When mastering the art of grilling, many of us tend to go no further than those beautifully-charred grill marks on the meat.
Believe it or not, you can take it up a notch.
Smoking is one way to do that.
It is a time-consuming process but with a good smoker, you don't have to stand and watch over it. It transforms the meat into a tender, flavorful dish that will leave your stomach growling for more.
If you've ever been to a cooking competition, chances are you usually see the smokers take first place. The smoke simply adds a different definition of flavor and texture that's always a crowd pleaser.
Unfortunately, many refrain from smoking, and it's not without reason. It can be an intimidating method to try out and may take some time to master. I assure you though, once you've learned the key steps, your smoker will be going all year round.
Below is a beginner’s guide to meat smoking.
I'll offer you some tips on how to choose your smoker or grill, which firewood to use and which types of meat are best. All in all, you'll learn how to properly smoke meat and which tools you'll need in order to do so.
Table of Contents
So, How To Smoke Meat In 2024?
Let's first start with some basics:
What Is Smoking?
Now, if you've come here to learn about cigars, you're in for a disappointment.
But for those of you who came to learn all about this fantastic cooking technique, read on.
The term ‘smoking’, in regards to cooking meat, involves most of the cooking process. It will cook, brown, flavor and preserve whatever you decide to smoke.
In the early days of smoking, people used the technique as a way to preserve the food. Because there were no freezers or coolers, they had to try something different to avoid spoiling the meat.
Many like to believe that smoking came about when, in ancient times, they hung up their catch to keep it away from animals and pests. Then while cooking, smoke would fill up the area and infuse the extra meat still hanging.
Thus, preservation by smoking was born. Or at least that's how we'd like to imagine it.
Smoking has become a delicacy in today's innovative kitchens. There are numerous food enthusiasts out there trying to put a new spin on almost any product.
You can smoke virtually anything, from cheese to vegetables, to meat, poultry, and fish. But that doesn't mean you have to. The art of smoking lies heavily on which type of product you're using—some will benefit, while others are better off without it. But more on that later.
Choosing the Right Smoker or Grill
Generally speaking, there are many methods of smoking.
As long as it allows you to cook at a low temperature and with indirect heat, you're good.
But to give you a better picture, here are the different types of smokers and grills—to bring both you and your guests the best results.
The smokers on the market come in a variety.
The popular ones are the Big Green Egg, Weber Smokey Mountain or the more traditional, Offset Smoker.
Usually, these are fueled by firewood or charcoal, but you can also get an excellent electrical smoker.
Today, we will focus on three basic models: ceramic smokers, pellet smokers, and competition smokers.
Ceramic and pellet are exceptional for grilling or combination cooking. So these may be better options if you're looking for the best of both worlds.
You may also know the ceramic smoker as the kamado grill.
This acts as a very versatile cooking tool—use it for grilling, as a high-temperature oven or as a low-and-slow smoker.
The grill itself consists of solid, ceramic walls, which are perfect for keeping the heat inside—especially those with thicker walls. A ceramic smoker is charcoal friendly.
As the walls preserve the heat, less fuel is needed to keep it going. It's rather compact in size when compared to other smokers or grills. But you can always opt to buy the larger capacity model if you tend to serve crowds.
A pellet smoker brings you all the flavor of firewood, but through the convenience of gas.
These are super easy to fire up, as the pellets are automatically fed to the fire through an auger. They're also extremely portable.
As opposed to a traditional smoker, most pellet models come with an automated system that enables you to fill the pellet holder, set the time and temperature—then simply walk away.
Even though it is more automated than traditional smokers, it doesn't mean the flavor is lacking.
These smokers are usually good at establishing a steady temperature while building up an ample amount of smoke. This will allow the meat to cook while infusing it with that ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ flavor.
Competition smokers come in an array of shapes and sizes.
The difference between a competition smoker and a pellet grill is the smoke capacity.
These will generally produce much more smoke than the other types.
Just because we call them competition smokers, doesn't mean they're strictly for competing, though. For example, many home smokers prefer the Weber Smokey Mountain, one often seen at competitions.
These smokers are able to hold a stable temperature with ease and that’s an important feature. Both the price and abilities of this smoker make it a great choice for beginners.
Another type of competition grill is the water smoker.
They are typically small in size so that means they’re easily transportable. Water smokers usually have a water pan sitting just above the heat source.
While fired up, heat comes through without a problem, creating steam and smoke. This not only cooks the meat but enables the smoke to seep through. The steam will ensure that whatever is being cooked will stay nice and moist.
I can't mention competition smokers without naming the horizontal smoker. You can find this type in almost any smoke enthusiast's backyard. They have a unique, ‘Wild West’ look to them.
The construction resembles a big barrel, turned on its side, with a fuel chamber and chimney attached to it. The heat and smoke stream through the fire chamber and into the barrel where the food is located. This allows for indirect, low and slow cooking.
Meats for Smoking
Buying a smoker is fruitless unless you get something to smoke.
So let's have a look at what meats and poultries are best for this method of outdoor cooking.
For smoking, you don't want to go out and buy the most expensive cut. These are generally very lean and have a fine texture, which isn't ideal for smoking.
Cuts that are tough, fatty and budget-friendly are the ones you’ll want. The smoking process will tenderize every bit, while the fat from the meat keeps it juicy.
Everyone loves a tender slice of brisket—on the plate or in between two slices of bread. This cut stems from the chest of the cow. It screams to be cooked low and slow. Otherwise, it might be tough enough to spit right out.
Beef ribs are large enough in size they would satisfy even the hungriest Flintstone. They mostly consist of a large sinew tissue that takes time to break down.
Luckily, while smoking, you’re giving the ribs time to tenderize and infuse with that hardwood flavor.
A chuck cut comes from the neck and shoulder area of the cow. This is a place where muscles work hard, but when those muscles become edible, the taste is on point.
With the right temperature and cooking time, this cut will transform into a delicious, tender piece—perfect for shredding and adding on top of a taco.
The shoulder of the pig is sometimes known as the ‘Boston butt’. This segment is very fatty which makes it a fantastic option for smoking.
Pork shoulder is great for beginner smokers as it can be quite forgiving. Due to all the fat, it can withstand a long wait inside the smoker without drying out.
It is the perfect piece for recipes calling for pulled pork. Plus, the flavor goes well with almost any rubs or marinades. This gives you some room to practice your spice skills.
St. Louis, spare and baby-back ribs call for smoking without a doubt. These require less cooking time than beef ribs but will satisfy that desire for pull-apart meat.
One element to look out for is the cooking time—don't overdo it, as you could end with very dry, dull ribs.
A smoked ham is an all-time favorite. You can prepare one from scratch by brining, glazing and then smoking, but this can be time-consuming. You can also buy one ready-prepared and pop it in the smoker for a few hours to add more flavor.
Chicken is a popular choice for smoking.
However, it can be tricky to get right the first time—since the meat is very lean and delicate. For this reason, less time is needed for the smoker, but the results are amazing.
It's best to smoke a whole chicken instead of smaller pieces since these can quickly dry out or become over smoked.
If you want to take your Thanksgiving turkey to a whole new level, try smoking it. My advice to you is to leave it marinating overnight and then smoke away right before the family dinner.
Firewoods for Smoking
Firewood is a home smoker's best friend.
Where do you think that smoky character comes from?
It's not entirely from the coals. This is what's going to give your meat that delectable, full-flavor profile.
There are numerous types of firewood you can use—oak, hickory or maple, to name a few. You can also look to the fruit trees such as apple, pear, pecan or even cherry. As a home smoker, you can't really go wrong.
Pay attention to the size of wood you're using.
There are logs, chunks, chips, sawdust, pellets, and disks. The bigger pieces, such as logs, are great for the long cooking times. These can produce heat as well as flavor.
The smaller types such as pellets, disks, and sawdust will do an acceptable job for the shorter processes. Since they're smaller, they produce smoke at a rapid rate. But don't try to soak them before, as this could ruin them.
Experiment here and there and find which type works best for you. Try to imagine the flavor of the meat with the kind of tree—then think about how they could complement one another. Try to mix in some charcoal as well, to avoid over smoking.
Temperature and Cooking Time
When smoking, there are both hot and cold temperature ranges to abide by, depending on what it is you’re cooking up.
Hot smoking cooks, cold smoking enhances.
Hot smoking involves cooking and smoking simultaneously, which you can do using either a smoker or grill.
While hot smoking, you'll want to shoot for a temperature ideally above 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The high heat will melt the fat and break down the tissues. This will take anywhere from two to 18 hours, depending on the cut and animal.
To be sure it's safe for consumption, always use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat. This should be between 160 degrees Fahrenheit and 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
As opposed to hot smoking, cold smoking is used more as a flavor enhancer than a cooking method.
Since cold smoking doesn’t actually cook the food as hot smoking does, whatever you’re using should be cured or cooked beforehand.
When cold smoking, aim for a temperature under 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking time for cold smoking can take up to several hours. Modify the time depending on the meat, its size and amount of fat.
Cold smoking can add flavor for all types of meat listed here.
Remember to choose the smoker that fits your needs, depending on the meats you typically prefer and which firewoods you like.
Hopefully, now that you’re equipped with the basics, you can continue to expand your horizons.
Smoked meat is a delicacy you would usually order at your local BBQ restaurant. But now you can bring the joy into your backyard and treat your family and friends to this one-of-a-kind, home-smoked experience.
Did this guide help you learn how to properly smoke meat? Do you have any other questions regarding smoking meat? Let us know below in the comment box.