A dependable thermometer is the only reliable method when it comes to testing meat for doneness. Even if you have one, though, large cuts of meat can be tricky. In our in-depth guide, we’ll teach you where to probe pork shoulder to ensure accurate temperature readouts every time.
Where To Probe Pork Shoulder
When smoking large cuts of meat, you should always probe toward the thickest part of the roast. If you stray toward the edges, you might fool yourself into thinking the meat is done before it’s had a chance to cook all the way through. Also, steer clear of any bones or pockets of fat, as these will throw off the results.
About Pork Shoulder
Pork shoulder comes from the foreleg of the hog, above the hock. Since the meat is taken from the area where the leg connects to the belly, it has a lopsided triangular appearance. It’s a tough, fatty cut that benefits from slow cooking. That’s why it’s a great choice for the smoker.
This cut may be sold either boneless or bone-in. The boneless variety might cook more quickly, but the bone contributes moisture and flavor. Don’t forget that if you buy a bone-in roast, your meat yield will be lower, since the bone makes up a percentage of the total weight.
You might also hear this cut described as a “picnic shoulder” or “picnic roast.” If it’s called a “picnic ham,” that usually means the meat was smoked or cured in advance. Check the labeling on the package if you’re unsure about this.
Is Pork Shoulder The Same As Pork Butt?
Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, pork shoulder and pork butt are technically two different cuts. Each one represents half of a whole pork shoulder (see What If I’m Smoking The Whole Pork Shoulder?, below). You can usually swap one for the other in recipes, but the cuts aren’t identical.
For one thing, pork butt is usually barrel-shaped instead of triangular. It’s taken from the area just above the picnic shoulder, between the head and the loin. The meat is rich in fat and connective tissue, so it’s very flavorful when it’s cooked right. It also has a noticeable amount of marbling, which is a type of intramuscular fat.
Pork shoulder doesn’t have the same amount of marbling, which is another factor that helps to set it apart from pork butt. In addition, the picnic shoulder is often sold with the skin on, so it’s a better choice for recipes that call for crispy skin.
For pulled pork, you ought to be able to use either pork butt or pork shoulder. The results should be more or less the same. If given the choice, we would recommend pork butt, only because its compact shape makes it easier to work with. It also allows the meat to cook through more evenly.
Smoked Pork Shoulder: Finding The Optimum Temperature
When you’re preparing pork shoulder on the smoker, you have a couple of options in terms of a final cooking temperature.
When you want the pork to be tender enough to fall apart under light pressure, an internal temperature of 195-210 degrees is recommended. If you’re making pulled pork, this is essential.
At 195 degrees, the meat will shred easily, but when it’s cooked a bit longer, it will be even softer. Just take care not to cook it past 210 degrees, or the texture will begin to suffer. You want the meat to be tender, but still juicy. These rules apply to pork butt and pork shoulder alike.
If you’ve decided on pork shoulder, however, you have another option: slicing the meat rather than shredding it. The pork should be tender enough to carve into thin slices when it reaches 180-185 degrees. Use this as your target temperature if you’re serving the meat as a pork roast, or if you just prefer your barbecue sliced or chopped.
Where To Probe Pork Shoulder and Pork Butt
Now that you know what the preferred temperatures are, you need to know how to get an accurate readout. There’s a science to it, just as there is for all cooking techniques.
Because pork shoulder has an irregular shape, the edges will cook through before the entire roast is done. For this reason, you want to insert the probe toward the center, or wherever the meat is thickest.
Try to get the probe as close to the center of the roast as you can. When the numbers hold steady at your target temperature, you’re ready to move on to the next step.
Similarly, for pork butt, choose a section toward the middle of the roast. The uniform shape will make it easier to choose a spot, but make sure not to stray too close to the edge.
In any case, try to avoid any fatty areas. The fat conducts heat differently than the surrounding flesh, so touching it with the probe would lead to an inaccurate readout.
The same rule applies if you’re smoking a bone-in pork butt or shoulder. The bone doesn’t have the same thermal properties as the meat itself. If the probe touches the bone, you could wind up with undercooked meat.
What If I’m Smoking The Whole Pork Shoulder?
Although the whole pork shoulder is quite large—12 to 18 pounds on average—it isn’t any more difficult to make than its subsections. The only difference is that it will take longer to cook.
To probe a whole pork shoulder, choose a spot well away from the bone. The thickest portion of the butt end is preferable, since the shoulder section may be smaller and flatter. When you get a readout within your target range, it’s time to take the meat off the smoker.
The Bottom Line
Pork butt and pork shoulder are large cuts of meat that should be cooked for hours in order to yield juicy, delectable results. When you’re ready to test the temperature, choose a spot where the meat is thickest, staying at least an inch away from the bone. This should give you a clear and accurate result.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!