Nothing Half-Assed about This [Pork] Butt

All photos courtesy of Virginia Willis.
All photos courtesy of Virginia Willis.

by Virginia Willis

Oh my, how I have enjoyed writing this guest blog series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, examining iconic Southern foods that absolutely define summer. I feel like I was able to spend some time with dear old friends and grow to appreciate them even more. In these past weeks, I’ve shared a bit of history and recipes that I hope you have enjoyed. We kicked off iconic summer food with homemade ice cream, I shared an earful about corn, enjoyed the purity of an old-school tomato sandwich, and sang the praises of short-lived butterbeans and field peas, then okra. I slyly tempted willing readers with the sultry lusciousness of a Georgia peach then redeemed myself with a church dinner-on-the grounds-worthy Lightened Up Squash Casserole. This week, I’m finishing up with a recipe for a barbecue pork butt, sharing a bit of history and a practical recipe for those who want to go low and slow, but don’t have the time or patience for a professional Memphis-in-May competition pace.

I was born and raised in the South, and I trained as a chef in France. I’ve cooked with the chefs of some of the finest kitchens in the US, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. I can cook fried chicken—and poulet—with the best of them, but when it comes to pork, I have grilled more than barbecued. I’ve left that very special skill set to the pitmasters like Helen Turner, John Ivory, and my grandfather.

I grew up eating home-cooked, whole-hog pork barbecue. When I was a child, my grandfather would cook a whole pig at least once or twice a summer. It wasn’t his profession, but he was an honest-to-goodness country boy and knew what he was doing with a pig and a pit. When I was a girl, the grown folks would primarily choose Memorial Day, July 4th, or Labor Day for our summer barbecue feasts. They were all fantastic events, the huge beast split and spatchcocked on a large metal grate, slowly cooking above a pit of cement blocks and split logs of pecan wood.

My grandfather would sit up all night under the trees, sipping on coffee—maybe some of his homemade muscadine wine—furtively chewing tobacco (and hiding both of these forbidden sins from my grandmother). He would make a basting mop out of a bent branch and a bunch of rags, patiently basting the pig’s skin with a potent combination of vinegar and salt, letting the heat and wisping smoke slowly transform that pig into a moist, tender delicacy. To this day, I can close my eyes and hear the sizzle of the fat as it dripped upon the white-hot coals.

There is simply nothing in this world that tastes like pig kissed by fire and bathed in smoke. However, urban barbeque has somewhat limited the possibilities of low and slow cooked pork to smaller cuts of pork cooked on familiar Weber kettle grills and Big Green Eggs, rather than cement block pits carved into red Georgia clay. Here enters the Boston butt. Pork butt, despite its interesting name, does not come from anywhere near hind end of the pig. It is instead, a cut of meat from the upper shoulder on the front leg. (A picnic shoulder is the triangular lower part of the shoulder and contains the front leg bone and joint. A picnic shoulder is normally sold with “skin on,” whereas the butt only has a small fat cap.) Boston butt is the better cut used for “pulled pork,” the very delicious staple of Southern barbecue. This part of the shoulder is intensely and richly marbled with fat, making it an excellent choice for low and slow cooking. As it cooks, the fat melts into the meat, resulting in tender, moist, and flavorful pork goodness. It’s the weekend warrior of the barbecue world.

Shouldering the Name Butt

So why “butt”? A butt is defined as a unit of volume equal to two hogsheads, roughly the equivalent of 126 US gallons. What on earth is a hogshead, much less a butt? According to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, a hogshead was a system of measurement equal to 54 to 130 gallons and was used to hold tobacco, liquor, beer, flour, sugar, molasses, and other products. During colonial days, New England butchers would often take less prized cuts of pork and pack them into “butt” barrels for storage and transport. This particular shoulder cut became known around the country as a New England specialty, and hence it became the “Boston butt.”

Bad to the Bone

Look for a Boston butt with the bone, not boned out, for two reasons: First, the bone conducts heat poorly and, in effect, protects the meat and acts as an insulator against heat. This means that the meat surrounding it stays cooler and the pork cooks at a slower, gentler pace. Second, bones have connective tissue attached to them, which breaks down during the cooking process into rich, delicious gelatin—which helps the roast retain moisture. (That’s the goodness part.)

Bringing it Home

In preparing for this post, I decided I wanted to share a recipe for a less imposing method than cooking the pork the better part of a day.  My personal goal as a chef and food writer is to share “chef-inspired” recipes that regular folks can do at home. I knew I’d have to gear up and get my game on for a 12-16 hour grill watch, so I can only imagine that non-culinary professionals would feel even more pressure. The deal is that all the eggsperts recommend cooking a butt at least an hour a pound, sometimes two! I knew I wanted it on the bone, not boned out and loosely bound in webby netting. It was then that I had a flash of brilliance. Instead of cooking an 8 pounder for 12 to 16 hours, why not have the butcher cut my Boston butt in half so I could halve the time? I could have the bone, a shorter cooking time, and a half butt to freeze for later. Sounded good to me.

I swapped out my grandfather’s pungent vinegar wash for a spice rub to better serve the skinless meat, but I was able to recreate his low and slow pork goodness to a more manageable time. It’s also very agreeable amount of meat for a smaller gathering as a full size Boston butt will easily feed 12 to 15 people. I assure you, there’s nothing half-assed about it.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Virginia Willis

Virginia Willis-close-up of finished pork butt

Nothing Half-Ass about this Butt

Serves 6

This rub makes about ¾ cup. You may not need all of it, depending on how well you rub it into the meat. It will keep in an airtight container for a few weeks. My rub recipe calls for one of my favorite spices — Piment d’Espelette, a red chili pepper from France. It is a more delicate alternative to cayenne powder, but cayenne is certainly a fine substitute.

4 pounds pork butt, on the bone

2 tablespoons canola oil

¼ cup brown sugar

¼ cup paprika

2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt

1 tablespoon garlic salt

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespooon Piment d’Espelette or cayenne pepper

4 cups wood chips, for smoking, soaked in water

Mama’s BBQ Sauce, for serving (recipe below)

Virginia Willis-uncooked pork butt, 2 halves

Remove the meat from the refrigerator. Combine the sugar, paprika, salt, garlic salt, black pepper, and Piment d’Espelette.

Virginia Willis-spice rub for pork butt

Rub the meat with the oil and then rub liberally with the spice blend. Leave at room temperature for 45 minutes.

Virginia Willis-Rubbed Pork Butt

Set the grill indirect cooking at 275°F using wood chips for flavor. (I use Jack Daniels bourbon barrel staves. Cherry and hickory would be good, but stay away from mesquite.) For the chips, soak them in water for at least an hour. Then, wrap them in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place the foil-wrapped chips on the coals. (Soaked hunks are better for the full butt long cooking times, but soaked chips in foil worked fine for the half butt.)


Virginia Willis-wood chips for smoking pork butt

Next, place the butt in the cooker and cook until the internal temperature is 165°F; this should take about 5 hours. Check it often, you want to keep the cooker temperature somewhere between 200°F and 275°F, preferably 250°F.  This can be somewhat challenging, but the goal is low and slow. Then, remove the hunk of meat and wrap it in a double layer of foil. Return it to the grill and cook until desired doneness: for sliced pork, cook until the internal temperature reaches 180°, and for pulled pork, 190°. This will take another 2 to 3 hours.

Virginia Willis-pork butt on the grill

Remove the meat to a cutting board with a moat. Cover it with foil and let it rest for about 20 to 30 minutes. Wrap it up and give it a rest. (The temperature will continue to rise.)

Virginia Willis-pork butt wrapped up

Chop with a chef’s knife, or shred the meat using a pair of tongs, discarding the fat and bones. The meat should fall apart and have a pink, smoky ring.


Virginia Willis-pork butt smoke ring

Place the meat in a bowl and add sauce to taste. Mix well and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Enjoy, slowly.


Makes about 6 1/2 cups

There has seldom been a time in my life when a mason jar of this sauce wasn’t in a corner of my mother or grandmother’s refrigerator. The truth of the matter is, once you have had homemade barbecue sauce, you will go off the store-bought kind for good.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 sweet onion, very finely chopped

2 1/2 cups ketchup

2 cups apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar

Juice of 2 lemons (about 1/4 cup)

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and simmer until soft and melted, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, brown sugar, lemon juice, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until flavors have smoothed and mellowed, about 10 minutes. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.