One of our favorite meals has to include a pork shoulder. Whether you are smoking it, roasting it or grilling this wonderful cut of pork, learning how to brine a pork shoulder properly will definitely enhance the natural flavors hidden inside.
What is Pork Shoulder?
Boston butt or pork butt is the American name for a cut of pork that comes from the upper part of the shoulder from the front leg and may contain the blade bone. (Source) Basically, it comes from section A on the pig diagram to the left.
This cut of pork is referred in different names.
Your mother may have called it a pork shoulder when she roasted it for Sunday dinner. Your father probably referred to it as a Boston Butt or pork butt when he grilled it on Saturday afternoon, and you might have heard it called a picnic pork by your fellow smokers, while professional competition cooks call it the money muscle, because when it’s done right, it can yield the user blue ribbons, cash rewards and bragging rights.
Why Should You Brine a Pork Shoulder?
A pork shoulder on its own is a great thing to cook and eat. You may ask yourself, what can brining do to this meat cut?
Well, the most important factor to why you should brine a pork shoulder is that it will keep the meat from dehydrating during your cooking process. The liquids and salts will make the juices draw out and keep your meat moist while it cooks.
The second benefit of brining a pork shoulder, is the infusion of the ingredients. Brining it with your favorite herbs, seasonings and juices, will subtly enhance your final product. Today we chose bay leaves, and garlic. You might rather use chopped ginger and rosemary. How you decide to brine this cut is your opportunity to put your signature on this meal.
Brining a Pork Shoulder
Even though this cut of pork is called different names, the process of brining it is the same for all of them. So, no matter what you call this section of pork, brining it is the best way to make this cut work to your favor. The key here is to infuse the meat with specific flavors.
Before telling you step by step how to do this brine process, first you will need to collect a few basic supplies and ingredients required for this guide.
These are a few supplies and ingredients that you’ll need for this recipe:
Note: When we are done with the brining process, we will add a rub for the cooking process, but you may not want to add certain things to your brine, such as crushed peppers, paprika or chili powder. Save these for the cooking process.
Required Ingredients & Supplies
- A Large Bowl
- 2 ½ Gallon Zipper Lock Sealable Bag
- 7 Cups of Apple Juice
- 3 Cups of Apple Cider Vinegar
- 2 Cups of Water
- ¼ Cup of Soy Sauce
- ¼ Brown Sugar
- ¼ Cup of Kosher Salt
- 6 Bay Leaves
- 4 Cloves Garlic (Crushed)
- 3 Stalks of Celery (Cleaned and Broken into 2” Pieces)
- Quick Kitchen Tip: Some ingredients, such as ground or crushed peppers are a better enhancement through the cooking process. Adding them to rubs can add a bitterness to your product over a long brining process. It should also be added to things like gravies as a seasoning after cooking. Black ground pepper added to gravy during the application of high heat can give the pepper a very strong, off putting bite.
Preparing The Pork Shoulder Brine
In order to prepare the brine, start by adding the water to your bowl and dissolving the brown sugar and salt in it.
Once that it completely dissolved, pour this off into the bag and set it aside.
Now, combine the rest of your ingredients to the bowl. Also, this is a great time to mix everything while getting any remaining water, sugar, salt solution out of the bowl.
After you have mixed them well altogether, pour off everything into the bag you used before with the dissolved brown sugar and salt water.
Before you add the pork to your brine, reserve two cups of the brine for later use on cooking. You will understand better the function of this extra two cups by reading the "Reserved Brine Section" down below.
Now, add the meat to your brine and place it into your refrigerator for a minimum of 8 hours, up to 24 hours.
How Long to Brine Pork Shoulder?
The Pork shoulder and pork butt sections have a naturally high fat layers, so there is no need to brine it as long as you do when smoking other leaner cuts or meats, such as turkey or chicken breast.
There are some people that skip the pork shoulder brine process completely, and you can actually do that, but it is not recommended since the brining process enhances the pork flavors and make it even more juicer.
Just like when smoking meat, the brine times will heavily depend on the size of the pork shoulder cut, but in most cases, a standard 8lb sized pork shoulder will require 8 to 24 hours of brining.
I prefer to leave it around 12 hours in brine, usually overnight and then remove it on the next morning, ready for smoking.
If you are going to cook a smaller cut, then you can leave it for less than that but I would still recommend you to leave it overnight for the best results.
A lot of people are concerned that leaving their meat for up to 24 hours submerged in brine will actually result in over-brine.
Well, that is partly true. There is no way you can determine exactly when to stop brining and If your meat is left on the salty mixture for too long, it can actually become too salty, at the point where is inedible. And the worst part is that the brining process can't be undone.
What you can do to avoid wasting the meat and your time, is to make sure to properly plan your time ahead. Don't put it on brine in the morning and then you are left in a position in the middle of the night to either leave it for more than you should or wake up at 3am to rinse it.
This is the timeline that I usually follow: I put it in brine on Friday evening and refrigerate overnight. Next day, at around 7-8 AM, pull the meat from the mixture and pat it dry with paper towels. This way, I leave the meat brining for around 12 hours, and I have the next day all ahead to prepare and cook it.
In most cases, the mixture for brining is just table salt and water. This simple mixture is proved to be efficient since salt helps tenderizing the meat and aid water retention.
Since almost all pork cuts are high in fat, then the simple mixture is more than enough to negate the need for moisture.
However, if you want to infuse your meat with some extra flavors, then you can add ingredients like apple, lime or pecan, depending on your preferences. That's why in my pork shoulder brine recipe in the upper section, I have used ingredients such as Apple Juice, Apple Cider & Soy Sauce. They will add additional moisture and flavor to the meat, making it even more delicious and tender.
I recommend you to experiment with other ingredients, based on your preferences, so you can find the winning mixture ingredients.
Salt is one of the main ingredients of the brine mixture which directly impact your meat.
It is essential to have the right amounts and the right type of salt, especially when you are dedicating hours of work to preparing this recipe.
When it comes to seasoning, the type of salt you are using can have a crucial role on your meat. Two of the most popular types which are often used for seasoning are table salt and kosher salt.
Table salt is the most popular one and is made up of tiny granulated crystals that resemble sand, while kosher salt is made of large, flake-like crystals. For this reason, table salt consists in more salt crystals than kosher. So, 1/4 table salt will actually make the mixture more salty than when using 1/4 kosher salt type.
For this recipe, and in general for most of my smoking recipe, I prefer to use kosher salt. It is made more popular by famous TV chefs and It contains less sodium than the normal table salt, has a less intense and more pure, salty taste and it's easier to pick up the crystals and toss them into the food.
Cooking The Brined Shoulder
After 8 - 24 hours have passed, your brining process is nearing its end time. You’re ready to slow cook this at 225°F on your smoker, or 350°F in your oven.
Either way, pull the pork out of your brine. Give it a nice rinse under running water, and set it down on a cutting board.
With paper towels or a kitchen towel, dry the pork surface completely. You want to remove any surface moisture so you can add the flavors you want during the cooking process.
For best result, I recommend you to use the smoker. I prefer to use a rub that includes salt, crushed and ground peppers, paprika and, sugar. These ingredients, some of which were in our brine, are applied here at this point, to further enhance our meat.
The plan, from how we brined our pork shoulder, to the rinsing, and the application of dry rubs is to give your meat a layering effect of flavors. You’ll notice the deep apple within the center, and the hint of garlic and aromatics of the bay leaves throughout the roast. The dry rub on top will build a crust and give your brined pork roast a nice initial bite.
How to Properly Apply the Reserved Brine to Your Pork Shoulder
Finally, as you are cooking your already-brined pork shoulder, whether slowly over 6-8 hours on your favorite smoker, or quickly for 2-3 hours, you want to continually work the meat. We asked you to reserve some brine mixture, and now is the perfect time to bring it back out.
You can pour it slowly over the meat, or dab it on with a brush or towel. The point of this, is to add more of the initial mixture to enhance the flavors with a commonality from its beginning. The plan isn’t just to make this moister but to continually build a flavor profile. Also, If you want to maintain and build a proper flavor profile, be careful not to apply a strong heat source to the meat or let it cook too long past the right internal temperature.
Regardless of your method of cooking, you want an internal temperature of 160°F. Once you hit that magic number, pull the meat and wrap it with tin foil for at least 30 minutes. This allows the juices to stop circulating from the cooking process.
After you finally learned how to brine pork shoulder, how to properly apply it to the meat and the recommended cooking/smoking temperature, now you should serve it to your family or to your friends.
Regardless if you’re making pulled pork for sandwiches, or slicing it from a roast, you will have a meat that cannot be beat. You can serve this with roasted or fried vegetables, your favorite cold beverage or white wine.
Finally, share your new tricks with your friends, so they can cook it for you next time, or keep it to yourself, so you can be everyone’s go to guy for the perfect pork shoulder. Either way, Enjoy it!