Pork shoulder is an incredibly delicious cut of meat, but unfortunately, it’s also one of the most underrated. This means that there isn’t always as much in stock when we need it.
So, what are the best pork shoulder substitutes? The ultimate substitute for one specific pork shoulder cut is, of course, a different pork shoulder cut. Alternatively, pork leg (ham), top loin roast, and top leg work just as well. For a pork-free alternative, lamb shoulder or beef brisket are the best replacements.
In today’s article, we will be looking at pork shoulder in depth – its taste, texture, cooking methods, and more. This will help you choose the best substitution based on the purpose of the meat, not only the texture and flavor.
Mmm meat. Is there anything better? How about pork meat? How about a slow-roasted, juicy, honey-glazed pork shoulder? Drooling yet?
Pork shoulder is an incredible cut of meat, by far one of our favorites. There is so much you can do with it and so many flavors you can pair with it.
The three most important aspects that pork shoulder provides as a piece of meat is its size, texture, and flavor.
But first, let’s break it down into categories. By doing so, you’ll be able to see exactly what part you want to substitute and then choose the best alternative that will be able to provide you with the same characteristics.
The Cut of Pork Shoulder
Pork shoulder is a cut from the front part of the pig, just above the leg (yes, the shoulder part of the pig).
Two types of shoulders can often be found in the store. Many countries have their own terminology for them, but they are commonly known as “shoulder” or a “Boston butt” or as “picnic shoulder.”
Don’t let the term “Boston butt” fool you. This refers to the very top of the pig’s shoulders. The actual butt-part of the pig is referred to as “ham.” Yeah, super misleading, we know.
The lower part of the shoulder leading down to the leg is called “picnic shoulder,” as it is smaller and perfect for “picnic-portions.”
Pork shoulders are often sold with the skin on and a layer of fat. You can ask for these to be removed, but the fat especially adds a lot of flavor – we’ll get to that later.
This meat cut is sold in two main ways; bone-in and deboned. The term “bone-in” means that the bone wasn’t removed at all. When they debone the pork shoulder, there are also two methods they can follow.
The first is when they butterfly the shoulder, which is when they cut open the round piece of meat into a long, flat, and open piece (the bone removed).
The second method, and the more difficult one, is what they call “tunnel-deboning,” which is when they remove the bone without splitting open the shoulder.
This is a great cut, as you can stuff the meat without having to roll it again. Whether you are using a bone-in or deboned shoulder, they each have their function.
On average, one piece of pork shoulder usually weighs around 5-10 pounds, so it is one of the larger pieces of meat you can find.
From a pork shoulder, you also find various cuts. These include pork blade, steak, roll, hock, and roast. These are different in size and often cooking method, but they all come from the shoulder.
Pork shoulder is also used to produce stewing meat and even ground meat – it shows you how diverse it really is!
The Flavor and Texture of Pork Shoulder
As you can see from above, pork shoulder is much more than a simple piece of meat. The way you buy the shoulder will help you determine how to use it and how to cook it.
Pork shoulder is mostly sold as a raw, unflavored piece of meat. When cooked correctly, it has a very meaty pork flavor with a hint of sweetness.
The fat that is on the shoulder also adds a lot of moisture and great texture. We would highly recommend roasting pork shoulder with the fat on to add this richness.
You can also get smoked pork shoulder. This is usually a shoulder roll (the bone is removed with the butterfly method and then rolled and tied to form a log).
You can also get smoked hock, which is the lowest part of the picnic shoulder that leads into the leg part. Smoked meat is fantastic, as it brings in a whole new flavor element and balances out the sweetness in pork.
Let’s talk about the texture of pork shoulder. This is definitely a piece of meat that you want to cook over a lower heat for a longer period.
Because of the structure of the fibers, the cooking process has to break them down to produce soft and flavorful meat. Rushing this process will only result in dry, flavorless, and tough meat.
The skin on the pork, if cooked correctly, can provide some crispy texture. The fat also acts as a flavor enhancer and adds a ton of moisture and juicy texture.
How To Cook Pork Shoulder
Before getting into substitutes, let’s look at the cooking methods that can be used. Understanding why and how we cook certain pieces of meat will help you choose substitutions that also require the same cooking methods.
A whole pork shoulder, regardless of the part, the processing methods used, and even if it has been smoked or not, requires a long cooking process at a low heat. Braising, stewing, and roasting are excellent options.
Make sure that there is enough moisture so the meat doesn’t become too dry and the flavors infuse nicely. Remember to remove the whole cut from the refrigerator before cooking to bring it up to room temperature.
Pork hocks can be cooked in a pressure cooker or boiled before being glazed and roasted.
Pork steaks are also often cooked for longer periods, however, a lot of people pan-fry these cuts. We’re personally not the biggest fan of this method because, if not done with care, they become very dry and tough.
The Absolute Best Pork Shoulder Substitutes
To be honest, pork shoulder is such a fantastic and unique meat cut that very few substitutions will be able to compete with, but we have compiled an ultimate substitution list and will help you to choose when and where to use which.
1. A Different Shoulder Cut
If the recipe calls for a Boston butt, like our mouthwatering recipe for slow-braised Boston butt pork roast, and you can only find a picnic cut, that isn’t a problem at all.
Many people go into a frenzy when they can’t find the exact shoulder cut, but all shoulder meat has the same defining characteristics.
If the recipe calls for a butterflied picnic cut, you can simply use a regular shoulder cut. For stewing pieces of meat, you can just buy a butterflied or even deboned piece of shoulder and dice it into the correct sized pieces required.
For ground pork, any part of the shoulder works great. Choose a piece that has already been processed (skin removed, bone removed). This can be a pork steak, pork blades, or even a butterflied shoulder.
When you need to use a piece for the whole roasting, don’t worry too much if you are using a picnic shoulder instead of the upper shoulder – they both have the same characteristics, flavors, and textures.
They are just different in size and the upper part, the Boston butt, will have to cook a bit longer.
2. Top Loin Roast
This is a wonderful piece of meat that you will also find is used for an array of different culinary purposes.
This meat comes from the full pork loin and is referred to as a roast because of its size. It generally weighs around 2-4 pounds (900g – 1.8kg).
This meat is leaner than most parts of the shoulder, so additional fat will have to be added to add richness and moisture.
The reason we love this as a substitute for pork shoulder is because of its very similar structure. Both require very long cooking periods to create soft and juicy meat.
From the name, it is pretty obvious that this piece is best used roasted. This is mostly because of its shape (log-shape, like a rolled pork shoulder) and the flavor the roasting adds to the exterior part of the meat.
Because of its unique shape, it also makes great steaks that can be cooked in similar ways (again, we would stay away from pan-frying, but to each his own). Top loin roast also makes great stewing meat and even ground pork meat.
If you want to cook this piece of meat whole, it follows a very similar process to that of pork shoulders.
The initial cooking is at a higher heat to crisp up the skin / outer layer (usually 400˚F for 20-25 minutes). The temperature is then lowered to around 350˚F and further roasted for 40-50 minutes.
The time will vary according to the size and the meat and it does roast for a shorter period than a shoulder, as it is generally much smaller and will cook quicker.
3. Top Leg Ham
The leg refers to the back legs of a pig, not the front where the shoulder sits.
As you might imagine, they have very similar characteristics, as the pig uses them in very similar ways. It is also often referred to as ham, but that has to do with the processing method as well.
The leg meat can also be found in a variety of different cuts. The best to use for virtually any pork shoulder substitution would have to be the inside top leg. This part is very close to the back of the pig and has a similar structure.
It can also be found with the bone-in or deboned. One thing we would note is that this piece tends to cook much dryer and often contains a lot less fat compared to the shoulder parts.
This meat makes an excellent substitute for a whole pork shoulder. Just note that you have to constantly check the moisture levels as it is dryer.
To cook it you can use a similar method to that of top loin roast; simply roast at on high heat for 25 minutes, then lower the heat and continue cooking for about 40-45 minutes, depending on size.
A good rule of thumb is to cook it for 25 minutes per 1 pound of meat.
Once this leg is roasted, it also makes for excellent pulled pork meat instead of using the shoulder to make pulled meat. Because it is dry, the added sauce to make the pulled meat will hide the dryness.
The reason we won’t use it to substitute shoulder blades, steaks, stewed meat, or even ground pork, is because other cuts are much better and require less work.
Ham is also often smoked, so can make a great substitution for smoked pork shoulder as well.
4. Lamb or Beef Shoulder
We just had to include a few non-pork substitutions for our readers that don’t consume pork.
Lamb shoulder is an excellent choice because it is exactly the same cut, with many similar characteristics, the biggest difference being the taste.
Lamb tends to have a more gamey taste compared to pork, which some people don’t like. You can, of course, use beef shoulder instead of lamb.
Lamb shoulder makes an excellent substitute for all pork shoulder cuts and recipes. You can use it in exactly the same way. They are sold in the same forms and cuts and they cook exactly the same as well.
Lamb does have different flavors and is generally less fatty. It is important to check the recipe and whether it will work with lamb, otherwise simply make a few adjustments.
You can add more fattiness by adding oil, butter, or cream, which will also add moisture. A whole lamb can cook slightly longer than pork, but it depends on the liquids and temperatures you are using.
5. Beef Brisket
The reason we chose lamb over beef shoulder is that lamb has a unique flavor that beef doesn’t (it has a very neutral flavor). Beef shoulder, or brisket, is fine, but many prefer lamb when substituting pork.
However, beef soaks up the flavors of other seasonings and ingredients well, so you may be able to recreate a very similar taste to pork shoulder by experimenting with your recipe.
It’s also harder to dry out beef than pork, as the former has a higher moisture content.
Beef shoulder is much larger than pork shoulder, so a cut should be chosen that is more or less the same weight as the pork version required, unless you’re cooking for a big family and have the time to cook it for longer.
The beef shoulder can also be used to create the same dishes pork shoulder can; steaks, blades, ground beef, rolled beef shoulder, etc. Brisket shreds like pork shoulder does, making it a good substitute for pulled pork.
How Long Does It Take to Cook Pork Shoulder?
When cooking a whole pork shoulder, it definitely should be cooked at low heat for a long period. This way, you will ensure that the meat doesn’t dry out and that the large piece cooks evenly.
You can place it in the oven at 350˚F for 2–2 ½ hours. There are various ways to get crispy skin and recipes that use different methods to achieve the best results.
The shoulder is ready when it reaches an internal temperature of at least 145˚F.
What Meat Cuts Shouldn’t Be Used?
Stay away from thin cuts. They usually don’t contain needed fat or moisture and generally cook faster.
When slow roasting pork shoulder (or any of its substitutes), the method allows flavors to emerge, combine, and develop, which cannot happen if the meat can’t cook for longer periods.
Cuts like loin steak, loin eye steak, fillet, valentine steak, or collar steak are all very poor choices for this. Stick with the big pieces that have a lot of marbling.
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