How to Butcher a Pork Shoulder for BBQ

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I eat a lot of pork, maybe it’s because I’m Chinese – we were the first to domesticate pigs you know. The default word for meat in Chinese means pork. So collectively we’ve eaten a LOT of pork. It’s a wonderfully versatile meat, good thing really because you can’t milk a pig or spin soft wool from it’s bristly hair and don’t even try to plough a field with one. No, pigs are bred for eating and when the sun is out there’s no better way of cooking them than low and slow in a smoky barbeque pit. In particular pork shoulder for pulled pork. Let’s be clear about this, pulled pork means smoked barbequed pulled pork. In fact we say that pulled pork that isn’t barbequed should be banned or at least renamed slow-roast pork. Putting a barbeque sauce on mushy overcooked slow-roast roast pork doesn’t make it pulled pork either. You culprits know who you are!

So where do you start with pulled pork? Well with a pork shoulder of course. Now this is where things can get confused and where this guide can help you. Most BBQ blogs about pulled pork will be American and will talk a lot about Boston butts or picnic hams, cryovacing at Trader Joes or the Duroc crosses at Niman Ranch. None of which mean anything to your average UK butcher. They understand what shoulder, neck, hock and hand are. Most BBQ blogs start with a perfectly trimmed Boston butt but this blog will show you how to get to that stage.

In the photo below is a whole shoulder, it’s basically the front part of the pig called the front primal. Most butchers cut this using the first three spare ribs as a guide. This primal has been taken from the right side of the pig and the head, were it still attached, would be on the left of the photo. At the bottom of the primal you can see that the trotter and hock have been removed, equivalent to removing your arm up to the elbow (yes get over it). The other side has been skinned and a thin layer of fat left on:

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You could BBQ this whole of course but much better to take the neck bone off along with the ribs so the spice rub and smoke will penetrate the flesh. Follow the bone around with a thin boning knife and the whole lot should come away easily in one piece. In this next photo you’ll see that I’ve done this and I’ve also separated the top section to show you what British butchers call the neck. If you are BBQing you should not separate it like this, keep it whole, this is for demonstration only:

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Butchers like to sell you neck, it’s a common cut. When cured like bacon it’s called collar bacon. Cantonese cooks like it because we make Char Siu from it. It’s a perfectly acceptable cut for pulled pork but it’s a bit small and the loin end tends to dry out a little. What’s the loin end? Follow the neck back down the spine and the next section you’ll get to is the loin where you get the standard pork chop. So this end of the neck will tend to dryness because there’s less inter muscular fat and no connective tissue and it’s this stuff that makes pork shoulder so juicy and well suited to low and slow cooking. When a British butcher has separated the neck out the rest is usually called the shoulder, it’s often boned and rolled and sold as a roasting joint. This is fine for pulled pork too. Just get them to skin it for you first.

Below is a close-up of the neck, where I’m pinching is what competition BBQers call the money muscle. We like to separate this slightly and serve it sliced. This muscle stays really juicy and properly cooked melts in the mouth. A good way to demonstrate to BBQ judges that you know what you’re doing:

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Ok now this first shoulder I’ve been demonstrating on is not ideal for BBQ because I’ve separated the neck too much. Good thing it’s being used for carnitas! So here’s another shoulder, this is what’s known as the Boston butt in the US. This is the basically the upper half of the shoulder primal and twice as big as the neck. To get to this piece I’ve sawn straight across the front primal in half through the base of the shoulder blade. The top of the shoulder blade should still be buried in the Boston butt. You can bone it out but I like to leave it in because when it comes away clean after smoking you know your pork is perfectly cooked. The top of the pig is on the right of this photo, you can see that I’ve separated the money muscle out competition style but you don’t need to do this at home.

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The Boston butt or upper shoulder is the ideal cut for pulled pork as it’s big enough to stand up to a long slow smoke. The ratio of bark to juicy meat will be perfect. So now you know what you need, go forth and ask for it with confidence at your nearest quality butcher!

7 thoughts on “How to Butcher a Pork Shoulder for BBQ”

  1. It sounds like you have got a butcher used to supplying this cut for you, I’ve been struggling for some time to get any butcher to provide me with a Boston Butt pork shoulder for smoking, I often have to make do with what I can get. Do you have a butcher thats used to doing this cut & if so could you let me know who it is, I’m tired of trying to explain. Many Thanks

    1. Hi the point of the post was to show you how to get to a Boston butt from the larger front primal. If you want a Boston butt direct from the butcher ask for the top half of the front primal, skinned and with the neck bones removed.

  2. Very informative article Nick.

    Two questions;

    Do you think if I ask my butcher for ‘a shoulder of pork from the neck end, bone in’ they would get the correct cut?

    How would I ask for the ‘money muscle’ cut in simple terms?

    Thanks,

    Joel

    p.s. I’m following you on Twitter now 😉

    1. Hi thanks for reading, I wrote this blog.

      Yes just ask for the top half of the shoulder primal, skinned and with the neck bones removed.

      I don’t think many butchers will know what the money muscle is. It’s such a small piece that you wouldn’t ask for it separately anyway. It’s part of the collar, sometimes called the tiger muscle because of the stripped look of it.

      Cheers
      Lap

  3. Nice article, thank you. One correction, pigs do a wonderful job plowing fields. My pig partner and I break up sod for gardens with pigs, they are natural rooters. They plow and fertilize !! I graze them in a standard tree apple orchard. We keep them in with 3 strands of hot wire. I grow my own apple wood for bbq’s !!

  4. Roughly how big is a Boston Butt by weight? I’m doing a big BBQ (50+ people) and would like to know how many I need ahead of going to the butcher. Would you recommend getting say , two butts versus a whole “hand and spring” ( which I believe they call the butt and the picnic in the US). Thanks in advance for any advice!

  5. The money muscle is in a group of muscles call the collar by American butcher’s it is at the very top of a boston butt roast past the shoulder blade.In the UK the butcher’s call it the neck muscle, The Italians cure it and make CAPICOLA sausage from it the South East Asian culture love to use it to make Char Siu a very desirable street dish that is sold at hawker stands I HOPE THIS HELPS U

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