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What's the difference between picnic and Boston butt

June 2, 2012
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A Picnic, A Pork Butt? What!?
Picnic vs. Boston Butt

A lot of us novice BBQers end up wondering, "what is a Boston Butt and is it really a butt or is it a shoulder?" Well, it is worth understanding the terms used to describe a "pork shoulder" because I have seen them vary widely at grocery stores. It is also worth actually knowing what the cuts LOOK LIKE so you can make your own informed decision about what you are buying. In one of my local grocery stores I've seen "picnics" labeled as "shoulder roasts" and "Boston butts" labeled as "pork shoulder." I've even seen a "picnic" erroneously labeled as a "butt roast!" Who knows what the guy in the back is labeling the cuts of pork. Let's figure it out ourselves.  What's the difference between a picnic roast and a Boston Butt:

What's the difference between a pork butt and a pork shoulder in BBQ cooking

First things first a pork butt is not the "rear end" of the animal. The pork butt is referring to the shoulder. The term "butt" comes from the way that the pork shoulder cuts were packaged into barrels back in the day and these barrels were referred to as "butts." These barrels were used for packaging and shipping. To complicate things even more our good friends up in Boston were cutting the pork shoulder in such a way that it was referred to in other regions of the country as the "Boston butt."

So what does the Boston butt look like? The large rectangular bone-in Boston butt is shown in the photo below, getting injected with all sorts of goodness:

Smoking pork and brisket together

The most simple way to look at it is that the whole shoulder is made up of two separate cuts, the butt and the picnic. This is nicely shown in the image up top. The picnic is the portion closest to the knee where the butt is the portion closest to the spine of the animal, ie. furthest from the knee. Normally a Boston butt will be rectangular in shape. The picnic tends to look like a cone, with one side being larger and a smaller side having the look of an actual leg, bone and all. The Boston butt can be sold with the bone still in or boneless. I always buy bone-in Boston butts. Boneless butts will not cook as evenly on the smoker because of how the bone was cut out. Save the boneless butts for grinding pork and making homemade sausage!

Difference between picnic and Boston butt

The picnic is commonly sold with skin on. Yes, real skin. It is sort of creepy and I like to it off. This is one extra step that you don't have to worry about with the Boston butt. There is much debate on the internet about which piece is preferred to make great pulled pork. I think either cut will be just fine. My only problem with the picnic is that you have the skin on there. Clearly the smoke and dry rub will not penetrate the skin. Moreover, skin will not make a great tasty bark. I think that the Boston butt also has a better shape for cooking. I find it easier to evenly cook a rectangle than to cook an odd shaped picnic. But, it's really just preference. I was looking into how the term "picnic" came about. The only thing I could find is that the picnic cut is a smaller less expensive cut as compared to the rear leg "ham" roasts. This allegedly makes it better suited for a "picnic." Hmmm. Interesting!

Smoking pork and brisket together

A lot of people ask why is the pork shoulder so good? Well, the shoulder has muscle groups that are held together by a large quantity of connective tissue. Normally connective tissue is tough and makes a horrible meal. This is why most cuts of pork that are used for BBQ are dirt cheap. They are really high in fat and tough with connective tissue. Most people don't want this. However, when you cook it low and slow the connective tissue essentially melts down and bastes the meat. Add some slowly melting fat in there and you have a fantastic BBQ treat!

Pulled Pork

Oh look at this pulled pork! You can see the nice smokey bark in there.

The take home message is as follows: The term "pork shoulder" is generally used to describe the cuts of meat found within the pork shoulder, the "butt" or the "picnic," or both. So when you are placing an order or shopping at the grocery store it is worth understanding where each cut comes from and what it looks like to ensure that you get exactly what cut you want.

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5 comments on “What's the difference between picnic and Boston butt”

  1. I'm glad you mentioned them improperly labeling it at the store as I had lived in Memphis for a while and got accustomed to making BBQ sandwiches at home. When moving back to IL, I was still able to find the cut of meat I had always known to look for "Pork Shoulder Roast" (about 4lbs, no bone, no skin, and maybe one side with a film of fat, not really the thick white fat strip, more of a very marbled piece of darker, not pink, meat), then to my surprise on a few occasions now, I have gone to the store to buy the same thing I always do, to just read the labels and the weight, grab it and go, only to find out about 2 hours or so into cooking that something doesn't "smell right." Oh yes, and then come to find out I have something that I would have known as something like a "pork loin roast" (very white, tasteless crap, dried out easily, doesn't shred the same way) that I knew I should have been suspicious about from the beginning but I just read the label and went with it since it said clearly "pork shoulder...." but no, it said "pork shoulder butt." After living in the south, I had heard of people making Boston butts... or just "butts"... and even tried a few, to which I would just usually turn up my nose even then because usually it's cooked by drunken morons who overdo it (dried out). So, I have always steered clear from butts because I know their texture... too pork choppy in texture... dense, not very stringy, or rather the wrong kind of stringy, I should say... stringy like poultry if made in a slow cooker or dutch oven, not "pulled" looking, like in juicy strips of stringy goodness. So, yeah, the first time, I just didn't look... the second time, it happened again, after I was assured this was the meat I was looking for. Thankfully, they refunded my purchase on that second occasion because that had informed me incorrectly, but I should have just went with my gut instinct-- the meat looked too pink to start, which when cooked, turns white. The "pork shoulder roast" I am used to getting has no skin or anything complicated about it, is marbled and is very similar in shape and texture to a beef roast (not like roast beef sliced, but slow cooked beef roast that you have with carrots, potatoes, and rice on the side) and the meat looks "darker" almost reddish before cooking, rather than "lean and pink" looking. I am so frustrated I cannot find this normal cut of meat anymore. I cannot eat what people commonly refer to as "butt," it's terrible and white and dry and most people cook it incorrectly. Sure it's a great smoker meat that you could cut thick chops out of and that has it's own purpose, but when you want a shredded pork sandwich, you want the dark meat.. and I tend to think it is regional how meat is cut and how it is labelled, though the "butt" seems to be a portion I am speaking of, just not the upper butt closer to the loin-- everything is being labelled as "butt" now and there is no distinguishment made between the lighter and darker or a slight overlap of both and the "meat department guy" at the grocery store is usually some f***a*** 22 year old who has never cooked a day in his life going to tell me "yeah, yeah, it's the butt you want" ... yeah, ok, but why have the labels changed in my region and why is only white meat LOIN.. clearly LOIN roasts masquerading as "butts" being sold instead?

    1. MANY meat cuts are mis-labeled all across this country. Pork shoulder butt roast IS the primo cut for smoking, roasting, braising, sausage making, and just about everything delicious Low & slow cooking results in tender, silky, juicy, HEAVEN. Makes the best pulled pork in all of creation. Sooooo many stores & supermarkets slap cuts of meat into a package with incorrect labels. If you live in areas of the country where people buy and KNOW their pork cuts, you won't run into this problem. Otherwise, you're at risk. Wherever you've got a significant population of Southerners and/or Mexican people, they wouldn't DARE try to pass off a dry, white, tasteless pork loin as a shoulder or butt roast. Labeling is key.

  2. Asked the Marsh meat guy if they had a picnic and he prodeeded to take me to the meat case where they had a Boston butt. He went to ask the meat guy in the cutting room then came back to me and said they were getting more meat in to Tuesday but that the picnic and butt were the same. Sheesh.

  3. Albeit that the is my second or third session on researching Boston Butt versus Picnic Roasts, I really appreciate the education on now to identify which is which and not rely upon that which the butcher has labelled. I showed Hampshire show pigs in the FFA in the late '60's and eventually managed an eighteen sow feedlot operation. I thought I knew my pork cuts, but likely did not take the time to differentiate back then when sending one to slaughter.

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