I am trying to up my ante and impress my family with my BBQ prowess, so for this year, I decided to begin the BBQ season by smoking a Boston Butt and making pulled pork sandwiches.
The day finally came where it was warm enough to break out the Charcoal grill and so I announced to my family that we were going to be smoking a Boston butt on Saturday.
“Ewwwww”, my daughter said, “are we really going to be eating a butt”? I felt like Alton Brown on the Food Network show Good Eats as I explained that the term Boston Butt is not located in the butt area, instead it is part of the front shoulder of the pig and often comes “bone in” meaning containing part of the shoulder blade.
The term Boston Butt became common because around the Revolutionary War period that particular cut of meat was cut and packed into casks or barrels (called butts) for storage and shipment around the town of – you guessed it – Boston. That was the genesis of the term Boston Butt.
My kids did not seem impressed with the knowledge that I just imparted, but I promised that they would like the end result when they were dining on a BBQ delicacy of Smoked Boston Butt.
At Barbequelovers.com, we have a couple of great blog posts on smoking a Boston Butt, including Smoking a Boston Butt Recipe and Smoking a Boston Butt for Barbecue Pulled Pork Sandwiches, but we have learned a lot since writing those posts and wanted to create a more detailed post talking about the whole process – from planning to eating.
Planning a Boston Butt BBQ
Is my butt too big? – How big of a butt do you need?
I have found that it is better to have too much than not enough, but really what are the guidelines of how much you need?
You can plan on the butt shrinking somewhere around 30% as you cook it. It could be up to 50% if you have a particularly fatty cut of meat. (I would be rich if I could figure out how to shrink real butts by 30% in a day). On top of that, it depends on how many people you are feeding and the number of adults vs kids. The teenagers are kind of a wildcard. Some of them are in the middle of a growth spurt and will love it and will eat three times more than adults. Some of them will pick at it and eat a child’s portion. I tend to plan on the teenagers eating an adults portion and if you have a bunch of teenagers attending, plan a couple of extra adult portions in case they are in the middle of a growth spurt.
Typically the Boston butt is used to make pulled pork sandwiches, so the size calculation would depend on how many sandwiches you will need. A typical sandwich is about 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound of pulled pork. I tend to make them big, so I plan on 1/3 pound per sandwich. For women and children, typically plan on 1 sandwich per person. For a male adult (or other large eaters, i.e. teenagers), plan on 2 sandwiches per person.
Using a 30% cooking reduction rate, each pound of uncooked Boston butt, will make 2 sandwiches. So if you revert back to your Junior High School math, a formula for determining the size of Boston butt is:
S = Size of uncooked Boston butt
M = Number of men or large eaters
W = Number of women and children
S = (2M + W)/2 + 1
So an example, if you had 4 men, 2 teenage boys, 4 women and 2 kids, the formula would be:
S = Size of uncooked Boston butt
M = 6 (Number of men = 4) + (Number of large eaters (teenage boys) = 2)
W = 6 (Number of women = 4) + (Number of kids = 2)
S = (2*6 + 6)/2 + 1
S = (12 + 6)/2 + 1
S = 18/2 + 1
S = 9 + 1
S = 10
So the size of the uncooked Boston butt would need to be 10 pounds to feed 4 men, 2 teenage boys, 4 women and 2 kids.
I purposely add 1 pound at the end for leftovers. You never want to run out of meat for a BBQ. If you have a ton of side dishes, you might be able to eliminate that extra pound at the end.
Purchasing a Boston Butt
I have found that many markets don’t carry “Boston Butts”. Instead they carry Pork Shoulders, either bone-in or boneless. Costco and Sams Club both carry pork shoulders and last week when I shopped at Costco, I was able to find a selection of boneless pork shoulders that averaged between 13-16 pounds. I selected one, took it home and had enough to cut it in half – One to cook and the other to freeze for another weekend.
If you do purchase a bone-in Boston Butt, make sure that you account for the weight of the bone in your calculations. Add a pound or two to the size needed to account for the bone.
Smoking a Boston Butt – Day 1
Preparation – Rubbing your Boston Butt:
The rub is one of the most important parts of creating a succulent Smoked Boston Butt. It helps infuse flavor into the meat and is the foundation of the crust or bark of the meat that provides the amazing texture of the perfectly smoked Boston butt.
I start with a 6-7 pound Boston butt and make sure that it is completely thawed. I like to begin by applying the rub the day before and then refrigerating the Boston butt overnight to let the rub flavors permeate the meat.
There are lots of different rub flavors. Some like it sweet, some like it hot, some like it salty, I like it more sweet with a touch of hot, with a solid salty base (I like to have my cake and eat it too).
Here is my favorite BBQ Dry Rub recipe for smoking a Boston Butt. I tend to make more than I need and then store it in a container in the fridge and use it over several weekends.
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup sea salt
- 1/4 cup paprika
- 2 heaping tablespoons of Onion Powder
- 2 heaping tablespoons of Garlic Powder
- 2 heaping tablespoons of Black Pepper
- 1 heaping tablespoons of Celery Salt
- 1 heaping tablespoon of Cayenne Pepper – this provides a kick, but not too hot – my wife doesn’t like it too hot.
- 1 heaping teaspoon of Cumin
This provides enough dry rub to coat about a 10 pound Boston butt, with a little left over for next weekend’s BBQ.
I like to mix the ingredients in a medium container with a tight lid and shake the container to thoroughly mix the ingredients together.
Before applying the rub to the Boston butt, first coat the butt with a thin layer of mustard. This helps the dry rub to adhere to the meat. You can use the cheap yellow mustard, or if you like it a little more tangy, use fancy Dijon mustard, and if you like it more sweet, use honey mustard as your base.
Generously rub the dry rub all over the Boston butt. Make sure that you apply the rub in all the cracks and crevices to ensure flavor infusion. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Afterwards, you can chase your wife and kids around with your hands coated with mustard and the rub ingredients while you tell them various “butt jokes”.
After the butt rub and subsequent kid/wife chase, I like to take syringe full of apple juice and inject the Boston butt. This provides additional moisture and flavor as well.
Wrap up the mustard and dry rub coated butt and put it in the refrigerator overnight. Grab a soda and watch a movie with the family and get ready for the next day of BBQ goodness.
Smoking a Boston Butt – Day 2
This day usually starts really early depending on the size of your butt and the scheduled time to start your family BBQ. There are lots of things to do in order to end up with a perfectly smoked Boston butt and delicious pulled pork sandwiches.
The early day typically starts for me with soaking wood chips and starting the charcoal, but first of all, pull the butt out of the fridge and let it sit at room temperature while soaking the wood chips and starting the charcoal.
The flavor of your Boston butt is enhanced by smoke. There are several types of wood that are perfect for smoking a Boston butt, including:
- Cherry Wood
- Pecan Wood
- Hickory Wood
- Mesquite Wood
- Apple Wood
- Oak Wood
- Maple Wood
I like a combination of wood chips to enhance the flavor. I like cherry wood combined with hickory wood. The hickory wood provides the classic BBQ flavor and the cherry wood adds a touch of sweetness to the smoke.
Many places sell the wood chips in convenient packages, although you might be able to find wood for free depending on where you live. I like to soak the chips for about 30-60 minutes before I put them on the coals in order to saturate the wood with moisture and enhance the smoke from the wet wood.
Charcoal – What kind, how much, and starting the coals
Charcoal provides the main source of heat for cooking. I like to cook with Kingsford Original Charcoal. It cooks evenly and lasts the longest. I do not like to cook with Kingsford Match Light charcoal. It is so full of lighter fluid that it makes the meat taste like fuel.
Instead, I use Lighter cubes or strike-a-fire or some other heat source combined with crumpled up newspaper to avoid the taste of fuel getting into the meat.
It typically takes about 20-25 minutes for the charcoal to be ready. When the charcoal is white on the edges about 1/4 inch, they are ready to rock and roll and get the meat on the grill.
The perfect smoked Boston butt is done through indirect heat. The charcoal and wood chips are on one side of the BBQ and the meat is on the other. The smoky heat circulates throughout the BBQ indirectly cooking the butt rather than having the meat directly over the charcoal.
Many charcoal grills, i.e. the Weber One Touch grill have a hinge on the top grill that allows you to add fuel throughout the cooking process. I add my charcoal on one side directly under the hinge to facilitate adding more charcoal and wood chips throughout the day.
How much Charcoal do you need?
This will depend upon several factors, including the type of charcoal that you use, your altitude, how much wind/breeze there is to fan the flames, and how wide open your vents are. In my neck of the woods, about 15-18 charcoal briquettes with the vents about 1/2 open tends to provide heat around 225-250 degrees. If it is running a little hot, I will close the vents a bit and/or push a couple of briquettes off to the side.
Adding Smoke to the BBQ
There are different levels of thought on the smoking process – specifically around the question – how much smoke is too much smoke? It all comes down to a personal taste on how you want your meat to taste.
I want my meat to have a distinct smoky flavor, but not too powerful. So I tend to put soaked wood chips on the grill during the first half of the smoking process and then just use charcoal after that.
After the charcoal briquettes are hot, I put a handful of soaked wood chips on the charcoal and then put the Boston butt on the opposite side of the grill away from the heat.
Some people go through great lengths on the chips. I have seen people wrap a handful of wood chips in tinfoil and poke a hole or two in the top of the tinfoil and create several wood chip packets that they can easily use during the cooking process.
I have also tested Smoke in a Cup and found that to be easy, but expensive.
I tend to just grab a handful of soaked wood chips and place it directly on the charcoal, but I am a minimalist about things like that.
Checking the meat
I check the Boston butt every 60-90 minutes. When I check the meat, I do the following things:
- Add fuel – after 60-90 minutes, the charcoal will have started to break down. I usually add 6-8 more coals every time I check the meat to ensure consistent cooking temperature for the duration of the cooking process
- Add smoke – during the first 1/2 of the cooking time, every time I check the meat, I will add a handful of soaked wood chips to provide that smoky flavor to the Boston Butt
- Spritz or spray the Boston Butt with apple juice in a spray bottle. This keeps the meat moist and adds fruity flavor to the meat.
How long to cook a Boston butt
Smoking a Boston Butt low and slow produces the most delectable results, but this takes a lot longer than you think. Smoking the meat at about 225-250 degrees takes between 1.5 and 2 hours per pound of uncooked meat. So if you have a 7 pound uncooked Boston Butt, it could take up to 14 hours to be done. The time difference is based upon many factors, including the amount of fat, bone and connective tissue in the cut of the meat, the consistency of the temperature you are able to maintain and environmental factors such as the outside temperature and how windy it is.
Recognize that if you use a hood thermometer in your BBQ Grill, that the hood temperature is probably higher than the temperature at the grate level. You might use an oven thermometer at the grate level and compare that against the temperature at the hood level so you can understand where your grill performs in terms of temperature. You should check in several places to understand if there are hot spots on your grill.
There are a couple of things that slow down the process:
- Checking the meat too frequently by opening the lid of the BBQ Grill just to see how things are progressing. This lets the heat out and will slow down the process
- Not checking the coals frequently enough. If you let the coals die down and the heat to be too low, it will take a long time to get the heat built back up and the smoking process happening. Plan on checking your coals about every 90 mins.
When you are cooking the low and slow method, be prepared for a delay at around 170 degrees. It will tend to stall at that temperature for a time – sometimes a couple of hours. Be patient and keep the heat consistent and you will prevail – but I can tell you that it can get frustrating waiting for the Boston Butt to get through that mid-cook stall.
You of course can cook it faster by using higher heat. Some folks choose to cook it at around 325 degrees at 45-50 minutes per pound. However, the higher temperature that you cook with will result in less moisture in the finished product.
2 Hours before the Boston Butt is Smoked
About 2 hours before the Boston Butt is supposed to be done, I like to take it off the heat, generously spritz with apple juice and then wrap it up in heavy duty tinfoil and put it back on the BBQ. I do this to try to seal in as much moisture as I can as the butt finishes cooking to ensure that melt-in-your-mouth, pulled pork, finger-licking goodness.
How do you know when the Boston butt is done?
Some folks say that the Boston Butt is done when you can easily move the bone around the meat. That is not a bad way to gauge meat temperature, but I prefer a meat thermometer to test the actual temperature of the meat.
How you plan to serve the smoked Boston butt will determine the answer to when is the Boston butt ready to eat.
|Serving Method||Meat Temperature|
|Sliced||A smoked Boston butt is ready to serve in slices when the internal temperature is about 170 degrees|
|Pulled||A smoked Boston butt is ready for pulling into pulled pork sandwiches when the temperature of the meat is over 190 degrees|
After the butt is done – The Pull Process
After the Boston butt has reached 190 degrees or higher, pull it off the heat and let it sit for 30 minutes before pulling. This will allow it to cool down a bit and won’t burn your fingers as bad as you pull the pork.
As you first break apart the smoked Boston butt, notice several things. First of all the crust or bark of the pulled pork. The outside of the butt will have caramelized and created a dark brown crust that is full of flavor. Right under that bark layer will be a pink layer where the smoke from the chips, the apple juice, and rub has penetrated into the meat. Underneath that will be the pork that after cooking for 14 hours will be finger licking good!
To pull, simply break apart the Boston butt with your fingers and shred into bite sized chunks. If it is too hot, use a fork or let it sit for a few more minutes to cool down enough to get your hands dirty.
Serving your Smoked Boston Butt – Pulled Pork Sandwiches
I like to serve my pulled pork sandwiches on a toasted bun, with lots of pulled pork (about 1/3 pound), with my favorite BBQ sauce on top with a spoonful of slaw on top.
That makes for good eats!
Good luck with smoking a Boston butt for your next family BBQ. Let me know how it goes!