A thick layer of skin is one of the attributes that distinguishes pork shoulder from pork butt. Sometimes the butcher will remove it, but more often than not, it will be your burden to bear. Or is it a blessing in disguise? Let’s find out if it’s better to smoke pork shoulder skin on or off.
Pork Shoulder Skin On or Off
Whether or not you leave the skin on the pork shoulder depends on what you plan to do with it. For pulled pork, it’s a good idea to remove most of the skin. For other dishes that would benefit from the crispy texture, though, you should leave it in place.
Pork Butt vs Pork Shoulder: What’s the Difference?
Pork shoulder and pork butt are both sections of the whole pork shoulder. That may sound confusing, but if you look at a diagram of the entire hog, it begins to make more sense.
The butt, which might be labeled as Boston butt, is cut from the upper segment of the shoulder. The part known as the pork shoulder or picnic shoulder, meanwhile, comes from the lower segment, just above the hock.
You can use either of these cuts to make pulled pork. If you opt for the shoulder, however, you may be in for a bit of extra work. We’ll explain this more in the following sections.
Should The Pork Shoulder Be Boneless or Bone-In?
We would look for bone-in meat whenever possible, especially for pulled pork. The bone will contribute a hearty meat flavor to the finished product. It will also help it retain moisture as it cooks.
Bone-in pork shoulder has another benefit: It’s often cheaper than boneless. Since the cut is inexpensive to begin with, this can help you put together a great meal for mere pennies per serving.
That said, many supermarkets only carry the boneless variety. If that’s all you can find, don’t worry. The pulled pork will still be delicious, provided you follow the right recipe. As a bonus, your total meat yield will be higher, and you’ll have less waste to deal with afterward.
Pork Shoulder Skin On or Off: Weighing The Options
Pork butt is usually the better choice when making pulled pork. You can use pork shoulder instead, but if you do, it’s best to remove the skin beforehand.
Why? Because the skin will prevent the seasoning rub from permeating the meat itself. In order to get the right balance of flavors, you should trim the pork shoulder to remove the skin before adding the rub.
Alternatively, you can ask the butcher to do it. That way, you won’t be paying for a byproduct that you won’t use.
On the other hand, pork skin can be an excellent ingredient in its own right. When you trim it yourself, you’ll have the option of roasting and seasoning it, at which point it can be enjoyed as a salad topping or an appealing snack. See How To Make Crispy Pork Rinds, below.
Trimming Pork Shoulder
First, remove the meat from the packaging. Rinse the pork under cold running water. This will help remove any salt solution or other preservatives that can make the meat excessively salty.
Next, trim away as much of the skin as you’d like. Turn the pork shoulder on its side and slide the knife under one edge of the skin. Cut along the length of the pork shoulder, pulling the skin away as you go. The job is easier if you have a sturdy pair of kitchen scissors.
If you leave some of the skin in place, it can help to flavor the meat as it cooks. You can mix in the crisp skin with the pork once it’s shredded. To allow the seasoning rub to penetrate, use the trimming knife to score small X’s in the skin, going all the way down to the flesh.
At this point, it’s permissible to remove some of the fat as well. Remember, though, that most of the fat will render during the long smoke. If there are any large chunks left over, you’ll be able to remove them before serving.
How To Make Crispy Pork Rinds
You can use the skin you trimmed from the pork shoulder to make homemade pork rinds. The process isn’t difficult, and it’s satisfying to use as much of the cut as possible.
Start with a generous amount of pork skin–at least 1 pound. Cut it into bite-sized pieces about 2 inches square. Even if it doesn’t look like much now, bear in mind that the skin will puff up as it cooks, leaving you with pieces that are about twice the size as they are now.
Set the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the prepared pork skin on a baking sheet, skin side down. Bake for 3 hours. This will dehydrate the skin so that it puffs up properly in the hot fat.
When the pork rinds begin to resemble beef jerky, they’re finished dehydrating. Remove them from the oven and set them aside to cool.
In a deep stainless steel pan, heat a generous amount of lard or neutral oil. The fat should come about 1/3 of the way up the sides of the pan. Heat over medium-high heat for 6-8 minutes, or until the oil is bubbling. It needs to achieve a temperature of 385-400 degrees in order to fry the pork skin.
Drop the pieces of skin in the oil 2-3 at a time, frying them for 30-45 seconds or until they’re puffed and floating in the hot oil. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate and repeat until all the pieces are crisp.
Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week. Don’t eat them if they begin to smell rancid–that means the rinds have spoiled.
When To Leave The Skin On
As is often the case, there are two sides to this story. It’s not necessary to leave the skin in place when making pulled pork, and doing so would detract from the quality of the dish. However, there are many other pork recipes that would benefit from all that crispy skin.
Pernil, a Puerto Rican dish made from pork shoulder, wouldn’t be the same without the “cracklings” around the edges. Some Cuban recipes, too, call for bone-in, skin-on pork. In our recipe for slow-cooked pork shoulder, below, the skin is as much of an ingredient as the meat itself.
Slow-Cooked Skin-On Pork Shoulder
Before you begin, score the skin in a crosshatch pattern using a small, sharp knife. This will allow the rendered fat to keep the pork moist as it cooks and allow the seasonings to penetrate past the skin.
- 1 skin-on bone-in pork shoulder, 6-8 pounds
- 1/4 cup black peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
1. Use a spice grinder to grind the peppercorns and coriander seeds. Mix with the cumin, salt, and brown sugar in a small bowl.
2. Rub the spice mixture all over the prepared pork, rubbing it between the deep slashes you made in the skin.
3. Cover the pork and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
4. Preheat the smoker to 225 degrees.
5. When the smoker is ready, place the pork on the cooking grate and close the lid. Cook until the pork shoulder reaches an internal temp of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, about 7-8 hours.
6. Remove the pork from the smoker and set it aside to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. The lines you scored in the skin should help you carve the meat into neat slices.
7. Serve the pork with cranberry sauce or your favorite mustard.
The Bottom Line
You don’t have to remove the skin from pork shoulder, but if you leave it in place, make sure to use a recipe that will benefit from it. If you have your heart set on pulled pork, you’ll either have to remove the skin or try to find pork butt instead.
Best of luck with your pork shoulder!