After you’ve preheated the smoker and coated the pork butt with the perfect blend of seasonings, you’re ready to start cooking. The question is, do you position the pork butt fat side up or down? And why is this important? Our guide has the answers you’re looking for.
Pork Butt Fat Side Up or Down
We think it’s best to cook the pork butt with the fat side facing up. The fat will slowly baste the pork as it renders, keeping the meat tender and moist. This method will also help you avoid flare-ups, which could occur if the melting pork fat was in direct contact with the heat source.
Buying Pork Butt
If you’ve never purchased pork butt before, it can be confusing at first. That’s because the cut goes by several different names. It might also be labeled with the name Boston butt or pork shoulder.
Pork butt and Boston butt are similar enough not to confuse most people, especially if they can get a good look at the meat beforehand. However, pork shoulder is a more accurate term. The meat is actually taken from the area around the pig’s shoulder, and not the posterior, as the other terms might lead you to believe.
Pork butt is sold either boneless or bone-in. The bone lends texture and flavor to the meat and cooking juices, but bone-in cuts will also yield less meat per pound. Either way, you can expect the pork to be very fatty, with ribbons of cartilage and connective tissue running through it.
Like many large cuts of pork or beef, pork butt includes a fat cap. This is a layer of solid white fat that sits on top of the cut. It can measure up to an inch thick, which is a daunting sight for some chefs.
Even so, we would recommend leaving most of that glorious fat right where it is. If you trim too much fat off the pork shoulder, your end result won’t have the right amount of moisture.
Fresh pork butt will be dark pink in color, with creamy white fat. If the meat has any grayish brown patches, or if it’s overly dry to the touch, it may have gone bad. In these cases, return it to the butcher shop or supermarket and exchange it for a fresh cut.
Preparing Pork Butt for the Smoker
Once you’ve determined that your pork butt is fresh, it’s time to get it ready for the grill or smoker.
Trim away any excess fat, taking care not to overdo it. As a rule, we recommend trimming only the fat that hangs off the edges. You want the pork butt to have a shape that’s more or less uniform before you add it to the smoker.
Pat the meat dry with paper towels. Apply a small amount of yellow or Dijon mustard to the entire surface of the pork butt, then add your favorite seasoning rub. The mustard might seem like an odd ingredient, but it helps the spices stick to the meat instead of the grilling grates.
Preheat the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, pork butt will cook at a rate of around 2 hours per pound. If you want the process to go more quickly, try raising the temperature to 250 or 275 degrees.
Benefits to Cooking the Pork Fat Side Up
So, now that it’s time to add the meat to the grill, do you place the pork butt fat side up or down?
The answer is simple: Always position the meat with the fat side facing up. Here’s why.
When the fat is facing up, it will act as a natural basting liquid for the pork as it renders out. While the fat doesn’t penetrate too deeply beneath the surface of the meat, it still helps it retain a high degree of moisture.
Detractors of this method claim that the melting fat cap will rinse away the seasoning rub. While this is a good point, we think these naysayers are worrying overtime. As long as you’ve applied the rub correctly, using the mustard layer beforehand, the meat will still be well-seasoned and flavorful when it’s finished cooking.
The Other Side
In the interest of keeping things fair, we should point out that many pitmasters do cook their pork butt with the fat side facing down. They claim that this allows the fat cap to act as an insulator against the direct heat, which keeps the pork from drying out as it cooks.
In addition, the pork butt will form an impressive-looking bark when the meat side is facing up. If the meat is resting against the cooking grates, it will form grill marks, which can interfere with the production of good crisp bark.
These are all valid points. However, we stand by our conviction that it’s better to cook the pork fat side up. The fat is going to render and drip off the meat in any case, and if it’s exposed to the direct heat, you may have to deal with flare-ups. This will give the meat a charred exterior, which will detract from the flavor.
About the Flip
Believe it or not, there’s a third alternative. You can also flip the pork butt from time to time, so the fat cap faces both up and down at various intervals.
Because most pitmasters have definite ideas about which way the fat cap should be facing, this is considered an unorthodox method.
If you do decide to turn the pork butt over while it’s cooking, take care not to let too much fat drip onto the coals or heating elements. Also, it’s important to do the job quickly. When the lid or door of the smoker is open, precious heat is wafting away. This can increase the overall cooking time, which is long enough when you’re making pork butt.
A Word About Rotation
Even if you don’t plan on flipping the pork butt over, you might want to consider rotating the meat as it cooks. Different smokers have different hot and cold spots, so moving the meat around can ensure that it cooks evenly.
Every two hours or so, carefully turn the pork butt about 45 degrees to one side. This will also expose more of the surface area to the smoke, so the meat will be fully permeated with flavor. As always, try to work quickly so that the smoker doesn’t lose a lot of heat in the process.
Does It Really Matter?
In a final attempt to play the devil’s advocate, we should add that you can achieve great results whether the fat cap is facing up or down. As long as you’ve followed the guidelines for the overall cooking time, you should be rewarded with pulled pork that’s tender and delicious.
In fact, some chefs recommend trimming the fat cap off altogether, claiming that the pork will have enough flavor without it. Obviously, we disagree with this claim, but it’s still worth mentioning.
The Texas Crutch
Once you’ve positioned the pork with the fat side up, close the lid of the smoker. Allow the meat to cook for about two hours per pound. This means that an 8-pound pork butt should take 16 hours to cook. Remember this when you’re making your plans, particularly if you’ll be hosting a party.
If you’d like to speed things along, consider utilizing the Texas crutch. This shortcut involves wrapping the pork butt in a layer of tin foil during the central portion of the cook.
The Texas crutch doesn’t shorten the overall cooking time by that much—maybe a few hours, depending on the size of your pork butt. Still, that time can make a world of difference.
After the meat has spent a few hours on the grill, the internal temperature will hit a plateau. This phenomenon, which is known as “the stall,” typically occurs around the 150 to 170 degree mark—about two-thirds of the way through the cooking time.
The bark is another sign that the meat is ready for the crutch. When the surface of the meat has achieved a dark mahogany color and crispy texture, you can take it off the grill for the next step.
Set out two long pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil so that the layers overlap. Place the pork in the center of the foil. If you’d like, add a tablespoon or two of apple juice, cider, beer, or plain water. This liquid will evaporate to create steam, keeping the meat nice and moist.
Wrap the foil tightly around the pork butt to form a good seal. If you’ve left the meat thermometer probe in the pork, crimp the foil around it as tightly as possible.
Return the pork to the smoker. Cook until the meat achieves an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit.
At this point, you can either remove the pork from the grill and let it rest until it’s time to serve, or unwrap it before returning it to cook over low heat for another 30 minutes. We prefer the latter method, as it gives the bark a chance to re-form and crisp up. In either case, let the meat rest for at least an hour before serving.
Whether you follow our advice or decide on an alternate route, we hope you find a method that works for you. The important thing is to season the pork butt and keep it cooking long enough to achieve crispy bark and tender meat.