The Best Meats to Smoke & How to Make them Taste Delicious
Whether you’re smoking pork, beef, chicken, or something a bit more unique we’ve got all the tips, tricks, and techniques to make your next barbecue absolutely delicious.
We’ve put together a guide on the best meats to smoke for lovers of delicious barbecue with tons of tips to make everything that comes from your smoker taste delicious. Whether you’re looking for the best way to smoke pork, beef, or chicken or are looking for unique ways to smoke salmon, lamb, duck, or other specialty meats, we’ve got something for everyone.
What makes smoking such an excellent cooking method is how the smoke infuses flavor deep into whatever is being cooked using the heat from the smoker to slowly break down the toughest cuts into tender morsels that fall apart in your mouth.
In this Piece
Using smoke to cook meat is one of the oldest forms of cooking, reaching all the way back into the caves. A simple way to preserve large amounts of food, smoking has been used by generations of cooks and is a central cooking method in many cuisines from around the globe.
The most common methods for smoking are cold, warm, and hot smoking, along with smoke roasting, which is often referred to as barbecuing (Wikipedia). The focus of this article is on types of meat for smoke roasting, which is the most common type of smoking people do at home.
Best Cuts of Meat to Smoke
The best cuts of meat to smoke tend to be ones that have more fat and connective tissue. It’s a bonus if they’re also bone-in. The reason these cuts work so well is smoking generally involves cooking something low and slow. As in a low temperature, usually between 225℉ (107℃) and 275℉ (135℃), for a long time which can range from 20 to 25 minutes per pound all the way up to 90 minutes per pound for beef brisket.
These cuts tend to be larger and often less expensive per pound than steaks or chops. It does not make them less desirable or cheaper as some writers would have you believe.
The essence of great cooking is about matching the right ingredients to the right method to produce the best flavor. So, no matter what is being smoked, one should always try to use the highest-quality, freshest meat available. Smoking can be very forgiving as a cooking process, but it can’t cover up for poor quality meat.
Smoking is about developing flavor and texture. As something cooks in a smoker, the fat and connective tissue in the meat starts to break down, making it more tender, juicy, and flavorful.
The challenge as a pitmaster is to balance the amount of smoke, heat, and time to find the sweet spot between flavor, moisture, and texture.
To get the most from whatever delicious types of meat are being smoked, use internal temperature to determine when something is finished cooking.
Best Meats to Smoke for Beginners
The best meats to smoke for beginners are ones that are easy to prepare, can be cooked in a reasonable time, and are forgiving. By forgiving, we mean that it’s not a big deal if they stay on for an extra twenty or thirty minutes or are smoked at 250℉, instead of 225℉.
Whether you’re using a gas smoker with a water bath, charcoal grill, or electric smoker, every smoker is different, and when you’re starting, it helps to keep things simple.
Chicken wings are one of the easiest things to smoke. These Crispy Smoked Chicken Wings use a simple rub to highlight the flavors from the smoke. These wings are great for parties and other events where you don’t have all day to spend with the smoker but want something tasty.
One of our most popular recipes and a great way to get started with a new smoker is to smoke a beef roast. We’re partial to top round roasts, but this recipe is delicious with rump, sirloin, tri-tip, and chuck roasts. The beef is particularly delicious when sliced thin and served with a tangy barbecue sauce.
When you’re looking for something from the smoker that looks amazing on the dinner table, make a Smoked Pork Loin. This cut holds its shape as it cooks, making it perfect for carving tableside with a sharp knife.
Tips for Smoking Delicious Food
Whether you just unwrapped your first smoker or are an experienced pitmaster, we’ve gathered a few of our best tips for smoking meat.
An area of confusion when people are just getting started is the pink smoke ring that develops on the inside of a piece of meat. The pink smoke ring is a good thing and shows that the smoke is penetrating the meat and infusing it with flavor. Sometimes, especially with chicken, the pink color makes people think something is undercooked.
The best way to determine when something is done is to use its internal temperature. There are so many factors (type of smoker, outside temperature, how full the smoker is, etc.) that go into smoking that while time in the smoker is a good guide, hours per pound alone are not enough to determine when something is done.
We like to use a wireless thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of whatever is being cooked while we lounge around the house and sip on a beer or two. Just make sure to insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat and measure the temperature in a couple of spots before ringing the dinner bell.
It can be helpful to keep an oven thermometer in the smoker to keep tabs on the smoking temperature. Oven thermometers tend to be more accurate than the thermometers built into many smokers that tend to wear out over time and have to brave the elements.
If the smoker doesn’t have a built-in water pan, it can be helpful to use an aluminum foil tray partially filled with water to raise the humidity inside the smoker. Using a water pan to keep up the humidity helps to keep what’s being smoked moist and juicy and from drying out.
A great way to finish ribs, chicken, and other smaller cuts is to use the Flip, Fire, and Paint Technique that uses a hot grill to sear on barbecue sauce right before serving. This technique helps create a crisp crust on the outside, giving smoked items crispy skin and crunch that generally only comes from grilling.
Types of Wood to Use in Your Smoker
Whether your smoker uses wood chips, chunks, or pellets, there are a lot of choices when it comes to what wood will give your food the best smoky flavor. Our general rule is to use a fruit wood, such as apple, maple, or cherry, to add some sweetness to a dish.
When we’re looking for a more rustic flavor, when we’re smoking sausages, chicken, or most cuts of pork, we use hickory or mesquite wood. If we’re making something like texas style beef ribs or using more primal cuts of beef, we’ll go with a heavier smoke wood, like oak or pecan.
What to Smoke For Large Groups
One of the best reasons to keep a smoker around is to entertain large groups. Smokers are perfect for preparing lots of delicious barbecues for hungry crowds. A few of our favorite smoked meat recipes for picnics and parties include tender ribs, buttery chicken, and crispy, golden brown turkeys.
There’s no better way to keep a crowd happy than with a couple of platters of smoked pork ribs. For tender, fall of the bone ribs, with a crisp crust on the outside, we smoke racks of baby back ribs with a combination of mesquite and hickory until the tender meat starts to pull away from the bones. Then we finish them on a scorching hot grill with one of our favorite barbecue sauces.
Another great party food is Smoked Chicken Quarters. If you’re not familiar with this cut, think about them as chicken thighs with a handle. What makes chicken quarters so good for parties is that each quarter generally feeds one person. Also, they can be eaten by people standing up or sitting down, they take less than two hours to smoke, and it’s easy to make a lot of them at once.
When it comes to the holidays or sit-down meals, smoking a whole turkey or a large piece of beef brisket is an easy way to make everyone happy. Over the years, we’ve worked to perfect our smoked turkey recipe, so the meat has just the right amount of smoke flavor while still being plump and juicy.
Another great option is to smoke a pork shoulder or pork butt. When it comes to slow smoking pork roasts, there are lots of great options. This smoked pork shoulder recipe is soaked in apple cider vinegar and is best served sliced thin in the spirit of Kansas City style barbecue.
Fun Meats for Smoking
There’s so much flexibility to smokers that you can smoke just about anything in them. The only rule we have when we fire up the smoker is to have some fun and welcome anyone who stops by with an ice-cold drink and a tasty treat. And be aware, you will get neighbors stopping by as the delicious smell from the smoker slowly drifts down the block bringing hungry neighbors who will want to turn your backyard into an impromptu picnic.
One of our favorite things to smoke in the fall is a few beautiful duck breasts. Lightly smoking the duck adds layers of flavor to the meat creating exquisite bites of slightly crispy skin married with the smokiness from the thin layer of fat between the skin and the perfectly cooked medium-rare meat underneath.
If you love bacon and have a smoker, you need to add Homemade Bacon to your culinary bucket list. The advantage of making bacon at home is it lets people play with the seasonings and the smoke to tailor the flavors and thickness to their taste. The only downside is once you’ve made your own, supermarket bacon will never be the same.
A simple way to expand your culinary horizons is to smoke game and other cuts that may not often cross your kitchen’s threshold. One of our favorite ingredients to experiment with is buffalo. The lean meat is rich in flavor and incredibly sustainable when purchased from the right place.
In our experience, smoking a buffalo roast is the easiest way to bring out its natural flavors while keeping the meat moist, tender, and juicy.
A fun way to show off the versatility of smoking is to highlight flavors and techniques from a diverse set of cuisines. Using olive wood and a few spices from the Medeterrian help give this Smoked Leg of Lamb recipe a unique flavor profile that makes it easy to imagine what it would have been like to be at a harvest festival in ancient Greece.
Quick Things to Smoke
Whenever we’re in the mood for something with a nice smokey flavor but don’t have lots of time or want to go outside during the middle of winter, we break out our stovetop smoker. Stovetop smokers are an easy way to smoke food inside the comfort of your own home quickly.
Over the years, we’ve found they work best with smaller, more delicate cuts, such as pork chops, salmon, vegetables, and other seafood.
A simple way to make delicious smoked salmon at home is to use a stovetop smoker. Smoking the salmon using this method only takes 30 to 40 minutes over low heat to produce tender, smokey salmon that melts in your mouth. A couple of our favorite ways to serve it are on Smoked Salmon BLTs or on canapes.
Another fun way we’ve found to use a stovetop smoker is to smoke the ground beef in this Smokehouse Chili recipe before browning it. Smoking the beef this way gives the chili a deep smokey flavor with layers of extra flavor that can’t be achieved using liquid smoke. It’s a great way to add complexity and more umami flavor to the chili.
What to Smoke
There are so many different ways to get the most from a smoker. A few of our favorite smoked meat ideas include building a special smoker in the backyard to be able to regularly slow smoke whole hogs, finding creative ways to smoke burgers, and using the smoking process to bring out the flavors in venison, elk, and other wild game.
If you want to go beyond smoking meat, try using your smoker to make baked beans, smokey mac & cheese, or eggplants for a unique take on baba ganoush.
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Cuisine: American|American Classics|BBQ|Southern|Southwestern| Technique: Barbecue|Cooking|Grilling|Slow Cooking|Smoking
Ingredients: Bacon|Beef|Beef Brisket|Beef Roast|Buffalo|Chicken|Chicken Quarters|Chicken Thighs|Chicken Wings|Duck|Duck Breast|Goat|Ground Beef|Ham|Lamb|Leg of Lamb|Pork|Pork Chops|Pork Loin|Pork Ribs|Pork Shoulder|Proteins|Turkey
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