As we’ve mentioned before, starting with a good cut of meat is a critical part of ensuring a delicious final result. Knowing exactly how to pick out your meat is just as important as knowing how to properly cook it. Now when we say “good”, that can mean a variety of things (good quality, good marbling, etc.), especially depending on the specific type of meat.
So, if you are going to smoke a pork butt, there are some specific things you should look for when it comes to pork butt selection. We’ve put them all together in this handy article that breaks down exactly how to pick a good pork butt cut.
Before you start looking at selecting your pork butt, it’s important to understand exactly what a pork butt cut is. Contrary to what its name implies, pork butt actually does not come from the hog’s rear—it is one of the two sub-primal cuts from the shoulder. The pork butt is taken from the upper portion of the hog’s front shoulder and sits above the pork shoulder cut.
The word “butt” in “pork butt” refers to the containers that cheap pork cuts were packed in for shipment or storage in the 1700s.
A whole pork butt weighs between 6 and 10 pounds and is a rectangular-shaped roast cut. It is available bone-in (with the shoulder joint bone) or boneless. When sold boneless, the whole pork butt roast is often cut into half portions.
Pork butt does have several alternate names that you may hear, including:
When buying a pork butt from a big box store, you may even see a combination of several of the above names on the label.
Check out our article on the differences between a pork butt and pork shoulder for more information on this particular cut and how it differs from the pork shoulder cut.
Now that you know where exactly on the hog a pork butt comes from, let’s dive into tips on how to pick a good pork butt to ensure you buy a good one for your cooking session.
When picking out a pork butt, you want to make sure that the meat is bright red-pink and has a coarse grain. It should also have a firm, smooth, and bright white fat cap on the exterior. Avoid meat that has a pale color and/or dark spots in the fat. This indicates not-so-fresh meat.
A good pork butt will also have a good balance between muscle fibers and fat throughout the meat (aka “marbling”). You ideally want to get a pork butt that has a good amount of fat marbling in the muscle area farthest from the bone (known as “the money muscle” in this cut). But, steer clear of ones that have a ton of extra fat that will need to be trimmed off.
Also, if the pork butt has come sealed in Cryovac wrapping, it should be nice and tight on the meat. If it is loose and/or has air pockets, that means the meat has been sitting there for a while, has been exposed to air, and will not have as good a flavor.
Lots of supermarket pork butts are injected with an artificial solution of water, salt, sodium phosphate, and other ingredients to make the meat more moist. This is called enhanced meat. Enhanced meat can be identified by reading the fine print on the product label. Look for a phrase that tells the percentage of solution added to the meat and the what the solution ingredients are.
For a better flavor of the meat, you want to get non-enhanced pork. The label will sometimes say “all-natural” and/or “no added ingredients”. Keep in mind that some non-enhanced pork won’t say that on the label. But, if the meat IS enhanced, pork suppliers are required to state that on the label.
If you want the best pork flavor, go for all-natural pork from smaller farms. This meat will usually be found at smaller, specialty grocery stores, your local butcher shop, or a high-quality online meat supplier.
If you have no choice but to buy enhanced meat, because the meat has been injected with a fair amount of salt, reduce the amount of salt that is in your rub so you don’t end up with an overly salty pork butt.
This may be obvious, but fresher is always better when it comes to meat selection. So, you want to avoid a pork butt that’s been frozen for a while. You’ll get the best results from pork that has been recently cut. (Another reason to opt for your local butcher shop!)
Whole, untrimmed pork butts can range from 6 to 10 pounds in size. The 6 to 8-pound range is usually what you’ll find pre-packaged in the store. But, there’s nothing wrong with going for a 10-pound butt if that is what you need based on the number of people you’ll be feeding. A 10-pound one will cook just as fine as a 6-pound one as long as it’s done properly and you are cooking to desired internal temperature.
When trying to determine how much pork butt per person you are feeding, generally speaking, for one serving you’ll need ⅔ lb of raw pork per adult and ½ lb per child. (FYI: Cooked pork weighs half as much as raw.)
You can smoke a good pork butt both ways, but if you can, you ideally want to get a pork butt that still has the shoulder bone in it. This may be harder to find unless you go to your local butcher’s shop.
Leaving the bone in the pork chop will help hold the meat together nicely. Plus, the bone acts as a built-in meat thermometer. With a slight twist, the bone will easily slide out of the meat when it is done. You should still use a digital meat thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of the meat though.
Of course, you can still cook a delicious pork butt without the bone but, depending on the size, it may need to be tied with butcher’s twine to hold it together.
Short answer: Opt for your local butcher versus a big box store for better quality meat with more fat marbling.
In most cases, you can find pork butt (frequently labeled as Boston Butt) in your local grocery store or large wholesale/warehouse store. At the grocery store, it will usually be packaged as half of a whole pork butt and already come pre-trimmed with the entire fat cap removed. If you don’t want to bother with trimming the fat cap, then this is fine. But, when smoking a pork butt, you’ll usually get the best results if the fat cap is not totally removed but trimmed down to just ¼”.
At the warehouse stores, you’ll usually find pork butts vacuum sealed and sold two to a pack (with one slightly smaller than the other). They’ll also often have the fat cap still intact so you can trim it as desired at home.
But, with the grocery store and warehouse store pork butts that are Cryovac-wrapped, you don’t have a lot of opportunity to be selective in how fresh a cut you are getting, the level of marbling, etc.
That is just one of the reasons that the best place to buy a great pork butt cut is from your local butcher shop. There, you’ll have the opportunity to talk to the butcher and find out exactly how long ago the pork was cut, where it came from, and more. The pork available at the butcher shop will also usually be more humanely raised and have a higher fat content, which equals more flavor.
Don’t be afraid to ask the butcher for help. They’ll be happy to help ensure you get the best cut that fits your needs and budget.
As you can see, when it comes to how to pick a good pork butt, there are some specific things to keep in mind to ensure you have a head start on ending up with a delicious final result. It’s important to know exactly what to look for in pork butt selection so you walk out of the store with good-quality, fresh pork meat. The quality of the meat will make a huge difference in the taste of your smoked pork butt.
With the information we covered above, you’ll be able to buy the best pork butt to cook today. And remember, don’t be afraid to talk to your local butcher. They’ll be happy to help and can point you to the best quality pork that meets all the criteria above.
Do you know of something else to look for when it comes to pork butt selection that we left out? Plan on smoking a pork butt this week? Leave a comment below and tell us about it. We want to hear from you!
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