Barbecued meat is right up there with baseball and apple pie when it comes to American tradition. Each region has its own flair on barbecue, and different cuts of meat, even from the same animal, can take on vastly different flavors. Pork is one of the most versatile types of meat used in barbecue. Sometimes, understanding the different cuts of meat can be a little bit tough. Two cuts in particular cause barbecuers consternation: pork butt, and pork shoulder. Are they the same? Different? How should they be prepared? Should you bake them? Grill them? Getting answers to these questions are important to understand how to prepare these delicious cuts of pork.
The Anatomy of Pork
There are many different cuts of meat available on a pig. Sometimes, the names given to these cuts do not necessarily mesh with where they come from. This is especially true of pork butt. Pork butt actually comes from the shoulder of the pig. This makes it an incredibly popular cut when it comes to any form of slow cooking. The reason for this is a large amount of connective tissue and fat. With plenty of time and low heat, the fat and connective tissue break down to make the meat tender and flavorful. But let’s take a step back. Pork butt comes from the shoulder of the pig. Does that mean it is the same thing as pork shoulder?
There’s a Difference?
Now we know that a cut of pork butt is actually from the shoulder. Pork butt and pork shoulder must, therefore, be the same thing, right? In essence, they are, but there are a few key differences. Any cut of meat that is labeled “pork butt” (or Boston butt, depending on your region) actually comes from the meatier, thicker portion of the upper shoulder. This placement means it has more fat running throughout. This type of fat is known as marbling.
On the other hand, cuts of pork that are labeled “shoulder,” or “picnic shoulder,” come from the thinner part of the shoulder that is sort of triangle shape. While this cut is still full of that fat and connective tissue, it is decidedly less marbled than the upper part of the shoulder. This has an impact on the way it needs to be prepared when compared to pork butt.
Uses for Pork Butt
As previously mentioned, pork butt, or “Boston butt,” has more marbling. This makes it the first choice for pulled pork in many regions, including the southern United States. Making pulled pork is a relatively simple, but time-consuming process. The marbling that results in amazing texture and moisture needs to be slowly cooked down and melted in order to do its magic.
Uses for Pork Shoulder
Pork shoulder has less connective tissue and marbling than pork butt, but still enough to make slow cooking essential. When this cut has the shank still attached, it is commonly called a picnic ham, or picnic shoulder. This terminology is a result of its price. Because it requires less butchering, it is much cheaper than an actual cut of ham, and therefore more cost-effective when feeding a large group of people, such as at a large picnic. In some regions, such as in Cuba, this cut of meat is also used to make pulled pork. In other regions, people prefer to use this cut for slicing. The smaller amount of fat and connective tissue makes it easier to slice than the very well marbled pork butt.
Why Do We Call it the Butt?
If it is so confusing to so many people, why do we call the shoulder of a pig the butt? Simply put, in old English, the word butt means the broadest part. On a pig, the actual rear end is not as wide as the shoulder. This has lead to this sort of a misnomer that continues to confuse consumers around the world.
What Do We Call the Rear End?
The rear end of the pig is where we get the cut of meat that we call ham. Because all of these cuts can be very confusing, just remember that butt actually means broad. Now, after reading this guide, you should be able to distinguish between butt, shoulder, picnic shoulder, and ham. Happy eating!