Everybody loves a good barbecue, whether you’re in it for a juicy stack of ribs, a tasty cheeseburger cooked to perfection, or simply love that corn on the cob baked right over the coals. But while a basic barbecue dinner on a Saturday night works just fine, there’s nothing that tops the fine-tuned barbecue of a smoker.
The most popular meats to smoke include the following:
- Pork Ribs
- Pork Chops
- Chuck Roast
- Chicken Breasts
- Turkey Breast
- Pork Butt
- Beef Brisket
- Lamb Shoulder
- Deer Shoulder
Once you have a good smoker to cook your meats, you will want to try your hand at one of these best meats to smoke. Remember to start with more basic meats like pork chops or chicken breasts and work your way up to more intense selections that require more time and energy like brisket.
Essentially, the process of smoking meats is exactly how it sounds: the smoke and heat that comes directly off of the wood (or charcoal, if using paired with wood) will allow the meat to smoke at an incredibly low temperature.
The name of the game with smoked meats is ‘low and slow’ using indirect heat. This means that the meat will never be placed directly over the heat source; and that being said, using a smoker means there should never be any flames present whatsoever.
Meat is usually kept in a separate box directly next to the smoker where the wood and charcoal are placed. However, in some circumstances (including using a gas grill to smoke meats), you will need to place the meat specifically next to- not on top of- the heat source.
This type of indirect heating is what allows the meat to cook at a low and slow temperature, which means the result will be flaky, fall off the bone meats. In the meantime, the smoke that’s given off of the wood will infuse a rich smoky flavor into the meat, allowing for a delicious ending that tops regular barbecue pits with ease.
Another reason why smoked meat is so incredibly sought after is the fact that you can purchase flavored wood to enhance the flavor of your meat even more thoroughly. Flavors like apple, cherry, hickory, oak, and mesquite are all popular, but they need to be used with specific types of meats in order to get the best result.
There are a few things you will need in order to smoke meat. These include the following:
- A lot of time. As we mentioned before, low and slow is the only way to go when you’re using a smoker. While some leaner cuts may only need 2 hours to cook (after preheating the smoker), other tougher meats with more muscle will require upwards of 10 hours, especially if it is a fairly large chunk of meat.
- A good smoker. While you can make a DIY smoker on a gas grill using a smoke box for wood or a foil wrap, your best bet is to buy a good smoker to accompany you through your smoking journeys.
The Dyna-Glo Charcoal Offset Smoker is a great choice if you’re looking for a budget-friendly option. This durable and easy to use smoker will allow you to smoke meat in a separate box than the wood chips, which means you can replenish burnt out wood chips without messing with the temperature of the meat.
At under $200, this smoker is the ideal piece of equipment for a newcomer who is just starting out in the smoking industry. With an incredibly easy to use platform, you will be on your way to smoking delicious flaky meat in no time.
- Charcoal and wood. Many smokers find that starting the heat with charcoal is the right way to go as they won’t burn out as quickly as wood. This means you won’t have to replenish the charcoal or lose heat without knowing it. However, this doesn’t mean you refrain from wood altogether.
Wood is the main ingredient (besides the meat) when it comes to smoking. The wood is what gives the meat that delightful hint of smokiness and is also the holder of other delicious flavors as well- including hickory, oak, cherry, and more.
Cooking Time: 4 to 6 hours, depending on the size and amount of meat.
Flavor Pairing: Apple, maple, mesquite
Who doesn’t love a plate of ribs? Ribs are just so much fun, even if you end up with your entire mouth (and some of your shirt) doused in barbecue sauce.
One reason why pork ribs are also a great option for beginners is that they don’t take an excessively long time to cook. At only around 5 hours average, pork ribs don’t require as much time to complete.
Pork ribs pair well with a variety of flavors, whether you are looking for something sweet like cherry or apple or want something a bit more flavorful and spicy like hickory or mesquite. Your wood flavor should pair well with your barbecue sauce (if using). For instance, a sweet pineapple barbecue will go great with apple, while a hickory spicy hot barbecue sauce should be paired with hickory or mesquite wood.
Keep in mind there are two different types of pork ribs available on the market:
- Baby back pork ribs are small with a lot of meat.
- Spare pork ribs are much larger and have a ton of flavor, but they require more cooking time due to the fact that there’s a lot of cartilage. You can, however, trim the spare down to make a St. Louis type pork rib.
Cooking Time: 1 to 2 hours
Flavor Pairing: Variety, including maple, cherry, mesquite, hickory.
Perhaps the best meat cut to start with is pork chops! Pork chops are incredibly quick and easy to cook- some of them only needing around an hour and a half to be cooked through completely.
However, you need to make sure you are using a pork chop that is at least one inch thick. Otherwise, you will be at risk of your pork chops drying out during the smoking process, and there’s nothing worse than a dried-out piece of meat.
One way to make sure that your pork chops remain juicy and hydrated during the smoking process is to brine the meat the night before. You can also spray some water with spices, apple juice, or butter on top of your pork about halfway through the cooking process to hydrate it (and add more flavor in the meantime).
If your pork chops are less than an inch thick, they will likely not be able to withstand the low and slow cooking method of a smoker and should be barbecued with a flame instead.
Cooking Time: 5 to 6 hours
Flavor Pairing: Hickory
If there’s just one thing to know about smoking, it’s that a lot of meats – especially brisket – may require around 9 to 10 hours to cook completely. So, as a beginner, you want to refrain from trying to smoke a harder and more time-consuming meat. What can you do instead? A chuck roasts!
When it comes to a chuck roast, keep in mind that the smaller, the better. Finding a smaller sized chuck roast will allow you to reap the benefits of the tasty meat without having to wait too long for a fully cooked meat.
The main reason why a chuck roast is such a great choice for smoking is because of the large amount of marbling and connective tissue. These will break down during the smoking process, allowing for an influx of flavor and delicateness into the final product.
Chuck roast will do well on its own in the smoker with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a slab of hickory wood. However, you can also marinade or place a dry rub on the chuck roast to increase the overall flavor of the meat.
Cooking Time: 1 to 2 hours
Flavor Pairing: Mesquite, hickory, maple
A smoked slab of chicken will be unlike any other chicken you have tasted before! It has a delectable, rich flavor that comes from the smoke, and the low and slow cooking method also means the chicken shreds in an instance.
Whole chicken breasts may only need a few short hours to cook, that doesn’t mean they should be thrown into the smoker and left alone during their cooking process.
Much like pork chops, chicken breasts have an incredibly low-fat content, which means they are prone to drying out. If you don’t handle a chicken breast properly during the 1 to 2-hour cooking time they are likely to dry out, leaving you with an unflavored mess you’re likely to not enjoy.
So how can you make sure your chicken stays moist and juicy? The best thing to do is to brine your chicken in salt water for at least 24 hours. This will help the chicken to absorb as much moisture as possible, so it won’t wear down and dry out while being smoked.
Another thing to consider is you need to add some hydration and fat to your chicken while it’s cooking. About an hour after you put the chicken breasts into the smoker, put a slab of butter on top and spray it down with some water. You can add spices and seasonings to the water to enhance the flavor of the end product.
Cooking Time: 2 hours
Flavor Pairing: Apple, cherry, maple, mesquite
Another quick and easy choice is the turkey breast, but much like chicken and pork chops, there is a very low content of fat which means you will need to add fat and water while it’s cooking to ensure it does not dry out.
One easy way to keep your turkey moist while smoking is to brine it for 24 hours beforehand and place a little bit of butter underneath the skin of the turkey while it’s smoking so you won’t have to worry about the turkey drying out.
The best thing about turkey is that it can take on flavors rather well and can be used with almost any wood flavor, from rich and rather spicy to tame and sweet. Some of the more popular choices include cherry and maple as it gives the bird a delightfully sweet taste, while others prefer a bolder mesquite flavor to take their turkey up a notch.
The average turkey will take around 2 hours to cook. When it’s done, you will likely need to take the skin completely off as it will be rubbery. Underneath the skin, though, will be delicately moist turkey meat that shreds apart the second you touch it.
Cooking Time: 3 hours
Flavor Pairing: Maple or apple
Smoked salmon? Is that really a thing? You bet it is! Smoked salmon may have a somewhat odd flavor and texture the first time you taste it, but once you sink your teeth into it you may never want to go back to the original method of cooking salmon!
Smoking salmon is a breeze thanks to all the fat, which makes it the perfect go-to product for the first-time smoker. Not only is it easy to smoke, but it’s easy to flavor, too!
Salmon really only needs a little bit of salt and pepper strewn on top to make it taste amazing. Leave the rest of the work to the wood inside of your smoker. The best two flavors for salmon are maple and apple. Apple is delightfully refreshing, while maple adds a twinge of old school sweetness to the fish.
Salmon will only require around 3 hours in order to cook, but smaller and thinner cuts may need as little as 2 hours to complete. Toss them in the smoker and let it sit there for a couple of hours and you’ll have irresistibly flaky and delectable fish in no time.
Cooking Time: At least 10 hours
Flavor Pairing: Hickory, Mesquite, or Pecan
The pork butt is one of the best parts of a pig, coming from the upper side of the shoulder. These heavy things can weigh anywhere between five and ten pounds and are usually very affordable. Not only that, but many markets sell pork butt as a two-in-one option, which means you get more meat for less money.
When you’re looking for pork butts, you want to make sure you buy a pork butt with the bone in. Bones found inside of the meat will act as a perfect thermometer so you know exactly when your meat is done- which is very important when it comes to pork, as a piece of pork that’s not cooked all the way can be incredibly dangerous.
Another reason why a bone-in pork butt is great is the fact that the pork will literally fall off the bone when it’s done. This makes it even easier to know when your pork is ready for consuming.
It’s important to note that pork butt (depending on the size) will usually take around 10 hours to smoke. This means you will need to set aside a lot of time and energy to finish smoking this heavy meat. It pairs well with a variety of flavors, but my favorite is certainly hickory.
Cooking Time: 10+ hours
Flavor Pairing: Oak, cherry, pecan
What can we say? There is truly no other meat on the market that is as divine and succulent as beef brisket once it’s fully cooked. It’s downright delicious, and you can eat it alone, in a sandwich, with pasta or beans- the possibilities are endless!
But while beef brisket is undeniably one of the top choices for smoking, it comes with a lot of work. In fact, cooking a big hunk of beef brisket at 15 pounds will take up almost your entire day.
So, does brisket get dried out? For the most part, no, but anyone who wants to ensure their brisket is the tastiest thing they’ve ever tried before, they’ll want to use a brine for at least an hour or two before smoking. A dry rub is also an excellent idea as it will bring out the natural tastiness of a brisket even further.
While you’re preparing for hours before the actual cooking process, it’s important to note that you must also cook the brisket for over 10 hours, depending on the size. A giant chunk of beef brisket could even take as long as 14 hours, so you need to make sure you have ample time before trying to smoke this meat.
Beef brisket is tasty on its own and can be paired with a variety of wood flavors, but the most popular flavors include oak and cherry. Oak will give the meat a delightful earthy hint, while cherry will add just enough sweetness to keep your mouth water; it truly depends on personal likes!
Brisket should be left for the advanced smokers, without a doubt. Without the proper way to deal with low temperatures for excessive amounts of time and understanding when and how to apply more wood chips, you won’t be successful in cooking this meat that will take up most of your day.
Cooking Time: 6 to 10, depending on the size
Flavor Pairing: Apple, cherry
Lamb shoulder has an incredibly high fat content, which means it’s the ideal choice for smoking! While you don’t have to worry about lamb shoulder drying out, it still requires plenty of time and energy to make sure it turns out ok.
The biggest problem with lamb shoulder is that while there is a lot of fat, there is sometimes too much and will need to be trimmed prior to being smoked. Of course, if you’re not sure of what you’re doing you may end up slicing off too much fat- and that’s why lamb shoulder is reserved for advanced smokers.
Lamb is perfect for pairing with sweeter wood flavors, and the meat soaks up these flavors in no time. When it’s done, it will have a certain thickness to it that many find enjoyable, and with the smoky sweet flavor, it’s a great choice for barbecue night.
Lamb shoulder will need to have at least 6 to 10 hours of cooking time, depending on the size. This means that a large-sized lamb shoulder could turn into an all-day event and should be treated properly during the entirety of the smoking process.
Cooking Time: 4 hours
Flavor Pairing: Oak, cherry, apple
Deer shoulder, unless you are a hunter, maybe more of a challenge to find than other meats, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. In fact, a lot of butchers are now offering this tasty red meat more often these days. And while all parts of the deer can be smoked successfully, the most popular choice is deer shoulder.
The toughest thing about smoking deer is making sure it gets cooked properly, so the meat is nice and tender, and getting rid of the overall gamey flavor. The gamey flavor can be reduced by brining the deer for a few hours before smoking as well as applying a nice dry rub or marinade to the deer shoulder.
Once placed inside the smoker, you will need at least 4 hours to cook this meat. Make sure you pair the deer with a nice wood flavor to remove the extra gaminess. It’s noted that sweeter flavors, like cherry and apple, do well to remove the gamey flavor. However, many find that oak is a great earthy component for deer meat.
A basic rule of thumb is that the meat is incredibly lean, such as pork tenderloin or a chicken wing, it should stay away from the smoker. This is due to the fact that the extremely low-fat content of the cut is going to dry up and be tasteless when it’s done smoking.
Are you wondering about steak? While some steak, like tri-tip, can be smoked, steaks generally tend to do better when being placed over high heat on a regular barbecue grill. That doesn’t mean that you can’t smoke a steak, but the flavors likely won’t penetrate the meat and you will have more success with a regular barbecuing method.
- You can’t go wrong with a marinade or dry rub. While smoked meats do not necessarily need these things, it certainly adds a major dose of flavor that will play well with the smoke and low and slow cooking time to provide some truly exquisite flavor profiles.
- Remember to brine lean meat for at least 2 or 3 hours before cooking. The best way to ensure lean meat doesn’t dry out is to apply the brine and let it soak for at least 24 hours, but if you’re short on time, a couple of hours is fine, too.
- Remember always to pair your meat with the right flavored wood or else you may end up with a wonky piece of meat that isn’t ‘right.’ For instance, a chicken breast isn’t going to do well with a citrus marinade combined with mesquite wood, so always double-check that your flavors are pairing perfectly.
- Don’t open the lid often! The biggest mistake anyone can make when smoking meat is by opening the lid too often. This allows the heat to escape, and you will need to redo the temperature, making a longer overall cooking time. Instead, only open the lid a few short times to add more wood, apply water or butter, and check the doneness.
- If you have a lean cut, make sure you apply water, apple juice, or butter a few times during the cooking process to ensure the meat does not dry out.
- Let the meat rest when it’s done. This is something that many people skip, but it’s crucial to making the best smoked meat. Let the meat rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes wrapped in foil before serving. At this time, you may want to add your favorite barbecue sauce or other sauce to let it soak in.
- Don’t rush it. If you apply more heat to your smoker, then you will be ruining the entire process of smoking. Be patient! If you know you chose a meat that’s going to need more than 5 hours to cook, don’t try to cram it all into a 4-hour cooking period.
Smoking meat is a skill that can be learned with proper planning, time, and energy. Whether you’re a beginner trying out your luck with pork ribs or want to test your skills with a large beef brisket, knowing the cooking time, how to prepare, and how to combine flavors is crucial to success. Enjoy all of these meats in your smoker!