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How to Cook a Boston Butt

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The Boston Butt is one of the “Holy Grails” of barbecue meat.  Sliced and pulled pork barbecue that comes from this cut of meat is one of the tastiest treats you will ever have when it’s cooked properly.  The Boston Butt comes from the upper part of the shoulder on the front legs of the pig.  This cut also usually contains all or part of the scapula (shoulder blade) unless a particularly large butt has been trimmed into multiple pieces.


The Boston Butt is also a perfect cut of meat for a beginning barbecue cook.  It’s easy to cook and very forgiving.    Even if you make some mistakes in your cooking or preparation, the resulting meat should be really good!  


What you Need:


·         8 to 12 pound Boston Butt

·         ¾ to 1 cup of Pork Dry Rub

·         Meat Thermometer (digital/quick read/analog/whatever)

·         Grill or Oven

·         Drip Pan / Roasting Rack  (*** See addendum at the end)

·         Cooler large enough to hold the cooked meat


You can certainly find Boston Butts that are smaller than 8 pounds and might even find a few larger than 12 pounds.  I recommend 8-12 pounders because I have had my best results with cuts in this size range.  Smaller cuts (6 pounds and under) seem to give me mixed results.  Cuts in the 6-8 pound range work fairly well, but the larger cuts always give me the results I’m looking for.


When you go shopping for your Boston Butt, look for cuts that are vacuum sealed by the manufacturer.  These vacuum seal packs are sometimes called “cryovac” packaging.  Avoid the cuts that are on Styrofoam trays and shrink wrapped from the local butcher.  These are usually smaller cuts from a larger Boston Butt.


When choosing the size of the Boston Butt you wish to cook, buy one that is at least twice as large as you need in terms of cooked meat.  A Boston Butt has a very high fat content.  Your Boston Butt will shed nearly 50% of its weight during the cook!  An 8 pound cut will yield 4 to 4.5 pounds of cooked meat.


When you are ready to cook your Boston Butt, it must be completely thawed if it has been previously frozen.  You can determine this with a probe thermometer.  Insert the probe thermometer into the center of the meat.  If the meat is still frozen in the center, it will be very difficult to insert the probe.  


Preparing Your Meat:


Start out by cleaning your kitchen sink.  When the sink is clean and rinsed out completely, place your cryovac packaged Boston Butt in the sink and remove the packaging.  Discard the packaging and rinse the meat completely with cold water.  Pat the meat dry with several clean paper towels and move the meat to a large cutting board.


One side of your Boston Butt will be completely covered in fat.  This is called the “Fat Cap.”  Most of this fat is a hard fat that will not dissolve and render out during the cook.  I like to trim most of this fat and toss it out.  Some people like to trim it to a thickness of about ¼ inch, leaving some of the fat on the meat.  Some people just like to score the fat with a sharp knife and leave all of it in place.  It’s up to you.  You will either cut it off before you cook or afterwards.  I prefer to cut most of mine off so I can season that surface with my barbecue rub.  If there are any other surfaces of your Boston Butt that have a heavy amount of fat, trim it as you see fit.


After the meat is trimmed to your satisfaction, it’s time to season it with your barbecue rub.  There are a lot of commercially-available dry rubs for barbecue on the market or you can make your own rather easily.  If you search the web for barbecue dry rub recipes, you will find tons of them.  Use a shaker bottle or jar to apply a liberal coat of your barbecue rub to ALL surfaces of the meat.  When I say “liberal” I mean a coat thick enough where it completely covers the meat to a point where all you see is the rub, but no more than that.  Each time you coat a surface, use the palm of your hand to pat the rub in place where it won’t fall off.  I typically season one side at a time and let it sit in place for a few minutes before flipping it over to season the opposite side.  Some people like to use a “binder” to help hold the rub on the meat.  You can smear a thin layer of plain yellow mustard or a cooking oil on the outside of the meat before you apply your rub to help bind it to the meat if you wish.


Once your barbecue dry rub is applied, let the meat sit for 20-30 minutes on the counter.  You will notice that the rub will get wet as it draws moisture from the surface of the meat.  You can also wrap the meat tightly in plastic or a vacuum sealer bag and put it in the refrigerator overnight if you wish.  The overnight process allows the seasonings to penetrate the meat a little deeper but the results aren’t significantly different in the final cook.  If you choose to wrap it and let it marinate in the refrigerator overnight, re-apply a little extra rub to the surfaces of the meat before you get ready to cook.


Cooking the Meat:


Preheat your grill, smoker, or oven to 250°F. 


If you are using a grill or smoker, add 4 to 5 chunks of smoking wood such as hickory, apple, oak, pecan, or whatever your available options might be.  When you first start the grill or smoker, there will be a good bit of white smoke coming from the smoking wood.  Let the grill or smoker stabilize until that white smoke dissipates into a thinner blue-colored smoke. 

If you are cooking in an oven, place two 2-cup measuring cups of hot water on the rack to help keep the humidity at a higher level during the cook.  You may have to replenish this water during the cook.


When your grill or smoker is stabilized at 250°F it’s time to get the meat on the grill.  If you are placing your Boston Butt directly on the grill grate, you should insert a drip pan underneath it to catch the fat drippings from the meat.  There will be a LOT of fat drippings.  You can also put the Boston Butt on a roasting rack in a roasting pan on the grill to catch these drippings.  This is the method you should use if you are cooking in an oven.  Do NOT let the fat drip directly into the bottom of the oven.  If you are cooking in an oven, you should also loosely cover the roasting rack with a sheet of aluminum foil. 


Monitoring the Cook:


At 250°F, you can expect your Boston Butt to take approximately 1.5 hours per pound to cook completely.  That’s 12 hours for an 8 pound Butt!  THIS IS JUST A CLOSE ESTIMATE!  Monitoring the internal temperature of the meat with a thermometer or digital temperature probe is the ONLY way to know when the meat is ready.  That being said, there is no exact temperature when the cook is perfectly done.  It takes a little experience to nail this part of the cook perfectly every time.  To determine when the meat is ready, you are looking for a condition known as “probe tenderness.”  This simply means that when you insert a temperature probe, skewer, or other probe type object into the meat that it will slide in effortlessly with very little resistance.  This condition usually happens on a Boston Butt when the internal temperature of the meat reaches somewhere between 195-205°F.  If you are unsure if your “probe tenderness,” It’s a good idea to remove the meat from the grill or oven when the internal temperature reaches 197-198°F.  You will be close enough for most people! 


The best type of thermometer to use for a cook like this is one of the digital meat thermometers that has a temperature probe on a long cable that you can insert into the meat and view the meat temperature from outside the grill or oven.  This will allow you to monitor that temperature without having to open the grill or oven during the process.  Opening the grill or oven just adds to the cook time.  Keep the oven or grill closed and let your thermometer tell you what’s going on inside.


Finishing the Cook:


Once your Boston Butt cook has completed, remove the meat from the grill or oven.  Have a double thickness of aluminum foil sheets prepared that are large enough to completely wrap your meat.  Place the cooked meat on the foil and wrap the meat around the side and leave the top exposed.  Let the Boston Butt sit uncovered in this position for 10 to 15 minutes.  Tightly wrap the meat in the foil and place it in a cooler.  Take an old clean towel and fold it up and place it on top of the meat in the cooler and close the lid.  Let the Boston Butt “rest” in the cooler for at least one hour and up to four hours. 


After the meat has rested for at least an hour in the cooler, you may remove it, place it in a large pan and use a couple forks to pull the meat apart.  During this process, remove any chunks of fat that you might find. 


Serve it!!!




Leftover pulled pork should be dealt with immediately or as soon as possible to keep it from drying out.  After you have pulled the pork, place any leftovers in vacuum seal bags if possible.  Ziploc bags will work OK but for freezing leftovers, it’s hard to beat a vacuum sealed bag.  When you place the meat in a vacuum seal bag or Ziploc bag, add a tablespoon of a 50/50 mixture of apple juice and cider vinegar to the bag to add moisture.  If using a Ziploc bag, remove as much air as possible. 

The magic of a vacuum sealed bag of frozen pulled pork is in the reheating process.  To reheat this properly, all you need to do is drop the bag in a pot of simmering hot water until the meat has reheated. 


Frequently Asked Questions:


Should I inject the meat with a marinade/brine before cooking?


You can if you like.  I have done it and have experimented with a lot of different injection combinations.  If you are just learning how to cook a perfect Boston Butt, I’d recommend skipping the injection and focus on the basic techniques first.


Should I cook the meat with the fat cap up or down?


This is another rather large debate in the barbecue community.  You will get different answers from different people.  I cook mine with the fat cap down.  I like the way my bark forms on the outside of the meat much better when I cook this way. 


Should I put a pan of water in my smoker or grill during this cook?


If your grill or smoker was designed to use a water pan, then I recommend doing it. 


I don’t see any smoke coming out of my smoker or grill.  Should I add more smoke wood chunks?


No.  In fact, a good clean burning fire will not have much visible smoke at all.  It IS possible to over smoke your food, so in many cases with barbecue meat, less is more! 


Should I soak my wood chunks or chips in water before putting them on the smoker?


No.  This won’t make a significant difference in how long the chunks or chips last.  I don’t recommend using chips, but if you do, make a sealed pouch out of aluminum foil and place a cup or so of chips in the pouch.  Press all the air out of the pouch.  Poke one or two small holes in the pouch and place it on top of your lit charcoal.  They will smoke for a long time. 


After I put my meat on the smoker, I started seeing more thick white smoke later in the cook.  Is this bad?


Usually, it’s not bad.  If the fat is dripping directly into the fire or onto a heat deflector that is very hot, you will see this thicker white smoke.  If the drippings in your drip pan get too hot, this will also occur.   It’s nothing to worry about at this stage in the cook. 


Should I spritz the meat during the cook?


In the beginning, I would say no until you are confident with this cooking technique. 


Should I try this, this that, this, that, this and that or this and this and that?


As you advance in your barbecue cooking skills, you will discover lots of tips and tricks worth trying.  My advice is to try new things as often as possible with one restriction.  Try only ONE new thing at a time!  If you try a bunch of different new tricks at once, you won’t be able to determine which tricks had what effect on the final results in terms of taste and/or texture.  


Addendum - 2/22/2022


I have stopped using drip pans.  I have concluded that there IS a beneficial flavor element added to barbecue when the drippings hit the hot components of the grill and the hot coals.  I like the flavor of the finished meat better.  

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I'm going to use this and your vids to do a Butt as soon as I can..

? If the foil pan sits right on the Deflector under the grid won't the drippings boil and burn and make black smoke that will make the meat taste bad on bottom?

I've taken four copper 1/2" t's and put those between my drip pan and heat deflector. Gives it an air gap to keep it from scorching.

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