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Not every cut of meat from a harvest, or the store, is the same. Some are tougher than others. Tough meat can be ground into burger, slow roasted, or even turned into stew meat. Another way to make the meat better is to smoke it.
Smoking is low and slow. The low heat and longer cooking time helps to tenderize the tough textures while adding a smoky flavor. This doesn’t mean that the meat to be smoked has to be a tougher cut, just that it helps to make less-choice cuts shine in their own right.
While you may be tempted to throw those choice cuts on the smoker right off the bat, there’s a bit of a learning curve to the process, and being able to perfect the science of smoking on lesser cuts will help save you money.
Choosing your meat
Meat that is smoked usually takes at least 30 minutes per pound—sometimes hours per pound. Leaner cuts of meat don’t usually work well on cooking times of that length. The lack of fat content in them makes the meat dry and practically inedible. Meat that is considered to be of lower quality actually holds up better in the process. Because these cuts are full of fat and connective tissues (collagen), they break down slowly. The collagen reduces to sugars, which sweeten the meat and help keep it moist during smoking. Since the meat stays moist, the smoke has time to infuse the meat and give it the signature smoked taste.
Shoulders, ribs, briskets and chuck roasts are all prime choices no matter what kind of red meat you’re using. Legs of poultry (or even the whole bird) also work extremely well in a smoker. Fish can also be done with a ton of success. Larger filets or even whole fish work well.
Choosing your flavor
Smoking is grilling times 10 when you’re talking flavor. Adding smoke will always enrich the flavor of the meat. But which wood do you use? And how?
In general, mild woods are good for fish and poultry, medium fruit woods are best for poultry or pork, and strong woods hold up against dark-red meat flavors. The wood often comes as wood chunks, chips, or pellets. Chunks allow a steady, slow release of smoke, while wood chips and pellets burn down faster. Some people use discs, sawdust, or even small logs.
Really, there’s no need to obsess over a certain type of wood. But, for the curious:
Medium to strong flavor that is seldom overpowering
Best for lamb, beef, brisket
Versatile wood for smoking. Sweet, savory and a mild bacon-like taste. Over-smoking causes meat to become slightly bitter.
Best for large cuts like ribs or shoulder. Good for all red meat and poultry.
Subtle flavor of smoke. Sweet and light flavor
Best for poultry, pork, or game fowl
Intense flavor when smoking. More often recommended for grilling, or smaller quantities when smoking
Best for red meat, or added to a different wood to give it a more intense smoke
A nutty, sweet flavored smoke
Best for roasts, ribs and briskets
Mild and fruity and good for mixing with other wood
Best for chicken, turkey, ham
A very light flavor that adds a bit of sweetness
Best for larger cuts of fish like salmon, or whole trout
Pick a smoker
Though you can custom build a smoke house, there are many different types of smoker available that are ready to cook with.
Just like an electric oven, the electricity heats up a rod (or an element), and you’re good to go. It’s easy to control the temperature on these. They tend to be more expensive than other styles and don’t usually add an overabundance of smoke.
Similar to electric, but uses gas flames to make the wood smoke. These are a great choice for places that don’t have electricity nearby but still want that consistent temperature.
These are the favorite with barbeque masters—people who swear that charcoal adds more flavor compared to propane or electric. Charcoal smokers tend to be cheaper to purchase, but you’ll also need to buy enough charcoal to smoke each time, and have somewhere to store the leftover charcoal. It also means you’ll have to create and maintain the fire and temperature without technology to aid you.
For the purest flavor, these are the way to go. They also require the most attention and care of all the options. They’re more difficult to keep a consistent temperature. These are better for people who already understand the basics of smoking.
These are really close to wood smokers, but you get your smoking wood in pellet form. They are easier to use than wood smokers. No need to babysit a flame. The pellets get loaded into an oven-like box and that’s that. The downside is that they tend to be a bit more expensive.
The actual smoke
More important than the type of wood or smoker you use, is the ability to get a good smoke going.
Get your smoke from wood. Don’t worry if your wood bursts into flame. A lot of beginners fret over their burning wood and want it to smolder and belch smoke. You’ll use more wood if you let it burn, and you’ll have to struggle a bit to maintain temperature control, but you’ll get better flavor.
Some people recommend soaking the wood for at least an hour before it’s added to the flames. Wet wood smolders and smokes for hours, while fresh wood can burn away in 20 minutes. Others say that soaking the wood is a bad practice, since the water in the wood creates more of a steam that cooks your food that way and completely ruins the smoke flavor.
There are tons of articles and methods out there arguing whether or not to smoke. Searching online will give you a lot more information on the point and counterpoint than I can give in the pages here. Like anything else, try it and see what works best for you.
I personally soak before I smoke. Wrong or right, it’s my method (and I haven’t had any complaints when people were eating the meat).
To brine or not to brine
Just like the debate over soaking wood, brining is also contested. Some people brine while others marinate, and there are other people who do nothing but let the meat sit at room temperature for an hour or two before they smoke.
If you choose to brine your meat, there are loads of recipes to choose from. You’ll find one that I’ve used before with success in the sidebar.
No matter which brine flavor and recipe you use, you will want to submerge the meat into the solution so that it is completely covered, and allow it to stand in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, but no longer than 24 hours. It’s recommended by some that you take your meat from the brine, rinse it well and then pat it dry before smoking. Others say to just pat it dry.
A saltwater brine can help break down proteins in the meat and make it more tender. The solution is pulled into areas of the meat with a lower salt concentration and hydrates those areas more.
Brined or marinated, once your meat is prepped, it’s time to start smoking.
Be sure to check the temperature on the smoker as well as the wood chips and water pan every 30 minutes or so (this is especially important if you’re new to smoking or to the setup you’re using). Ideally, you want to keep the temperature between 250° and 300°F. If the temperature gets too high, open the vent halfway. If the temperature gets too low, add more coals (if using a charcoal smoker).
With an electric model, the smoker should do a good job of regulating the temperature for you.
Smoke the meat for approximately 1.5 hours per pound, or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 140°F.
Once the meat has reached the desired temperature, remove it from the smoker and allow it to rest for about 20 minutes before cutting it.
For me, this is the hardest part. The smell and the look of the meat make it super tempting to cut into right away. So why let it rest?
When the meat is cooked, the majority of the liquid gets moved into the center of your cut. Since the center is supersaturated, cutting it will just drip all that liquid onto the cutting board, instead of keeping it in the meat. Allowing it to rest lets all that liquid migrate back to the edges and keeps it from becoming dry and tough. Ideally, no matter how well-done you’ve cooked your meat, you want to allow it to cool down until the very center has reached 120°F. At this stage, the muscle fibers have relaxed enough that you should have no problem with losing juices.
So be patient—after all, you’ve just spent hours adding smoke. That extra 20 minutes won’t make much difference.
Smoking meat is a bit like science and a bit like alchemy. A bit of chemistry and a little philosophy. Whatever method you use, you can be sure that once you know the basics, the results will be pure magic.
Remember that barbeque smokers vary and other factors, such as weather conditions, wind and ambient temperature, can change the cooking time by as much as an hour or more.
These figures are approximate. Use them as guidelines only. As you get more experience at the smoker, you can judge it by the appearance of the meat and go by the times and temperatures that work best for you and your cooker.
Type of Meat Smoking Temp* Time to Complete Finished Temp**
Brisket (sliced) 225°° 1.5 hours/pound 180°
Brisket (pulled) 225° 1.5 hours/pound 195°
Pork butt (sliced) 225° 1.5 hours/pound 175°
Pork butt (pulled) 225° 1.5 hours/pound 190–205°
Whole chicken 250° 4 hours** 167°
Chicken thighs 250° 1.5 hours 167°
Chicken quarters 250° 3 hours 167°
Whole turkey (12 lb.) 240 6.5 hours 170°
Turkey leg 250° 4 hours 165°
Meat loaf 250°–300° 3 hours 160°
Spare ribs 225°–240 6 hours 172°
Baby back ribs 225°–240° 5 hours 168°
Smoked corn 225° 1.5–2 hours N/A
Smoked potatoes 225° 2–2.5 hours N/A
*Fahrenheit **This will vary with the size of the chicken.