Fat Side Up?

Cooking Butts

When it comes to pork butts or shoulders, I’ve always cooked them fat side up.  If the butts have a “fat cap” (section of outer skin with a thick layer of fat), I remove it.

I also take off any other thick deposits because this type fat just won’t render and it blocks the flavors from penetrating the meat.

After the meat is trimmed properly, it gets seasoned and injected; then it’s ready for the smoker.  This takes me to my topic this week:

Do I cook the meat Fat Side Up or Down?

When we cook butts, we never flip them.  The butts go on the smoker fat side up, so our rub can build layers of bark as it cooks.

Well this week I noticed that something went wrong.  We pulled them off the cooker when the temperature was right at 198 degrees.  The Thermapen slid in & out just like going in a warm stick of butter; they were done.

But when we started building the blind box, these butts were tough as they could be.  Waylon managed to miracle a box together as best he could (we took 7th place!), but we were left scratching our heads as to what went wrong.

It could have been the weather – A severe front came through Friday night dropping the temps by 20 degrees overnight – or it could have been that we just bought bad butts that week.  Whatever it was I was determined to find a solution fast.

This led me to thinking about the cooking process.

The fat inside the butt renders out as it cooks. The meat on top (where I want bark) is exposed to the most heat, so it’s the first place to dr y out and get tough.

We keep a good eye on it and mop it every couple hours to prevent it from drying out, but with other factors weighing in …sometimes it just doesn’t turn out like we want it.

So this week I decided on a new strategy.  I started with the same trimmed & seasoned butt.  To get my bark to form, it went on fat side up to start, also I mopped it every 1:45 minutes to make sure it was moist.

After 4 hours it was just the right color and temperature (155 degrees), so it was time to wrap.

This is where my process changed.

Instead of the typical wrap job I seasoned, mopped, used a little margarine and turned the butt fat-side down – then wrapped the foil around it.

Then it went back on the cooker fat-down to finish.This is where the fat really renders in the but t. And as it renders, the fat is going to trickle down through the meat and keep the key areas moist during the last stage.

I was a little worried about the bark being too soft, but giving it the head start during the first half did just the trick.

The old way I was doing it, the butt would get done… but everything was cooking down. The best part of the meat was slowly drying out on top and wasn’t getting the benefit of “self-basting” by the rendering fat. I was hoping that cooking the butt fat down for half the cook would prevent any future problems.

My final target temperature was still the same. When the butt reached 198, I carefully flipped it into an aluminum pan and unwrapped the foil around it. Then it was glazed and returned to the smoker for 30 minutes to set the bark.

I have to admit that I was impressed with the final result. The areas that we focus on for the blind box were really moist and tender – and it was packed with flavor.  I was half expecting the bark to be soft and mushy, but it was perfect.

About Malcolm (the Author)

For over a decade now Malcom Reed has been competing in barbecue competitions... and it didn't take long for this hobby to develop into a full-blown addiction. After being inspired by the comradery and brotherhood of the sport, Malcom developed HowToBBQRight.com, a website devoted to sharing BBQ techniques and promoting the Competition BBQ Lifestyle. Through his cooking team, The Killer Hogs, and his barbecue business, Malcom is a constant student of 'Que... and his goal is to and his goal is to share his knowledge and passion with everyone.