Is there anything as delicious as a slow-roasted, pulled pork shoulder? If there is, I haven’t tasted it yet.
Pork shoulder is forgiving and delicious. Uncooked, it’s a fairly tough piece of meat but once slow-roasted or smoked it becomes fall-off-the fork tender.
Sometimes called Boston Butt, this cut is from the front shoulder of the pig. It is layered with fat and is sometimes sold on the bone and sometimes boneless. It’s not to be confused with pork butt. Pork butt comes from the top of the shoulder.
Pork shoulder does best when cooked low and slow. This makes it perfect for smoking at your next barbeque.
If you’re a seasoned smoker, you’ll already know how important brining is for any meat headed for the smoker. If you’re new to smoking, don’t worry. We’ll talk you through it.
What Is Brining?
Brining is the process of treating meat with a saltwater solution. The aim of brining is to inject some moisture into the meat before cooking it. This is important because meat dries out as it cooks. By introducing extra moisture, the natural moisture content of the meat isn’t lost to the heat.
Leaner meats like poultry breasts, pork chops, and turkeys need to be brined before being roasted. This is because they lack fat which can help create moisture.
Fattier meats, like our delicious pork shoulder, need brining when they are going to be smoked. This is because smoked meats spend so long in the smoker. The fat in pork shoulder isn’t enough to keep it juicy in a smoker.
Meat brining is different from the brining processes used to treat fish, cheese, or vegetables. With meat, brining aims to introduce moisture.
In the case of fish and cheese, bringing serves to preserve the food. When vegetables are submerged in brine, the aim is to change the taste and texture as well as preserve the food. Usually, this process is referred to as pickling.
How Does Brining Work?
You’ll need to cast your mind back to your science classes. Do you remember osmosis? Let me refresh your memory.
Osmosis is how dissolved molecules, also called solutes, move between cells. Cells have semi-permeable membranes that allow certain solutes to pass through.
When there is a bigger presence of solutes on one side of the membrane osmosis takes place. The solutes move through the membrane and equalize the number of solutes on either side.
When the meat is put into the brine, there is more salt in the brine than in the meat cells. The salt passes through the membrane. There are other solutes in the meat cells but these can’t pass through the membrane.
The salt makes the meat cells increasingly saline (this is how we describe the saltiness of water.) To compensate for the increased salinity, water enters the cells through osmosis. And just like that, the meat gains moisture!
How To Make Brine For Pork Shoulder
At the most basic level, brine is just salt and water. The amount of salt you need depends on the cut and usage.
For brining meats, particularly larger cuts like pork shoulder or whole chickens, you want about 7% salt.
To work out how much salt you need, cover your meat in water in a tub. Once it’s fully submerged, weigh the water. To do this put the whole tub on a scale and subtract the weight of the meat and the tub.
So let’s say you use a quart of water. That will weigh 2lbs. We now need to work out what 7% of 2lbs is. The calculator tells me that 7% of 2lbs is 0.14lbs or 2 ¼ oz.
So, for a simple 7% brine, we need a quart of water and 2 ¼ oz of salt. Yay, math!
The good thing about brining is that we can also use it to introduce some flavors. The beat keeps hold of the water, so any flavor in the water is also taken into the meat.
You can add herbs or spices to your brine but be careful not to add acidic substances like cider or vinegar. These will turn the brine into a marinade. It won’t help the meat retain moisture.
For pork, you could consider adding some rosemary, peppercorns, garlic, and thyme. For a smokier barbeque taste, you could include chili flakes and cayenne pepper.
How Long Should I Brine Pork Shoulder
The question of the hour, just how long does your pork shoulder need to brine?
Well, the answer is anywhere between 8 and 24 hours. It depends on the size of the shoulder.
For an average shoulder of about 6lbs, you probably want to leave it for about 10 hours. Essentially, overnight. This does mean you need to prepare the pork in advance of the barbeque.
Don’t leave your pork in the brine for longer than 24 hours. This will make it so salty it’s unpalatable. In reality, you probably don’t want to go over 12 hours for an average pork shoulder.
Do You Need To Rinse?
You need to rinse off the pork shoulder after it’s finished brining. I recommend rinsing it, then letting it sit for a quarter of an hour before rinsing it again. You want to make sure that there isn’t any residual salt on the skin. This will dry it out too much.
After the rinse, you need to pat the pork shoulder dry. This is important because it can affect the temperature of the smoker. It can also leave you with soggy skin which isn’t very appetizing.
Brining your pork shoulder might seem like an extraneous step.
You might be tempted to skip it, especially as it needs to be done in advance of the barbeque. I get it, we’re all busy.
But, brining is not a complicated process. Once you’ve dumped the meat in the water you can just leave it alone for half a day.
It won’t take you too long to do and it will work wonders on your meat!