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Boston butt is very similar to pork shoulder and is one of the tougher cuts of the pig. It needs long cooking times to break it down to a tasty texture. My favorite is 150°F (66°C) for 1 to 2 days, or 165°F (74°C) for 18 to 36 hours for pulled pork.
I LOVE a good pulled pork, and Boston butt is the perfect cut to use for it. With sous vide, you can also make a really flavorful and tender chop-like cut, which is unique to the sous vide process.
Boston butt is very similar to pork shoulder and is one of the tougher cuts of the pig. It needs long cooking times to break it down to a tasty texture. While this article is specifically about pork butt, it can be applied to a sous vide picnic roast or pork shoulder as well.
As I mentioned, creating a tender pork butt that has the texture of a juicy pork chop is unique to sous vide, and it can be a really cool final preparation. It takes a while, to fully tenderize the meat, but it can definitely be worth it.
For chop-like sous vide pork butt, it needs to be cooked for several days since pork butt is such a tough cut of meat. Sous vide can greatly change how it normally tastes because you can cook it below the temperature that starts causing lots of moisture loss for a long enough time that it still becomes tender. This results in very tender and moist meat.
For a chop-like consistency I generally prefer 140°F (60°C) for 1 to 2 days so all of the pink is gone but many people like the slightly more tender pinkish result from a 135°F (57.2°C) cook. You probably don't want to go above 154°F (67.8°C) or you start to lose moisture and fall more into the braise-like category.
When we think of traditionally cooked pork butt or shoulder, we usually think of pulled pork cooked on the smoker. With sous vide, we have more of a range of braise-like meat, which also includes firmer texture (similar to a smoked brisket) in addition to the pulled pork.
The meat becomes more and more tender the longer it cooks. At higher temperatures you don't have to cook it as long because the meat breaks down faster. Most butts are cooked for 18 to 24 hours, but if the temperature is above 170°F (76.7°C) or so then you can get away with shorter times.
Smoked pulled pork is traditionally done at around 190°F to 200°F (87.8°C to 93.3°C). With sous vide you can easily cook at lower temperatures but I recommend over 156°F (68.9°C) for something along the lines of traditional pulled pork, otherwise the fat doesn't break down much. The higher the temperature, the more fat will be rendered but the dryer the meat will become.
My favorite combination is probably 165°F (73.9°C) for around 18 to 24 hours, it's shreddable but not too fall-apart, over-tender. Some other popular combinations are 156°F (68.9°C) for 18 to 24 hours for a much firmer, but still tender butt, or 176°F (80°C) for 12 hours for a much more traditional fall-apart texture.
I recommend reading more about how to sous vide pork for more information.
This is the basic recipe to make traditional-style pulled pork using a sous vide pork butt or picnic roast. You can use any of the braising temperatures above, but I like the texture that 165°F (74°C) results in. Some people are worried about using that low of a temperature, but I go into more detail about why the sous vide temperature can be lower than when smoked traditionally. I also have a more detailed sous vide pulled pork recipe.
Preheat the water bath to 156°F (68.9°C).
If the pork butt is too large to fit into a bag, cut it into multiple pieces. Mix together the spices in a bowl then coat the pork with them. Place the pork in a sous vide bag with the liquid smoke then seal. Place the bag in the water bath and cook the pork for 18 to 24 hours, until tender.
Remove the pork butt from the water bath and chill using the 3-step chilling process. Then a few hours before you are ready to eat, start up a smoker. Remove the pork butt from the sous vide bag, lightly dry it off, and place it on the smoker. Smoke until it is warmed through, making sure the temperature of the butt stays below the temperature you sous vided it at. Remove from the smoker, shred apart, and serve.
Take the sous vide bag out of the water and remove the cooked pork shoulder from the bag and reserve the sous vide juices. Dry the shoulder thoroughly using paper towels or a dish cloth. If desired, lightly salt the pork then quickly sear it for 1 to 2 minutes per side, until just browned, then remove from the heat. Shred the pork with a fork and tongs, then place in a bowl with the juices from the sous vide bag and serve.
People love their BBQ and get really fired up if you suggest doing it a different way, this is especially true if you are recommending a method different than what they like. So asking if sous vide pulled pork is better than smoked pulled pork is a really loaded question.
First, nothing can replace the flavor and texture you get from smoking a pork butt for hours. You can come close, but it is a completely unique flavor. So if that is your goal, sous vide can't replicate it.
However, sous vide pork butt can be made very moist and tender. You can then smoke it after you have tenderized it and get a decent amount of that texture and flavor you would from smoking it traditionally, while maintaining the extra moistness of the meat.
It is also much more convenient for most people to sous vide their picnic roasts or butts because it is such a hands-off process. Cooking it on the smoker takes hours, and you have to keep an eye on it. For sous vide, once you toss it in the water you can forget about it until it is done. You can then reheat on the smoker, or in the over, in just a few hours... or pull it right after sous vide and it'll reheat in just a few minutes.
There are so many names for similar parts of the pig, so it can be confusing what the difference between a Boston butt and a picnic roast are. The Boston butt comes from the butt (which is the front shoulder) and the picnic roast comes from the area right below the butt, known as the pork shoulder.
In general, both cuts are similar and can be treated the same way for most preparations.
The pork butt does have more intramuscular fat than the shoulder, which means it breaks down better and can have more flavor (think a brisket vs a top round). This makes the Boston butt better for pulled pork, or other braise-like dishes. However, a picnic roast will still work well.
The butt usually still have the fat cap on it, and can be either bone in or bone out. The shoulder often still has the skin on, and a bone running through the middle. If the shoulder is de-boned it can be laid flat, while the butt is usually still even and rectangular in shape. Though the even shape doesn't matter as much with sous vide as it would in more traditional processes.
Unless you are doing a specific preparation, I'd look to buy a Boston butt if they have it, but you can turn to a picnic roast as a good substitute.
There are several options for using sous vide pork shoulder with a smoker. The two main camps are split on whether to smoke and then sous vide, or sous vide and then smoke. They both work well and both have people that swear by them, so you can do whichever you prefer.
I usually smoke after, because I like to finish off the meal by smoking it and then serving it directly. I also make pulled pork a lot for parties, so it's nice to have the smoke and aroma going when people show up.
It's also a little easier to plan for, since you know the smoking process won't take very long, and you can wait about a week after you are done sous viding it before you need to smoke it. You can also speed up the smoking process by cutting up the shoulder before smoking it. It'll reduce the smoke time, and the flavor, but gives you more control if you need it.
That said, many people find it more convenient to smoke it first. The smoke also tends to "stick" a little bit better to the raw meat and it seems a little more forgiving. If you sous vide at a higher temperature, it can also be very hard to keep it together long enough to get it onto the smoker.
Regardless of the method you choose, there are two rules to follow.
The first is to make sure your pork shoulder is cold. If it is raw, it obviously will be coming from the fridge, but if you have sous vided it first, be sure to chill it before smoking it.
The other rule is to monitor the temperature of your pork butt and make sure it doesn't get above the temperature you will (or did) sous vide it at. Raising the temperature above that point during the smoking process will undo much of the benefits of sous vide.
Not all of us want to smoke a pork butt all the time. As I mentioned above, you can't replace a traditionally smoked pork shoulder with sous vide, and this is doubly true if you don't start or finish on the smoker. However, you can still get some great flavor without going outside to your grill.
An easy way is to use a spice rub that has smoked ingredients in it. Ancho chile powder and chipotle chile powder both have a smoking flavor, as does Spanish-style smoked paprika. You can also find several different types of smoked salt. I'll often add a smoked rub before sous viding, and then re-apply it before searing or warming in the oven.
Another good method is to use a tablespoon or two of liquid smoke in the bag. If you get a high quality liquid smoke (look at the ingredients and make sure it doesn't have corn syrup or other additives in it) it can contribute some great flavor to it.
Brining your pork butt can add a lot of flavor, though it's not something I usually do. If you are using it to add flavor, then a brine can still be effective, but if you are just using it to make the meat more moist, it is much less important. I go into a lot more details about sous vide and brining.
In addition to finishing the pork roast on a smoker, you can also simply pan fry it in a hot pan. This works really well for putting a great crust on chop-like pork butt. You can get more info in my guide to how to sear sous vide foods.
You can use the same searing method on a really hot grill. It adds some good grilling flavor to it, crisps up the outside of the meat, and gets you outside!
Another effective way of finishing your pork shoulder is to chill it and then reheat it in the oven. It won't add flavor like smoking does, but it will start to dry the outside of the meat. While this sounds like a negative, if you are making pulled pork we are conditioned to enjoy that outside "bark", and the oven can create this as long as you don't overdo it.
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