How to Prepare Pork Butts for BBQ Competitions
Pork is one of the most popular meats cooked at both backyard barbecues and professional BBQ competitions. Even the most accomplished home grillers can learn a thing or two from the pros about preparing a succulent pork butt for the smoker. But let's say you want to do one better — you want to BE a pro, taking home some serious awards for winning over the toughest BBQ judges you can find. You're going to need to learn how to cook competition BBQ pork butts if you want to make it onto the podium.
While there may be many ways to cook a pork butt, there's only a few that can propel you onto the path of true grill master. That's why we called upon one of the biggest, baddest barbecuers on the planet: Diva Q, certified BBQ judge and winner of 400+ awards including 20 grand championships. (We knew she'd know a thing or two about what it takes to wow judges.) Oh, did we mention Diva Q just happens to be one of the most prolific BBQ instructors in the world? She teaches 50 classes a year, leading thousands of novice grillers to barbecue mastery. But don’t you worry, buddy — this one’s on the house.
What to Know Before You Start
Judges are heavy on meat appearance (who knew?)
Consider smoking 2+ pork butts and turning in the best one
Simple pulled pork is acceptable, if you hate earning points for variety
Learn to really love the money muscle: it pays you the money!
Prepping a pork butt for the big leagues is a detail-oriented process but, boy, is it satisfying. In this article, we’re going to cover everything in the prepping stage before the main event — from picking the perfect pork butt to chilling it. All in all, a newer and more meticulous grill master can expect maybe 30–40 minutes of hands-on work per pork butt; it should go without saying that with experience comes speed. With that said, why don’t we get started?
How to Choose the Best Pork Butt
Pork butt (also called “Boston butt”) is one of the most popular cuts of meat in the BBQ world, as it’s the perfect choice for long-cooking low-and-slow pulled pork, and other indomitably delicious BBQ mainstays. This cut is actually an excellent base for a whole host of dishes, and it’s also one of the cheapest cuts of meat out there. Here’s how you pick out a great one.
Weight and Packaging
Just to cover it early: your butcher is your best friend. (Befriend that butcher!) Now, let’s say you cut off your butcher in traffic and they’re out to beat you at your own game. Here’s what you’ll want to know if you’re shopping at the store: pick a nice, juicy muscle in the 8–10 lb. range. (Too large, and you’ll find it unwieldy to work with; too small, and you’ll have too little to show for it.) Next up, our biggest disqualifier is the packaging — you’ll want a reasonably air-tight seal on the plastic to keep your butt fresh.
Color and Grain
Aim for an untrimmed pork butt, which is almost certainly available. The meat itself should be red-pink in color with a coarse grain. Don’t fret if the meat’s mildly purple; that’s just the suffocation. It should return to its robust healthy color with a few minutes of oxygen. (That’s right — even divided meat can hold its breath. Isn’t nature strange?)
The next big thing to check? Study the muscle across the front of that butt. Feel the farthest side from the bone: is it reasonably firm? Is there a solid amount of fat marbling? Don’t forget that, at least in the barbecue world, you’ll find “marbling” in the thesaurus under “flavor.” Finally, take a moment to examine the bottom of the pork butt. For great quality control, you’ll want to see a smooth, firm layer of thick white.
Get to Know Your Pork Butt
Different muscles mean different textural components, which is really important to competition. So, on a pork butt, you’ve got your fat cap — this is that firm white layer protecting the bottom of the pork butt. The shoulder end of the pork butt (set aside anatomy for a moment) will be the end with the bone sticking out. The opposite end will be coated with a lot of meat and hard fat. Then there's all these lovely little pockets of tubing right around the side.
What is the Money Muscle?
Spinning around to the other side, you'll have the flatter, longer bone, and then there's a lovely muscle in almost a teardrop-shape. It's right under there, and we in the know call that the “money muscle.” It’s a delicious showstopper of fat and meat that runs in a horizontal line under the pork butt. The meat can be sliced off and eaten by itself, or it can be used to add serious flavor and moisture to any pork dish. Most judges expect it to be there — and unless you’re strangely committed to competing in “hard mode,” you absolutely don’t want to skip it.
How to Trim Your Pork Butt
Trimming a pork butt can be a huge time saver, especially when you’re cooking a competition-sized cut. It’s also important as a first step in the cooking process, because you’ll want your finished cut to be as pristine as possible. While we know some competition winners out there skip some of the trimming, we stand by the process — why wouldn't you want to show the best-looking BBQ turn-in bo x you can manage, anyway? Good news is, it isn’t hard. Plus, once you get great at it, it becomes second nature. Here’s what you’ll need to know to trim like the pros.
What is a Turn-In Box?
Let’s define a term you may have noticed for the first time a moment ago. In BBQ competitions, a “turn-in box” is your finished, staged entry in a container supplied by your event. More often than not, this container will be a standard 9” x 9” Styrofoam clamshell box, though your contest is at liberty to choose another disposable material instead (such as aluminum or plastic). As BBQ competitions are always judged blind, your turn-in box is your single shot at bringing home the proverbial bacon.
The Fat Cap
First things first: let’s trim that fat cap back about an inch and a half to separate it from the money muscle. Since it’s solid white fat, it won’t render into the meat — discard it, or preserve it to grind into sausages later. Next, take your knife and carefully follow the meat line in a few passes, trimming the fat cap away to show something more like a tenderloin or a loin. Since we’re going for competition-style quality, don’t try to do this in one quick pass; aim for carving it in layers. Once the fat cap itself is removed, do a few more neat trims to take off the remaining fat from the bottom of the pork butt. You don’t have to get it all, but this will help build up that bark.
The Blood Line
Flip over the pork butt. If you're at home and you're making pulled pork, this next part won’t matter so much — but when you're in competition mode, any blood or myoglobin that you leave in that vein can turn a pretty off-putting shade of gray. (Judges, as you may recall, don’t care for “off-putting.”) So, take your knife, trim back this fat, and find the blood line right there. Conveniently, it's always in the same exact location on every pork butt — right above the money muscle. We don't want to take the chance that it is going to turn all gray, so carve it out.
Shaping the Money Muscle
Afterward, start focusing on shaping that money muscle. Take your knife and carefully trim away the hard fat and silver skin here; you’ll probably find the top end of the blood line in there. By now, the majority of the bloodline has been removed from the top of the money muscle. Keep an eye out here for what seems like a leather cluster, usually in the middle of this section. Trim it, peeling back a little more fat from the money muscle. That’ll leave us in great shape before we continue.
On a pork butt, the majority of the muscles lay horizontal. Competition turn-in boxes aren’t for going against the grain, so we’ll want to send those horizontal-laying muscles to the judges. However, everything in this center section actually lays vertical. Do we want that turned in? Absolutely not. Save yourself some later frustration: get a good grip on it and trim it all the way back. Remember, you’re preparing a competition cut, not home BBQ — set it aside to use for sausages, fajitas, or anything else you’d like. After all, this isn’t an insignificant amount of meat.
Getting a Great Shave
By now, you’ve figured out exactly why you’re always better off starting with a larger butt; you’re trimming away a few full pounds’ worth of meat. It does take a while to trim this out. But if we stop here, the edges are likely to crumble during the cooking session. To avoid that and clean up this cut of meat, lay your knife nice and flat against the top of that money muscle and trim back any loose parts you have left. Finally! After trimming out the bottom, the top, and carving away the blood line, the money muscle should be fully exposed.
Cleaning the Ends
Time to deal with the rest of the pork butt. Pick the tougher end section; we’ve got to do something about that hard chunk of fat. Take a nice, clean cut all the way straight down. (If there’s a lot of fat here, it’s sometimes good to try harvesting the muscle in there). Any meat sandwiched between thick layers of fat will be succulent meat.
After that cut, start cleaning up the opposite end. Chances are you’ll find a lot of really loose, malleable fat. This fat is an enemy to bark — and for your BBQ turn-in box, bark’s your friend. To help build up bark, simply trim all that loose fat away. Don’t worry about perfect (these protein strands stand straight up, so we’re not using this large triangular section), but you’ll want to make sure to clean up anything around it — fatty chunks, blood pockets and veins around the bone, and so on.
“Horn Meat” and Final Trimming
There’s an opportunity to consider here: this section can offer some really pretty chunks of meat for the turn-in box. Flipping the bone side up, you can consider the bone the head of a daisy and the meat rounds petals; you’ll find some great muscles toward the bottom that won’t have that blood burst in there that actually can be taken out almost whole. Then, sandwiched between fat and bone, you’ll find “horn meat” on the narrow side — imagine meat enveloped in a succulent, juicy pocket and cooking, and you’ll get the right idea. It’s usually extremely tender and perfect for turn-in boxes.
How to Inject Your Pork Butt
If you’re new to the world of professionally barbecuing pork butt, you might not know that injecting the meat with a simple liquid is a great way to help it achieve a juicier and more flavorful finished product. (This makes all the difference in competition BBQ.) Luckily for all of us, injecting pork butt is a fairly straightforward process. It’s done by using a needle to inject a marinade or other liquid into the meat. For pork you want in a turn-in box, our recommendation is a phosphate-based injection. Let’s talk about them, and how you use them.
Why Are Phosphate Injections Important?
At home, your guests are likely to take a bite right when you want them to — but at a BBQ competition, your turn-in box may rest on a judge’s table for 15–20 minutes or more. That’s why you’ll want to get nice and cozy with phosphate-based injections to retain that moisture. (Think of it like “meat insurance” to ensure their every bite is a succulent juicy bite.) You can find phosphate-based injections online, but we recommend mixing your own. Mix them with fruit juices: either peach nectar or pineapple juice, maybe even apple juice.
How Should You Inject the Meat (And the Money Muscle)?
Now, in competition, we don't want to ever leave large pockets of marinade. Your turn-in box may rest for a long time, so we want to ensure that the injection spreads out evenly throughout the meat — not in thick bubbles, which won’t cook evenly. Instead of building up a big pocket of juice (since we’ll be steaming the center section), go instead for a lot of small, tiny injections. It’s tempting to inject directly into the money muscle, but too much could split the muscle, ruin the potential for bark, and toughen the meat. Give it a few short injections: 4 or 5 is plenty.
Injecting the Money Muscle
Turn your butt up on its side to inject each of the individual muscles between the fat lines. While injecting, quickly draw the needle back out (but not completely) to saturate the entire muscle. To be clear, you don't want to form small pockets filled with injection — that could steam out and disrupt your chances at winning that prize. Releasing the injection while pulling backwards gives you that full saturation you’re after. Give this treatment to each of those muscles around the money muscle.
Injecting the Rest of the Butt
Flip over your pork butt and look for the two standout muscles behind the money muscle. Get your needle ready and see if you can get some beautiful tubes out of that! There's one that runs the entire length of the butt; give that an injection too. Afterward,. turn your butt back around give the entire triangle section, next to the bone, a good stab as well. When your slab of meat is really full of injection, it’ll begin oozing the injection back out. At that point, step away! Your injections are done.
How to Finish Prepping Your Pork Butt
At this point, we’re in the home stretch. All that’s left to do is generously pat it down with your BBQ rub of choice (we’re pretty partial to our BBQGuys x Spiceology line) and then let it chill overnight to soak up every drop of delicious flavor. After that? Wipe down your surfaces, wash up, celebrate, and don’t forget the most important step: get plenty of sleep. After all, tomorrow’s your big day!
Rubbing the Butt
Once you have all your pork trimmed up and injected, the next thing you’ve got to do is get your hands ready and rub that butt! Now, something to remember: this is a large cut of meat. It’ll smoke for hours. Most barbecuers don’t use enough rub — if you’ve got your eyes on the prize, you can’t be most barbecuers. Time for a rule of thumb: each pork butt should use about three quarters of a cup of BBQ rub.
Once the rub pours, get it in all those nooks and crannies and smother it. Now, the injection should give you enough liquid to seriously coat that pork butt. You’ll get a beautiful color on the meat, as well as that incoming mahogany goodness thanks to that wood-fired smoke. If you see a lot of moisture coming to the surface, that means the rub’s salt is doing its job. You always want your butt cold and a little damp as it hits the grill, as smoke is water-soluble. (That means a damp butt attracts more smoke than a dry one.)
Once you’re done, prepare any other butts you might be cooking through these same steps, then refrigerate them overnight. Not only does it need the time to brine in that injection and rub, it’s important to get that meat cold to the bone so it can soak up all that delicious smoky flavor during the cooking stage. But here’s where you do your clean-up and relax with a nice, crisp drink. You’ve earned it!