Pork Butt vs Pork Shoulder – 3 Easy Ways to Tell Them Apart

A piece of bone-in pork shoulder on a cutting board with a knife
© littleny - stock.adobe.com

Pork butt and pork shoulder aren’t the same thing. To clear things up, pork butt isn’t from the behind of a pig. And pork shoulder is only a portion of the shoulder. The thing is, both pork butt and pork shoulder make up the entire shoulder of a pig, with pork butt sitting above pork shoulder and closer to the spine.

But there’s more to it. That’s just a general overview of these two cuts of meat. We’ll learn more about the differences between pork butt vs pork shoulder in this article.

The plan is to first show you the 3 easy ways to tell them apart. Then get into the details of each one. And finally, how to cook them the right way.

My end goal is to help you understand both cuts better, therefore easier to decide which one to buy and for what occasion.

So, what do you say? Let’s do this.

Pork Butt Vs Pork Shoulder – 3 Easy Ways To Tell The Difference

Shape

Pork shoulder generally has a triangular shape. That’s due to being close to the foreleg. The tapered end is the top part of the front hock.

Pork butt, on the other hand, has a more uniform and rectangular shape.

Final Presentation

You’ll find that pork butt is often sold with the bone of the shoulder blade still in. Now, if you don’t want to remove the bone yourself, you can always ask the butcher to do it for you. On one side, you’ll also find a fat cap. There will be no skin whatsoever on a pork butt.

Pork shoulder is usually sold with the bone and the skin still attached. If the butcher removes the bone, they will fold the meat in half and package it with netting.

Price

Depending on the area, prices vary. But in general, pork shoulder is always less expensive than pork butt, about one third of the price.

I’ve put together a small comparison table here.

Pork ButtPork Shoulder
Shapeuniform & rectangularirregular, tapered & triangular
Final Presentationbone-in or boneless, with fat cap & no skinbone-in or boneless, with skin
Pricemore expensiveless expensive

The Anatomy Of A Pig’s Front Shoulder

By now, we all know that they’re both from the front shoulder, with pork butt sitting higher than pork shoulder. But let’s dig a little deeper on the exact location of these two cuts.

You see, the front shoulder is called a primal cut, which is a portion of the whole carcass. It is then separated into two sub-primal cuts — pork shoulder and pork butt.

Starting with pork butt, it sits right behind the head and the neck, on top of the pig’s shoulder blade. Whereas pork shoulder sits in between pork butt and the leg. It does extend further down the leg, but not by much.

Because of their location, the pig uses each cut of meat or muscle group differently. Therefore, their degree of fat marbling and sinews also vary. We’ll get more into this in the next sections.

Pork Butt

Location of the pork butt on a pig

Sitting far above the front leg, the pig doesn’t utilize the pork butt muscles that much. As a result, it accumulates a lot more intramuscular fat (or marbling) and connective tissues.

Did You Know?

Butt has nothing to do with the rear of the animal. Back in colonial New England, butchers often packed this cut of meat in large barrels to ship them back to Europe. Surprisingly, they called these barrels butts. Hence the name pork butt.

Pork butt also has another name, which is Boston butt. This is due to the fact that Bostonian butchers had a unique way of preparing it. And just like that, the name eventually stuck.

How To Cook

Pork butt is best when cooked low n slow for hours (until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 195F). Due to the higher amount of marbling and sinews, it’s better for pulled pork than pork shoulder. The rendered fat and melted gelatin prevent the meat from drying out after that many hours of cooking.

Thanks to the more uniform shape, you can also cut pork butt into pork steaks and grill them hot n fast. Or even into thinner strips to make stir-fry and pork skewers.

Furthermore, pork butt has an optimal meat-to-fat ratio (around 80/20 or 70/30), which is perfect for making sausages or grinding meat.

All in all, this is a more versatile cut of meat between the two. You can either smoke or grill it. And it will never disappoint you.

Pork Shoulder

Location of the pork shoulder on a pig

Also known as picnic roast or picnic shoulder, the pig uses the pork shoulder muscles more often. That’s because it’s just right above the foreleg. As a result, pork shoulder is denser and tougher, with lesser amount of intramuscular fat.

How To Cook

Similar to pork butt, pork shoulder is also best when cooked low n slow. It’s OK for pulled pork. But being a smaller cut, the yield from a pork shoulder is a little less than a pork butt. In addition to that, pork shoulder is often sold skin-on. Thus you have to remove the skin before cooking (if you want to).

However, if you don’t mind the skin, it can be a blessing in disguise. You can crisp it up after cooking the meat. Then simply shred it with the crackling skin on. Serve it with taco aka Mexican pork carnitas (Man, I’m drooling!).

Lastly, due to the irregular shape, it’s also better to cook pork shoulder whole since it’s somewhat difficult to cut it up into even pieces for grilling.

A Youtube Video Is Worth A Thousand Words

This website is a multimedia platform. That means besides text and pictures, it also has videos. I’ve always believed that videos are a good way to explain things. 

So here is one from Glen & Friends Cooking Youtube channel. It’ll show you how a professional butcher would cut up a primal front shoulder of a pig. I think it’ll help you better visualize the location of pork butt and pork shoulder. You’ll also pick up some tips from the butcher as well.

Enjoy!

All Butts Are Shoulders, But Not All Shoulders Are Butts

There you have it — everything you need to know about these two popular cuts of meat.

Even though it’s less expensive to buy pork shoulder, base your final decision on the number of people you’re going to feed. A pork shoulder can feed a family of three, but if you’re feeding more than that, you might have to get a pork butt instead.

When shopping, always look for meat that has a lot more marbling. More marbling equals more flavors. The meat should also have a bright and rosy red color. It might smell a little, but that’s totally OK if packaged in cryovac. 

Also, don’t forget to develop a good relationship with your local butcher shop. You can ask them in case you have any questions. They can even cut you a good deal on your next pork butt if they like you enough.

And if anybody ever asks you to sum up the differences between Boston butt vs pork shoulder, you can always tell them this — all butts are shoulders, but not all shoulders are butts.

I hope you find this informational article valuable. When you have a chance, please share it to your friends and family.

Thank you and have a good one.

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Author

Thinh Phan

Thinh Phan

Thinh Phan is a barbecue enthusiast who fires up his grill regularly, at least 3 times a week. Combining the experience and his passion for outdoor cooking, he put together BBQInProgress.com where he shares recipe ideas along with his knowledge of grilling and barbecuing techniques.

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