Smoking meat can be a great way to add a depth of flavor that would not otherwise exist, but it can be a bit daunting at first, especially for the new pitmaster. Becoming a skilled pitmaster will require some amount of trial and error, but with a bit of information, you can limit mistakes while learning.
Should you flip the meat when smoking? Depending on the size of the meat and the location of the heat source, you may want to flip and rotate the meat periodically to ensure even cooking.
From a basic $20 charcoal grill to a $2,000 smoker, flipping becomes a matter of what you are working with and what you are cooking. Smoking requires slow cooking at a low temperature, and every time you open the lid, you are dropping that temperature, increasing the cooking time. Plus the cut, quality, and size all need to be taken into account as well.
The Size of Your Smoker and Location of the Heat Box
This is where size matters, but now we are looking at the size of your cooking area. This can make a huge difference in cooking time, fuel used, and when you flip. If your smoker is large enough, flipping may not be sufficient to ensure an even cook; you may need to rotate your meat as well.
While you will be cooking over indirect heat, there will still be areas that are warmer and areas that are cooler. So if you are dealing with multiple racks and/or several cuts of meat, you will need to rotate things around just to be sure you get a more even cooking and a well-distributed smokey flavor.
If, for example, you have a smoker where the heat box is to the right of the smoker with three racks, then you want to be aware that the right side of your smoker will consistently be the hottest part of your smoker.
So when you flip, you would not just roll it over, but make sure you move the left side of the meat to the right side of the cooker, for even doneness. At the same time, you would want to rotate the meat, moving the meat from the top to the bottom or vice versa.
If, however, you have a smoker that the heat source is on the bottom, then flipping the meat left to right probably isn’t the biggest issue, but rotating from top to bottom would be. Although heat rises, it would still have a temperature difference between the two main areas.
The Size of the Meat Matters
Whether you are making a few smoked burgers to smoking a 15 lb brisket, size matters. A smaller cut of meat will cook faster in a smoker that a bigger cut of meat and a larger cut can tolerate being moved around more than a smaller piece.
Smaller Cuts of Meat
If you are smoking a few burgers, then obviously you are looking at a short cook time, though more than if you were just barbecuing them. You would still want to flip them just to make sure you got an even cook and even smoking.
With burgers, a single flip halfway through is more than sufficient to get even flavor all around. Though keep in mind with smoking you don’t get the grill lines like you would with just straight barbecuing. I wouldn’t bother with smoking burgers unless you are using a bit of sawdust for a quick burst of smoke.
Other small portions of meat such as filets or single portion sized steaks will also cook quickly, requiring only a single flip during the smoking process.
These smaller cuts of meat cook too fast, even in a little grill. While it would ensure you have a good smoked flavor, and even a good charcoal taste, they are almost too small to get the full benefit of smoking.
If, however, you are just trying to get the handle of using a smoker, it would be good to practice with smaller cuts of meat to be sure you have things figured out as far as operation and practices.
Medium Sized Cuts of Meat
In the middle ground, and quite a bit larger than those smaller cuts of meat would be ribs and chicken. Both ribs and chicken may require you to add more fuel during the cook, such as charcoal and/or wood chunks, and this is an excellent opportunity to flip the meat at the same time.
Plan on flipping these cuts of meat at least twice, especially if you plan on putting a sauce on top of the meat to add to the depth of flavor. You may want to flip ribs or chicken twice while cooking.
The best way to smoke a whole chicken is with a rotisserie smoker as it will provide the most even cooking. Because of the delicate nature of chicken, using a brine or marinade first may help to prevent the loss of the juiciness of a chicken, especially in the white meat. It can be way too easy to dry out the meat in a chicken if preventative measures are not taken.
Ribs benefit from the low and slow cooking that comes with smoking because of the extensive connective tissues involved. Compared to most cuts of meat, ribs have a much higher bone to meat ratio, but they are also some of the most flavorful cuts. This is one of the few exceptions to the horn and hooves rule.
Typically if a cut is in the middle between the horn and hooves (or head and feet for pigs), it means that it is a more tender cut, but because there is such a small amount of meat on the ribs, this is not the case.
At the bigger end of the scale would be meat such as brisket, which you may want to flip three or four times, especially once you start adding the sauce. With a brisket, I would flip once, maybe twice during the initial cook, leave it be during the stall, and then after the stall flip at least once, if not twice.
Although I recommend flipping brisket at times you would typically have your smoker open, like when applying sauce or adding wood, you will want to flip a brisket at least once after adding sauce so that you can ensure a nice caramelization on all parts of the brisket.
When dealing with more tender meats, such as a shoulder butt, you still would want to consider flipping them due to the thickness of the meat. Pork butt is not nearly as tough as brisket; however, it does require about the same amount of time because of the thickness. You want to be sure the meat cooks evenly.
Cooking Time: Tough to Tender
The balance of meat refers to what type of meat you use. You will put more time and effort into a tougher cut, which requires longer cook times, more monitoring, and additional flipping to ensure an even cook all the way through.
A smoker is perfect for cuts of meat that are well-marbled, (meaning it has thin veins of fat throughout the meat). Frequently this also means that it has a lot of connective tissue. While almost any meat can benefit from a low and slow cook, the tougher meats gain the most from this cooking method.
By cooking a thick and tough piece of meat in a smoker, you can ensure not just a flavor-packed and juicy piece of meat, but also one that is falling apart tender. Some of the tougher meats would be anything that includes the words chuck, flank, or round. Many of these are quite tough, but full of flavor; requiring a low and slow cooking process.
When looking for meat to use in a smoker, select cuts that are closer to the horns or hooves (or head and feet if you are looking for pork). They will be the best as they would benefit the most from low and slow. Flipping the meat during the long and slow cook can help with balancing the heat, especially if you time your flips with adding more fuel.
If you want some more information and recommendations on BBQ times and temperatures, check out my Guide To BBQ Times and Temperatures.