You’re standing in line at the meat counter. Holding onto the ingredient list of THAT recipe. You’ve been planning this for weeks, and the family is arriving tomorrow.
But there’s no more pork shoulder left. You haven’t checked for alternatives. Now what?
Except for seasoned pitmasters or chefs, people have no clue about different cuts and how to best substitute them.
Before you start frantically calling grandma and having an otherwise lovely chat about her similar story from 59’…
Let’s cut to the chase and see how you can routinely substitute pork shoulder in each meal.
- About Pork Shoulder
- The Best Pork Shoulder Substitute
- 5. Lamb Shoulder
About Pork Shoulder
Before jumping straight to the best pork shoulder substitutes, let’s see the characteristics of this cut. (*)
Hitting home with texture, taste, and overall impression needs much more than simply pointing out replacements.
We need to consider cooking times, processing methods, and spices. And for that, we need to talk about pork shoulder first.
What is Pork Shoulder?
Picnic roast, picnic shoulder, and pork shoulder, bone-in or boneless, are all names for the same meat. Precisely, the primal cut above the pig’s top portion of forelegs. (*)
The boneless pork shoulder is wrapped in netting and has a slightly uneven texture and layers.
What it lacks in marbling, it makes up for with size, fat, and muscle. It’s probably the largest meat available in regular grocery stores, weighing 5-10 pounds.
We understand that the various cuts can be confusing, so let’s go over them first.
The Cut of Pork Shoulder
To put an end to any confusion about Boston butts that are secretly shoulders, and ham that is actually butt…
Simply put, the pig’s shoulder is divided into two sections: the top blade shoulder, known as the Boston Butt, and the lower arm shoulder, known as the Picnic Cut, or Pork Shoulder.
So, why is it called Boston Butt then? It’s a separate story but worth a read. (*)
A large pork shoulder can come in separate parts: steak, roll, hock, roast, and blade. They all need slightly different cooking methods.
Skin and fat are also optional – you can have them removed. However, we suggest you stick to both; they add superior depth of flavor.
The same goes for bones unless you want to stuff them with delicacies before cooking. Then go for a boneless pork shoulder.
Now let’s see what flavors and textures we should be looking for when substituting pork shoulder.
Taste and texture of Pork Shoulder
Naturally, pork shoulder is fatty with lots of moisture, and a taste on the sweeter side.
Meaty-rich both in flavor and texture, we recommend smoking to balance out the sweet undertones.
Low heat and longer cooking times benefit the connective tissue by breaking it down into soft, juicy, and biteable strings of meat.
These muscles work hard and get lots of oxygen, turning the meat dark.
Outside crispiness is bound to form on it, protecting the meat from drying out. Fats enhance this, creating a heavier overall texture and flavor.
On the other hand, when prepared incorrectly, it can be the worst chewy, gummy, flavorless mess you’ve ever had.
How can we best use it with these characteristics in mind?
Uses of Pork Shoulder
Pitmasters love pork shoulder for its crackling, crispy crust. With roasting and grilling, it’s unmatched.
The high fat content makes it ideal for long cooking hours. The opportunity is bound for developing deep flavors; stews, pulled pork, smoking, and slow roasting.
Heavy glazes, pressure cookers, and lots of complex spices make a fantastic pork shoulder.
However, we do not recommend pan-frying this fatty cut. Even with careful attention, the result is tough and dry pork shoulder.
Now that you know the real thing, let’s see how we can best match it.
The Best Pork Shoulder Substitute
Whatever you set your eyes on has to be fatty with lots of moisture and flavor.
It’s not the time to worry about your clogged arteries. Go for thick cuts, preferably marbling.
Forget lean fillets, collar steaks, and boney pork chops. They don’t stand a chance.
Read on and we’ll tell you which pork shoulder substitute is good when cooking.
1. Another Shoulder Cut (Pork Butt)
When faced with a decision, you can ask for the other, upper shoulder cut, or the so-called Boston pork butt.
They have the same characteristics, but Boston pork butt has more fat. Perfect for slow roasting and stewing, needing a slightly longer cooking time.
When replacing ground shoulder pork, another shoulder cut will work perfectly.
For slow-cooking or smoking, Boston pork butt should be your primary choice to replace pork shoulder.
Sticking to pork, let’s see some other alternatives, besides the obvious.
2. Top Pork leg (Ham)
Ham usually refers to the top hind leg of pork. It’s smoked, roasted, and glazed, but with significantly less moisture and fat.
Because pork leg is prone to drying out, you must keep an eye on it while cooking. Otherwise, pork leg is a perfect substitute for pork shoulder due to its similar qualities.
We recommend going with the inside top leg, either deboned or bone-in. Smoke, roast, or make pulled pork with it, but add a little more moisture or glaze.
It’s a meaty, muscled, strong-flavored cut that’s often served with a lot of sauce to compensate for its natural dryness.
Let’s stick with pork for now and look at a leaner option.
3. Top Loin Roast
This log-shaped, lean meat is not much different and proves to be a perfect alternative
Coming around 2-4 pounds, with not much fat, but a similar flavor. We recommend searing the outer layer first and slow-cooking the rest to retain moisture.
In terms of size, the top loin roast requires far less cooking time than the pork shoulder. To increase the fattiness, we recommend using real butter or bacon.
They can replace each other in roasts, ground meat, and whenever larger chunks are required. If possible, avoid pan-frying, and cook the top loin in whole.
Our next choice is a less pricey and more widely available alternative
4. Center Cut Pork Loin Roast
The center-cut pork loin has more from the shoulders and the upper back legs. It’s sold boneless, with an even shape and moderate fat content.
As it’s widely popular, available, and affordable, you will likely use it as a pork shoulder replacement frequently.
It is very tender and even-shaped, so it won’t fall apart like the shoulder does. But the good news is that it retains moisture much better.
The center cut pork loin needs around 40% less cooking time than pork shoulder. Meaning, that it’s way too lean for pulled-pork.
It lacks the muscles and collagen that breaks down during slow roasting. We recommend using it for steaks instead of pork shoulder.
It’s the type of meat for quick, high-heat cooking with added fats.
But besides pork, there are other options to consider.
5. Lamb Shoulder
You might hate lamb. But chances are you haven’t had a good one yet.
A bad one can ruin it for you for good. But when done correctly, it’s one of the most heavenly dishes.
You can confidently substitute any cut of pork shoulder with some lamb shoulder. Having the same shape and cut, but with less fat, and a distinctive undertone.
Don’t hold back on cream, butter, oil, and liquids. To better replace pork shoulder, we recommend adding orange in some form or another.
There are some techniques for reducing the typical “game” tone of lamb. Saltwater, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, and buttermilk are just a few of these handy additions.
The next kosher and more pricey meat is an excellent pork shoulder alternative for holidays.
6. Veal Shoulder
Veal shoulder is a glorious, mild-flavored, kosher delicacy that is probably one of the best substitutes for pork shoulder.
It’s high-quality meat that’s bright red in color and blends well with all flavors and spices.
Low temperatures, slow roasting, searing the outer skin and limiting the doneness to medium-rare bring out the best in veal shoulder.
Not enough fat for pulled pork, too rich for stews, but ideal for roasts, steaks, and braising.
We recommend pairing it with a bold, dry red wine. This allows veal to perfectly mimic the flavor profile of pork shoulder.
Staying in line with more neutral flavors, beef can be a convenient substitute as well.
7. Beef Brisket or Shoulder
The neutral-tasting beef brisket or shoulder can absorb seasoning and flavors the best. With a good recipe, it can be a suitable substitute for pork shoulder.
Beef shoulder is larger and contains more moisture. We recommend getting one that is roughly the same size as a pork shoulder.
Beef shoulder is an excellent substitute for pork shoulder in steaks, roasts, rolled, or ground meats.
Brisket, on the other hand, is primarily used to make an alternative to pulled pork. It shreds just like pork shoulder.
Brisket is tougher and better suited to slow roasting. However, it has a beefier flavor that needs to be toned down with beer, sweet glaze, or heavy spicing.
Other than brisket, there are some other beef alternatives to pork shoulder.
8. Regular Beef Stew Meat
The benefits of beef stew meat as a pork shoulder alternative include its wide availability, lower cost, and ease of preparation. Most supermarkets never run out of it.
You can feel the tenderness when biting into it, making chewy pork pieces a distant memory.
The downside is, that the natural taste of beef stew meat is underwhelming, to say the least. It has no resemblance to the distinct, sharp taste of pork shoulder.
The remedy? Dark beer, full-bodied red wine.
Besides heavy stews, you can’t replace pork shoulder with beef stew meat in any other dish.
Meanwhile, our next suggestion is much more versatile.
9. Ribeye Steak
The boujee, foodie-favorite Ribeye Steak is sweet and tender, with just the right amount of fat.
It has a flavor profile similar to pork shoulder and plenty of marbling. It can be substituted for pork shoulder in any dish without significantly altering the taste.
We cannot emphasize how important it is to get a bone-in version. It adds several layers of flavor and moistens the meat.
Many chefs insist that regular home cooks stick to boneless ribeye steaks as if making them is some kind of rocket science.
We have faith in you. You can make an excellent, fancy, bone-in ribeye steak at home.
Returning to pork for one more time, as this classic meat never disappoints.
10. Pork Escalopes
Pork escalopes were a snobbish restaurant royalty for nearly two decades in the 1980s and 1990s.
Industry leaders and fine-dining restaurants now regard them as outdated and overrated. Respectfully, we disagree.
They are among the simplest and most convenient ingredients to prepare. Even for novice cooks, they are ideal for experiencing a high-quality course at home.
A lean slice with a shorter cooking time can replace pork shoulder in marinated dishes, steaks, roasts, and grilled goods.
Chargrilled, they offer a similar sweet taste and marbled texture to pork shoulder.
We saved the craziest substitute for last. Sounds whacky, but bear with us!
11. Jackfruit (Best Vegan’s Alternative)
Jackfruit as a meat substitute is no stranger to vegans and vegetarians.
For a meat-free option, or to accommodate cruelty-free friends, you can easily opt for jackfruit instead of pork shoulder.
It is mainly used as a pulled pork meat alternative, and the resemblance is uncanny. Perfect to scratch your barbeque itch without any pork shoulder.
The best part? They are available ready-made in larger supermarkets.
You may have noticed that we didn’t recommend any poultry to substitute for pork meat. That’s not a coincidence.
Some culinary sites list chicken thighs as a potential replacement for pork shoulder. We strongly oppose this, even as a “last resort.”
They are night and day. However we twist and turn it; there’s no way you can replace pork with chicken thighs without significant compromise in taste.
That’s a totally different meal. We like to be frank, so every listed substitution here will give you the same texture and flavor profile.
However, where changes are required to match it, we have highlighted the do’s and how’s.
We suggest you try our favorite, carnitas, with any of the replacements on this list. Use ground coffee as a dry rub and cane sugar Mexican cola or orange juice as a marinade for an authentic experience.
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