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
Also known as pork butt and Boston butt, pork shoulder is a flavorful and fatty cut that’s taken from the area around the pig’s upper back. The term pork butt can be misleading, but shoulder is the most accurate description.
This cut is typically sold 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.
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 butt will take 48 to 60 hours to thaw.
When you’ve used the refrigerator method, the thawed pork butt 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.
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 butt along with a generous quantity of water.
Place the wrapped pork butt 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 butt 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.
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.
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.