Pork shoulder is one of the most popular cuts of meat to smoke, and it’s easy to see why.
When cooked low and slow, the meat falls apart beautifully and makes some killer barbecue. The meat is juicy, tender, and pairs perfectly with a wide variety of sauces and sides. But leave this cut in the smoker too long, and you’ll wind up with anything but juicy. Of course, it’s all too easy to undercook pork, too–especially since its color (and smoke ring) can make it hard to gauge doneness.
So, how long should you smoke a pork shoulder or Boston butt at 275? And why should you smoke at 275 in the first place? We’ve got all the answers for you–plus some tips and tricks to elevate your BBQ game– right here in one easy to use guide.
What is a Pork Shoulder or Boston Butt?
Although the pork shoulder is commonly referred to as the “Boston butt,” this cut of meat actually comes from the upper portion of the pig. The shoulder is located below the neck and above the back, and stops halfway down the length of the leg.
This cut of meat is especially tender and flavorful, and ideal for making pulled pork and other popular entrees. The rest of the leg is referred to as the picnic shoulder, which is another great cut to throw in the smoker.
So why is the shoulder commonly referred to as the butt? It turns out that back in the day, barrels used to store and transport meat were known as butts. Coupled with the fact that butchers in Boston, Massachusetts popularized this cut of meat, the pork shoulder became associated with the name Boston butt.
Why is 275 the Magic Number?
Smoking meat is a sort of science. You want to cook your food as low and slow as possible, but too low or too slow and you’ve increased your chances of having food-borne bacteria.
Some meats, like beef, can be smoked safely at temperatures as low as 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Pork, on the other hand, should ideally be smoked at 220 degrees or more. This is partially due to the density and marbling of the meat.
The only downside to smoking a shoulder at these temps is that it takes longer–a lot longer. If you don’t have the greater part of your day to devote to manning the smoker, you might consider upping the temp. 275 degrees results in a faster cook time with minimal differences to tenderness and juiciness.
How Long to Smoke Pork Shoulder
When it comes to smoking meat, it’s less about how high of a temp to smoke and more how long to smoke. It’s important to note that your cook time will differ based on the thickness of the meat, but given that most cuts are the same, you can ballpark how long it will take.
With large cuts like the pork shoulder, you’ll base your cook time off how many pounds you have, much like you’d cook a Thanksgiving ham. The National Pork Board offers a guideline of 1 hour, 15 minutes per pound of pork shoulder. However, this is at a temp of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. At 275, your cook time will be almost half the time. The best way to tell how long you should smoke pork shoulder? Keep an eye on the internal temp. Let’s look at two ways of estimating how long to operate your smoker.
Materials You’ll Need
Before you begin, it’s a good idea to have a wireless thermometer on hand. The only way you’ll be able to give the OK before pulling the meat to rest or serving is by checking the internal temp. A wireless thermometer makes it easy to monitor the doneness of your meat without ever having to open the smoker door.
This is important, because having to repeatedly open the smoker door leads to unexpected drops in temperature and loss of flavor resulting from the circulating smoke. The easiest (and perhaps laziest) way to avoid this is simply by using a wireless thermometer!
Estimating Cook Time Based on Weight
Pork shoulders are often thicker cuts of meat, so their cooking time will be longer. However, you’ll also need to take into account the shape of the meat, as a shoulder that weighs more (but is flatter) might cook faster than a shoulder that weighs less. A standard Thanksgiving ham has a cook time of about 20 minutes per pound, when baked at 325 in an oven. Given that you’ll be smoking the shoulder at a slightly lower temperature, you can estimate to smoke your shoulder at anywhere from 40-60 minutes per pound. Boston butts weigh typically anywhere from 6-8 pounds, so you can estimate to smoke one for at least five hours.
How to Tell if Pork is Done
The only way to tell for sure if pork shoulder is done or not is if the deepest internal point reaches 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The meat should also be cooked evenly and thoroughly. Remember to keep an eye on your racks and flip your meat as needed.
Tying the shoulder with butcher’s twine is helpful for keeping the meat together when you go to flip it. As an added note, the National Pork Board says to look for meat that easily slips from the bone. This is an indicator that the meat is fully cooked and ready to serve (or pull apart).
Signs Pork is Overcooked
You can identify overcooked pork in a number of ways. For one, the pork will be uniform in color, typically a beige or light brown. Properly cooked pork will have a slightly pink hue.
Overcooked pork is notably dry and almost fibrous. It pulls apart, but the shreds of meat are brittle and tough to chew. Finally, pork that is overcooked will have noticeably more burnt ends and a larger smoke ring. Remember that smoke rings can easily throw the experienced grillmaster’s eye off.
The first few inches of meat may be pink, but the inside can be dull and brown. The best way to prevent your pork from becoming overcooked is to keep an eye on it and check the internal temp frequently. Once it’s reached the minimum internal temp, don’t let it spend much longer in the smoker, unless you identify some areas that aren’t fully cooked yet.
Signs Pork is Undercooked
Undercooked pork is arguably worse than overcooked pork, because there’s a greater chance of getting food poisoning. In fact, pork is unique because it’s more likely to carry parasites like roundworm, so cooking it through is essential.
Undercooked pork will be more pink in appearance or drip blood when pressed. Pork may appear slightly pink even when fully cooked; the best way to gauge if it is done is by checking the internal temp. Smokers with improper ventilation can cause the meat to cook unevenly.
Opening and closing the vent to your firebox too often can also create issues with the doneness of your shoulder. Let your smoker operate for a couple hours and stabilize its temp to avoid these kinds of issues.
Picking the Right Wood for Pork Shoulder
The undisputed king when it comes to smoking pork shoulder is hickory wood. You won’t get a more smokey, fresh off the campfire taste with any other wood. That’s not to shy away from other popular picks like apple wood or mesquite.
The slight acidity and lighter flavor profile of apple wood goes excellently with pork. Mesquite wood, on the other hand, gives a little more depth to the flavor of your pulled pork and pairs well with standard barbecue sauces.
One unexpected flavor combination to try? Cherry wood. Cherry wood has the seasoned char of hickory, but the uplifting, brighter flavors of apple wood. The result is a Boston butt with a smokey flavor profile that has a hint of sweetness, pairing excellently with rib sauce or Carolina (mustard-based) barbecue sauce.
This incredibly versatile meat is hard to get wrong. Throw it in the smoker, whip up some coleslaw, and grab a few other fixins like mac and cheese or Brunswick stew. Presto–you’ve got a meal fit for a king (and his entire court).
If you’re looking to save a little time, why not try turning the smoker up to 275? It’ll cut your cook time in half without sacrificing the tenderness or juiciness of the meat. Just remember to check on it often. Pork can dry out and overcook in no time.
However, you’re more likely to run into the problem where your meat looks done on the outside, but the inside is still raw. If this happens, try moving your shoulder closer to the middle of the smoker or vent your firebox a little to give it a rest. If all else fails and you think your meat isn’t cooking evenly at the higher temp, you can always throw it in the oven to bring it up to temp. A lot of big name barbecue restaurants do this just to be on the safe side (and to comply with food safety restrictions). As long as you’ve had the cut in the smoker for a few hours, you’ll retain all of that delicious, smokey flavor.
How often do you smoke pork shoulder? Do you have any go-to tips? Let us know in the comments below!