How to Season a Boston Pork Butt

two pulled pork barbecue sandwiches


What to Season Pork With? It's Up to You

The shoulder roast called a Boston pork butt, the equivalent of a beef chuck roast, is one of the most versatile and economical cuts. Although it's relatively tough, with plenty of connective tissue and streaks of fat running through it, slow cooking magically turns a pork butt into a superbly rich and tender meal. That characteristic makes it a much-loved part of many culinary cultures, which means your options for pork butt seasoning are wide open.

A Few Basic Ground Rules

It's always helpful to season your pork shoulder a day ahead of time, if you have that option. The salt you apply will have time to absorb into the meat, leaving it well seasoned inside and out, and any herbs, spices or spice pastes you apply will infuse their flavors into the surface of the pork. Don't worry if you don't get the opportunity to do this – melting fat will carry your chosen flavors through the pork as it cooks – but it's good to have a head start. Massage your chosen seasonings into every surface and crevice of the meat, so it's thoroughly distributed. The only place you might want to omit the spice rubs and pastes is the skin, if you're cooking it skin-on. Simply salting the skin and leaving it to dry uncovered overnight in your fridge helps it roast up crisp and golden, which for serious aficionados is the best part of a pork roast.

If your goal is a traditional pork roast, the choice of what to season the pork with is almost entirely up to you. Garlic is always appropriate, whether sprinkled on in powder form, minced to a fine paste and spread on the surface, or cut into slivers and inserted into crevices in the meat. Most of the fresh herbs in your garden or your supermarket's produce section go well with garlic, so feel free to pull together any combination of rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, basil, chives and parsley that appeals to your palate.

Seasonings for Pulled Pork

Seasoning Boston pork butt roast for pulled pork also gives you plenty of latitude: Lots of cooks will tell you there's only one best way to season the pork, but no two of them quite agree on what it is. Your basic mixture will usually include garlic powder, paprika, sometimes hot or smoked paprika as well, and usually black pepper and dry mustard powder for a bit of heat. Most rub recipes include sugar or some other sweetener, and salt is essential, whether you include it in your rub or add it beforehand. Aside from those basics, feel free to experiment with adding small quantities of dried herbs such as ground rosemary or sage, or more adventurous spice choices such as cumin or tart sumac powder. Many cooks rub their pork butt with yellow mustard before applying the spice rub, which turns the mixture to a paste and helps it stick to the roast.

Carnitas and Other Latin Options

Slow-cooked pork is one of the culinary touchstones of the Latin world, with each country and region having its own take on the specialty – and sometimes more than one. The difference usually boils down to how the pork is seasoned.

If your goal is Mexican-style carnitas for a taco party, the basic seasonings you'll need are salt, onion, garlic and oregano, as well as citrus and bay leaves to go into the slow cooker or roasting pan. Other recipes may include cumin or various chilies, though they're not essential. Puerto Rican pernil uses oregano, salt and pepper and plenty of garlic, and slow cooks the pork with citrus. Philippine adobo – very different from the familiar thick Mexican sauce – marinates the pork with soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and bay leaves before cooking the pork to lush tenderness.

Chinese-Style Pork Shoulder

Another classic preparation is Chinese-style char siu pork, which leaves the butt deeply flavored and richly colored. Recipes vary in their seasonings and authenticity, but the basic technique is much the same. Mix soy sauce, chili paste, Chinese Shaoxing wine or dry sherry with a sweetener such as honey or sugar, fresh ginger, pepper and Chinese five-spice powder to make a boldly flavored marinade. Refrigerate the Boston pork butt for at least a day, and up to two days, before slow-roasting and basting the pork to fork-tenderness.