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:
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:
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!
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!
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!
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.