It’s amazing how cooking meats with smoke can turn them into something incredibly tasty. If you are new to the world of making excellent smoked meats, this guide will hopefully have you setting up your trusty smoker at home. Read on and get helpful tips on the best meats to smoke and how to cook them.
Best Meats to Smoke
Probably the best thing about smoking is its ability to work well with tougher cuts that are too chewy for normal cooking. In general, meats ideal for smoking are those that are fatty and contain connective tissues. Because of the prolonged cooking at lower temperatures involved in smoking, this process effectively breaks down tough meat fibres and melts the fat for tender and juicy results.
But with so many available meat cuts in the market, choosing which one to try can be tricky. Check the list below for top meat cuts and learn what makes them best for smoking.
Whole chicken is a versatile meat cut that also tastes wonderful when smoked. It’s also readily available, generally cheap, and easy to flavour. Chicken is also simple to prepare for smoking, too—simply remove its neck and gizzard, prepare it according to your recipe, and it’s good to go into the smoker.
Best Features: Chicken stays moist while smoking and does not require long smoke times, thanks to its smaller size. Moreover, if you are a novice smoker or using a new smoker, chicken is the best choice for mastering temperature controls and settings.
Tips: For optimum flavours, cook chickens that have gone through less processing. To ensure food safety, use a thermometer to check its internal temperature by inserting the probe into the breast part. Also, choose your wood chips well in terms of type and amount as chicken tends to absorb smoke easily. For a guide to wood chip selection, you may check this article on adding flavour to your meats.
Brisket is perhaps one of the popular meat choices for smoking, mainly because of its high availability. As is, brisket is actually a bland and mundane cut of beef that is also quite tough. But smoking it can do wonders, turning it into a tender and mouthwatering feast.
Best Features: The thick and soft fatty layer of brisket makes it a top candidate for smoking. Because of its fatty layer, the meat stays moist despite the long cooking hours, allowing it to get infused with lots of great smoky flavours. Moreover, smoking brisket is fairly easy to do, especially for beginners, as it only requires basic prep skills and some cooking patience.
Tips: Whenever you can, go for farm-raised cattle as their meats taste richer when smoked. Also, flat-cut brisket is best as it is leaner and has a full layer of fat, which is key to moist and flavourful smoking. For a good smoked slab of beef, we suggest giving this brisket recipe a go.
Lamb is a bit more expensive and may not be as easily available compared to other meat choices. However, lamb shoulder has great potential in terms of flavour and texture when smoked.
Best Features: Lamb shoulder is taken from smaller and younger sheep less than a year old. This makes the meat more tender and perfect for smoking. It’s also one of the fattiest cuts of the whole lamb, which breaks down and keeps the meat soft and moist while cooking.
Tips: To make it easier to infuse the meat with smoky flavours, remove as much hard fat covering the lamb shoulder. It’s also advisable to have it marinated for 5 to 10 hours before cooking. Pair it with fruit wood chips that you have soaked in water an hour before smoking. And as soon as your meat has formed an outer crust on the initial smoking time, wrap it up in foil to keep it moist during the remaining cooking time.
Spare rib is another classic favourite meat for smoking that comes from the belly side of the pig. Aside from being a cost-effective and readily available cut, its natural collagen content, which can be tough to cook through regular means, can be tenderised easily by smoking.
Best Features: The fat and collagen of pork ribs give this meat cut its exceptional flavour when smoked. It is also relatively easy to smoke even for beginners. By seasoning it with your favourite rub, you can easily make and serve the tastiest ribs at home or on your next BBQ party.
Tips: If possible, smoke a rack of ribs that has been bought a day before you cook it and has not been frozen for better flavour. The night before you smoke your ribs, remove the thin membrane covering its back to let smoke penetrate the meat better. Then to keep your meat moist during cooking, turn your rub into a flavourful mop sauce by mixing it with enough apple cider vinegar.
If you feel like stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new with your smoker, deer meat or venison is a great way to experiment. By smoking and curing venison, you can enjoy preserved meats with a longer shelf life.
Best Features: Venison is generally a dry cut of meat and has a distinct gamey flavour. However, with proper prep and brine for soaking, you can easily remove the strong flavour as well as give the meat extra moisture.
Tips: Shoulder and tenderloin cuts are the best choice for smoking. These taste better, too, when smoked in apple, oak, and cherry wood. To protect your meat from drying out, make sure you have your pan filled with enough water.
Best Smoking Temperatures and Times
The secrets to safe and tasty smoked meat, other than choosing the best cut, are temperature and time. For first-time smokers, these factors are particularly important to ensure your meat stays moist at the right amount of heat and is cooked through when served. To help you out, here’s a table you can use as a guide for the best cooking temperature and time of some common cuts of meat used for smoking.
|Meat||Smoker Temperature||Smoking Time||Internal Meat Temperature|
|Beef Brisket||107 to 116C (225 to 240F)||12 to 20 hours||88 to 93C (190 to 200F)|
|Beef Prime Rib||107C (225F)||4 to 5 hours||57C or 135F (medium)|
|Beef Short Ribs||107 to 116C (225 to 240F)||6 to 8 hours||88C (190F)|
|Chicken Wings||275 to 300F||1 to 2 hours||77C (170F)|
|Lamb Leg||107 to 121C (225 to 250F)||4 to 8 hours||71C (160F)|
|Lamb Shoulder||107 to 121C (225 to 250F)||5 to 6 hours||71C (160F)|
|Pork Butt or Shoulder||107C (225F)||12 to 14 hours||88C (190F)||Pork Spare Ribs||107 to 116C (225 to 240F)||6 hours||82C (180F)||Venison Roast||93 to 107C (200 to 225F)||1.5 hours per 454g||71C (160F)||Venison Tenderloin||107 to 121C (225 to 250F)||1.5 hours per 454g||71C (160F)||Whole Chicken||135 to 149C (275 to 300F)||2 to 3 hours||77C (170F)||Whole Turkey||135 to 149C (275 to 300F)||4 to 5 hours||77C (170F)|
Duration of cooking time however may vary depending on the thickness and size of your meat, or whether your meat has bones or not (bone-in cuts may need longer smoking time). And while there are several ways to know when it is ready, checking its internal temperature is the most objective way to check its doneness. Check our selection of meat thermometers for accurate temperature readings.
Other factors like weather conditions and ambient temperature can also affect smoking. These however can be countered by knowing how to control the temperature of your smoker. This can be done by using a chimney starter so you can quickly get your smoker ready and stabilised at the right temperature. Opening or closing the vents of your smoker while cooking also lets you control airflow and heat to maintain ideal temperatures. Finally, filling the water pan with the proper water level is also helpful in maintaining a constantly low temperature that’s best for smoking.
Smoking meats is truly an art form and may take a bit of practice to master. However, with proper equipment, right meat selection, and useful cooking guidelines, you can be a pitmaster in no time.