Defrosting Pork Shoulder: How To Safely Thaw Your Meat

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pork shoulder ready to be cut to prepare stew and soup

As every pitmaster knows, pork shoulder takes a long time to cook. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead, particularly if the meat has been frozen beforehand. Let’s talk about defrosting pork shoulder in a safe and timely fashion, so you can be fully prepared for your next cookout.

Defrosting/Thawing Pork Shoulder

If pork shoulder is thawed in the refrigerator, it takes about 24 hours for every five pounds of meat. If you use the cold water method, the pork should thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. In this case, the meat should be cooked off as soon as possible.

About Pork Shoulder

Pork shoulder is a flavorful and fatty cut that’s taken from the upper foreleg of the hog. When the shoulder is sold whole, it includes the pork butt, which is located a bit higher up. In most cases, though, the butt and shoulder are sold separately.

This cut is typically available in large slabs. It’s possible to find pieces in the 3- to 4-pound range, but 8- to 10-pound cuts are typical.

Pork shoulder should keep for about six to eight months when it’s properly stored in the freezer. If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to wait that long before firing up the grill again, but it’s best to mark the package with the date just in case.

Safely Defrosting Pork Shoulder: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

There are several methods for thawing pork shoulder safely. The most important thing to remember is never to thaw pork shoulder at room temperature.

raw cut of pork shoulder on board with knife

In fact, that’s true of any meat product. If the meat sits at room temperature for too long, it attracts dangerous food-borne pathogens. For best results, use one of the methods described below.


This is the best option for thawing pork shoulder. However, it is time-consuming, so make sure to plan ahead.

After removing the pork shoulder from the freezer, place it in a baking dish that’s lined with paper towels. You can also use a wire rack set on top of a sheet pan, which allows for better air circulation. In either case, make sure the sides of the pan are high enough to catch any juices that run out during the thaw.

Set the pork on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to thaw. This will help to prevent any cross-contamination if the drippings should leak out of the pan.

Allow the pork to sit in the refrigerator undisturbed until it’s fully thawed. The entire process should take 24 hours for every five pounds of meat. That means a 10- to 12-pound pork shoulder will take 48 to 60 hours to thaw.

When you’ve used the refrigerator method, the thawed pork should be consumed within three to five days. This comes in handy if your cooking plans are flexible. Still, we would recommend cooking it off as soon as possible so that the meat stays fresh.

Cold Water

This is a great method if you’re pressed for time. All you need is a container that’s large enough to hold the pork shoulder along with a generous quantity of water.

Place the wrapped pork in the container, then fill the container with water. It helps if the water covers the pork completely. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to rotate the meat when you change out the water.

After 30 minutes, drain the container and fill it with a fresh supply of cold water, rotating the pork as needed. The meat should thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. That means you can start cooking the pork on the same day you removed it from the freezer, depending on timing.

One important thing to remember: Never refreeze pork that’s been thawed using the cold water method. It’s not a good idea to refreeze thawed meat anyway, but in this case, it’s an essential rule to follow.

Also, make sure to cook the meat as soon as possible after thawing. Even though this method is perfectly safe, some portions of the pork shoulder might have gotten warmer than others. It’s better to cook it off right away, just to err on the side of caution.

Tip: You might think that using warm water would help to speed the process along, but don’t fall into that trap. Warm water invites the same food-borne pathogens that you’re trying to avoid.

A Word about Microwave Thawing

Certain meat products can be thawed in the microwave. Steaks, hamburgers, pork chops, and chicken breasts are all good candidates for the method.

However, it’s not a good idea to thaw pork shoulder in the microwave because the cuts are so large. The meat wouldn’t have a chance to defrost evenly, and some parts might even start to cook while others were still frozen solid.

Can You Cook Pork Shoulder Without Defrosting It?

Again, you can start to cook some meat products while they’re still in their frozen state. This can be an ideal time-saving trick on nights when you’ve forgotten to plan ahead.

That said, we wouldn’t recommend putting pork shoulder on the grill before it’s had a chance to thaw. Why? Because the cooking process will take longer than if you’d used the cold water method.

Frozen meat takes about 50 percent more time to cook than food that’s been thawed in advance. Assuming that the grill is set to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, a thawed 10-pound pork butt will take about 20 hours to cook. If it’s frozen, it won’t be done for at least 30 hours. That eliminates any benefit you would get from skipping the defrosting process.

Preparing Pork Shoulder for the Grill

When the pork shoulder is fully thawed, it’s time to get it ready for the grill.

First, remove the thawed pork from the fridge or water bath. Unwrap the meat carefully over the pan or container you used for defrosting, taking care to catch any juice runoff. If any juices splatter onto the sink or countertop, don’t forget to disinfect the surface after you’ve dealt with the raw pork.

Because the grill or smoker will take time to reach the desired temperature, we like to fire it up before we do anything else. 225 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temp for slow-smoked pulled pork, but setting the smoker to 250 will move the process along. Alternatively, you can crank it up to 275 degrees, which will speed things up even more.

If necessary, trim any excess fat from the pork shoulder using a thin, sharp knife. Be careful not to remove too much, or your pulled pork will turn out too dry. Pat the meat dry with paper towels.

Coat the entire outer surface of the pork with a thin layer of prepared mustard. Regular yellow mustard is fine, but you can use anything that you happen to have in the refrigerator.

Next, apply the seasoning rub. A blend of brown sugar, seasoning or kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and cumin is a good bet. If there’s a store-bought blend that you prefer, you can use that one. Otherwise, it’s easy enough to make a homemade batch, provided you have the right ingredients in the spice cupboard.

If you’ve used the refrigerator method to thaw the pork, you can season it up to a day in advance. Some pitmasters believe that this makes the meat more flavorful, because it gives the spices a chance to permeate the surface. While we don’t think this is necessary, it does save time when you’re ready to start cooking.

Set the pork shoulder on the smoker fat side up. Close the lid and let the meat cook for about 2 hours per pound, until it registers at least 195 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

big piece of slow cooked oven barbecued pulled pork shoulder

As soon as the pork is done, remove it from the heat and wrap it in foil. Allow it to rest for at least 50-60 minutes at room temperature before unwrapping and shredding the meat.


What’s the Best Method for Defrosting Pork Shoulder?

The safest and most effective method is to defrost pork shoulder in the refrigerator. It should thaw at a rate of 24 hours for each 5 pounds of meat.

What’s the Fastest Way to Defrost Pork Shoulder?

The microwave would probably be the fastest, but I don’t like to use this method, especially for such a large cut. Instead, soak the wrapped pork butt in a cold water bath for 30 minutes per pound, or until fully defrosted.

Can I Cook Pork Shoulder Without Defrosting It?

You can, but the cooking process will take about 50 percent longer. Since a 10-pound pork butt can take 15 to 20 hours to cook even when it’s defrosted, you’d be looking at a 22- to 30-hour cooking process. It’s better to thaw the meat in cold water first.

Can I Defrost Pork Shoulder at Room Temperature?

Don’t do this. The meat needs to stay below 40 degrees Fahrenheit when it’s defrosting. Otherwise, you’re inviting bacteria to set up camp, which will render the pork unsafe to eat.

Can I Put Defrosted Pork Shoulder Back in the Fridge?

Only if you defrosted it in the refrigerator to begin with. Meat that’s been defrosted in cold water (or in the microwave) needs to be cooked right away.

Can I Refreeze Defrosted Pork Shoulder?

Again, you can do this as long as you used the refrigerator method. It’s safe to refreeze defrosted meat, but doing so can decrease the moisture content and the overall quality.

Do I Have to Defrost Cooked Pork Shoulder Before Reheating It?

Not necessarily, but it’s a good idea to defrost the pork shoulder first if you left it whole. If the meat is sliced or shredded, it will still reheat better if it’s thawed, but you can skip the defrosting step if you’re pressed for time.

Final Thoughts

Since it takes such a long time to cook pork shoulder in the first place, you want to make sure the meat is fully defrosted before you begin. That way, you can relax as the smoker does its work, knowing that the meat will cook as evenly as possible.

Happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


4 thoughts on “Defrosting Pork Shoulder: How To Safely Thaw Your Meat”

  1. I’ve had my 4 1/2 pound pork shoulder blade roast in the refrigerator for two days and it is still frozen on the inside. Can I spice it and put it back in the fridge until I cook it tomorrow. My plan is to cook it in a slow cooker.

  2. If You freeze a 3 pound pork and put it in the refrigerator for two days to unfreeze take it out and marinate it. Can you put it back for two days in the refrigerator and cook it on the third day

  3. I left my 4 pound pork in the refrigerator to defrost and after 30 hours it was still frozen. I am now putting it in the cold water. What happens if water gets into the Ziploc bag during the process of cold water defrosting?
    Thank you

  4. I’m thawing a 9# pork butt this Wednesday to cook Friday night overnight in slow cooker. Hosting a Harvest Party on Saturday, 10/21/23. I’m reading 10-12 hours on low. I do have a dry rub I will be using, in addition to your recipe. Are you ok with using the rub and the time. Any other suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you!!


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