Everything About Pork Shoulder: How to Buy It and Cook It to Perfection

updated Aug 24, 2022
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(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

If you’re a fan of carnitas, meaty ragùs, pork stews like chili verde, and pulled pork, then pork shoulder is a cut that’s already on your radar. It’s one of the best bets when you need to feed a crowd or make a meal with leftovers to spare. In this guide we’re going to make sure you know all the important details about this thrifty cut of meat. From buying a pork shoulder to the prep and cooking, here’s what you need to know to master this cut of meat.

What Is Pork Shoulder and Why Should You Cook It?

Pork shoulder is a relatively tough and inexpensive cut of meat layered with fat that comes from the pig’s shoulder region. You may also see this cut labeled as pork butt or Boston butt, but this is actually shoulder meat. The actual rear of the pig is called the ham. Pork shoulder is sold bone-in or boneless, and can typically weigh between five and 10 pounds.

Pork shoulder might start out as a fatty, tough cut of meat, but cook it low and slow for a few hours and it will be transformed into tender, juicy shreds that fall apart with the touch of your fork.

Buying and Storing Pork Shoulder

Here’s what you need to know about buying pork shoulder, and what to do with it when you get home.

Know the difference between pork shoulder and pork butt.

While pork shoulder and pork butt come from the same basic region of the pig and can be used interchangeably, they are cut from opposite ends of the shoulder region. Pork shoulder is cut from the thinner end of the shoulder, contains slightly less fat, and can be better for cooking and slicing whole. Pork butt, on the other hand, is cut from the thicker, fattier end of the shoulder, and excels in recipes like pulled pork where the meat is meant to be shredded.

Choose a pork shoulder with pinkish-red color.

To ensure you take home a good piece of meat, use visual cues to help you buy pork shoulder. Look for meat that’s pinkish-red in color with some marbling in the meat. Steer clear of meat that’s pale in color or has dark spots on the fat. Pork shoulder will range in weight from an average of four to six pounds for boneless and six to nine pounds for bone-in.

Buy pork shoulder for making ground pork.

This is the cut that’s typically used for ground pork, and likely what you’ll find pre-packaged in the meat case. Pork shoulder can also be freshly ground at the butcher or at home, where you have more control over the amount of fat included.

Store pork shoulder in the fridge for up to 3 days.

It’s best to cook pork shoulder soon after buying it, although it will keep for two to three days in the fridge. Any longer than three days and it’s best to store it in the freezer, where it will keep for up to six months. Plan to give frozen pork shoulder roughly 24 hours (for every five pounds of meat) to thaw in the refrigerator.

Cooking Pork Shoulder

Pork shoulder is super versatile, forgiving, and quite easy to cook. These are the essential things to know to get it right every time.

Don’t worry about messing up pork shoulder.

Unlike the more lean tenderloin and chops, pork shoulder is an incredibly forgiving cut of meat. It becomes more tender as it cooks and benefits from a lengthy cook time, so even if it stays on the heat a few minutes too long, you won’t suddenly end up with something dry or rubbery.

Cook it whole or in pieces.

Part of the versatility that comes with pork shoulder is the form in which you choose to cook it. This cut can be cooked whole, as with a slow-cooked pork roast; cut into large chunks, for making pulled meat; prepped and cooked as smaller chunks, for stews and chili; or even ground for meatballs and patties.

Don’t cook pork shoulder straight from the fridge.

As with most cuts of meat, rather than cook pork shoulder straight from the fridge, let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before you get started. Giving the meat a chance to warm up will ensure more even cooking.

Start by searing under the broiler.

Whether you’re braising, stewing, or slow cooking pork shoulder, it benefits from the deep browning and charred edges of a good sear first. Because of the size of the meat the broiler makes this job, which is typically done on the stovetop, a lot easier and more hands-off — especially if you’re working with the whole shoulder.

Don’t stress about slightly pink meat.

Yes, a little bit of pink is perfectly fine. For pork shoulder, as with all meat, internal temperature, not color, is the best indicator of doneness.

Cook pork shoulder to at least 145°F.

Checking internal temperature with a probe thermometer is the best way to measure the doneness of pork shoulder, which should be cooked to at least 145°F. Because this is a large, tough cut of pork that requires a lengthy cook time to become tender, the internal temperature will likely be higher at the end of cooking.

4 Essential Ways to Cook Pork Shoulder

Pork shoulder is a large, tough cut of meat that cooks up flavorful and tender when done right. It can require a lengthy cook time, but the reward is worth it when it hits the table.

1. Braise it in the oven.

Braising is the cooking method that produces super-tender meat that falls apart at the touch of the fork. It’s the method widely used for making pulled pork. Start by searing the meat under the broiler (or on the stovetop) and then nestle it into a Dutch oven with cooking liquid and aromatics so it’s partially submerged and ready for a long, slow cook.

Recipes for Braised Pork Shoulder

2. Stew it.

Cut into cubes and then seared all over and mixed in a pot with all the fixings, this how to cook pork shoulder in a meaty stew on the stovetop in an hour or two.

Recipes for Stewed Pork Shoulder

3. Braise it in the slow cooker.

Because this convenient appliance is designed to cook at a low, steady temperature for hours and hours, the slow cooker is ideal for braising pork shoulder until it’s fall-apart tender.

Recipes for Slow Cooker Pork Shoulder

4. Cook it in the pressure cooker.

This tough, fatty cut of pork is an excellent candidate for the pressure cooker. For larger pork shoulders, cutting the meat in half or into quarters will help it fit into the cooker a bit better and will slightly shorten the cook time.