Pork shoulder is very forgiving meat when it comes to smoking. It’s a great starter meat for newbie smokers but still a favorite among pros. With simple ingredients and patience, you can get mouth-watering results every time.
The following guide tells you everything you need to know to find, prep, and perfectly time the best pork shoulder!
What is Pork Shoulder?
Though people often use ‘pork shoulder’ as an all-encompassing term, there are actually two types of pork shoulder. The upper shoulder, called pork butt or Boston butt, and the lower shoulder and leg region, called picnic shoulder.
Pork Butt vs. Picnic Shoulder
If you go to the butcher and ask for pork shoulder, he’ll likely assume you’re asking for pork butt. That’s because pork butt (a.k.a. Boston butt) is the most popular cut of pork shoulder. It’s easier to handle and cut than picnic shoulder because it doesn’t taper down the leg.
Pork Butt (a.k.a. a Boston butt) is a square-shaped cut of meat from the pig’s upper shoulder region. It’s typically sold skinless and with the bone in. It’s fatty with nice marbling and isn’t as tough or sinewy as picnic shoulder. The fatty marbling is great for slow cooking.
Picnic Shoulder is the lower shoulder and leg of the pig. It’s tougher than pork butt since the pig uses this muscle region a lot. Thus, it may require a longer smoking time than pork butt. Unlike pork butt, it’s usually sold with the skin, which renders, gets crispy, and helps keep the pork moist while smoking.
So, if you want crispy skin, opt for picnic shoulder. Otherwise, you’re probably best off going with pork butt.
How Long to Smoke a Pork Shoulder at 250 Degrees
In general, you smoke a pork shoulder for 75 minutes per pound at 250 degrees Fahrenheit. But the duration is only a rough gauge and the actual cook time depends on internal temperature. A safe internal temperature is 185˚F, however, the ideal internal temp for tenderness is 190-200˚F.
If you’re smoking an 8-pound pork shoulder, expect a cook time of 10 hours or more. I always shoot for the upper internal temp range of 200˚F for fall-off-the-bone tender goodness. You’ll also want to account for covering the meat and letting it rest, which can add an hour or two.
(I’ll tell you more about covering it and other juicy steps in the cooking guide below.)
How Long to Smoke a Pork Shoulder at 225 Degrees
At 225˚F instead of 250˚F, you’ll cook the pork shoulder 15 more minutes per pound, making it 90 minutes per pound. But remember, duration is a rough gauge and internal temp is the deciding factor. A safe internal temperature is 185˚F, however, the ideal internal temp for tenderness is 190-200˚F.
How to Pick Out a Good Pork Shoulder
There are three things to look for when picking out a great pork shoulder: marbling, color, and feel. You want heavy marbling, vibrant coloring, and a firm feel. I also recommend buying bone-in. Here’s what I mean in detail…
When picking out a cut of beef that will be very tender, you look for the fat marbling in the meat. With a pork shoulder, you do the same thing! These ribbons of fat render down during the smoking process, adding both moisture and flavor into your meat.
When picking out a cut of pork, look for a shoulder that has a fresh, vibrant pink color. You do not want a dull or greying piece of meat. Be sure to avoid any meat that does not look fresh or has an off-putting odor.
Feel the meat. Is it firm? You want a cut of pork that has a firm fat cap and meat. If it feels soft, look for a different piece.
You can cook a delicious boneless pork shoulder. But a bone-in shoulder has a lot to offer.
It adds flavor to the meat, especially during a long and slow cook. It also helps the meat cook evenly by keeping the shoulder held in place.
Finally, the bone can also act similar to a temperature gauge. When the pork is done, the bone should easily slide out clean from the meat. I do not recommend using the bone method in place of the meat thermometer. But it is one more additional measuring tool you have at your disposal!
How to Trim a Pork Shoulder for Smoking
A good rule of thumb is to cut the fat cap to 1/4 inches thick or less. It can render down during the cook, but more of the delicious smoke flavor will penetrate a greater area of the meat. After all, that is why you want to smoke it, right?
To add flavor to the meat, the thickness of the fat cap is not all that important. The marbling of fat inside the meat is where the real flavor comes from. So while you want to have a fat cap (the white layer of fat on top), it does not need to be thick. Thus, a 1/4-inch is plenty thick.
To trim your pork shoulder, place its fat side up on a cutting surface. Use a sharp knife to gently (and carefully) cut the top portions of the fat cap until it is no thicker than 1/4 inch. You can trim it more if you want to. It only needs a thin layer of fat, so cut to your preference.
The Secret to Smoking Pork Shoulder to Perfection
Do you want to make mouthwatering pork shoulder? The following steps cover everything you need to know from start to finish for smoking a delicious 8-pound pork shoulder.
The first thing you want to do to prep your pork shoulder is trim off any excess fat. Cut down the fat cap to a 1/4 inch or less thickness.
Brine the Meat
The next step, brining, is something you will want to prepare for. That is because it is a long process and needs to happen about a day and a half before you plan on smoking your meat.
This optional step is not for everyone. You can always skip this step and inject your pork instead with an apple cider vinegar/apple juice mixture. I have included a simple brine and injection recipe below.
Why do people brine their meat? It helps keep the meat moist, especially during long cooks. The smoking process dehydrates your meat. Brining it leads to a more moist piece of meat.
If you choose to brine, you will want to prepare ahead of time since it needs a long time to soak into the pork.
To brine your meat, all you need to do is place the pork and brine ingredients in a large ziplock bag or airtight, lidded container. 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 approximately 18 hours. More significant cuts of meat take more time. If you only have overnight, that’s okay. Something is better than nothing!
Let it soak in the brine for 18-24 hours, until you are ready to start smoking your meat.
Inject the Meat
Instead of brining, many people choose to inject their meat. This is a great option if you don’t have the time to brine your pork butt. In other words, it works in a pinch!
You can also do both! Brining or injecting your meat with a vinegar/juice mixture will keep your meat moist.
To inject the meat, use a food injector. Fill the food injector with your mixture, and inject the meat in a 1-inch spacing pattern.
While doing this, you may notice your meat start to plump up. That’s okay! The excess liquid will reabsorb into the meat during the smoking process. This will help the meat retain its moisture.
Add a Dry Rub
Another way to layer on the flavor is to add a dry rub. But before you apply the rub, you need a base layer for the dry rub to adhere to.
Several ingredients can provide a base for your dry rub. You just want some sort of liquid to adhere the dry ingredients to the outside of your pork shoulder.
I like to use mustard, but you can use something else on hand. Fruit juices (like lemon), beef stock, wine, or olive oil are excellent options.
Once you slather the base over the entire pork shoulder, add the dry rub. It will stick to your base.
Dry rubs for pork usually contain a sweet element, like refined or brown sugar. That is because the sugar will caramelize during the cooking process in a process called “barking.” As the sugar caramelizes, it begins to look like bark (as in tree bark) on the outer layer of the meat.
It turns into one more layer of mouthwatering flavor!
You can also have a more savory dry rub if you prefer that. Cut back the sugar and add more savory flavors like salt, onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika. There is no one perfect recipe, and you can adjust it to suit your personal preferences!
How to Smoke Pork Shoulder
This simple cooking process stays the same whether you are using a pellet grill, pellet smoker, or electric smoker. When smoking a pork shoulder, the most important factor is giving yourself plenty of time to cook the meat slowly.
Most likely, you’ll want to turn on your smoker in the morning to enjoy the meat by dinner since the total cook time will take anywhere from 10 – 12 hours. There are a few different stages to cooking the pork shoulder. But generally speaking, plan on 75 or 90 minutes of cooking time per pound of meat at 250˚F and 225˚F, respectively.
When turning on your smoker, be sure to thoughtfully choose the wood chip flavor. I recommend using apple wood chips or different fruit-flavored wood chips to pair well with the sweet notes in the meat injections.
The following is an overview of the steps to smoke your pork shoulder from start to finish:
- 1. Smoke at 250˚F for 3-4 hours
- 2. Then spritz meat every 30 min until internal temp reaches 165˚F
- 3. Wrap the pork in foil
- 4. Smoke again at 250˚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. Insert the meat thermometer. Smoke for about 3-4 hours.
2. Spritz It
After about 3 – 4 hours, spritz the meat. Use a spray bottle to cover the meat in a light mist. Continue to spritz it every 30 minutes until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. (I have a spritz recipe for you below)
3. Wrap the Meat
Remove the meat from the smoker when the internal temperature reaches at least 165 degrees F. Wrap it tightly in aluminum foil. Insert the meat thermometer back into the meat, and put 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 190 – 200 degrees F. If you cook the pork 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 ensuring that it reaches a high enough internal temperature. Time can offer guidance for your cook, guide but does not indicate food safety.
5. Let the Meat Rest
When the meat reaches the right temperature, remove it from the smoker. Store it covered inside an area that keeps it warm. Use an oven or microwave (without heat) or a cooler (without any ice). Let it rest for a minimum of 20 minutes but preferably for 1 hour or more.
Letting the meat rest helps the pork retain its juices rather than the juice pouring out when you cut into it.
6. Pull or Slice the Pork
If you intend on pulling the pork for sandwiches, gently run a fork across the meat. It’ll pull into long thin strands used as pulled pork. Just top it with your favorite barbecue sauce!
Pro Tip: warm the BBQ sauce before you put it on the pulled pork.
If you come across fat or cartilage, toss it as you go.
What is the Stall?
At some point during smoking, the meat’s internal temperature may not rise more than a few degrees in a couple of hours. This is known as “the stall.”
The temperatures stalls because as the meat cooks, the liquid sweats out. That sweating cools the meat down.
Don’t worry if you notice this. If you know that the smoker is still on and working, just let the meat cook, and the temperature will rise again soon enough.
Smoked Pork Shoulder Recipe (Infographic)
The following recipe includes everything we discussed to make the perfect 8 lb pork shoulder from start to finish, including the brine, dry spice rub, and spritz.
Easy Brine Recipe (optional)
Even though it’s not required, I highly recommend you brine your pork shoulder if you can prep the day before you plan to eat it.
- 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. Trim the fat and glands (protruding nubs) from the pork shoulder.
2. Pour the water in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar and salt until it dissolves.
3. Add the rest of the other ingredients.
4. Place the pork in a large Ziploc bag or container with a lid. Pour the brine into the bag.
5. Place the bag in a dish (to catch leaks) and then put it in the refrigerator for 12+ hours.
Dry Rub Ingredients
- 2 tbsp Dijon or yellow mustard (for base)
- 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 apple juice
- 1 C Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 C Water
For the Injection
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.
For the Dry Spice Rub
1. Combine all the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Measure out approximately 1/4 cup of the rub to cover the pork once you apply the mustard in step #2 below. You can store the remainder of the rub in an airtight container for up to six months.
For the Spritz
1. Pour the apple cider vinegar and water into a food-safe spray bottle to use during the Spritz step.
Smoking the Pork Shoulder:
1. If you didn’t brine the meat as explained above, then trim the fat and glands (firm nubs) now. Pat it dry using a paper towel and place it in a foil pan.
2. Using a food injector, inject the meat. Dry any excess liquid in the pan.
3. One hour before cooking, cover the entire pork in a thin layer of mustard. Then cover the pork in a thin layer of the dry rub.
4. Set the smoker temperature to 250 degrees F.
5. Place the pork on the smoker, with the fat side toward the heat source. Insert the meat thermometer. Smoke for 3 – 4 hours, watching for a bark to develop.
When the outer layer of the pork is a deep color, begin spritzing. Spritz the pork every 30 minutes until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
6. When the pork reaches at least 165 degrees F, pull it from the smoker, remove the meat thermometer and spritz it one more time. Wrap it tightly in aluminum foil. Reinsert the meat probe.
7. Continue smoking the meat while wrapped until it reaches an internal temperature of 195 – 200 degrees F. When it is fully cooked, it should fall off the bone.
7. Take the wrapped meat off the smoker. Place it, still wrapped, in a cooled oven or microwave. You can also place it in a cooler with no ice. Let it rest for one hour.
8. After one hour, place the meat on the counter and unwrap it. Slice or pull the meat. To pull it, gently pull pork over the meat. The meat should come apart quickly, in string-like sections.
If there is excess fat or cartilage, toss it.
9. Then serve as desired! You can add your favorite BBQ sauce and serve it on a bun, use it as a topping, or even by itself.
My personal favorite is to add Kinder’s mild BBQ and pile it on a Hawaiian roll with coleslaw. Yum!
As a mom of three little eaters, I am excited to share my love of cooking, smoking, and baking with you. My love of food started when I went to college in Berkeley, and has followed me ever since! When I am not “momming,” writing, or cooking, you can find me reading, traveling, or hiking.