Simple steps, minimal ingredients, and irresistible mouth-watering results. Your easy guide to the seriously best-pulled pork you have ever tasted! You won't be able to stop going back for more.
New to smoking? Pork Shoulder (or pork butt) is the absolute best piece of meat to learn with. Not only is it affordable, but it's super easy to make amazing, and difficult to mess up. That is a winning combination!
You are about to transform a large, normally tough, inexpensive cut of pork into a wood-smoked wonder of sweet, flavorful and tender pulled pork. While it's a long process in terms of time, it's only a few simple steps and is almost completely hands-off.
The flavorful dry rub helps produce a savory-sweet bark on the outside while the salt penetrates all the way through the meat, bringing out all that amazing pork flavor and tenderness. Smoking low and slow breaks down the fat for melt-in-your-mouth smoky tenderness.
A few things to know before we begin: You got this! Just follow the process. Be sure to read through the entire recipe before you start. It might feel a bit overwhelming, but when it's done and everyone is saying "wow, this is absolutely amazing!" it's going to have felt so worth it.
Ingredients & Tools
- A pork shoulder or pork butt: either bone-in or boneless in any size will work great. The cook time will be longer for bone-in.
- Diamond Kosher salt (or your preferred salt).
- Dry rub (or spices to make your own).
- Sharp knife for trimming the fat.
- Smoker: a charcoal smoker like a Big Green Egg, a pellet smoker like a Traeger or any other smoker will work.
- Fuel: either charcoal & wood chunks (3 to 4 is good) for a charcoal smoker or pellets for a pellet smoker.
- Meat thermometer: A two-channel remote thermometer for remotely monitoring the internal temperature and an instant-read probe thermometer for spot-checking.
- Drip pan: I prefer disposable aluminum drip pans for easy clean-up.
- Aluminum foil or butcher paper (for wrapping the pork shoulder to rest).
- Shredding tool: Pulling claws, an ice chipper or nitrile gloves over cotton gloves for shredding the pork.
Quick Reference Info
- Prep time: about 10 minutes.
- Seasoning time: 12 to 24 hours.
- Smoker temp: 250° F.
- Cook time: Approximately 80 to 90 minutes per pound.
- Pull temp (to account for carry-over cooking): 195 to 205° F internal.
- Wood: Apple or cherry.
How to Smoke a Pork Shoulder
This recipe works so well because of the simple formula: Season early + Smoke at 250° F until the internal temperature reaches between 195° F and 205° F and then rest for an hour before shredding. Now let's go step-by-step, or you can jump down to the full recipe card.
Trim the excess fat and score the fat cap in a crosshatch pattern.
Season 12 to 24 hours in advance if possible with Kosher salt and a dry rub over the entire surface, then refrigerate uncovered.
Remove from the refrigerator 1 hour prior to cooking and Insert a remote probe thermometer into the thickest part of the meat.
2. Setup the Smoker
Prep your smoker for indirect heat smoking and pre-heat to 250° F (121° C) with a water drip pan in place.
3. Smoke the Pork Shoulder
Place the pork shoulder in the smoker over the drip pan.
Smoke until the internal temperature reaches 195° to 205° F, which will take approximately 90 minutes per pound.
4. Rest It
Once out of the smoker, tightly wrap the pork shoulder in aluminum foil or butcher paper and place in a cooler (preferably) or on a cutting board to rest for 1 hour.
Unwrap and remove the bone (if it has one) and shred with your favorite shredding tool, pulling across the strands to maintain the texture. It's much easier to shred the whole thing while it's still warm
Serve and enjoy!
Jump down to the full recipe card for all the details.
Top Tips & Tricks for Success
- Cook by temperature, not by time: Time is just an estimate, whereas the temperature is exact.
- Use a remote probe thermometer: This just makes everything easier and stress-free. It allows you to remotely monitor the temperature of your smoker and the meat so you don't have to continuously check it.
- Keep the smoker lid closed (as much as possible): Every time you lift the lid, heat escapes and a consistent temperature is important for the best results.
- Plan ahead and start early: Long smokes often take longer than expected. It's done when it's done, so start early (you can even start smoking it the night before).
- Speed up the cook (when needed): Some situations require you to speed up the cook. Wrap the meat once the bark is formed and it reaches an internal temp around 165° F. Then either increase the smoker temperature to 275° F or place in the same temperature oven until the desired finished temp is reached.
A Little About Pork Shoulder
A whole pork shoulder is a primal cut from the shoulder region of the pig that is then separated into two parts. These two cuts become the upper and lower portions of the shoulder. There is the pork butt, aka Boston butt, which is still from the front shoulder of the pig. Then there is the lower portion that is called the picnic roast or picnic ham (not the ham that we know as cured and smoked though). Yep, the naming is quite confusing.
Pork Shoulder vs Pork Butt
The pork butt (from the upper portion) has more fat marbling, which can make it more tender than the picnic shoulder roast (lower portion).
Picnic shoulder roast will sometimes be sold with the skin on, which you will want to remove as it gets tough when cooked at low temperatures and won't allow the smoke flavor to penetrate into the meat (it is thick skin after all!).
Bone-In vs Boneless
Either bone-in or boneless will work just fine for smoking. The advantage of bone-in is that it is nicely held together since it has not been cut up to remove the bone, thus keeps its shape better. The presence of the bone won't add any flavor, but the even shape will allow the meat to cook a bit more evenly.
If your pork butt or shoulder came with a bone, just leave it in. It will be super easy to just pull right out once the meat is fully cooked.
The advantage of boneless is that it's all meat and you aren't paying for bone. It will also cook slightly more quickly, but a little less evenly.
Buying a Butt or Pork Shoulder
Buying quality pork does make a difference. This is a big piece of meat that you are spending an entire day cooking, likely sharing with lots of people and enjoying for a week. You want it to be great. Starting with high-quality ingredients is the best way to get great results.
Look for a well-marbled cut from the upper shoulder (Boston butt) if you can find it, but either part is going to work.
Avoid pork products that have been "enhanced." This means that the meat has been injected with a solution and pumped full of water along with other ingredients that will change the texture and it will taste salty. Those ingredients will be listed on a nutrition label on the package. Just avoid enhanced pork.
If you really want quality and want to splurge a little, look for a premium heritage breed pork. These will usually be either Duroc or Berkshire, but there are others as well. Yes, these are a lot more expensive but noticeably better.
Where to Source It:
- Your Local Butcher: Buying from your local butcher not only supports local, but you will likely get better quality and can find heritage-breed pork. A lot of the time we don't need a huge 8+ pound portion, and that's the great thing about buying from the local butcher is they have smaller size cuts (or can cut to a size you want).
- Snake River Farms: Berkshire (Kurobuta) pork shoulder.
- Crowd Cow: bone-in or boneless heritage or pasture-raised pork shoulder.
- Costco: One of the best spots to buy good quality pork shoulders that are at the lowest prices you will find.
Prepping the Pork Shoulder
There's nothing really technical about prepping a pork shoulder for smoking, but a few simple things do make a difference. It's really just about trimming some fat (which is totally optional) and seasoning with plenty of salt for seasoning and a dry rub for extra flavor.
Trimming: While the pork is cold, use a very sharp knife to trim excess fat and any hanging pieces that can burn during the cook. Trim the fat cap down to about ¼" thick, if needed. Score the fat cap by cutting 1" slices in a crosshatch pattern, being careful not to slice into the flesh. This will help hold the spice rub and promote crispy rendered fat that is oh-so-delicious and great for presentation.
Seasoning: Season early if possible (24 hours ahead is great). This will allow the salt to penetrate all the way through, bringing out tons of flavor and helping to tenderize the meat. If you can't season that far ahead, just be sure to do it at least an hour before the cook.
It's all about the salt! Salt is super important. It's the only ingredient (besides the smoke) that will actually penetrate all the way through the meat to add flavor.
Important: If your dry rub already contains salt, then be cautious about adding too much more. If it's not in the rub, then it should be added separately.
Use 1 teaspoon of Diamond kosher salt per pound or ½ teaspoon of Morton kosher salt per pound of pork shoulder.
The dry rub ingredients in this recipe consist of smoked paprika, dark chili powder, cumin, dark brown sugar, dried oregano, granulated sugar, ground black pepper and celery seeds. It isn't spicy, but it adds a beautiful color and helps create a delicious "bark," which is the super flavorful crust on the outside of the meat. If you want to make it a little spicier, you can add cayenne or use a spicy sauce when serving.
Temper the Meat Before Smoking
Tempering is the process of allowing the temperature of the meat to rise closer to room temperature before cooking it. This will allow the meat to cook more evenly and will reduce the overall cook time. Remove the meat from the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter for 1 hour (or even 2) before placing it in the smoker.
The starting temperature of the meat is one of the big variables that change the cook time from what a recipe might list, to what your situation is. If the meat starts off cold right from the refrigerator (around 34° F), then it's going to take extra time for it to come up to temperature in the smoker.
The Importance of a Drip Pan (With Water)
A drip pan with water helps create a humid environment inside the smoker. It is important for keeping the meat moist, promoting smoke penetration, and for catching the drippings, to help keep your smoker clean and prevent flare-ups.
Start with warm water and fill the drip pan up about halfway. Warm water will keep the smoker from cooling down as it warms the water up. Keep your eye on the water level throughout the cook and add more when it gets low, which can happen during long cooks.
Be Prepared for the Stall
The stall is when the internal temperature of meat reaches somewhere between 150° and 170° F, then suddenly ceases to rise and can sometimes even drop in temperature. It can seem like an eternity and can go on for hours at a time.
Just don't worry. Nothing is wrong. This is just the "stall" happening. The scientific reason for this is fairly complicated to explain, but basically, the meat is sweating and is losing moisture as it cooks, which cools itself down. Once this moisture has evaporated, the internal temperature of the meat will resume climbing again and it's a big sigh of relief.
To help push through the stall, you can wrap the meat once a nice bark forms and it has absorbed a lot of smoke, which will be around 165° F internal. Wrapping is something I will do for brisket, but usually not for pork shoulder.
After the Cook
Once the pork is smoked and has reached an internal temperature between 195-205°F (the higher, the more tender it will be), it's time to rest it, shred it and serve it.
The rest is a crucial step, and should not be skipped. Rest the smoked pork shoulder for at least 1 hour, but longer is fine too. I recommend wrapping it with foil and storing it in an insulated cooler lined with a towel.
In a time crunch, I would rather take the meat out of the smoker a few degrees before it's ready rather than skip the rest time. If you are in a rush and need to serve it ASAP, rest it tented with aluminum foil with a few vent holes on a large cutting board.
Shredding for Pulled Pork
Now comes the fun part! Shredding (or pulling the meat apart) is much easier to do when the meat is warm, yet cooled down enough to handle without burning your hands.
There are a number of tools that make shredding easier. From meat claws to using an ice chipper to a simple large fork. If your pork is super tender, then you can even shred it by hand. A pair of cotton gloves covered with nitrile gloves is a great way to shred the pork without burning your hands while keeping your hands and gloves clean.
Use your tool of choice and shred along the grain to maintain that amazing texture.
Saucing is optional, but definitely not required since this pulled pork will already be so juicy and flavorful, there's just something about a little sweet & tangy BBQ sauce mixed in that kicks it up another level. You will need around 1 to 2 cups of sauce for the whole shoulder.
Error on the side of under-saucing rather than oversaucing, as people can always add more if they prefer. Combine the shredded pork with sauce in a large bowl, pot or crockpot on low to keep it warm for serving.
Best Ways to Utilize The Meat
The uses for this smoked pork butt are pretty much endless. Serve it on Hawaiian buns with creamy slaw as pulled pork sandwiches. Use it in delicious crispy carnitas tacos with avocado-lime crema and quick pickled onions. Use it to make a comforting ragu, add it to delicate omelets for breakfast, on pizza, salads, or crunchy nachos. Just about anything goes and the leftovers are almost better than the first time you eat it.
Storing and Reheating
Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Freeze for up to 6 months. To freeze, shred the pork before freezing and place the desired portion size in either individual vacuum seal bags or use freezer-safe bags. Remove as much air as possible and seal. Label the bags with the date and contents.
Skillet - For crispy results, use a hot cast iron skillet over medium heat. No oil is necessary.
Sous Vide - Reheat the vacuum-sealed pulled pork in a 140° water bath for about an hour.
Simmer with BBQ sauce on the stove or in a crockpot.
In the smoker or the oven in a pan until it reaches 140°
Microwave - Last resort but it does work works. Add a little sauce to keep the pork from during out and heat for a few minutes until it reaches about 150* F.
The cook time for pork shoulder is around 90 minutes per pound in a 250° F smoker.
A 4-pound pork shoulder will take approximately 6 hours.
A 9-pound pork shoulder will take approximately 13 ½ hours.
Sweet fruit woods like apple and cherry are perfect for pork. Oak, hickory and maple are also wonderful as well. Avoid stronger flavored woods like mesquite, as they can overpower the sweet flavor of the pork.
Experiment and try mixing a few different types of wood to develop your own personal blend. I like to use apple and post oak.
No, you do not need to spritz the pork shoulder if you have a drip pan with water in the smoker. A spritz is a liquid that is sprayed onto the meat in intervals of about every 30 minutes to an hour after the first few hours in the smoker. The spritz is to replace moisture and attract smoke to the surface of the meat.
The downside to spritzing is that you are frequently opening the smoker lid, which fluctuates the temperature, and it will also cause the cook to take longer.
Because of how forgiving a pork shoulder is, wrapping it is generally not necessary. I prefer to develop extra bark and don't wrap it and have amazing results.
You might choose to wrap your pork shoulder around 165° F internal if you are concerned about it drying out or if you need to speed up the cook.
Serve it Up With
More Delicious Smoker Recipes
Smoked Pork Shoulder (Pork Butt) Recipe
- 6 to 10 lb Pork Shoulder or Boston Butt
- 2 tablespoon Diamond Kosher Salt
- ⅛ cup Paprika
- 2 tablespoon Packed Dark Brown Sugar
- 1 tablespoon Dark Chili Powder
- 1 tablespoon Cumin
- ½ tablespoon Dried Oregano
- ½ tablespoon Granulated Sugar
- ½ tablespoon Ground Black Pepper
- ½ tablespoon Celery Seeds
Prep the Pork Shoulder
- Trim off excess fat using a sharp knife. Score the fat side in a 1" crosshatch pattern, being careful not to cut the flesh.
- Make the dry rub by combine all the dry rub ingredients in a shaker or small bowl.
- Season the pork shoulder with about 1 teaspoon of Diamond kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon Morton Kosher salt) per pound of meat and sprinkle a liberal amount of the rub all over the pork. Refrigerate uncovered for 12 to 24 hours if possible.
Smoke the Pork Shoulder
- Remove the pork shoulder from the refrigerator at least 1 hour prior to cooking it. Insert a remote probe thermometer into the thickest part.
- Setup the smoker according to the manufacturer's instructions for indirect heat cooking and bring the temperature up to 250° F setup. Place a water-filled aluminum drip pan under the grates to catch drippings.
- Place the pork in the smoker on the grate above the drip pan and smoke for about 90 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 195-205° F. Continuously monitor the temperature with a probe thermometer.
Rest and Shred
- Remove the pork shoulder from the smoker and wrap with aluminum foil or butcher paper and place in a cooler to rest for at least 1 hour.
- Shred the pork using or a large fork or BBQ meat forks, pulling across the strands to maintain the texture. Serve and enjoy!
- This recipe will work for both small and large pork shoulders. Larger roasts will just take longer.
- If the dry rub you are using already contains salt, then be cautious about adding more.
- Applying salt and a dry rub ahead of time is optional, but highly recommended. If you can't season the day before, season it at least 1 hour before.
- Apple or Cherry wood is best for smoking pork. Use 3 to 4 wood chunks for a charcoal smoker.
- Cook time: Approximately 90 minutes per pound at 250° F
This recipe was originally published on 04/25/2018 and has been updated in November 2022 with new useful information and instructions.