Since pork shoulder is such an inexpensive option, it can be tempting to buy a lot of it at once. The problem is, you might not have the time to cook it off right away. That’s what freezers are for—but what if you’re ready to start cooking, and you forgot to defrost the pork?
Can You Smoke a Frozen Pork Shoulder?
Although it’s fine to cook smaller pieces of meat without thawing them, it’s not recommended for larger cuts like pork shoulder. The meat won’t cook evenly from a frozen state, and the practice might even result in food-borne illness. For best results, thaw the pork in a cold water bath or in the refrigerator.
Why It’s Important
New chefs might not think it makes any difference whether you thaw the meat or cook it right out of the freezer. In fact, cooking frozen meat can be hazardous if you’re not careful.
In order to be safe to consume, meat needs to be stored at temperatures below 40 degrees or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. When it falls between these temps, it enters what’s known as the danger zone. Here’s what that means.
Between 40 and 140 degrees, dangerous bacteria like E. coli and salmonella are capable of multiplying at alarming rates. This increases the risk of food-borne illnesses. If the meat stays in the danger zone for longer than 4 hours, it’s no longer safe to consume.
One of the reasons why it’s preferable to defrost meat before cooking it is to keep the meat out of the danger zone as much as possible. If you pop it right into the smoker from the freezer, some parts might climb above the 40-degree mark and hover there while the rest is still frozen. This is a particular concern with larger cuts like pork shoulder.
What’s more, you should increase the cooking time by 50 percent when preparing frozen meat. Since it takes such a long time to smoke a pork shoulder anyway, there’s no point in starting the process without thawing the meat first.
Does It Matter Which Cooking Method You Use?
Heat is heat, no matter what the source. While the smoker pays excellent dividends in the flavor department, cooking a frozen pork shoulder with this method isn’t any safer than it would be to roast it in the oven.
We should point out, though, that it is permissible to grill smaller cuts of meat without thawing them first. Since the cooking time is much shorter, grilled hamburgers and pork chops won’t stay in the danger zone for too long if you skip the thaw. You just need to cook them at a lower temperature, and extend the cooking time by about 50 percent.
What If The Meat Is Partially Thawed?
Putting a partially defrosted pork shoulder on the smoker isn’t a great idea either. When meat freezes, the protein fibers expand, which causes the cell walls to burst. As a result, the meat loses a great deal of liquid when it thaws out. That’s why you should always thaw meat in a shallow pan, to catch the runoff.
If you put the pork shoulder on the smoker when it’s still partly frozen, this moisture will seep out as the meat cooks. At this point, there’s no getting it back, and the meat might turn out dry and tough as a result.
Can You Smoke Thawed Pork Shoulder?
Yes. Actually, some of the meat you purchase in the supermarket may have been flash frozen already. This process helps keep larger ice crystals from forming, even if the meat is frozen again. Therefore, flash-freezing the pork can help it retain moisture as it cooks.
How To Thaw Pork Shoulder
In The Fridge
The best way to thaw pork shoulder is to take it out of the freezer with at least two days to spare, and put it in the refrigerator. When you use this method, the meat should thaw at a rate of 24 hours per 5 pounds of meat. This means an 8-10 pound pork shoulder should be ready to eat within 48 hours.
After removing the pork shoulder from the freezer, set it in an aluminum pan, or any shallow roasting pan with sides high enough to catch the juices. Place the pork on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, preferably toward the rear. If it’s too close to the door, it will be subject to bursts of warm air whenever you open the fridge.
Check to make sure the fridge temp is set to 39 degrees or below. Let the pork defrost, undisturbed, until it’s had a chance to fully thaw. If your start time is drawing near and the meat is still partly frozen, switch to the cold water method outlined below.
Once you’ve defrosted the meat in the refrigerator, you should cook it off within 4 to 5 days.
In Cold Water
This is the fastest way to defrost meat safely. To begin, make sure the pork shoulder is thoroughly wrapped. You don’t want any moisture to soak through the package, or you’ll end up with waterlogged meat.
Set the pork shoulder in a large container. Fill the container with cold water so that it covers the pork. After 30 minutes, drain the water and repeat the process, using the coldest water available. You may need to rotate the pork if it isn’t completely submerged when you start the process.
Pork shoulder typically takes 30 minutes per pound to thaw when you use the cold water technique. This makes it a great choice when you need to cook the meat on the same day you took it out of the freezer.
Once the pork is thawed, you’ll need to cook it off right away. Some parts may be warmer than others, and the only way to ensure safe cooking is to put it to the heat as soon as possible. Also, never refreeze any meat that’s been defrosted in cold water.
Can You Thaw Pork Shoulder in the Microwave?
The microwave is fine as a last resort when defrosting smaller cuts like pork chops. However, it’s not recommended for pork shoulder.
Just as the frozen pork may cook unevenly when placed on the smoker, it could defrost and even cook through in patches while the rest of it remains in a frozen state. Even if this weren’t unsafe, it would certainly result in unappetizing pork. To avoid this fate, use the cold water method any time you’re in a hurry to defrost.
Can You Thaw Pork Shoulder at Room Temperature?
Thawing meat at room temp is another major no-no. Standard room temperature usually hovers around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. As you’ve probably guessed, that places it right in the middle of the danger zone. If you leave the meat on the counter to thaw, it won’t be safe to eat, even if you cook it off immediately.
The Bottom Line
Can you smoke a frozen pork shoulder without taking the time to thaw it? While this can be a tempting idea, it’s better to defrost the meat first. If you’re going to prepare a large cut like pork shoulder, the last thing you want is to end up with meat that’s dry or unappetizing—or worse, hazardous to your health.
Be safe, and happy grilling!