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Pressure Cooking 101: Pork Shoulder / Pork Butt

Pork Butt / Pork Shoulder Roast

© 2013
One of the greatest benefits of using a pressure cooker is that you can cook less expensive cuts of meat — the ones that require long cooking times or braising — in a fraction of the time it would take using traditional cooking methods. Pork shoulder (also known as pork butt) is a prime example how you can save time, money and labor in making family meals with your pressure cooker. In this article, I will give you tips how to get the best deal on pork shoulder, as well as tips how to cook it in your electric pressure cooker.

Pork shoulder is one of the nicest pork cuts: whereas the more familiar pork chops and pork loin can easily end up overcooked, dry, tasteless or tough, not so with pork butt. It has a both a higher fat content and a lot of collagen in it, both of which add flavor and moistness, and become meltingly tender when cooked properly. Its also incredibly versatile: I will buy a whole pork shoulder, grind part of it up into ground pork (I make my own pork sausage, and since I trim the fat, its far leaner and healthier than commercial products.) I cook the rest in my pressure cooker, hand shred it, and use it for a number of different dishes: posole, hash, enchiladas, pea soup, pork tacos, and bean soup. You can also barbecue pork shoulder, or for a quicker weekday BBQ fix, heat some shredded pork in barbecue sauce and serve it on sandwich buns. Pork shoulder really is a versatile, inexpensive cut of meat, one which can be even more economical, if you know what you’re doing.

SHOPPING TIP One of the big secrets I’ve come to learn in the past couple of years is that meat prices take advantage of consumer ignorance. The same cut of meat is often cut up into different pieces and configurations, called a number of different names, and the prices charged can vary quite substantially. As you can see from this Chart of Pork Cuts and my own chart below, there are a lot of pork cuts that all come from the pork shoulder, but what you pay for them can vary considerably. Knowledge can help you save a lot of money on your weekly meat bill.

How to Get the Best Deal on Pork Shoulder

The least expensive way to purchase pork shoulder is generally by buying a whole, bone-in pork shoulder. (Don’t let the “bone in” part deter you, there’s only one bone in pork shoulder, its very lightweight, its pretty easy to remove, and if you’re cooking the meat in the pressure cooker, there’s no need to remove it anyway.) For those who live in Arizona, California or Nevada, Smart & Final usually has pretty good prices on both bone-in and boneless pork shoulder, and several times this year they had a 99 cents a pound sale. For smaller amounts, I can routinely purchase boneless pork shoulder, cut into “country style ribs” for $1.99 a pound at Costco.

SHOPPING TIP Shop strategically. Even if you aren’t planning on cooking pork shoulder in the immediate future, keep an eye on the sales, try to find out your market’s meat delivery schedule and know the butcher’s hours. My local Smart & Final gets their meat shipments once a week, on Wednesdays. Their sales end on Tuesdays, so by Tuesday evening, they are probably going to running low on meat. Even if I have no room in the freezer, I’ll go down Tuesday night, and most likely, they’ll be out of stock, and I can get a raincheck for the sale price – that locks in the sale price for me whenever I’m ready in the next 60 days.

Earlier today, I did a product and price check in the meat section of one of my local supermarkets. It’s illuminating: they charged $5.99 a pound for pork butt cut up into cubes (more understandable, given there’s labor involved), but whole pork shoulder was less than $2.00 per pound, and the various pork shoulder products ranged in price from $3.49 to $4.49, around double the price. I’d certainly be willing to buy in bulk and freeze some it for a 50% savings, wouldn’t you?

Supermarket’s Description of Meat Cut Price Sale Price
Fresh Pork for Stew $5.99
Pork Shoulder Blade Country Style Ribs $3.99
Pork Shoulder Blade Country Style Ribs (Boneless) $4.49
Pork Shoulder Country Style Ribs (Extreme Value Pack) $3.99 $2.49
Pork Shoulder Country Style Ribs (Boneless) (Extreme Value Pack) $4.49
Pork Shoulder Blade Roast (Bone-In) $3.49
Pork Shoulder Blade Roast (Boneless) $3.99
Pork Shoulder Blade Roast (Whole) $1.87
Pork Shoulder Blade Steak $3.99

How to Pressure Cook Pork Shoulder / Pork Butt

Using traditional stovetop methods, it would take several hours to fully cook a large chunk of pork shoulder. Before I had a pressure cooker, in order to reduce the cooking time to an hour and fifteen minutes, I would take a pork butt, trim the excess fat, and cut the meat up into 1″ cubes. It was not an easy task for a home cook, in spite of having a good sharp knife, it would take me the better part of a half hour, and my hands and forearms would usually be sore at the end of it. Then I’d have to keep checking the simmering meat every 10 to 15 minutes to see if I had to add more water. I don’t have to do any of that with an electric pressure cooker.

PRESSURE COOKING TIP: If you have the time, brown the large pieces of pork shoulder before adding them to the pressure cooker. Browning the meat not only gives the outside of the pork an attractive color, but also allows what is called the Maillard reaction to take place, in which additional flavor compounds are created. I prefer to brown the meat in a good skillet on my stove, because much as I love my Cuisinart Pressure Cooker, one of the few things it doesn’t do well is brown large chunks of meat. For best results, put the meat out on a kitchen counter, covered, and bring it up to room temperature, dry the surface of the meat with a paper towel before cooking (surface moisture will cause the meat to steam, not brown), pre-heat a good skillet with a small amount of oil, don’t overcrowd the pan (brown in several batches, if necessary) and cook the chunks until a good brown color on all sides.

Browned Pork Shoulder

I usually don’t remove the excess fat on the outside, I just cut the meat up into 1 – 2 lb. chunks, leaving the bone in. If I have the time, I will brown the large chunks of meat before pressure cooking them (see Browning Tips). You can fit 3 – 5 lbs. of meat into a 6 qt. pressure cooker. I will cook the meat in either 2 cups of commercial beef broth or 2 cups of water with 1 tablespoon of either Ham Base or Pork Base (both of which add additional salt and flavor). You can add other things, like pepper, a tablespoon of wine, sliced onions or minced garlic, but since I cook different cuisines, I like to leave it plain and flavor the meat further in the next recipe. One of the great benefits of having an electric pressure cooker is that I can set it to cook on high pressure for 55 minutes, push start, and then leave to do something else. Unlike stovetop pressure cookers, I don’t have to turn the burner up high to start pressurizing, then reduce heat once pressure has been reached, and continue to monitor that pressure is maintained during the entire cooking process. I can virtually set it, and forget it.

PRESSURE COOKING TIP: Per Lorna Sass’ recommendation, never use quick pressure release on meats, always allow cooking meats to depressurize gradually. (If you’ve never read any of Lorna Sass’ Pressure Cooker Cookbooks, I highly recommend them, they are far more informative about how to cook under pressure than any of the “pressure cooking for beginners” books I’ve read, and they have, by far, the most information about pressure cooking in general, and detailed explanations and charts of cooking times for different pieces of meat that I’ve seen.) Lorna recommends always allowing pressure cooked meat to de-pressurize naturally because if you force pressure release, it could actually cause the meat fibers to tighten and become tougher. I’ve followed this advice with great success.

Additionally, once the pressure has been released, I turn off the “keep warm” function, take the lid off, and remove the insert from the machine to allow the meat to cool inside the broth, and reabsorb some of the juices. (Don’t be surprised if there is a great deal more liquid in the pot than when you started, this is normal – the meat releases juices during the cooking process, fat is melted, and unlike more conventional cooking methods, pressure cookers retain a lot more of the moisture.) Once the meat and juices have cooled down for a while (it doesn’t have to be completely cold, just give it fifteen or twenty minutes), I remove the meat from the broth and put it on a plate to cool down enough that I can shred it by hand. Do not discard the broth! I prefer to shred the meat by hand because its faster, and I find it easier to identify pieces of fat for removal. The pork will be soft, but still have texture, whereas fat may have a slightly different color, and it will definitely have a softer, slippery texture. There’s plenty of fat still within the meat to keep it moist and flavorful, I just remove and discard the excess.

Once I have completed shredding the pork, I bag it up in quart size Ziploc bags, refrigerate 1, and put the rest in the freezer. As for the broth, you could try to skim the fat by hand, but pressure cookers are excellent at rendering fat, there’s going to be a lot of it in the broth, and there’s an easier way to separate it out. First, before you remove the broth from the bowl, note how many cups of liquid you have. You want to have at least 4 cups of broth, and in the event you don’t have that much, add some water until you do. Strain the broth in a fine sieve to remove any small particles of loose meat or fat. Place the broth in a lidded container in the refrigerator overnight. During its overnight refrigeration, the fats will all float to the top and harden, and the broth will gelatinize underneath (this is a good thing, the flavorful collagen from the meat has gelatinized, and when cooled will give the broth a Jell-O like consistency, but it will revert to a liquid when heated again). The next day, remove the fat with a spoon, and store it in a ziploc bag for uses I’ll explain in further posts, and then use the broth either to make gravy, or I generally use it for a soup base, often with posole, or bean or pea soup.

5 Responses to Pressure Cooking 101: Pork Shoulder / Pork Butt

  • Appreciative Cook says:

    Thanks so much for this most informative instruction. I had checked on several different sites and found this to be absolutely the best! I am cooking half a pork butt (5#) in my stove top pressure cooker for the first time. (Previously I have cooked it via the slow & low tempo method but needed to save time.) Your helpful hints throughout are indeed appreciated.

  • Thank you so much for your kind words, I’m glad you found this page helpful. If you have any questions or problems, feel free to come back and ask – I’ll be around working on my site today and would be happy to help you.

    If you didn’t catch it, I’ve also got a detailed Pressure Cooker Pork Shoulder / Pork Butt Recipe that has even more detailed instructions, and, if you live at altitude, has a link to a site that uses Google Maps to determine your altitude as well as a chart with all the revised cooking times for cooking at altitude done for my visitors.

  • Appreciative Cook says:

    You mention books by Loren Sass. I googled and see that there are many from which to choose. If you were to pick only one, which one would that be? Thank you.

  • Appreciative Cook says:

    Thank you!

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