Summer harvest means an array of sweet and spicy peppers just perfect for flavoring braised pork butt. All a good hunk of meat needs is a few aromatics, quality stock, and time to turn into tender braised shreds just askin’ to be layered into a tortilla with a squeeze of lime. (Add some raw veggies for crunch and top with fresh herbs for best results.)
Let’s take a look at what makes this chunk of meat so special!
What is Pork Butt?
My boyfriend and I received a hunk of pork labeled “pork butt” in our most recent Butcher Box. I stood over the freezer with the massive chunk of meat in my hands, staring at the sticker on the plastic as somewhere in the catalogue of my cooking knowledge, dim recollections started bubbling towards my consciousness. Somewhere, somehow, at some point along my foodie journey, I remembered that pork butt is not in fact a pig’s butt.
We’ve all had ham, right? Well isn’t ham from the hindquarters of a pig? A quick Google search confirmed this.
Boom. Confirmed. Ham = rump. So why didn’t the massive slab of meat in my hands (which looked nothing like a ham, by the way) say “ham” if it was, in fact, from a pig’s butt?
Deep in the recesses of my brain, memories continued to stir, leading me to ask:
Are pork butt and pork shoulder the same thing?
I googled diagrams of pork cuts. Let’s just say humans have certainly figured out how to get the very most out of the animal.
There it is: Boston butt, clearly distinct from ham!
But to make matters even more confusing, continued Googling revealed that Boston butt is also sometimes called Boston shoulder. Naturally, this lead to further questioning…
As you can see in this diagram from The Spruce, the Boston butt sits just above the picnic shoulder on the pig.
Why is the Boston Butt Called the Boston Butt?
So, if the Boston butt doesn’t come from anywhere near the animal’s rump, why is it called a “butt”?!
As is true of many mysteries, the answer is rooted in history. In colonial New England during America’s fledgling years, butchers used to pack inexpensive cuts of shoulder meat into barrels, called “butts.” Used for transporting their wares across New England, the contents of these barrels became known as “pork butts,” the name we still call some shoulder meat today.
So yes, pork butt and pork shoulder, Boston butt and Boston shoulder, are all referring to the same cut of meat.
Primal Cuts of Pork
As you saw in the second diagram above (which is not even a complete breakdown of every cut of pork), we parse out many pieces of meat from a single pig.
First, however, a butcher must make several initial cuts, called primal cuts. These are shoulder, loin, belly, and hind leg cuts.
From there, an experienced butcher will continue to cut out pieces we know and love, like spare ribs, tenderloin, and bacon.
What Makes Certain Cuts of Meat More Expensive Than Others?
There are several factors in play when determining the value of a price of meat. These include but are not limited to:
- tenderness of cut
- fat marbeling
- animal diet
- USDA certifications, like organic or grass-fed and finished
Another influential factor is supply and demand. For example, Bacon is rich in fat marbling, inherently tender because of its cut, and also happens to be extremely flavorful. It is also simple to prepare because of these positive characteristics. I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground here when I say that these are the reasons why bacon is so popular. In short, it’s truly delicious.
What this means for the market, however, is that bacon prices range from $6.99 for 16 ounces to $17.50 for the same weight. Bacon quality ranges from the cheapest money to buy to the most luxuriously-seasoned, thick-cut bacon available. Unless we collectively undergo a radical cultural shift around the cuts of meat we love, there will always be a market for bacon.
Less favorable cuts from the pig, like pig feet, can go for as little as $2.00 per pound. Typically, people purchase pig feet for traditional recipes or for dog food, but still others work to break ground on new ways to use these less sought-after cuts. (For the curious, check out Serious Eats’ recipe for crispy grilled pig feet here.)
Cultural Shifts Affect the Price of Meat
Flank steak is an example of a cut of meat that has had its reputation revamped. Years ago, flank steak was dirt cheap. Flank steak is a very lean cut on the cow that generally has little fat marbling. If handled poorly, this cut of meat can be tough and flavorless.
But when certain diet trends suggested ways of preparing the lean cut of meat, like the South Beach Diet in the mid-1990s, it gained popularity. The price of flank steak last year according to the USDA was $8.25 per pound. This month, it’s $9.16.
From this example, we can see that cuts of meat we value culturally can shift. So who knows: maybe someday we will be inviting neighbors over for grilled pig’s feet!
How to Prepare Lean Cuts of Meat
There are several things to consider when you work with a lean cut of meat. When a cut of meat has little marbling, that means it will tend towards toughness and may be low on flavor.
Fortunately, there are certain tricks you can employ in order to make the most out of your lean cut of meat. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Marinate your meat. Marinating your meat in acid or vinaigrette helps to tenderize it before the cooking process. Lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, and apple cider vinegar are all great bases for marinades. Don’t forget to add a little honey to balance your flavors–honey is also acidic!
- Use a meat mallet. Physically tenderizing your tough cuts with a meat mallet or rolling pin helps to break down thick muscle fibers.
- Allow your meat to come to room temperature before cooking. This will help the meat to cook more evenly, especially for bone-in cuts. More control over your meat temperature means more control over moisture and overall “done-ness”.
- Rest your meat after you cook it. This helps restore the natural juices in the meat by allowing them to redistribute around the whole cut, rather than spilling out under your knife once you start cutting. A general rule is, rest for five minutes per inch of thickness.
- Cook lean cuts low and slow. Slow-roasting lean cuts can reduce the risk of “shocking” the meat or causing unnecessary loss of moisture. This is especially true for braising, during which process the meat is completely submerged in tasty cooking liquid like broth or wine.
- Cook meat to the right internal temperature. It may seem obvious, but overcooking your meat highlights any negative characteristics, like toughness and dryness, which can be avoided by cooking it on the rarer side.
- Cut against the grain. Cutting against the grain of long muscle fibers makes for tender bites that are easy to chew. You might be amazed at what a difference this simple step can make!
Sweet Pepper Braised Pork Butt Tacos
Perhaps the best part about this recipe is how simple it is. The primary flavor comes from whatever peppers you have in abundance, onion, and aromatic herbs. The soft, flavorful peppers make an excellent addition to your tacos as well as the meat from the braised pork butt.
Brush olive oil on your peppers and broil on high until the skin is blistered. I used red bell peppers, sweet mini peppers, and spicy Fresno peppers.
After your peppers are blistered, allow them to rest in their own flavorful juices while you brown the meat. No need to get fussy over peeling garlic or mincing onion–big chunks here are great!
Sear your pork butt, fatty side first, and save the rendered oil! Set meat aside while you sear your onion and garlic.
Once you’ve browned your meat on all sides, sear the garlic and onion to flavor rendered pork fat. Settle your meat, herbs, peppers, vinegar, and stock into the dutch oven and bring to a boil.
Ideally, your meat will be completely submerged. My pork butt was MASSIVE, however, and would barely fit in the dutch oven. I compensated by leaving the dutch oven covered for the entirety of the cooking process and by rotating the meat halfway through.
After about four hours have elapsed, shred the pork butt into bite-sized chunks, cutting any particularly long muscle fibers against the grain for maximum tenderness. Spoon braised pork butt and sweet peppers into warm tortillas with some fresh vegetables and herbs, and top with a squeeze of lime!
For more braised meat recipes, check out this recipe for miso-braised au jus sandwiches, or for garlic and wine-braised short ribs!
Sweet Pepper Braised Pork Butt Tacos
- heavy bottomed dutch oven
- 4 Tbs olive oil, divided
- 5-7 lb pork butt or pork shoulder, at room temperature
- 2 red, orange, or yellow bell peppers, whole
- 4-6 sweet mini peppers, whole
- 2-6 spicy peppers of your choice (I used Fresnos)
- 1 white onion, skinned and cut into quarters
- 1 head garlic
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 6-8 cups chicken or pork broth, or enough to completely submerge the pork
- freshly ground black pepper
- corn tortillas, warmed
- 2 ears raw corn, kernels cut from the cob
- cilantro, for serving
- 2 limes, cut into wedges
- Turn the broiler on high. Brush your peppers in olive oil on all sides and arrange on a rimmed cookie sheet. Roast under the heat until the skin begins to blister, turning peppers as necessary so they roast evenly. This should take between 4-7 minutes per side. Once your pepper skins have blistered, place in a bowl and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 275°F. Generously season the pork on all sides with salt. Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat until drops of water quickly evaporate. Add pork shoulder, fattiest side down, and sear 5-8 minutes per side, or until deeply golden brown. Turn heat to medium-low and set the browned pork butt aside.
- Cut the head of garlic in half horizontally and sear the exposed garlic cloves in the rendered pork fat until a nice caramel color, lowering heat if necessary. Remove from heat and add the onions. Sear undisturbed until the onion quarters take on some color, about 3 minutes.
- Add stock and vinegar to the pan, scraping up any flavorful browned bits from the bottom of the dutch oven. Season the liquid with salt and pepper. Settle the pork butt into the liquid, fat side up, and add the two halves of the seared garlic head, bay leaf, rosemary, and thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn off the heat. Cover, then place in the oven for 3.5-4 hours, or until pork is falling off the shoulder bone.
- Pull pork out of the liquid using tongs and, once it has cooled slightly, break apart using a fork or gloved hands. If necessary, cut any long muscle fibers against the grain to enhance tenderness.
- Gently pull peppers from the cooking liquid and remove seeds and stems. If desired, roughly chop into bite sized chunks. Using tongs, place pork, peppers, corn, and cilantro into a warm tortilla and squeeze lime over the top. Serve immediately. Pork keeps up to 5 days in the fridge.