Should You Smoke Pork Butt Fat Side UP or DOWN?

pork butt on electric smoker with text "up or down?"

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So, you’ve got your pork butt rubbed and ready to go. But now you’re stuck and wondering whether to cook the pork butt fat side up or down.

We like to cook pork butt with the fat facing the direct heat source. This could be up or down, depending on your smoker. But keep reading for instances where you might want to change it up.

So, should you cook pork butt fat side up or down?

The short answer: there’s no right or wrong way to cook pork butt. Ask barbecue experts around the world, and they’ll each give you a different response. Some even say just to trim the fat and be done with it.

What is the pork butt fat cap?

We’re going to use the term fat cap several times. So if you don’t know what it is, it’s that ¼ to ½-inch layer of white fat on the pork butt. If your fat cap is above ½-inch, you might want to trim or score it. Otherwise, we don’t think trimming is necessary.

uncooked pork butt with fat cap trimmed off
There’s no need to trim the fat cap unless it’s above ½-inch thick

Why should you cook pork butt fat side up?

Here are the pros and cons of cooking pork butt fat side up.

Pros

  • Bastes the meat: As the fat melts and renders, it self-bastes the pork. This helps lock in moisture and keeps the meat from drying out. While some say it adds flavor, remember that meat is 70% water, and oil and water don’t mix. This prevents the fat from penetrating deep into the meat, so we don’t think it necessarily adds a lot of extra flavor.
  • Helps render the fat: Fat rendering is more effective when you cook fat side up. This position – away from the direct heat source – makes it easier for the fat to crisp up. It’s a simple way to add texture and flavor to the pork.
  • Limits flare-ups: Because the fat is melting into the pork, you’re going to reduce the number of flare-ups compared to fat side down.

Cons

  • The fat isn’t the only thing melting: As the fat melts, it can take some of the rub along with it. One way we prevent this with our competition-style pork butt is to rub a binder onto the fat first. In this instance, yellow mustard (we also like olive oil). This helps the seasoning stick to the meat so it doesn’t melt off alongside the fat.
raw pork butt with mustard binder on it
Using mustard as a binder will ensure the rub doesn’t fall off while cooking

Why should you cook pork butt fat side down?

Now let’s see the pros and cons of cooking pork butt fat side down.

Pros

  • Protective layer: The main reason people cook pork butt fat side down is because it allows the fat cap to act as insulation in a way. It protects the meat from the direct heat source and, therefore, prevents it from drying out. This results in deliciously tender and moist meat.
  • Better bark: Cooking with the fat side down also results in a much better bark. This is because the pork isn’t going to get impressions from resting on the grill grates. These marks prevent a good crispy bark.
  • More flavor: Because the fat is melting away from the rub, rest assured your bark will be nice and flavorful, too.
  • Easier temperature checks: Naturally, it’s easier to check the pork butt’s internal temperature if the fat is on the bottom.

Cons

  • Possible flare-ups: Fat side down might protect the meat from the heat. However, exposing pork fat to direct heat instead can cause flare-ups. In turn, this can burn the meat, giving you a charred exterior and lessening the flavor.

Cooking pork butt depending on the end result

Malcom Reed from the How to BBQ Right prefers to cook pork butt fat side up, especially if he has cross-hatched scored it beforehand. Why? Because he loves how the fat renders, especially when cooked unwrapped the whole time. He will happily nibble on the crispy nugget results!

Should You Be Cooking Your Pork Butt Fat Side UP Or DOWN? | HowToBBQRight Podcast Clips

But if you’re making smoked pulled pork, we recommend fat side down. Add in that protective buffer and focus on getting the most moist meat possible with the best bark.

Cooking pork butt according to the heat source

Most barbecue enthusiasts (including our team here) recommend cooking pork butt according to the heat source.

So, if you’ve got a vertical smoker or grill with a bottom heat source, cook the pork butt fat side down. If you’re using an offset smoker with a one-sided heat source, point the fat cap toward that. Finally, if the heat source is up top, like with a pellet grill, cook the pork butt fat side up.

pork butt fat side down on a drum smoker
Smoking pork butt ft side down on an Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Pro drum smoker

Should you flip pork butt?

When some people can’t decide, they flip the pork butt halfway through cooking instead. That way, the fat cap spends time both in direct and indirect heat. So, what are the pros and cons of this method?

Pros

  • Best of both worlds: The fat cap can first render down and baste the meat. Then, it can spend time acting as a barrier, preventing the meat from drying out.

Cons

  • Goodbye rendered fat: If you flip the pork butt more than once, note that you’re letting go of the rendered fat that’s basting your meat.
  • Goodbye heat: Continually opening and closing your smoker isn’t good barbecue practice, either. Every time you let heat escape, you’re adding to your cooking time.
  • Hello flare-ups: Flipping it can also increase the number of flare-ups.

To prevent this, meet in the middle and think about rotating the pork butt instead. Every two hours (give or take), carefully but quickly turn the pork butt about 45 degrees in one direction. Because more meat is exposed to the smoke, this results in a smokier flavor.

To wrap it up

As you can see, smoking pork butt fat side up or down both have their pros and cons. We stick with the heat source method, and it serves us well. But remember, there’s truly no right or wrong answer.

Need a recipe to get you started? Check out our smoked pork butt. You ain’t tasted nothing like it! If you have any other questions, drop them in the comments below.

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