Smoking Your First Pork Butt

Joe Clements
Joe Clements
Smoking your first pork butt

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Let’s be honest. As amateur pit masters we love to obsess about every little detail. This often ends up making everything more complicated that it needs to be.

Especially if you’re just getting into smoking meat, the last thing you need is to be worrying about is what injection and brine to use. Especially when it comes to smoking pork butt, keeping it simple is always good advice.

There’s a reason we always recommend pork butt the first time you cook with a new smoker.  The amount of fat makes it a very forgiving piece of meat. So even if you get the odd temperature flare up you can’t do too much damage.

Malcolm Reed from HowToBBQRight guides you through exactly how to smoke a basic pork butt in this YouTube video. Even if you’ve cooked dozens of pork butts before, there’s some great tips for making mouth watering pulled pork.

What you’ll need:

Before you get started, ensure you have:

  • A smoker – In this video Malcolm uses a pellet smoker, but any kind of smoker will do.
  • 5-10lb pork butt – You can also use the whole pork shoulder, but for this guide we’ll be focusing on the boston butt (the top half of the shoulder).
  • A good digital thermometer – we always try and cook to temp not to time
  • Some foil or butcher paper to wrap your pork in
  • A binding agent like yellow mustard or canola oil or apple juice and a good rub for pork or the ingredients to make your own
  • 8 – 9 hours time until you need to eat. This isn’t something to start at one if the in-laws will be arriving at five.

The pork butt – how to choose and prepare your pork butt

Malcolm uses an 8lb Compart Duroc pork butt. While you don’t need to buy that exact brand, there are a few guidelines for choosing the best pork butt to smoke. Even more so than with other meat, we recommend spending a little extra to select the right cut.

Don’t try and save five minutes here when you’re going to be cooking this for close to 10 hours!

Choosing a pork butt:

  • You want to look for a cut with good amount of fat marbling to keep everything moist and flavorful like you can see in the picture below.
  • If you can afford a little extra, it’s worth going for certified free range (look for Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane” labels on the packaging). Steven Raichlen has a great guide for selecting pork if you want to learn more

Now that you’ve selected your pork butt you’re probably rearing to go. But before you can throw it on the smoker we need to make sure we maximize the flavor.

Preparing your pork butt:

Add mustard to pork buttSo long as you’ve selected a pork butt (also known as a Boston butt) there isn’t a whole lot you need to do to get it ready. You shouldn’t need to do any trimming.

  • Before applying a rub you need to apply a binding agent. Malcolm uses yellow mustard but you can use olive or canola oil, apple juice or apple cider vinegar. Basically you just need something wet that will help the dry rub stick to the pork.
  • It won’t actually provide a lot of flavor to the end product, although it does add a little bit of extra tenderness.
  • Make sure you apply your binding agent of choice to all sides, including the fat side.

Once your pork is nice and covered, it’s time to apply the rub. In this guide Malcolm uses Killer Hog Barbecue Rub which has a combination of sugar, salt, pepper, paprika and chili powder. If you want to go store bought we have guide to the best barbecue rubs or you can make it yourself at home. I do find whenever I try and make my own rub I’m missing one of the ingredients, so I like to stock up on a few good bought rubs.

  • Make sure you apply the rub evenly all over, including the fat side.
  • Be careful you don’t over apply the rub. You should still be able to see the meat, we don’t want a thick crust of spice!
  • It doesn’t need to sit overnight or anything like that. Just leave it to rest while you fire up your smoker.

Pork butt with mustard rub

You don’t need to inject anything into the pork butt like they would in a barbecue competition. The focus here is on creating a beautiful pork taste. The salt and sugar and herb flavors from the rub will help you develop the bark, which is what it’s all about with this classic pulled pork recipe.

The cook – how to manage your smoker while your butt is cooking

In the video Malcolm skips over the steps he goes through to get the barbecue up to temp. If you’re smoking on a pellet grill like him, it’s as easy as dialing in right temperature, and making sure the hopper is full. For those of us cooking with charcoal, there are a few more steps.

Get your smoker setup

  • Placing pork butt on smokerWe are going to be cooking low and slow around 225 to 235°F (up to 250 should be fine so don’t worry if you get a few temperature spikes).
  • Place the pork on the rack in the center of your smoker. You want the thick layer of fat pointing towards the heat to help protect the meat. On most smokers this will mean pointing it down.
  • You can use grill racks to make it easier to move the butt around. Just make sure you spray it with cooking oil to prevent sticking. You can use this for any kind of smoking to make it easier to pick things up and move them inside. (You really don’t want to be fighting to un-stick meat with one hand while holding up the lid with the other, all while trying to keep your cool…)
  • Use gloves to keep your hands clean and prevent cross contamination
  • You can use any good smoking wood, in this case we’re using pecan pellets mixed with cherry.

We let it smoke for about half the total cooking time to let the bark build up and get a great smoke flavor. Then we wrap it in butcher paper or foil. It’s hard to use generalizations for cooking time because every piece of meat is different. If you need to estimate, a good rule of thumb is an hour per pound at 225°.

Monitoring your pork during the cook

After about three hours you can start to monitor the butt. Malcolm uses a Chef Alarm which is an excellent single probe thermometer from Thermoworks. This is a great option if you only ever need to monitor one temperature.

Thermoworks Smoke Thermometer

Recently Thermoworks have released a new dual probe thermometer called the ‘Smoke’.  This allows you to monitor both the temperature inside your smoker and the temp of your meat.

A word of caution:
Malcolm mentions that he only monitors the temperature of the pork butt later on in the cooking process. If there’s one cut of meat you can get away with being a bit relaxed on it’s pork. Having said that, we always recommend using a dual probe thermometer setup so you can keep an eye on the temp in your smoker and the temp of the meat at the same time.

This is especially important if you are cooking with a more unpredictable heat source like charcoal.

There’s also the fact that Malcolm has smoked 100’s of pork butts. If you’re still new do yourself a favor and use a proper thermometer.

Once you reach 160° the meat won’t take any more smoke. This is why  it’s OK to wrap the meat to protect it and make sure it doesn’t get bitter from over smoking.

Wrapping your pork

Once the meat gets to around 160° internal temp (around the five hour mark) is the perfect time to wrap. Your butt should have excellent color and bark at this point.

  • Wrapping will hold the fat and moisture in, and can help the meat cook a little bit quicker
  • Use some insulated gloves while wrapping to make sure your hands don’t burn!
  • Lay out a large sheet of foil or butcher paper, pull the pork off. At this point you could add some apple juice but you really don’t need to. Especially with good quality meat there should be enough internal fat to render so it will build up it’s own juice.
  • Wrap the pork up and place it back on the smoker, making sure you keep your temp probe in and wrap the foil around it.

Wrapping pork butt in foil

Now we need to sit back and wait until we get to 195° internal temperature. This is still going to take another two to three hours, so I hope you’ve got a few beers lying around. Try and resist the urge to slice off a piece!

The payoff – resting and pulling your pork butt

Once your thermometer is reading 195° the pork is ready to pull. Transfer your pork inside where you can let it rest. If you have any dogs this is the part where you will be swarmed with attention!

  • Let the butt rest for about 30 mins so that the cooking can stop and moisture can redistribute throughout the meat.
  • Even though you didn’t braise or spritz the meat, you should have a decent build up of juice.
  • You’ll know you’ve cooked it perfectly if the bone on the side pulls out clean.
  • Carefully slide the foil off so that it doesn’t rip and leave little pieces of foil behind and throw it away.
  • Pour the juice and leave it off to the side. Once it’s cooled down you can remove the fat, and reheat and mix back in to the finished pulled pork.

At this point if you want to look cool you can bring out your pork shredder claws but the meat should be tender enough to pull apart in your fingers. So long as you have some gloves on to stop your hands from burning.

Finished pulled pork

The only thing to do now is to tuck into some delicious pulled pork. This is a great guide for new pit masters who want to keep things basic. Having said that it’s also an awesome way to smoke a pork butt and it always results in a big helping of pork you can use on sandwiches, burgers or even pizza.

No matter how good your pulled pork is there’s a high chance you’ll have some leftovers so it’s worth learning how to store and reheat pulled pork, and if you want some ideas for what to do with all that leftover pork, check out this guide with 15 ideas for leftover pulled pork. Check out the video below to see these steps in action.

Feature CC Image courtesy of Cayobo on Flickr

Joe Clements

Joe Clements

As the son of a vegeterian, I grew up dreaming about meat. Now as the founder and editor in chief of Smoked Barbecue Source I get to grill, barbecue and write about meat for a living! I'm sharing everything I learn along the way on my journey from amateur to pitmaster.

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15 Responses

  1. This all sounds wonderful but over complicated. All i need for great Bar B Que is plenty of hickory, some good whisky, and some great country music. Never fails.

  2. We tried this yesterday on a charcoal offset smoker with applewood. It was our first successful pork shoulder roast after several attempts. Followed recipe exactly, paid close attention to internal temps…it was wonderful! Thank you for your easy to follow instructions for beginners!

  3. Just what I was looking for good simply method for beginners, will be trying on my new smokey mountain Webber.

    1. You can find good country music on sirius xm, they have different genres for everyone, outlaw country, willie’s roadhouse, no shoes radio, the highway, garth brooks radio, prime country. Just some of the stations they have.

  4. Hickory is overrated… not my choice of wood on a butt. Apple is good of course, but I prefer Beechwood Oak it gives pork and fish an amazing flavor and a lot more subtle than hickory. Try it for yourself

  5. So my wife found pork butts on sale. BOGO. So we had two pork butts in the fridge. I only have a gas grill. My neighbor has a Weber kettle. I borrowed it. I’ve never done this before so I used the snake charcoal method with some Bourbon Barrel wood chips and these instructions. It was just over 7lbs so I thought it would end at 14 hours but I reached an internal temp of 196 degrees at 12 hours. I wasn’t sure what to do so I left it on for another hour and a half. Final temp, 201 degrees. Pulled it off, rested for 30 min and panicked while I pulled the bone. Slid right out. Gave it a little taste. *Chef kiss on the fingertips in the air*

    Thanks for the guidance!!

  6. 4 stars
    is it ok to cooked the foil time/final 5 hours in a oven? also, there was so much juice after the final cooking… next time should i remove the juice???

  7. Clear instructions worked great. Right down to our 3 dogs following me from the smoker and parking themselves in the Kitchen. Can’t tell you how good it smelled and tasted. Thanks.

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