Pork Butt Fat Side Up or Down: Ending the Heated Debate!

September 12, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton
Edited by John Smits 

You should place the fat cap towards the direction of the heat source. That way, the fat cap acts as an insulating barrier that protects that pork butt from getting burned.

I have been smoking meat for as long as I can remember, but it was only as an adult that I learned about whether to place the pork butt fat side up or down. I was talking to one of my pitmaster friends, and they taught me the right way to do it. They clued me in on their logic – but one bite of their pulled pork was all I needed to become a convert.

I’m paying it forward and letting you in on what I learned. Here is what you need to know about positioning your pork butt in the smoker!

Pork Butt Fat Side Up or Down

Do You Put the Fat Side Up or Down When Smoking a Boston Butt?

Stick the fat toward the heat source, which will depend on the kind of smoker that you have. Is the heat source at the top of the smoker or at the bottom?

If the heat source is at the top (pellet grill), then you must place the pork butt fat side up. If the heat source is below (electric, gas, kamado, or grill), then put the pork butt fat side down. If your fire is coming from the side (offset smoker), point the pork fat towards the fire-box.

Grillmasters have been arguing and pondering over which direction to place the fat cap for a very long time. You’ll find loud voices on both sides of the aisle. I’m here to clear the air and get you the skinny on why the fat should face the heat.

Why Does the Placement of the Pork Butt Depend on the Heat Source?

As you may be aware, the fat cap on the pork butt serves a couple of different functions. Most people know that the fat cap adds moisture and flavor, which is why it is left on the pork butt.

What some people don’t realize, however, is that the fat cap can also protect the meat from indirect heat.

sizzling hot pork butt top view

See, if you were to place a fresh pork butt with the meat facing toward the indirect heat, this part of the cut is going to cook first. If it continues to be exposed to the heat, then the meat is also likely to dry out, maybe even burn.

When you arrange the pork butt with the fat cap facing towards the heat, though, it acts as a protective barrier.

The fat takes the brunt of the heat while the lower temperature cooks the meat.

So, the heat is able to reach the pork butt, but you don’t have to worry about the bark burning.

It is especially important to place the pork butt fat side towards the heat if you want to produce something as succulent and tender as pulled pork.

Do You Cook Pork Shoulder Fat Side Up or Down in an Oven?

Because pork shoulder is so similar to pork butt, it should be cooked with the fat cap facing the direction of the heat source. In most ovens, convection or standard, the main heat source comes from the bottom, so point that fat cap down.

Place your pork shoulder in an aluminum drip pan, or your oven will be a greasy mess.

Check your oven’s owner’s manual to make sure where the heat is coming from. Most ovens also have a broiler, which heats from above. But broilers cook way too hot for pork shoulder – don’t use it.

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Do You Flip a Boston Butt When Smoking?

Personally, I like to leave the pork butt as it is all the way through the cook. There are no benefits to flipping, but there is a risk to flipping.

Moving that fat cap away from the heat source will risk the pork butt drying out. Odds are I’m smoking that pork butt for pulled pork, and you better believe that I want the meat tender.

bbq pork butt on a white plate

The Top Tips for Smoking Pork Butt Fat Side Facing the Heat

Now that you know how to position the cut of pork, here are some other tips that you should follow:

Trim the Excess Fat

Yes, some fat is good, but if there’s more than 1/4 inch, I like to trim it off. You’ll either remove it now or when the pork is done cooking – the intramuscular fat will render but the fat cap will not.

Shoot for around 1/4th of an inch thick. If you aren’t sure about doing the trimming, you can ask your butcher to handle it for you.

As you will be trimming the fat, avoid buying cuts that have a very thick layer of fat on top of it.

You are paying for the weight of the cut. And, since you will be cutting most of it out later on, you are wasting money.

I like to score the fat cap with a sharp knife in a cross-hatch pattern before seasoning. The cuts allow spices to work down into the meat.

Season the Fat

Start by applying a thin layer of yellow mustard onto the entire surface of the pork, including the fat. This will act as a glue, allowing the ingredients to stick onto the surface.

Then, sprinkle on the seasoning rub and gently pat it into the meat.

Check the Smoker Heat Direction

It is likely that you haven’t given much thought to the direction of the heating elements on your smoker until now.

Well, it is now time to take a look. Don’t put your cut into the smoker until you know exactly where the heat is coming from.

Once you have identified the direction, you can determine whether the pork butt should be placed fat side up or down.

Place a Drip Pan Below the Pork Butts

I like to stick a drip pan under my pork butts since juices from it are going to drip down (thanks to gravity).

If you are using a charcoal smoker, this means that the fat can drip down onto the hot coals and cause flare-ups. Or, if you’ve got a heat deflector, the juices will drip on it. I like to keep my BBQ gear looking as good as new, so I try to keep drippings off my equipment whenever possible.

smoked pork butt ready to be sliced

I like to place the meat right in a drip pan. That way, when I go to pull the pork, all the juices are saved, and I can mix them back into the pulled pork for ultra-tender morsels of meat. It also makes for a far easier cleanup, so go ahead and use this trick with any smoker.

Track the Internal Temperature

Take the smoked pork butt off the cooker when it reaches 190°F to 205°F. My sweet spot is 203°F, or when a probe or toothpick slides right into the meat.

If you’ve got one, you should always place a leave-in thermometer inside the pork butt before it goes into the smoker. Make sure to track the internal temp all the way through.

Let the Meat Rest

This is an important step, so make sure to never skip it. I’d argue that resting the meat is as critical as how you cook it.

Once the meat comes out of the smoker, wrap it in foil, and stick it in a cooler for around 2 hours. If you’ve got some clean bath towels handy, go ahead and wrap them around the pork as well. They’ll help keep things insulated.

As the meat rests, the tissues in the meat relax and liquids are redistributed. As a result, you get a more tender and juicier pork butt.

Even if you are preparing pulled pork, always rest the meat first before shredding it.

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Wrapping It Up

There you have it – a clear answer to whether you should place the pork butt fat side up or down in the smoker!

Now that you know what to do make sure to follow my directions each and every time. This will guarantee that you end up with smoked pork butt that is tender, succulent, and cooked to perfection every time that you prepare it!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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