Holy Smokes! A Master Class on Everything About Meat Smoking

Can’t get enough of smoked food? Briskets, pulled pork, turkey, and more are quintessential meals of every American gathering. Be it on small backyards up to the largest tailgating events, the holy smokes are always to be found. All of us want to get a hand on the best meats to smoke to try our newest recipe. And if you’re worried about your harshest critics – the kids – you might as well dive in on this master class I’ve prepared for you.

I’ve known the taste of smoked meat since time immemorial. The smoke of hickory reminds me of the good old days when granddad would brag his Texas-style brisket to our guests. I thought that it’s a no-brainer to get that meat done until I tried smoking my first rib.

If you’re a newbie or someone who wants a refresher, welcome to the master class:

Let’s get into the basics:

????Getting the right smoker

There are many types of smokers and I still believe that the perfect choice lies in your personal preference. I like charcoal, wood, and pellet types as it allows me to achieve the classic smoky flavor. Others like electric and propane because it takes the guesswork out of the picture. And even with the use of wood chips, it doesn’t give off the same flavor as actual charcoal.

best meats to smoke

Make sure that what you get suits the size of the food you want to smoke. But as a rule of thumb the bigger the better. We’ll never know when you’re going to host a backyard party for a few dozen people.

If you’re going to ask me, I’ll go for smokers like kamado, offset, or wood pellet.

????Choosing the right wood

One crucial component of meat smoking is the type of wood. If you’re a total newbie, let me tell you that you simply can’t use the log on your garden. Stick to flavored woods for cooking. It comes in different flavors where each one gives off a different level of smoke and taste.

If you don’t know which one is best for the type of food you’re smoking, here’s a helpful list according to traditional meat smoking methods:

WOOD TYPEBEEFPORKPOULTRY
Hickory✔️✔️
Oak✔️✔️✔️
Maple✔️
Mesquite✔️✔️
Walnut✔️✔️
Pecan✔️✔️✔️
Apple✔️
Cherry✔️✔️✔️
Pear✔️✔️
Mulberry✔️✔️
Peach✔️✔️
Alder✔️✔️

Usually, lighter and sweeter wood types are great for softer meats like chicken. Still, you can experiment around these types. Combine any of these and see what meets the standard of your taste buds. As for me, I prefer maple with a little mix of cherry when smoking the Thanksgiving turkey. I use hickory for briskets as I like the smoky flavor strong.

Pro tip: Chicken absorbs more flavor than other meat like pork or beef. So if you’re planning to use strong wood flavors like hickory or mesquite, you should think twice.

????Pellets vs. chunks vs. chips

This part isn’t actually a subjective choice but something that depends on the type of smoker that you have. If you use a pellet smoker, you definitely need to get pellets. Large chunks of wood won’t pass through its auger motor. And even though chips are relatively smaller than chunks, it’s not suitable for pellet smokers.

➖Why use chips

With the exception of pellet smokers, you can use wood chips for short-term smoking, say two to three hours. Since chips are thinner, it burns faster but it offers better control with the amount of smoke you want to use. And if you want the chips to last longer, you have to soak it in water for 30 minutes first. This helps prevent burning all the chips even before you finish smoking the meat.

➖Why use chunks

So-called serious smokers prefer wood chunks as it can burn and emit smoke for long hours. Some can last for up to 14 hours of smoking large pork butts. It also produces more smoke and heat which is excellent for thick meat cuts.

You can also soak wood chunks in water to make it last long for the best meats to smoke.

➖Briquettes vs. lump charcoal

It’s fine to use briquettes, but personally, I’m not sold into the idea of having these puffs. Briquettes have synthetic chemicals and although it’s usually non-poisonous, I just don’t want taking chances. I Stick to lump charcoal if you can. It’s not that I’m a purist of traditional meat smoking methods; I just don’t like those gasses touching my food.

Best meat types to smoke

If you’re going to ask me, you can smoke just any meat cut you like. But if you want to get the best and juiciest parts, here are some that you should give a try:

Best meat cuts and types (click for details)
Razorbacks
Feral hogs have lean, moist, and succulent meat. Razorbacks, for one, give a taste of nature’s flavor. The gold standard here is hickory smoking, but try mesquite and you’ll never get enough of it.
Beef brisket
A master griller would have to smoke a fine brisket before he can finally claim his throne. This beef cut is an all-time favorite in almost any occasion. In fact, smoking is the only great way to cook briskets. This cut is typically flavorless, but with hickory or oak, it becomes tender, juicy, and smokin’ good.
Pork ribs
Since this part has too much fat and collagen, it’s perfect for smoking. Also, pork ribs are pretty cheap and you can find it in almost any grocery store. It’s best to smoke this with a blend of hickory and apple – cherry if you want an alternative. You’ll know it’s cooked if the meat is starting to fall off the bones.
Rock hens
Unlike regular chicken, Cornish or Rock hens have a very delicate flavor that’s almost close to partridge. An apple-smoked Rock hen is juicy and mildly powerful. According to traditional meat smoking methods, you should brine the poultry first. The brine will also make the skin crispy.
Turkey
Oh well, this one needs no further explaining. Who doesn’t think of smoked turkey every year? It’s a quintessential smoked meat during the holidays. Smoke this with maple and you’re golden.
Tri-tip
This is a less popular meat type, but worth the try as a smoked meal. It’s a bottom sirloin cut which is about ¾-inch thick. Since this is boneless, you can either smoke or sear it.
Chuck eye
The Chuck eye cut is referred to as the “poor man’s rib cut”. This is taken from the 5th rib and although not as prime as the rib eye, this is one of the best meats to smoke.

Preparing the meat

The meat type and the taste preference will demand different preparation steps. But most of the time, if you’re smoking large chunks of meat, you have to brine it first. Brining keeps the meat from drying during the smoking process. This is so much true for large cuts that have to be smoked for more than five hours.

Never skip brining. Unless you want a dry and burned meat out of the smoker.

Since it has salt, the brine makes the meat more water-absorbent. As the water evaporates during smoking, the natural juices of the meat are retained. Salt water is also a good base for the rub for it to hold well during the last stages of cooking.

Another thing you should remember when preparing the meat is to thaw it first. The rule of thumb is fresh but not frozen. Before brining, let the icy meat melt. A frozen meat is harder to cook and there’s a chance that the insides wouldn’t be as done as the outer layer.

The biggest thing: the rub

Aside from the flavor of wood, one thing that will nail the taste is the rub you use. It could be as simple as a combination of salt and pepper or a fusion of multiple herbs. For the most part, I use a blend of paprika, garlic powder, salt, pepper, bay leaves, mustard powder, cayenne, and cumin. You can also experiment with herbs like rosemary, basil, and thyme. It all boils down to your personal preference and to the people you’re cooking for.

Never slump the rub right after you fish the meat from the brine. Dry it with a paper towel first. That’s the only time you’re going to apply the rub. Make sure that you cover all sides and that the rub isn’t too cakey.

What sticks to the meat during rubbing is enough; otherwise, the excess will burn and taste bad.

Let the rub sit on the meat for 30 minutes before smoking. You should do this for non-traditional and traditional meat smoking methods.

Why low and slow never gets old

Good smoked meat is one that’s cooked low and slow. A medium temperature that’s around 230F prevents the cells of the meat from bursting. So what you’ll get is a juicy, succulent, and fresh smoked meat.

Low and slow cooking also allow fats and collagen to melt and not burn on the meat. It’s healthier, in some sense, and it also lets the meat absorb as much smoke flavor possible.

Smoke cooking can range from a few hours to overnight runs. A 14-pound turkey will be cooked in a maximum of seven hours while a couple of pork butts can be smoked for 10 hours. It depends on the best meats to smoke you’re cooking.

The only enemy to long smoking is bacterial buildup. This is also one good reason why you shouldn’t skip brining. The salt will stop bacteria from harboring on the meat during hours of cooking.

best meats to smoke

The problem called temperature

If you use pellet, electric, or propane smokers, you’re safe from the hassle of sustaining smoke. As long as there are enough fuel and you shut the lid, everything is fine. However, it’s a different story with offset, kamado, and other charcoal smokers.

For best smoking results, you should stay within 212F -230F.  Anyway, I don’t mind going down to a minimum of 200F.

But the challenge here is how well you can maintain the smoke.

Always use temperature probes to ensure that your meat is cooking properly. Usually, you can use a digital thermometer to keep track.

Aside from that, you should be wary of meat dryness. This is the reason why most smokers come with a water pan. Place it on below the meat with at least 3-4 cups of water. Aside from keeping the moisture inside, it will also catch the drippings that you can turn into gravy later on.

Smoking Q & A

????????????????????Do I have to keep flipping it?

Yes and no. If you use a kamado, electric, and propane smoker, there’s no need to flip the meat. However, if you use an offset or wood pellet smoker, you have to open the lid every two hours if you’re smoking very large cuts, say pork butt or a whole turkey. The heat isn’t equally distributed on this type of smoker and one side would burn if you don’t flip it.

????????????????????How will I know if the meat is cooked?

Each meat type will have its own internal temperature requirement. Once it reaches such heat within a set time, you can expect that it’s cooked. A 14-pound turkey smoked for 7 hours with an internal temperature of 165F is guaranteed to be done.

????????????????????Is it okay to smoke pre-cooked meat cuts?

Yes, but only to food items that aren’t smoked already. Otherwise, you’ll be packing it up with too much flavor. The good thing here, though, is that pre-cooked meat has a shorter smoking time. Still, it’s not as juicy as meats cooked through traditional meat smoking methods.

????????????????????Can I baste while smoking?

Yes, but not on the first hours of smoking. Do the basting or saucing at least 20 minutes before the meat gets done. Once you slather the meat with the basting sauce, return it to the smoker for another 15 minutes.

????????????????????How long should the cooking time be?

This largely depends on what you’re smoking. The larger the meat gets, the longer it will take to cook. Just make sure that you set the cooking time and temperature before leaving the meat inside the pit. Also, check your smoker every now and then if the smoking will drag for hours. Some outdoor factors may cause the temp to drop or the smoke to dwindle.

It’s not enough that you know the best meats to smoke. You should also learn the right way of getting it done. That challenge starts now.

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Holy Smokes! A Master Class on Everything About Meat Smoking

by George Miller time to read: 9 min
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