Pork butts (also known as a Boston Butt) are a great choice for cooking low and slow. They’re hard to mess up, they taste delicious, and they provide a lot of food for a lower cost (so if you do manage to mess it up you won’t feel too bad).
Don’t let the name fool you…the “butt” isn’t from anywhere near the back end of the pig…that’s a ham. A butt is the lower portion of a full front shoulder. The upper portion is typically sold as “pork shoulder.”
Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or new to the world of Backyard BBQ, read on for more insights and instructions on smoking a pork butt.
Why Start with Pulled Pork?
We’ve loved pulled pork for as long as we can remember. We grew up going to BBQ restaurants and the sandwich was a staple around our house as well. Smoking a pork butt, however, has always seemed like a mystical and unattainable task. To be honest, we used to think that smoking anything would be difficult.
Turns out that’s wrong: Pork butts are actually one of the easiest things to smoke! They may take a lot of time, but it takes very little effort and is well worth it.
If you’ve cooked a few pork butts in the past, using a crockpot, we know that some recipes claim it’s just as good as the smoker – I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Not even close.
If you had to do a blind taste test of crockpot pulled pork and real, slow-smoked pulled pork, you’d certainly guess the right one (smoked) every time.
So, since we love pulled pork and it’s one of the hardest things to mess up, we decided that this would be a great choice for our first smoke.
There are two different sets of materials to explain. First, the food ingredients and then the smoking equipment.
Food Ingredients are very basic:
- Pork butt or Boston butt (they’re the same thing). We smoked one that was 9 pounds, which is a pretty large cut of meat.
- Dry Rub to go onto the butt
- A bit of oil for the grill
- (Optional) Liquid for the drip pan – you want some kind of liquid in your drip pan to keep the meat moist. Some people use juice or soda, but I just used water.
That’s all you need to smoke a pork butt. You may also want some barbeque sauce, buns, or coleslaw to make sandwiches with once you’re done, but that’s completely up to you.
You could also use your pork for tacos or serve it without bread. It’s an extremely versatile meat, and once you cook 9 pounds of it in one sitting, you’ll have several chances to enjoy it.
Smoking equipment that we used:
- Primo Oval XL 400
- Cast Iron Divider from Primo
- Ceramic heat deflectors from Primo.
- The ceramic heat deflector rack
- The Flame Boss 500
- (Optional) Hardwood Lump Charcoal
- Pecan Cooking Chunks or Cherry Cooking Chunks from Cutting Edge Firewood
The equipment was amazing and made the job much easier.
In particular, we loved the Flame Boss. It felt like cheating (and some purists probably would call it cheating), but it’s better unless you prefer to do things the hard way.
The Flame Boss deserves its post in the future, but basically, it monitors the temperature both inside the pit and inside the meat. It also controls a small fan, which can blow air into the smoker to raise the temperature as required. It’s a clever design and makes it very easy to reach and maintain a consistent temperature when you cook for long periods.
You can monitor and adjust the temperature on the Flame Boss itself, on your phone, or even through Alexa devices.
We had to choose which type of wood to smoke with as well and, as the Pecan chunks were recently featured in Garden and Gun magazine, they are a great option.
How to Smoke your First Pork Butt (or Boston Butt)
When it comes to smoking your first pork butt there are a ton of great resources out there from experienced backyard bbq masters.
But sometimes the experts forget about the things that newbies don’t know, so we’re going to share our whole experience and hopefully add something useful to the world.
Step 1: Prepare the meat the night before: Preparing the meat is relatively simple. If there is excess fat, you can (optional) cut some of it off (but don’t cut too much because that provides flavor and juiciness). Try to leave at least ¼ inch of fat when trimming.
Next pat the meat dry with a paper towel. then choose the dry rub of your choice and cover that butt as best you can with it. Wrap the butt fully in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge to soak in all that flavor overnight.
Step 2: Preheat the Smoker and Prewarm the meat: Most smokers take at least 20-30 minutes to get to the right temperature. Before lighting up the grill, however, make sure you take the pork out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter for at least one hour. Allowing it to warm up a bit and get closer to room temperature will help it cook more evenly.
Light up the grill and bring it to temperature. Use lots of wood or wood and charcoal so you don’t have to add more halfway through your cook. If you are using all wood, we recommend using oak or cherry as a replacement for charcoal. Whatever wood you are using for flavor, put it on right before the food.
Most people smoke pork at 225F, but some will go at 250F.
Step 3: Drip pan and Meat into the Smoker: Once the smoker is at temperature, it’s time to start cooking!
First, (if you are using a drip pan) place the drip pan into the grill below where the meat will go. Don’t add liquid to the drip pan until you have placed it (or, you can discover for yourself how difficult it is to slide a pan full of liquid into a hot grill). Once the drip pan is in, add your liquid and then place the pork butt into the smoker.
You should place the meat on the grill with the fat cap (the fattier side) facing up, so all the fat mixes in with the meat as it cooks.
It’s also important that you place the meat on indirect heat! You don’t want burning charcoal or smoking wood directly under the pork butt. Use a ceramic heat deflector, which will allow the smoker to maintain an even temperature around the meat and help your butt cook evenly.
Step 4: Play the waiting game: Pulled pork can take a long time to smoke. If you want an estimate, plan for 1-2 hours for each pound of meat. This creates quite a broad range. Our first Boston butt was 9 pounds and took about 13 hours. The second one was 10 pounds and took 22 hours!
The good news is that the pork, pre-pulled, will stay hot for a long time as well, so if you get done earlier than expected, you’ll probably be okay.
Resist the temptation to open your smoker throughout the day!
Each time you open it, you lose a lot of heat and it will not only cause the process to take longer but can cause uneven cooking. You may need to check it a couple of times to ensure the drip pan still has liquid in it or that your charcoal is still in good shape, but otherwise, leave it alone!
This is where having a Flame Boss can be so helpful. The picture above shows how it monitors the temperature of your pit (red line), your meat (yellow line), fan output (green line), and goal temperature (blue line). You can see where, and when I opened the smoker, as the pit temperature dropped significantly.
It gives you good info on what’s happening, so (hopefully) you’re not so tempted to peek.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is an actual thing called the stall. A pork butt will heat at a pretty quick pace until it reaches 150F. Then all of a sudden, it stalls, and the temperature stops rising (sometimes even drops).
There’s a very technical, sciencey explanation for this, but the bottom line is…it happens. And it has led to many a panic attack among those new to bbq!
It may even get stuck there for as much as an hour or two, but don’t worry – this is normal. Eventually, it will get going again and reach the goal temperature. If you hit a stall, do NOT turn up the heat, just keep playing the waiting game!
Step 5: Remove when the pork reaches 203F: You need to cook pork butts to a pretty high temperature. The extra heat breaks down the tough collagen tissue into gelatin which is what makes pulled pork so juicy and tender. Only low and slow cooking can achieve this miracle.
Once your meat reaches 203F, it is time to take it off the smoker.
Wrap it in aluminum foil and let it rest for 30-60 minutes. This lets the meat cool down a bit and helps the juices thicken and distribute themselves.
Step 6: Pull that pork! There are several ways to pull pork. The most basic (and the one we used) just takes a couple of forks. This can be difficult if your meat is still tough, but hopefully, it will be very tender and fall apart easily.
Bear claws are another great option.
Step 7: Eat it! Once pulled, your pork is ready to eat.
We were extremely happy with how our pork butt turned out.
It was far more juicy, tender, and flavorful than anything we had made in a crockpot. The pecan wood added a subtle nutty flavor that was quite delicious. We had pulled pork for several days, shared it with friends, and even put some in the freezer!
- Add more charcoal or wood: You can easily lose about cook time or even the meat if the fire runs out of fuel. It’s always better to have excess charcoal or cooking wood because you can use it again for your next cook – so you don’t have to worry about wasting it!
- The Flame Boss was amazing: Seriously, we recommend this tool to anyone wanting to improve their low and slow cooking skills
- If you’re looking, you aren’t cooking: We know…it’s tempting to look at your meat and check it throughout the day. Don’t do it. Every time you open it, you lose significant cook time. Not just while it is open, but the pit also needs time to heat back up.
Cook the day before a party: This didn’t really hit home until our second cook.
We had some friends coming over on a Friday, and the original plan was to wake up very early and start cooking the butt so it would be hot off the smoker in time for dinner.
This would have worked great if it took 14 hours, but instead, it took 22 hours to cook! Our dinner party would have been a disaster, but fortunately, circumstances forced us to start on Thursday.
The nice thing is, pulled pork is easy to reheat and still tastes just as good! So, if you’re making food for an event, always give yourself plenty of time!
All in all, this is an awesome meat for cooking low and slow. If you have any points or tips for others new to the world of grilling and smoking, please share them in the comments below!