Becoming a grill or smoke master is an intimidating prospect for a lot of newcomers. With substantial brining and smoking times often required for meats like pork shoulder, it might seem like there is a lot of opportunities to slip up and derail your cooking.
However with. Here are 7 simple steps to show you just how long to brine pork shoulder.
Just like with smoking, brine times heavily depend on the size of pork shoulder that you’re cooking. However, in most cases a standard sized pork shoulder will require between 12 - 24 hours of brining.
What is brining?
In its purest form, brining is a process to prevent meat from drying out upon cooking. Particularly in the case of smoking where food is exposed to warm temperatures for long periods of time, meat is prone to losing a lot of its moisture and flavor.
To combat this, we treat food with water, salt and herbs to help lock in juices and flavors, so that the meat is still beautifully moist once cooked. Salt is a fantastic agent for moisture retention, so it’s always found at the core of all store-bought and homemade brines.
We can also take brining further by enhancing our mix with aromas and flavors to really infuse our pork shoulder with extra flavors. Some people add extra herbs, spices, vinegar, sometimes even sugars and caramel.
If this sounds an awful like marinating to you then you’re not too far off. The major difference between the two however is not only the length of time needed for brining, but also that marinades often tend to be much more acid-based, so will feature citrus juices and a heavier presence of vinegar.
I do this with a lot of cuts of pork, and even when I'm smoking a whole ham. It's a type of meat that is just perfect for brining.
How long should you brine pork shoulder?
Pork shoulder (or butt) has a naturally high fat content so it doesn’t need to be brined for as long as leaner meats, like Turkey or Chicken. In truth you can actually get away without bringing it at all, but I recommend doing it to help enhance the flavors.
I recommend brining an 8lb cut of pork shoulder for 8 hours minimum, and 24 hours absolute maximum. I usually sit somewhere between the two and go for 12 hours, or overnight.
If you have a smaller cut of meat than this then less time is fine, but I would still aim to leave it overnight.
Can you over-brine pork shoulder?
Unfortunately, what can make this process a little bit tricky is knowing exactly when to stop brining. If a cut of meat is left in salt mixture for too long then it can be so salty that’s essentially inedible and, more worryingly, the brining process can’t be undone.
To avoid the risk of a pork shoulder going to waste (as well as all your hard work!) make sure to plan your time ahead properly and take into account the 24-hour time limit for brining. You don’t want to leave yourself in a position where you’re having to wake up at 3am to rinse it!
What should you brine pork shoulder in?
In its most basic form, brine is just a mix of salt and water to aid water retention. However, with pork shoulder already being relatively high in fat content, the moisture that this alone will give us is often enough to negate the need for added moisture.
However, I recommend you still do it.
Why? Despite brining being a means to add moisture, brining is also a way for us to infuse our meat with added flavors, and I just love the taste of pork with added flavors like apple, lime or pecan.
Picking the perfect pork shoulder
Needless to say, the success of your entire BBQ or smokefest rests on the shoulders of… your shoulder.
Pork shoulder makes up one of the four primal cuts of meat from a pig or hog. The joint then falls into parts: The Pork Butt, which is the upper part of the shoulder, and the Picnic shoulder, which is the lower half.
For smoking, we only want the Pork Butt. This usually ranges between 6-8lbs and is comprised of quite a lot of fat and connective tissue. This makes it perfect for smoking.
When choosing your Butt, try to get one that contains the bone and also has about a quarter inch of fat on it. This is just so that when it smokes, it is infused with even more flavor.
Be aware that when the shoulder cooks, it will lose a significant amount of mass due to the fat melting away. So don’t be too intimidated when you buy your meat cut!
Kosher salt vs. table salt
Before you get started, it’s also essential to ensure you have the right amounts of salt, depending on the type of salt that you’re using. This might seem like a very minute detail but, while table salt and kosher salt are often interchangeable when seasoning because salt plays such a crucial role in our brine it’s absolutely vital that we measure out the right amount.
Table salt is made up of tiny granulated crystals that resemble sand, while kosher salt contains large, flake-like crystals. As a result, table salt actually consists of more salt crystals than that of kosher.
My recipe below uses table salt. If you only have or would prefer to use kosher salt then I try to add about half an extra cup of salt to your brine.
The guide I’m going to walk you through today is for an 8lb cut of pork shoulder, which will feed about a dozen people once cooked.
What do I need?
As well as our 8lb cut of Pork Butt, for our brine you will need:
10 cups water
¾ cups salt
½ cup sugar
4 sprigs rosemary
2 tbsp peppercorns
2 bay leafs
6 cloves garlic, peeled
As well as the ingredients, you will also need a 2-gallon zipper lock sealable bag, or perhaps even larger depending on the size of your pork butt. You can use tupperware or some sort of other container if you prefer, just make sure to use plastic wrap to keep the pork and brine sealed. However, I do like to ensure that the packaging I use keeps the meat as submerged as possible while also being as airtight as possible, so I personally prefer a sealable bag.
I should also say here that some recipes will call for hot or warm water. However, for me, this just isn’t necessary. That’s not to say that I am against you using hot water, but salt and sugar dissolve just fine in regular temperature water also, so I’ve personally never seen the point in making things harder for yourself by using
How to make pork shoulder brine
1. In a medium or large bowl, add the ten cups of water, salt and sugar and mix together. Mix until the sugar and salt have both dissolved.
2. Add the remainder of the ingredients and mix until fairly evenly spread. Set aside 2 cups of reserved brine mix (more on this later) and pour the rest of the mix into the sealable bag.
3. Carefully place the meat in the brine-filled bag and seal it. Place in your refrigerator and leave overnight or up to 24 hours.
4. While smoking your pork shoulder we want to apply our reserved brine to the meat now. The reason for this is to enhance the flavor profile of the cut further while also maintaining its moisture.
5. Pour the mixture slowly over the meat. Alternatively, you can use a grilling brush to apply it. Leave to cook for the remainder of its allotted cooking period, aiming for an internal temperature of 190°F/90°C.
6. Once you hit that magic number, remove the pork shoulder from the smoker and wrap in tin foil. Leave for 30 minutes to allow the juices to cook. Serve up and enjoy!
Over to you...
Have you tried this recipe before? What extra flavors do you like to add to your brine? What other meats do you like try this with? Let me know in the comments below!