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Probe Test For Pork Shoulder | 7 Quick Tips

What is the Probe Test For Pork Shoulders?

The probe test is done by inserting a probe into the pork shoulder to check the tenderness. If the probe goes into the meat like a hot knife through butter, your shoulder is done!

The probe test should be the last test done before deciding to pull the shoulder off the smoker. Typically the internal temperature of the shoulder is at least 195 degrees and with the probe test you are checking the tenderness of the meat. 

At anything over 195 degrees, you should be making your decision to pull the shoulder off the smoker based on feel.

The probe test is one of the most valuable tools to help you to make this decision.

Any temperature below this and the meat has gotten hot enough for the collagen to break down and the meat to become tender. 

What should you be looking for when probing a pork shoulder?

The probe test is used to check the tenderness of the meat and a pork shoulder passes if inserting the probe feels like a hot knife going through butter.

Pork shoulders are an extremely tough piece of meat before being smoked. Due to the work this cut of meat did for the pig, there is a lot of muscle tissue packed together with hard pieces of fat. 

As you smoke the meat, the collagen in the meat begins to turn into gelatin. This is the secret to bbq as collagen is the protective film that surrounds each muscle tissue. When the collagen breaks down, nothing is holding the muscles together resulting in the meat becoming extremely tender and juicy. 

The probe test checks what kind of state the collagen is in. If inserting the probe into the shoulder requires significant force, then the collagen has not broken down yet. If the probe slides in easily, the collagen has turned into gelatin, and the shoulder has reached an extremely tender state. 

How do you properly probe a pork shoulder?

Insert the probe into the thickest part of the shoulder and look for the resistance to be similar to a hot knife going through butter. 

The probe test should be towards the very end of the cook. The internal temperature will already be hot enough for the safe consumption of the pork, so we are looking for the meat to be tender enough to be shredded by hand. 

If the internal temperature of the pork isn’t at least 195 degrees, do not worry about using the probe test to check the tenderness.  Any temperature below 195 and the meat has not gotten hot enough for the collagen to break down. Use the probe test as your last test in deciding to pull a shoulder off the smoker. 

What is the best placement for the probe to conduct the probe test? 

The best place to first test the shoulder would be in the thickest part of the meat. 

If the probe can be inserted easily and feels like a hot knife going through butter you can be reasonably sure your shoulder is done. 

To confirm your shoulder is tender throughout, attempt the probe test in several different areas of the shoulder. If you find the probe able to be easily inserted, then your shoulder is done and ready to be pulled!

What should the internal temperature be for a done pork shoulder?

The ideal internal temperature of a shoulder for pulled pork is 205 degrees. 

This high internal temperature of 205 degrees is needed for the collagen to fully break down and turn into gelatin. Since pork shoulders are a big, tough piece of meat before being smoked, 205 degrees is critical for the shoulder to be transformed into a shreddable, juicy piece of meat. 

If you pull the shoulder before this temperature, the results will be dry and tough meat since the collagen has not reached a high temperature to be turned into gelatin. When this transformation does happen, the resulting gelatin adds moisture back into the meat replacing any moisture the meat lost throughout the long cook. 

With this all being said, you can eat a pork shoulder with an internal temperature as low as 145 degrees. However, if you pull your shoulder off at this temperature you will not be able to shred the meat and will have to cut pieces off like you would a ham. 

How do you know when a Boston butt is done without a thermometer?

There are three different ways to test the doneness without a thermometer:

  • Insert a knife or skewer into the meat. If it can slide in and out with little to no resistance, then the shoulder is ready!
  • There should be a jiggle to the shoulder when you try and move it. This will tell you the collagen has turned to gelatin and nothing is holding the muscle tissues together. 
  • If the shoulder has in a bone-in, attempt the move the bone as if to pull out. If it feels like the bone could be pulled out with no resistance than then the collagen has broken down allowing the meat to separate from the bone. 

What do you do after the pork shoulder passes the probe test?

When the shoulder passes the probe test, it is ready to be pulled off the smoker!

To double-check the shoulder is tender enough to be easily shredded, check the internal temperature. If the reading is at 205 degrees in multiple parts of the shoulder, all the collagen has broken down and the shoulder is done!

Before shredding the pork, let the shoulder rest for at least 45 minutes or even longer if you can. The shoulder is a large piece of meat and needs time for the juices within the meat to evenly distribute throughout the meat. This will allow you to ensure every piece of the shoulder is flavored evenly.