork shoulder from start to finish, including the brine, dry spice rub, and spritz.
Easy Brine Recipe
While you don’t have to brine your pork shoulder, it is one step that can take your pork from really good to over-the-top moist. You can also choose to inject the pork, which is a little simpler. But if you have the time, why not do both?
- 10 C water
- 3/4 C Kosher Salt
- 1/2 C Sugar (can use brown sugar if preferred)
- 5 Cloves Garlic, gently crushed
- 3 Slices Ginger, gently crushed
Optional Seasonings to Taste:
- 1 tbsp Paprika
- 1/4 tsp Cayenne
1. Measure out the water in a large bowl. Add the sugar and salt and stir it until it dissolves.
2. Add the rest of the other ingredients.
3. Place the pork in a large Ziploc bag or container with a lid. Pour the brine into the bag.*
4. Place the bag in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. Place the bag in a larger dish in case it leaks.
Pork Shoulder Ingredients:
- 8 lb pork shoulder
- 2 tbsp Dijon or yellow mustard
- 1 C Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 C apple juice
- 1/4 C brown sugar
- 1/4 C sea salt
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1 tbsp black pepper
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp dry mustard
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1 C Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 C Water
1. Mix the apple cider vinegar and apple juice in a bowl. Have it ready with the food injector to use in step #1 below.
Dry Spice Rub Instructions
1. Combine all the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Use about a 1/4 cup of the rub to cover the pork after applying the mustard in step #2 below. Store the remainder of the rub in an airtight container for up to six months.
1. Add the apple cider vinegar and water to a food-safe spray bottle to use during the Spritz step.
Smoking the Pork Shoulder Instructions
1. The day before smoking the pork shoulder, prepare the pork. Trim the fat and glands. Pat dry using a paper towel and place it into a foil pan. Inject the meat using the food injector. Dry any excess liquid in the pan.
2. One hour before cooking, apply the mustard to the pork, covering each side in a thin layer. Then cover the pork in a layer of the dry rub.
3. Set the smoker temperature to 250 degrees F.
4. Place the pork on the smoker, with the fat side up. Insert the meat thermometer. Smoke for 3 – 4 hours until you see a bark develop.
Once the outside of the pork is a deep color, begin spritzing. Spritz the outside of the pork every 30 minutes until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Once it hits this temperature, it is likely coming out of the stall.
5. Once the pork reaches at least 165 degrees F, pull it from the smoker, remove the meat thermometer and spritz it. Then wrap it tightly in aluminum foil. Reinsert the meat probe.
6. Continue smoking the meat while wrapped until it reaches an internal temperature of 195 – 200 degrees F. If it is fully cooked, it should fall off the bone.
7. Remove the wrapped meat and place it in a cooled oven or microwave. Or in a cooler that does not have any ice. Let it rest for an hour.
8. After an hour, place the meat on the counter and open the foil. You can slice it or begin pulling it gently using a fork if using for pork sandwiches. The meat should come apart easily, in string-like sections.
If there is excess fat or cartilage, throw it away as you come across it.
9. Add your favorite BBQ sauce and serve as desired. My favorite is pulled pork on a Hawaiian roll. I also love to add a little coleslaw to the top of the meat before adding the top half of my bun!