Have you ever eaten a pork or beef dish that was so fall-apart-tender it was like cutting into butter? Maybe you ordered it at a restaurant and with each bite of succulent meat imagined the chef painstakingly standing over the cut for two days straight, cooking it low and slow to perfection.
The good news is you can replicate this at home with hardly any effort. The key is the buy a large cut of meat with lots of connective tissue and fat.
This is where the magic happens. When you take a tough cut of meat that's NOT super lean and you cook it beyond well-done, all of the connective tissues breaks apart and creates the most tender, luscious, shreddable meat.
If you've ever made pot roast, you know what I'm talking about. Take a simple chuck roast, coat it with spices, slow cook it for several hours and you have amazingly fork-tender beef to serve with your favorite sides like mashed potatoes and gravy.
Well, today I'm focusing on pork shoulder, which is the chuck roast of the pork world, except better. This is the cut of pork that magically transforms into crave-worthy pulled pork or carnitas.
You know, extra-napkins-required, barbecue-sauce-dripping pulled pork sandwiches and juicy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside street-style carnitas tacos topped with cilantro, onion, and red + green sauce.
The good stuff.
At this point, I should just admit that I'm a bonafide pork junkie. Between all the different types of ground sausage, salami, bacon, pork belly, ham, ribs, and pork shoulder...I could eat it every day. It probably doesn't help that I have access to fresh high-quality pork from humanely raised happy pigs 3/4 of the year (thank you Alpha Omega Acres).
An Updated Recipe
Just so you know, I originally shared this recipe and technique on The Rising Spoon back in 2012, and have decided to re-photograph and update it in a new post today.
Why? In the original post, I gave two methods for cooking pork shoulder--crock-pot and oven roasted--and I no longer use the latter technique. There's nothing wrong with using the oven. I just find the slow cooker way easier and more reliable. It always comes out moist and tender and there's no babysitting required.
I also receive quite a bit of traffic from people asking specific questions about cooking a pork shoulder, so I figured this was a good opportunity to address them here.
So, if you have any questions, peruse through the following section. If not, scroll down to the recipe. ;)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): Pork Shoulders
1. What is Pork Shoulder and Which Part of the Pig Is Used?
Pork shoulder goes by many names: Boston butt, Boston roast, pork butt, shoulder butt, shoulder roast, country roast, shoulder blade roast, and arm roast (a.k.a. picnic ham - NOT to be confused with actual ham, which comes from the back part of the pig).
With so many names, it gets confusing. To keep it easy, think of "pork shoulder" as the broad term that describes the whole front shoulder area of the pig, which is broken up into different cuts (hence the many names). If you want to know more, check out this source, which goes into depth about the many different cuts of pork.
2. Why Is Pork Shoulder The Best Cut For Pulled Pork or Carnitas?
For pulled pork and carnitas, we need juicy, tender, easily shreddable meat, which you won't get using a lean (i.e. almost fat-free) cut of meat like the loin. So, it's important to choose meat that has a generous amount of fat and connective tissue (like collagen) throughout it. Why?
- The fat adds flavor and helps to keep the meat moist.
- Cooking the meat for an extended period of time past "well done" (145 degrees) to a higher temperature helps to break down the collagen into gelatin, which adds moisture back into the meat and helps keep the muscle fibers relaxed (so they don't seize up and expel all their juices, thus making them tough & dry). (Source: The Science of Good Cooking)
3. Should I Choose Boneless or Bone-In?
There's no right or wrong answer here. Both will work; however, I always use bone-in because the bone adds extra flavor and I can save it to use for homemade bone broth or ham & beans later on.
Cook's Illustrated recently wrote about roast pork in this special collector's edition magazine and decided bone-in pork butt was their favorite cut because the bone has more connective tissue attached to it and also helps to keep the roast cooking at a slower, more even pace.
4. What Size Pork Shoulder Should I Buy?
It depends on how many people you're trying to feed and/or how much leftovers you want. I typically get pork shoulder when it's on sale, so it makes more sense to buy a larger 8 to 9 lb. Boston butt so I have tons of meat for multiple meals throughout the week and then plenty more to freeze for future meals. I'm not joking about the amounts here...you will have a buttload of meat!
Oh, and keep in mind that if you have a smaller crockpot, a huge pork shoulder may not fit in there; however, you can easily cut off the parts that won't fit and save that meat for another meal like soup.
5. Do I Need To Add Liquid When Slow Cooking?
As long as you're choosing a cut with plenty of fat and connective tissue, you don't need to add any liquid to keep it moist; the meat will create its own liquid as it cooks down; however, if you want to add some liquid for flavor, that's totally fine. I use a bit of chicken broth and citrus juice in this recipe and there are others on the internet that use beer or soda. (Note: I would caution against using too much liquid (many cups), as that will dilute the delicious pork flavor of the liquid gold that forms.)
6. How Long Does It Take to Cook a Pork Shoulder in a Crock-Pot?
This will depend on the size of the meat, whether you cut it into pieces, and at what temperature/setting you're cooking it. In my experience, a 4 lb. bone-in pork shoulder typically takes 6-8 hours on the low setting and 3-4 hours on the high setting in my slow cooker. One that's twice the size (7 to 8 lbs.) will take twice as long (12-14 hours on low and 6-8 hours on high).
I've found that cutting the pork shoulder into two pieces helps it cook a little faster and fit better in the crock-pot, so that's what I do. Keep in mind that these times will vary slightly based on the size and temperature of your individual slow cookers (some run hotter than others).
7. At What Temperature is Pork Shoulder Done? When Should I Shred It Into Pulled Pork or Carnitas?
If you own a meat thermometer and want to check it that way, the pork should be easily shreddable when it hits 190 degrees. As I mentioned above, you're cooking it way past "well done" in order to break down all the connective tissue, which turns into gelatin and makes the meat fall-apart-tender.
But, you don't need a meat thermometer to know when it's ready. (I never use one.) All you have to do is open the slow cooker and stick it with a fork. When the meat breaks apart with minimal effort, it's ready for shredding.
8. Why Isn't My Pork Shoulder Shredding?
If it's not shredding, then you either:
1) didn't cook it long enough or to a high enough temperature (make sure it's at least 190 degrees)
2) bought a lean cut on accident that was not meant for longer cooking (like a pork tenderloin)
9. What's The Difference Between Pulled Pork and Carnitas?
Full Disclosure: I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination in barbecue (i.e. smoked meats) or Mexican cuisine. I'm just a self-taught home cook who likes to experiment with food and learn as I go in my real food journey. With that in mind, I'm going to attempt to distinguish the two as I understand them. If you have more knowledge of these dishes or would like to correct me, please share your wisdom in a comment below.
Pulled pork is meat from a pig (typically from the shoulder region) that has been slow-cooked until it's easy enough to shred, whereas carnitas (meaning "little meats") is a version of pulled pork that's often fixed with Mexican spices (or simply salt). Although both yield the same basic results--tender shredded pork--both of the traditional cooking methods and final prepared dishes are unique.
Note: Countries all over the world have their own version of pulled pork, but for all intents and purposes, I'm referring to the Amercian version of pulled pork today (since my audience is primarily in the United States).
In different regions of the U.S., pulled pork is traditionally prepared by smoking a pork shoulder over low heat, shredding it, and then mixing the meat with a barbecue sauce (or not - some folks just use a dry rub). A popular way to serve it is on a soft bun with pickles. Another super delicious way is to sauce it with a vinegar-based North Carolina style barbecue sauce, pile it on a bun, and then top it with creamy coleslaw.
In contrast, carnitas are traditionally prepared by braising the pork (cut into chunks) in a pot over the stove with plenty of lard. Once you're further into the cooking process, you crank up the heat in order to get some crispy char on the edges of the pork. You can then serve the juicy, crispy bits of meat in a variety of Mexican-inspired recipes like tacos, burrito bowls, and enchiladas.
Seeing as most home cooks don't have a smoker or a huge bucket of lard on hand, slow cooking is the next best option for those of us who want to enjoy pulled pork or carnitas at home. Will this satisfy a barbecue or carnitas purist? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it's still good food.
10. How Should I Reheat Leftover Pork Shoulder?
If I haven't mixed the pork into a dish yet, my favorite way to reheat it is on the stove-top. I typically mix the cooking liquid back into the shredded meat before storing, so I just grab a chunk of it from the container, plop it into a skillet, and warm it back up until the edges start to get a bit crispy, while still retaining moisture.
When I store the cooking liquid separately from the meat, I'll add a heaping spoonful to the skillet along with the pork. Is it good without the cooking liquid? It's okay. The liquid has a TON of flavor from the pork fat/gelatin + the spices and citrus juice, so I always add at least some of it, even if I'm using the shredded pork in a barbecue recipe.
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I'd like to hear from YOU!
What's your favorite way to use pork shoulder in recipes?
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