In today’s article, I’ll go through some of the best meats to smoke on your BBQ and explain why they, in particular, work so well. Furthermore, I’ll share some of the basics of smoking to show you how to do it.
Smoking low n slow meats on the barbecue – there’s something oh-so comforting and even timeless about this simple pleasure.
We often fill our kitchen with gadgets and gizmos we’ve collected through the years. But, to be honest, I’d trade it all for delicious meat smoked slowly over hot coals.
The entire experience of smoking meat is rather addicting, from setting up the smoker, watching the meat, adjusting the heat, and nailing the details. The result is melt-in-the-mouth smoked meat, cooked to perfection.
But, what are the best meats for smoking? Which methods are best? The last thing you want is to embark on a 12-hour smoking crusade, only to be left with charred leather.
Why Smoke Your Meat?
The act of smoking meat and fish was first done in the times before refrigeration to preserve it and avoid spoilage. Smoked meat required no refrigerator to stay fresh.
What smoking does, is it adds an acidic coating on the surface of the meat. This coating will effectively prevent harmful bacteria from growing. The technique of smoking simultaneously dries the meat out, making it even harder for bacteria to get a hold.
Fortunately, in today’s world of refrigerators and freezers, we don’t need to smoke our meat to preserve it. Instead, we get to smoke our meat to tenderize and add delicious flavors to inexpensive but tough cuts like beef ribs and pork butts.
What Makes the Best Meat for Smoking?
Ideal cuts for smoking are the cheap, tough, and fatty cuts that need to be cooked slowly for a long time, and that most people avoid at the market.
Very low temperatures and long cooking times ( known as low and slow) are used when smoking meat. These factors are what allows the meat to become tender as well as juicy.
All those trouble areas inside the meat, such as fat, collagen, and connective fibers, will break down, render and melt, turning these cheap cuts into the hero of a dinner table, equal to any expensive, luxury cut!
Let’s take a quick run-through of what you should look for and avoid when picking meat for your smoker:
Good Characteristics of the Best Meats to Smoke
You want to find tough, inexpensive cuts, that contain plenty of marbling and connective tissues, that when cooked slowly for a long time render out to become very tender and moist.
Typically these are the cheaper cuts too, as the majority of people ook past them when shopping.
Bad Characteristics for Smoking
You want to avoid already tender, very lean cuts of meat with a finer texture, because they will simply dry ut and become ruined throughout a long smoke.
Typically, these are the more expensive cuts of meat available too.
You can also try to imagine the animal when figuring out which cuts are ideal for smoking.
Think working parts such as the legs, neck, and shoulder. These are hard-working, tough, and sinewy muscles. In other words: perfect for smoking!
On the other hand, the middle back or center ribs of animals aren’t suitable for smoking.
These areas have less muscle fiber and are, therefore, already tender cuts, such as the sirloin, tenderloin, and more. These are expensive cuts, and lousy in a smoker as they’ll dry out and be ruined.
You Don’t Need a Dedicated Smoker!
Did you know you can add a nice smoky taste to your food inside of a standard gas grill or charcoal grill?
Check out the following guide from Jeff Philips of smoking-meat.com, who shows you how to make a foil smoking pouch that can be used to add smoke to anything you put on your grill: How to make a foil smoking pouch.
You simply take a handful or two of wood chips, place them into a wood chip smoker box, or fold them up in a square of tin foil, poke a few small holes in the top of the pouch, and place directly over your gas burners or on the grates above your burning charcoal and hey presto!
You’re now smoking meats on your grill.
Within minutes, it will smolder and smoke, adding a delicious link of smoke to any food in your grill. Just make sure to keep the lid closed!
The Best Meats for Smoking
Smoking is a creative art, and there are many types of meat to try out from all animals, such as beef, pork, lamb, game, and fish/seafood.
Let’s take a closer look at the very best meats to smoke, that are most popular in the smokehouses around the world and in pitmasters back yards:
Whenever barbecue smoking is mentioned, smoked brisket is on everyone’s mind.
This massive cut comes from the chest of the cow. It’s tough and would be inedible if cooked any other way than smoking.
Because the brisket cut is larger than life itself, it’s the ultimate way to feed a crowd — just ask Aaron Franklin.
Or watch, as he shows us how to turn brisket from a tough cut into melt-in-the-mouth goodness in the following video.
Pork Butt or Shoulder
Let’s get this clear, a pork shoulder and a Boston butt aren’t the same things.
Although many people use pork butt and shoulder interchangeably, the Boston butt is actually a part of the shoulder, and a different cut to it that comes from the top part, closest to the spine, with the actual shoulder slightly below it.
With that out of the way, it’s fair to say that pork butt is excellent for smoking. It contains lots of connective tissue and a large fat cap that bastes and protects the meat while it cooks. It’s an inexpensive cut and a winner for the smoker.
Pork butt is mostly used in “pulled pork” recipes, which is the mainstay of most backyard smokers’ repertoire.
It’s not only fatty but also juicy, which makes it an easy cut to smoke as it can hardly go wrong, even if way overcooked.
You can add different kinds of rubs, marinades, injections, sauces, and smoke to play around with flavor combinations until you find what you like.
It’s a big piece of meat, and can weigh up to 14 pounds! Enough to feed a large crowd.
An all-time favorite cut of meat for the smoker are pork ribs, perhaps only second in popularity to beef brisket.
Coming in 3 forms: Baby backs, St Louis cut and spare ribs, they all smoke pretty much the same and taste just as delicious.
Pork ribs cook in anything from 4 to 6 hours. And despite what you may be used to, perhaps from Chinese takeaways or supermarkets, you do not want to cook ribs until they are ‘fall off the bone.’ You want them just probe tender, but still with a bite.
Which type of ribs you prefer is a personal matter. The important thing is that any type of rib cooked low n slow is a match made in heaven with wood smoke.
Beef ribs are big and full of sinewy connective tissue that requires a low n slow smoke to break it down and tenderize to get that fall-off-the-bone effect.
What people love about beef ribs is they have that deep beefy flavor, similar to brisket but are easier and quicker to cook, while alos being less expensive.
They also have a big manly appeal, looking like a dinosaur bone full of meat.
And then there are the juices! Nothing beats a slab of succulent, unctuous, juicy, beefy short ribs. They do require 7 to 9 hours of smoking, but boy, are they worth the wait!
Like chicken, turkey is lean meat. However, it’s a far bigger bird.
Turkey can be easy to get wrong on the smoker because it tends to dry out, particularly if you smoke a whole turkey. So we recommend cooking a crown, or some drumsticks only, which is normally more than enough to go around.
Not only will these smaller cuts be ready in half the time of a whole turkey, but they’re far easier to get right and not dry out.
We also recommend brining the meat for 24 hours before cooking, because brining helps the meat to retain moisture throughout and after a long smoke.
Chicken is a much leaner meat than beef or pork with a much more delicate flavor; therefore, it requires less smoke, or it can be overpowered.
So aim for low amounts of smoke with this one. Your goal is to complement the flavor, not overpower it.
With that said, once you smoke a chicken, you won’t be able to stand a regular roast again!
A chuck roast might be considered the poorer relative to the extravagant brisket. But only until it meets smoke!
Similar to brisket, a chuck roast is a humble cut found by the neck and shoulder of a cow, and is absolutely filled with connective tissues and collagen.
As it cooks low n slow in the smoker, all these connective tissues melt into finger-licking goodness.
A popular way to eat this cut is to “pull” the meat and serve it as a beef equivalent of pulled pork.
Making smoked ham from scratch is a long process, but the results are more than worth it.
Not only will you be able to brag about it, but because it’s cured and smoked, the ham will stay good for up to 6 months. Giving you lots of time to enjoy and maybe even experiment with new smoked ham recipes.
It requires you to cure (brine) the ham prior to glazing, and then hot smoking it for anything from 6 to 8 hours.
However, the easiest route is to purchase a cooked ham, spice it up with your favorite glaze and place it in the smoker to ramp up the flavor a notch or three.
Lamb’s shoulder is similar to the pork butt (or shoulder to be clear), coming from the same area of the body, but from a different animal. And just like the pork butt, it is a wonderful cut of meat to smoke.
It can be either smoked and then sliced at about 180 F, or taken all the way to 203 F and then pulled to create rolls and tacos.
It’s a nice, refreshing change to the classic “pulled pork” flavor, but be careful with how much smoking wood you use as it takes on smoke readily and can become overpowered.
Leg of Lamb
A leg of lamb is a medium-sized cut that’s thin in one end but thick in the other.
It’s packed-full of connective tissues, which is why it’s so tricky to cook any other way.
Additionally, it can also be difficult to get both ends to the same doneness level. But this isn’t always a bad thing, because you can feed well-done lamb from the thin end, and pink medium-rare from the thicker end at the same time, at the end of the one cook.
Lamb’s leg is fatty but full of flavor. It cooks perfectly low n slow style, but you have to be careful with the smoke since this cut will take it on very easily.
Rack of Lamb
With such an attractive appearance with the boines french trimmed, a rack of lamb brings a real wow factor to any dinner table. It requires just a bit of smoke to create a mouth-watering flavor.
Rack of lamb requires much less time to cook compared to most cuts, making it an ideal choice if you don’t have all day to dedicate to smoking your dinner. It should only take about 2 hours to cook to perfection, so have that carving knife ready to go!
If you have ever tried deer, you’ll know it has a distinct “gamey” flavor. The gamey flavor is both subdued and improved significantly when smoked.
Venison is a lean meat and responds very well to low n slow smoking. Preferred cuts are shoulders and tenderloins.
Keep track of the meats internal temperature and make sure you remove it as it reaches 135 F and allow it to come up to 145 F while resting, else it will become dry.
Wild Boar (or Whole Hog)
For anyone who owns a huge smoker or a very big rotisserie, smoking a whole hog might be your new party trick.
A wild boar is superior to any intensively farmed pork you’ll find at the supermarket. It has darker meat, which is naturally more flavorful and gamier.
It’s special meat that will have everyone’s tastebuds screaming for more.
Smoking is like grilling, only ten times better flavor-wise.
Adding smoke will help to enrich and deepen the flavor of the meat you’re cooking, whether it’s the classic 15-hour brisket or simply just a handful of aromatic chips in the grill.
Get yourself a range of smoking wood and experiment. There are many ways to smoke meat, but it’s important to experiment and try different methods with different cuts to find what you prefer.
It can take some practice to get it right, but you’re sure to have fun in the process.