If there is one thing that may intimidate those new to cooking and preserving, it’s smoking meat. What seems like a complicated and messy process is relatively easy as long as you stick to a few basic rules.
You can add flavor and depth to a barbecue meal with well-smoked, moist meat, and it beats the burgers and sausages you get at many cookouts. It’s also a classic, tried-and-true method for preserving meat.
Smoking meat can be an art you improve as you learn over the years, but you won’t master the art if you don’t start somewhere. So, let’s start together and learn about smoking meat 101.
What is Smoking Meat?
This seems like a silly question, but it’s worth answering because it helps to understand exactly what the processes are when you start smoking meat.
You smoke meat by exposing it to smoke so that you can add flavor, preserve it, or give it a nice, deep color. Smoking retains lots of moisture and provides for tender meat.
You can hang meat above a fire, which is the method used for centuries, or place it in a smoker, which distributes the smoke evenly and in a controllable manner.
There are two types of smoking:
This is the most common form of smoking because you can achieve it with a simple barbecue setup, or by making or purchasing a dedicated smoking unit. It can be used to produce the Texas-style BBQ style that people love.
This is a long and slow method of cooking meat by exposing it to smoke that slowly cooks it with hot smoke at about 200ºF to 300ºF. As you get more experienced, you can play around with temperatures and cooking times.
Hot smoking provides a smoky flavor and keeps the meat super tender and hot.
The most significant difference between smoking meat and cooking it in an oven or pan is the meat is positioned away from the heat source to allow the smoke to cook it, rather than dry heat or frying.
Cold smoking doesn’t cook the meat. Rather, it adds flavors or preserves the meat with low-temperature smoke at about 60ºF to 120ºF.
Meats exposed to cold smoking are cooked, fermented, or cured first, and then the smoke is added. Curing can be done with salt, sugar, nitrate, or a combination.
Often, with cold smoking, the smoke travels through a long tube to cool the smoke sufficiently before it’s introduced to the food.
Equipment Needed for Smoking Meat
We’re going to focus on hot smoking since that’s the most commonly used method. Let’s start with the biggest investment you’ll need to make unless you intend to smoke the primitive way over a fire.
You can buy many varieties of hot smokers in different sizes. There is an endless range of styles, and they all have different pros and cons.
You’ll find wood burning off-set, coal, pellet wood, electric, and drum-type smokers.
With either of these, you don’t always have to smoke the meat; you can have a standard barbecue if you’re in the mood.
For an authentic Texas taste, you need a smoker that generates both heat and smoke from wood. Some smokers use coal or propane, but purists say that wood is the only way to go.
A smoker will typically come with:
- A smoke box is sometimes just an aluminum tray with holes in a lid to let the smoke out.
- A water pan provides moisture to the meat during the smoking process. This is often a disposable pan.
- Drip pans to catch all the fat and liquid that drips from the meat.
Not all smokers will include these parts, but if you intend to do a lot of smoking, look for one that does.
A meat thermometer is necessary to determine the temperature of the meat and the heat of the smoke within the unit if it doesn’t have a built-in thermometer.
A spray bottle to spritz the meat surface intermittently.
BBQ gloves to protect your hands from the heat.
A sturdy, long pair of tongs for turning and handling the meat.
A grill brush for cleaning the surface of the grill. You don’t want to leave bits of cooked meat on the grill because they will char and taint the flavor of the next piece of meat you toss on the grill.
Smoking Over a Fire
3 Types of Meats to Smoke for Beginners
You can smoke any cut of meat, but some are more popular than others due to the tasty results. Don’t limit yourself as you get more experienced. But as a beginner, you might want to try these cuts first.
This is popular because smoking brisket produces a tender, melt-in-your-mouth piece of meat. Connective tissue melts in the smoking process, so it easily falls apart. The burnt ends are crisp and full of flavor.
Sometimes, people prefer the ends over the tender meat. If you’ve never had burnt ends, you need to try it!
Ribs are another favorite because of how deliciously tender they come from a smoker. There are around five types of ribs to smoke.
- Pork back ribs (baby back ribs) require low and slow cooking to turn the connective tissue tender. They come from higher up the animal to where the ribs meet the backbone. Done right, they can be a tender, delicious cut.
- Pork spare ribs are lower down the rib cage and surround the lungs. They are not as tender as back ribs. They also contain a little more fat, which is a good or bad thing depending on your preferences.
- Country-style pork ribs are usually taken from just in front of the loin. They can vary depending on where you come from but are generally meatier cuts than spare ribs.
- Beef back ribs come from higher up the animal. Some people think they aren’t as good as pork because they have more fat and less meat due to butchers taking the meat in this area for more expensive cuts. Some people love them, though.
- Beef short ribs come from lower down the animal and are much meatier than back ribs. Keep in mind that in true Texas BBQ, beef is the preferred meat.
3. Pork Shoulder
This is used to make pulled pork, which is a classic choice for sandwiches and is a forgiving cut of meat for the beginner.
How to Prepare Meat for Smoking
First, remove any excess or soft fat you don’t want. Often, many of the cuts named above have a fat cap on them. If you trim this back or remove it, you create more surface for the meat to absorb the flavor of the smoke.
Some people like to keep the fat so it can melt and naturally baste the meat. Fatty meat tends to be more moist, and leaving the fat on, which is called “wet” style, is far more popular.
But “lean” style is preferred by people who want a drier piece of meat. Lean cooking style is harder to master but can produce a fantastic piece of meat.
Season your meat well. I use salt and pepper in abundance, and Texas BBQ purists feel that salt and pepper is all you need. For a classic taste, stick to salt and pepper to start with and explore other flavors as you gain experience.
If you want them, add your additional seasonings like garlic powder, onion powder, or any other BBQ rubs you like. Paprika can add color if you like.
Of course, if you aren’t going for a traditional Texas flavor, the sky is the limit. Add whatever you want!
Mix everything together in a big bowl, and then use your hands to rub it into the meat. If you have the time, wrap the meat in plastic or wax paper and stick it in the fridge for six hours in the refrigerator.
Wood to Use For Smoking Meat
Wood is a controversial subject among serious BBQ lovers. Some swear by pecan; others say only oak will do. It’s all about testing and tasting and finding what you like.
There are many varieties of wood to use when smoking meat, and you should test as many as you can before you commit to your favorite..
- Apple gives a mild smokey flavor that suits pork, fish, and chicken. It adds a sweetness to the meat, as well.
- Cherry will give you a mild to medium smoke with sweetness. Cherry goes well if you mix it with a little oak. Use cherry for dark meats like duck and game, but it will also do well with lamb and beef.
Hardwoods burn slow and hot. If you go for a traditional slow and low cook, these are the hardwoods to consider:
- Alder is ideal for seafood or mild meats.
- Hickory works nicely with beef and pork. It may be too intense for poultry. It’s deep and spicy.
- Pecan is good with poultry, as it adds a delicate, nutty flavor to the bird.
- Oak is good for anything at all, as it has a milder flavor than hickory.
- Maple is excellent for pork and chicken. It mixes well with apple and oak. Use sugar maple for turkey.
- Mesquite is fantastic for big cuts of beef or pork. It’s intense, so maybe leave this until you get your smoking technique down right.
Don’t use wood that is rotten or moldy. Don’t use softwoods like pine, fir, or spruce. They are resinous and will impart a bitter taste to the meat that will likely remain in your smoker.
Smoke Some Meat Texas-Style
Depending on the type of smoker you get, follow the instructions that come with it. Here are some tips to ensure you succeed every time you smoke meat Texas-style.
Smoking meat, especially big pieces, takes hours, so figure out when you want it to be ready and work backward so that you start the barbecue heating up at the right time and put the meat in when you need to.
If the meat is uneven in thickness, consider trimming it so it is the same size all over until you get used to smoking. Truss chickens for more even cooking.
The door to the cooking chamber keeps the smoke inside and in contact with your meat. Opening it all the time lets the smoke escape and allows the chamber to cool down too much.
If you follow the manufacturer’s instructions, you should get a good smoke point. Light blue smoke is great for flavor, so if you can’t see the smoke, don’t crank up the heat or try to produce more smoke.
This stops you from having to open the smoker door constantly. Instant-read thermometers require you to open the door each time.
Play Around With Primitive Smoking
Smoking meat the primitive way is a handy skill to have, especially if you enjoy camping and hunting.
To smoke meat the primitive way, you need your meat, a support, and a fire. Cut the meat into thin strips no thicker than a quarter inch. Thick strips or whole parts will take an exceptionally long time to smoke and penetrate the meat.
Start the fire and let it burn for a while. Once you have some good coals going, let the fire die down and add some wet wood.
A few feet above the fire, lay or hang strips of meat on your support rack. Optionally, wrap the fire and meat in canvas or some other fire-resistant material. Leave a vent in the top and an opening in the bottom for airflow. If the fire is sealed, it will be smothered.
Continue adding somewhat green and soaked wood to keep the fire smoldering, but don’t add so much that you see flames. The fire might need to burn for up to 18 hours to smoke the meat thoroughly.
About Cold Smoking
Cold smoking meat is an advanced technique and not for the beginner. It creates the perfect environment for pathogens like listeria or deadly botulism to multiply rapidly. If there are any parasites in the meat, they won’t be killed by cold smoking.
You can make your own cold smoker set-up, buy cold smokers that are free-standing, or you can find attachments that can be used on an existing grill.
If you want to experiment, try lower-risk foods like eggs, cheese, and tofu before you jump into meats.
To cold smoke, you cure the meat and then smoke it around 90°F or so for hours until it is thoroughly smoked.
Again, this is an advanced method and not for beginners. There is some risk of making anyone who eats the meat extremely sick. But with enough experience, you can create delicious salami, bacon, sausage, and smoked fish.