The melt-in-your-mouth pork shoulder is the stuff that gives tacos, stews and slow-cooked pork that tender magic. Pigs may not shake their shoulders, but these shoulders fan out and sit above their front leg.
The pork shoulder area is renowned for delivering the meaty and rich texture that just falls off the bone. It has lesser marbling and intramuscular fat than other parts—and is available with or without the bone. With the bone brings more flavor, while boneless makes it easier to carve. Pork shoulder can be sold whole, cubed, or ground—depending on your recipe’s requirement.
Pork shoulder usually has a longer cooking time, but you will not regret the magical result. Slow-cooked pork shoulder imparts that sweet and tender meat needed for pulled pork, chili, and stew. Not all pork parts will be a fitting replacement, but here are 15 you can choose from:
- Pork Butt (Boston Butt)
- A Different Shoulder Cut
- Center Cut Pork Loin Roast
- Boneless Pork Leg
- Top Loin Roast
- Top Leg Ham
- Lamb Shoulder
- Beef Brisket
- Ribeye Steak
15 Best Substitute For Pork Shoulder
Pork Butt (Boston Butt)
We start the list by exposing the number 1 substitute, the pork butt. To be clear, this doesn’t come from the actual backside of the pig. The pork butt or Boston butt originates from the same shoulder region of the pork shoulder—just a bit higher.
The pork butt appears evenly rectangular with thick fat marbling (on account of its position). You have the option to buy it boneless or with the bone.
Pork butt is an excellent choice for slow-cooked stew, roasted, or braised pork because of its shape and fat content. Since the composition of pork butt is close to pork shoulder, you can achieve the “meat-falls-apart” effect and get your pulled pork fix.
A Different Shoulder Cut
The learning imparted by the Boston butt is that the pig’s shoulder can have many cuts. Hence, you can substitute pork shoulder with other lower shoulder cuts. Other cuts may be thinner—if we compare them with the Boston butt’s marbling.
You can opt for a regular shoulder cut, butterflied picnic, or other smaller pieces. The less sizeable pieces may be used for stews or roasting. Since they come from the same region, generally the flavors and texture will be the same. Only the cooking time will vary, depending on the size of your cut.
Center Cut Pork Loin Roast
From the shoulder, we move to a center cut that is literally in between the shoulder and back leg. The center cut pork loin roast or pork roast for short is an inexpensive and lean cut.
It’s popular in butcher shops and is available without the bone. When the bone is removed, the fat usually goes with it, so what is sold is a lean chunk of pork that is perfect for carving.
Pork roast gets its flavor from seasoning and can be grilled or roasted. For pork steak or roasting requirements, pork roast can replace pork shoulder. However, due to its lesser fat and muscle content, it cooks faster and will not be able to give you that tender pulled pork effect.
Boneless Pork Leg
We move further down to the boneless pork leg. The joint covers a larger area, so it requires a much longer cooking time. This part is actively used by the pig so it has a lot of muscle and joints (hence a leaner cut).
When cooked or roasted for a considerable time, boneless pork can deliver your anticipated rich flavor and tenderness. Adding seasoning or marinade during the cooking process will help keep the moisture in the leg. From stews to pork roast, the boneless pork leg is another viable substitute for pork shoulder. It’s a bit on the expensive side too—so keep that in mind if budget is a consideration.
Top Loin Roast
This log-shaped piece has a lot of potential for substituting for pork shoulder. Top loin roast comes from the “full pork loin” and once again, a different part of the shoulder. It’s a leaner shoulder cut that fares best when roasted.
The log shape makes it a good cut for steaks and roasts, but it can also be stewed or used as ground pork. The skin is another culinary benefit that provides a texture contrast.
High temperature can give you that crisp skin, while a longer cooking time will render an ultra soft meat. The lean cut will not be a problem since you can enhance the moisture with more fats and marinades to bring out that tender meat.
Top Leg Ham
A little pig anatomy is needed to explain the top leg. “Leg” here refers to the pig’s back legs, while the shoulder sits on the front legs. Because of the proximity to the shoulder, top leg ham would be an excellent replacement for pork shoulder. It’s also the choice cut for smoked ham.
If you want to get more specific on the selection, choose the inside top leg, which is close to the back. This part is spot-on in delivering that ultra soft texture.
Available with or without the bone, a top tip for cooking top leg ham is to check it occasionally because it tends to get dry. A lesser fat content is prone to result in dryer meat, but if cooked tenderly, you can get pulled pork from top leg ham too. Preparing sauce to go with this will keep the flavor and moisture intact.
Lamb (or Beef) Shoulder
Pork cuts aren’t the only substitutes for pork shoulder. Non-pork alternatives like beef or lamb shoulder offer expanded choices for those who don’t eat pork.
Lamb shoulder possesses a similar cut and some characteristics of pork shoulder to make it an outstanding substitute. Lamb has less fat content, but that can be enhanced with cream and butter.
What’s striking about lamb shoulder is that it has a gamey flavor. The sweet and sharp grass-fed lamb flavor is what we describe as gamey. It’s an acquired taste, but definitely a must-try.
Beef shoulder or beef brisket is another alternative to pork shoulder, though if compared to lamb shoulder, many would go for the lamb and its unique flavor.
Beef brisket isn’t all that plain; it just happens to have an indistinct flavor. The beauty of beef is that it can absorb the flavor of marinades and seasonings, so if you get extra creative, you can replicate the taste of a pork shoulder recipe.
You can probably imagine that a beef shoulder would be much larger than a pork shoulder, so choose smaller cuts to achieve your recipe’s needs for tender and juicy meat.
Also, beef brisket is known for its tough meat. Through a slow roast, you can soften the meat and get the prized brisket shreds. It’s like pulled beef!
Beef brisket can also be served the same way you’d cook pork shoulder: ground meat, blades, and steaks.
Ribeye steak on its own is a popular crowd favorite. It’s a terrific replacement for pork shoulder if we’re talking about the mouth-watering flavor.
Ribeye steak has a generous fat layer. When cooked with the meat, the fat yields an aromatic and buttery taste. Combine that fat flavor with the sweet steak, and you get a combination of a sure beef winner.
You can also cook your ribeye steak in several ways: grilled, roasted, or baked. Keep the bone when you prepare it because it helps add more flavor and keep the meat moist.
Beef continues to grace this list with the loin steak, which also goes by the names sirloin and porterhouse. This type of beef is lean and tender. The secret to keeping the steak moist and chewy is the line of fat that keeps it melt-in-your-mouth rich while being grilled, fried, or baked.
You can choose the loin steak cut’s thickness depending on your recipe. This customization means that you can use loin steak to replace pork shoulder. Keeping the steak lean and with a fatty layer helps you achieve the same flavor and tenderness of pork shoulder.
Cooks prefer using butter to sauté the steak to give that aromatic and fatty flavor an upgrade (as if the steak isn’t mouth-watering already).
Pork escalopes are not escaping this list because they’re the pork shoulder substitute for those who prefer a lean slice of pork. Pork escalopes are pounded pork and appear as thin and tender slices. They’re lean but certainly not mean because they have a faster cooking time.
The thin slices of the pork escalopes can be complemented with breadcrumbs and creamy sauces. They are delicious and would be the go-to choice of those on a diet or keen on lowering their fat intake.
Marinade your pork escalopes to keep the flavor and the moisture of the meat.
Beef Stew Meat
Beef stew meat or cut can be another substitute for pork shoulder for your stew recipe. Beef stew cut comes in cubed form and is ready to cook. The cooking time may be longer to tenderize and flavor the beef.
By incorporating zesty ingredients and spices, using beef stew meat can recreate that same strong taste and distinct flavor of pork shoulder. You can also get it to be tender and chewy.
One of the applications of pork shoulder is ground pork, so it should make sense that ground beef can also be a substitute for pork shoulder.
Ground beef can be cooked and seasoned to yield softer meat and a flavorful blend. Ground pork and beef share the same texture, so it’s up to the recipe to give them a similar vibe to chopped meat.
Ham hocks are also known as pork knuckles and have a small amount of meat, aside from the tendons and fat. It would be an uncanny replacement for pork shoulder but a super pork flavor enhancer.
Ham hocks have that deep and smoky flavor that enhances soups and sauces. While you can’t roast or grill it and eat it as you would a pork shoulder, you can use it as an excellent flavor source or stock for your pork shoulder alternatives that taste pale or sad.
Lastly, we include chicken thighs in the list for those who prefer a non-red meat substitute. It’s a little far-off to consider poultry, but when you consider the texture and stringiness of chicken thigh, you realize that it can be a healthier meat substitute for pulled pork.
Chicken thighs are naturally tender and easy to shred. They may taste different, but there’s nothing a little seasoning can’t fix. They’re also faster to prepare, widely available, and delicious on their own.