What Is Pork Shoulder?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

What is pork shoulder?

The Spruce Eats / Lindsay Kreighbaum 

Pork shoulder is a cut of meat that plainly tells you where it comes from—the shoulder of a pig's forelimb. It is also called "picnic shoulder" or "picnic roast." It is best braised, cut up for stews, or used to make ground pork. If roasted, pork shoulder needs to be covered and have liquid in the pan for most of the roasting time.

What Is Pork Shoulder?

Pork shoulder is a triangular cut from the area just above the front leg of the pig. It is a relatively inexpensive cut often sold with the skin on and a layer of fat. It is included in the picnic ham cut, which also has the leg bone. The shoulder is an area (unlike cuts from the interior of the pig, like the loin) that sees a lot of activity when a pig is alive. As a result, it is flavorful but there is less fat marbling and the meat will be tough unless cooked correctly.

How to Cook

Pork shoulder benefits from long, slow cooking that tenderizes it and melts the fat. The best cooking methods for pork shoulder are braising or stewing, but it may also be fried or baked if it is made into ground pork. Braised pork shoulder is good for slicing and serving.

You can braise pork shoulder roast to serve in slices. Ground pork shoulder adds extra flavor to meatballs and meatloaf and is used in Asian dishes, including Chinese green beans with pork.

If you are using the whole cut, be sure to take it out of the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to cooking. If you don't want to include the skin for crackling, you can trim it off. A first step for braising or roasting the pork shoulder is to sear it either in a frying pan or under the broiler. Then place it in a covered pan that includes liquid (such as apple juice or water) to cook it low and slow. This can be done in the oven or in a slow cooker.

Check the internal temperature and ensure that the pork shoulder reaches 145 F. While older instructions may say to cook it 160 F, this was revised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011. Allow the meat to rest out of the oven for at least three minutes before slicing.

What Does Pork Shoulder Taste Like?

Pork shoulder has meaty pork flavor and texture. It also has great sweetness when it is cooked for a long time with adequate moisture.

Shoulder vs. Pork Butt

Traditionally, cuts labeled pork shoulder (including picnic shoulder) are from the thinner, triangle-shaped end of the shoulder whereas the pork butt or Boston butt is from the thicker, more intensely marbled end above it. Note that both are from the front limbs, not the hindquarters.

Pork shoulder is a bit better for cooking whole and slicing, whereas pork butt is perfect for making pulled pork and other recipes in which the meat is meant to fall apart. The marbled streaks of fat that run through it make it fall apart more easily once it's cooked to tenderness.

Both, however, are great cut up and used as stew meat and in chili. You can use them interchangeably in most recipes, and some recipes will say to use either pork shoulder or pork butt.

How to cook pork shoulder
The Spruce Eats / Catherine Song

Where to Buy Pork Shoulder

You can find pork shoulder at most grocery stores in the meat section, or at butcher shops. A boneless picnic shoulder often weighs between 5 to 8 pounds and may come in netting to keep it together. A whole bone-in pork picnic cut can weigh 10 or more pounds.

As the terminology for pork shoulder can differ from place to place and butcher to butcher, ask to speak to the butcher for specifics if you want to ensure you are getting pork shoulder rather than pork butt. Pork shoulder will be more flavorful if you can find a heritage breed, but this will usually be found only at specialty butcher shops and farmers markets.

How to Store

Fresh pork shoulder should be kept in the refrigerator and cooked within two to three days. For longer storage, you can freeze it in airtight wrapping for up to six months. When you want to use the frozen pork shoulder, allow it to thaw in the refrigerator. It will take about 24 hours for 5 pounds of meat to thaw.

Nutrition and Benefits

Pork is far leaner now that it was in past decades, but pork shoulder is higher in fat than pork loin. A 3-ounce portion (100g) of raw pork shoulder has 186 calories, of which 60 percent is from fat and 40 percent is from protein. Cooking it in ways that allow you to drain away the fat can be beneficial. For example, after making a pork stew, refrigerate it overnight and skim off the fat before reheating and serving.

The good news is that pork shoulder is a great source of protein, with 17.4g per 100-gram portion. That same portion also provides plenty of B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, B6, and B12, as well as minerals selenium, zinc, and phosphorus.