Smoked meat brings out a flavor unimaginable, taking even the simplest chicken breast to a flavor that is truly out of this world. If you’re new to BBQ, you may not know what is the best meat to smoke for a beginner.
The best meats to smoke for a beginner are simple, fast, and easy to cook meats including beef ribs, pork chops, turkey, duck, and salmon. Once you gain confidence, move on to more succulent and tasty meat such as brisket, pork butt, lamb, and tri-tip.
If you’re ready to try your hand at smoking meats, you need to know the ins and outs of what meats are best for beginners and how you can successfully pair flavors with the correct temperatures for the perfect, delicious blend.
If you have never smoked meat before, you might wonder what all the buzz is about. To put it simply, this type of cooking uses smoke to tenderize the fibers found inside the meat. Using a controlled temperature for several hours inside a smoker, the meat becomes cook and fall-off-the-bone with a flavor that’s truly unmatched.
A lot of individuals will compare barbecuing to smoking. The two will require charcoal, wood, or some other method of cooking, leaving the meat with a rich smoky flavor. The main difference between barbecuing and smoking meat is the length of time and the flavors produce, and will always require wood in order to cook (wood can come in a variety of flavors, like cherry and hickory).
While you may be able to barbecue a piece of chicken and as little as 10 minutes, smoking may require upwards of an hour or two. The reason for this is the temperature that is being used to cook the meat. This slow cooking time ensures the meat will fall apart in your hands and have a decadent taste.
Smoking should only be done if you have a decent amount of time on your hands. As most meats will take several hours in order to cook properly, one should take this into consideration when preparing to smoke meat.
Ready to try your hand at smoking meats? It’s important to note that different cuts of meat will require different cooking times, and some meats pair well with a certain type of wood than others. Knowing the cooking times and correct flavor pairing will ensure your overall success.
The length of time required to smoke meat will depend on the overall toughness and size, as well as how much fat and collagen are present in the meat cut. To put it simply:
- A lean cut of meat with a low-fat content may have a low cooking time, but due to the low amount of fat, it may become dry during the smoking process as it must be cooked for a lengthy amount of time.
- A thick cut that has plenty of fat will be able to smoke for several hours without drying out, as the fat will hold onto the juices in the meat.
- A cut of meat that has a combination of tougher tissues, fat, and plenty of collagen content will not only be able to stay juicy while being cooked, but the collagen will add additional sugar and flavor to the meat as it breaks down in the smoker.
But it’s not only the toughness, fat content, and collagen content that will cause a burst of smoky flavor inside; it also comes down to the type of wood that is used. There’s a variety of wood flavors on the market, and knowing which flavor pairs with each meat is imperative for a successful flavor in the end.
We’re going to take a good look into the different types of meats that are best for beginners, as well as wood flavor pairing.
Everybody loves a good set of beef ribs. With the succulent taste, divine texture, and fun of getting a bit messy, beef ribs are a must-have at any event. As a bonus, they’re pretty easy to smoke on your first try.
Beef ribs are a great choice for beginners because there’s usually a whole lot of fat, which means they won’t be succumbed to drying out and losing flavor. Ribs are also not quite as tough as other beef cuts found on a cow, which means they’ll break down a bit faster and will be a cinch to complete.
So how should you cook these barbecue favorites? It’s pretty simple, actually. Beef ribs can pair with almost any type of wood because ribs absorb a variety of flavors with ease, but many find cherry to be a great choice. Cook for around 5 to 6 hours at 205 degrees Fahrenheit for a set of ribs that will fall delightfully off the bone.
Leite’s Culinaria has a good beef ribs recipe to test out during your next cookout.
- 2 hour cooking time
- 160 degrees Fahrenheit
- Pairs well with apple wood
It seems like everyone forgets about turkey if it’s not Thanksgiving; but why? Turkey has a delicious flavor, no matter how it’s cooked, and it can provide a lot of meat for a big crowd. Not only is there plenty of meat to be devoured, but smoking a turkey gives it a brand-new flavor that’s exciting and delicious!
There is one concern when smoking a turkey, though, and that is the fact that Turkey doesn’t have a high fat content at all . If you’re not careful, the turkey can easily dry out and become a flavorless mess.
How can you combat that? Add some fat to your turkey before, during, and after smoking. The best way to accomplish this is by tossing on plenty of butter. The butter will sink into the turkey while smoking, giving it some extra flavor and ensuring it won’t dry out.
A favorite way to smoke a turkey is by using apple wood. The apple flavors dives into the turkey, offering up a refreshing fall flavor that can be devoured all season long. Cooking at only 2 hours at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, the bird can become a crowd favorite in a shorter amount of time than most beef and other cuts of meat.
If you’re looking for a good turkey recipe, Lizzy T posted a good smoked turkey recipe on her blog a while back.
- Around 2 hour cooking time
- 175 degrees Fahrenheit
- Pairs with apple wood
Another bird that’s ideal for beginner smokers is duck. This is because a duck has just the right amount of fat so it won’t be prone to drying out, which can be a major struggle if it’s your first time trying to smoke meat.
However, when it comes to duck, some may say that it lacks flavor; even after smoking. To make sure your duck has a flavor that ‘pops’ you may want to soak it in a marinade for an hour up to 24 hours before smoking. Drench the duck in soy sauce, Worcestershire, onion, paprika, garlic, and salt for a really delightful blend.
The duck won’t take a long time to cook either. All you need to do is give this bird about 2 hours to smoke at a temperature of 175 degrees. You can use a variety of different wood flavors and still be successful, but like most other birds, the best pairing is apple.
Pork chops are so versatile, so delicious, and can be done by even the most amateur smoker with ease! Unlike other parts of the pig, the pork chops don’t have nearly as much connective tissue that needs to be broken down during the cooking process, which means simplicity for the smoker!
When it comes to smoking pork chops, you need to make sure that the cut is at least an inch thick. Otherwise, you might risk drying out your chops altogether.
Once you ensure you have a thicker pork chop you can begin smoking. The overall process can take as little as 1 to 1 ½ hours and pairs well with a lot of different wood flavors from apple to maple, cherry to hickory- it all depends on the end result you’re looking for.
With as little as an hour cooking time, pork chops are your best bet when it comes to beginner smoking. The meat will become tender, downright delicious, and won’t dry out as long as you opt for the slightly larger cut.
Pairs well with cherry
Didn’t know you could smoke fish? Well now you know- and you will be happy that you did! Salmon is not only incredibly good for your health, but it takes on an all new, unbelievable flavor when it’s smoked; it’s certainly not something you want to miss out on.
While there’s a lot of fishes that will taste great after being smoked, the salmon is highly sought after for smoking because it’s one of the oiliest types of fish on the market. This excess oil will ensure that the fish does not dry out during the cooking process.
A lot of people will enjoy marinating their salmon before it hits the smoker. Marinating can be done with a variety of flavors, from a simple lemon and garlic blend to something more detailed like soy sauce, garlic, honey, paprika, onion, and more.
After your fish is done marinating, it will be ready for the grill. Smoked salmon is fairly simple as well, and will only require around 2 hours of cooking time. It’s paired well with cherry wood flavor, as the sweetness of the cherry wood will allow cutting back the fishy flavor and allow for a more delicate and sweet taste.
If you have successfully smoked the above-mentioned meats, you may want to take your skills to the next level. These meats are still acceptable for ‘beginner smokers’, but you may want to have at least 1 or 2 smoking ventures underneath your belt so you have the basic idea.
While a lot of the discussed meats will take 6 hours or less, these meats will need at least over 5 hours to cook. This means that you will need to have an extra amount of time on your hands and prepare ahead of time, and also know how to make sure that you know the basics of smoking.
- 10 to 14 hour cooking time
- 205 cooking temperature
- Pairs well with oak, maple, or hickory
Why did we put this one on the list? Because brisket is undeniably one of the most popular meats when it comes to smoking. In fact, some may say it’s the only way to enjoy brisket the proper way.
However, smoked brisket takes a little bit of experience before you are ready to dive in. The muscles are exercised excessively well, which means that it has connective fibers that are difficult to break down.
That being said, brisket takes a lot of time and energy in order to smoke. The bonus to cooking brisket is there’s usually enough fat to ensure the beef cut has enough moisture to maintain flavor without drying out, which is crucial to a nice smoky flavor and a fall-off-the-bone finish.
To cut brisket, you need to set aside at least 10 hours of your time, if not upwards of 14 hours. This is an all-night or all day venture that shouldn’t be rushed. Brisket pairs well with oak, but it can also go well with maple and hickory, depending on the type of taste you’re seeking. Hickory will provide a more rich, barbecue flavor, while maple is sweeter.
Pork Shoulder (aka Pork Butt)
- 10 hour cooking time
- Pairs well with pecan
The pork shoulder not only has a ton of meat on it, but it’s also pretty cheap. This makes it an excellent option when you have a lot of people to feed but are short on cash. However, make sure you’re not short on time, as it takes upwards of 10 hours to completely cook while smoking.
When it comes to the pork shoulder, you want to try and find a cut that has the bone still in. This will act as your internal thermometer when the pork is done and the bone slides right off the meat. It’s not essential, but it will definitely help the beginner smokers know when their meat is cooked thoroughly.
With so many wood flavor options it can be somewhat hard to choose, but if you’re trying to smoke a pork shoulder, your best bet is going to be pecans. It isn’t overly sweet and really adds a unique, delightful smoke flavor to the already wonderful delicate taste and texture of meat.
You’ll need at least 10 hours to smoke this beauty. Don’t rush it, as pork has to be cooked thoroughly to prevent causing illness. It needs to be cooked to about 205 degrees Fahrenheit (internal) and when done, it should fall right off the bone (or break apart with ease if not using a bone). When done right, you’ll get some amazing pulled pork.
After seeing all the different meats and the amount of time needed for each, it can seem somewhat overwhelming at first. Yes, smoking meat will take more time than traditional cooking in an oven, stovetop, or on a barbecue, but it’s well worth the wait.
Once you have tried smoking you will be able to master your skills. With this mastery, you will be able to start cooking more expensive and tougher meats, enjoying a variety of flavors unlike anything you have ever known.
To make sure the process goes smoothly, there’s a few tips and tricks to help you along the way:
- Wait. A problem with smoking is that sometimes people want to raise the heat to get the meat to cook quicker. While yes, this may work, you risk drying out your meat and not allowing the meat to gain flavor. Wait it out. Let the meat soak into the wood flavor. This will give you the best flavor and texture, even if you are waiting for several hours.
- Don’t Peek. Checking on your meat while smoking can cause the temperature to drop, resulting in a longer cooking time. Wait it out and don’t peek until the final moments.
- Keep your vents free of ash. Since fire requires oxygen to continue to produce, it’s imperative to ensure oxygen flow in your smoker. This can be done by ensuring there’s nothing blocking your vents at all times.
Smoking is a critical cooking process that requires plenty of time and energy, but the results are immaculate. If you want to try your hand at smoking, make sure you start with a simpler meat like pork chops, beef ribs, or turkey. Allow for ample cooking time to ensure your meat cooks on time and doesn’t dry out.
If you want to explore and try your luck with other cuts, check out my article on Meats to Master for Great BBQ.