When you bring a pork shoulder home from the butcher shop, you might expect it to lose some of its package weight due to trimming. But how much does the meat shrink while it’s cooking, and what does that mean for your barbecue? We’re here to provide you with the answers so you’re not caught off guard when serving time rolls around.
How Much Does Pork Shoulder Shrink As It Cooks?
Expect pork shoulder and pork butt to shrink by 30 percent during cooking. Since it’s better to have too much meat than too little, we prefer to estimate the shrinkage factor at 50 percent. This means we can trim away the skin and some of the fat, if necessary, without harming the total yield.
What Causes Meat Shrinkage?
Why is a cooked piece of meat so much smaller than it was when it was raw? The answer comes down to one simple element: Water.
A cut of meat is home to millions of protein molecules, which are all packed tightly together. This protein is what gives the meat its firm texture and holds the moisture inside. As you may know, meat is made up of 60 to 75 percent water, so these molecules are doing an important job.
When the protein molecules are exposed to heat, they contract, which expels the moisture. This loss of liquid is what causes the meat to shrink. That’s why your cooked pork shoulder will weigh significantly less than its raw, moisture-laden former self.
How Cooking Methods Contribute To Shrinkage
Since smoking is a dry heat method, you can expect the pork to shrink more than it would if you’d used a moist heat technique like braising. That’s because the meat is exposed to liquid throughout the cooking process, which keeps it plump and juicy.
We should point out that smoking the meat over low heat will cause less shrinkage than if you’d used a higher temperature. That’s why we suggest setting the smoker temp to 225 degrees for smoked pork shoulder. You can set it anywhere from 200 to 350 degrees, but we find the sweet spot of 225 to be ideal.
Spritzing or misting the meat with liquid throughout the smoke can also help curb the shrinkage factor. It will also contribute flavor to the bark. However, we don’t think this step is necessary, as it causes smoke and heat to leach out of the smoker each time you open the lid. We would rather take the extra shrinkage into account instead.
How Much Does Pork Shoulder Shrink On Average?
Cuts like pork shoulder and pork butt will shrink by about 30 percent during cooking. That’s because the meat contains a great deal of fat, which will render out and contribute to the shrinkage factor. On the other end of the spectrum, a lean cut like beef sirloin will only shrink by 15 percent or so.
Since we prefer to buy more product than we think we’ll need, we estimate that the cooked pork butt or shoulder will weigh roughly 50 percent less than it did when we bought it. Not only does this make calculations easier, it all but guarantees that we’ll have some meat left over, which is one of the best aspects of any barbecue.
Do You Need To Trim Pork Shoulder?
It’s up to you whether you want to trim pork butt or shoulder for the smoker. When it’s cooked properly, most of the fat should render out, and it’s generally easy to remove any excess when you’re slicing or shredding the meat.
That said, if there are any smaller bits of fat hanging off the sides, feel free to trim them off before you season and cook the meat. Otherwise, they’ll crisp up and burn before the meat is finished cooking. This could impart a bitter flavor to the pork.
Pork shoulder is often sold with the skin still attached. This is essential to the success of some recipes, particularly those with Latin or Asian origins. If you’re planning on making pulled pork, however, you can trim the skin off along with any excess fat.
How To Calculate Serving Sizes
How much pulled pork should you plan to serve per person? The answer depends on a number of factors.
If the party is early in the day, if there will be a lot of young children there, or if you have a number of other items on the menu, you can aim for serving sizes of 1/4 pound per person.
On the other hand, if you’re hosting an evening gathering that’s made up of mostly adults, and the pulled pork is the star of the show, an estimated serving size of 1/3 pound per person is preferable. In fact, we tend to plan on 1/3 pound per person anyway, just to make sure we don’t lack for leftovers afterward.
Since we’re assuming that the trimmed and cooked pork shoulder will weigh about 50 percent as much as the raw version, you should purchase twice as much as your estimated yield. For example, if you’re hosting 12 people, you’re going to want 4 pounds of cooked pork. That means the pork shoulder you buy should weigh 8 pounds when it hits the smoker.
If you can’t find a single pork shoulder in your target weight range, try buying two smaller ones and smoking them together. As a bonus, this will cut way down on the total cooking time.
Also, don’t worry if their combined weight is a little too high. It’s better to end up with more than you need than to run out of food.
About Pork Shoulder Netting
Sometimes, butchers will sell pork shoulder in netting made of cotton or polyester string. The netting helps the pork retain its shape as it cooks. Sometimes, it’s even holding together several smaller cuts.
Unless it’s made of plastic or another non-heatproof material, leave the netting in place while you smoke the pork. The shrinkage will make it easier to remove the material once the meat has finished resting.
The Bottom Line
Although pork shoulder and pork butt only shrink by about 30 percent on average, we prefer to round that number up to 50 percent. That way, we can ensure that we’ll have plenty of cooked meat on hand. When the cooking process takes the better part of a day, it’s better to be cautious.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!