So, you’re wondering what to put in your smoker? The answer may surprise you. The best meats to smoke are often ones people consider lesser cuts. By avoiding some common mistakes, you can save money and make better food at the same time. Barbecue is an art, and learning what to smoke and how is both fun and ensures you get consistent, delicious results.
Real barbecue is a long process of slow cooking and takes some planning. It’s nothing like tossing steak or sausages on the grill, where less is more and it’s hard to fail. That calls for specific cuts of meat. Experimentation is half the pleasure, but only if you know the basics. Otherwise, you may end up with tough, unappealing meat on your plate and regret spending so much on it. To get that juicy, smoky goodness, determining the best meats to smoke is the most important step.
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What Makes a Good Cut of Meat for Smoking?
To understand what defines the best meats to smoke, let’s consider what the smoking process does. As a rule of thumb, a slab of meat should stay in the smoker for at least 30 minutes per pound, and many like to leave it in much longer. This method of cooking slowly breaks down tough parts and turns them tender. Meat that’s already lean and tender, on the other hand, tend to dry out and become tough. Furthermore, the intense added flavor of the smoke can sometimes be a negative thing.
In essence, these factors make smoking more suitable for cheaper cuts of meat. They benefit the most from the slow cooking and smoky flavor. Fancy cuts are best for simple cooking, retaining their natural flavor and juiciness. Thus, the same meats that lend themselves well to all-day boiling or baking are also the best meats to smoke. Those connective tissues that make the cheap cuts tough and nasty when you fry or grill them are what makes them delicious after a long smoking session. Besides the collagen, there’s also the intramuscular fat, and as these things melt, they make the meat sweet and tender.
Since these types of meat tend to have a bland or somewhat gamey flavor, they’ll benefit a lot from the smoky aroma. Typical cuts include brisket, ribs, and picnic roast. However, there are many more options for the best meats to smoke.
Tips on smoking meat
First of all, good smokers will produce better results. Next, you’ll need to set your smoker up the right way for what you’re cooking. It’s not as simple as smoking but takes more fine-tuning. Temperature matters, so getting a reliable meat thermometer will help a lot if you want consistent great results. Smoking time will also vary depending on the particular meat, and the 30 minutes per pound mentioned above is only an approximate minimum. Chicken, for example, will require far less time than beef, and it can get dry if you leave it in for too long.
Then there’s also the matter of matching your meat to the right wood for optimal flavor. While hickory and certain other woods work with anything, some are only good for certain types of meat. Experimenting with different smoke flavors is great, as long as you have a basic idea of what’s appropriate for which meat. All these factors matter, so using our cheat sheet will be a great help as you try the best meats to smoke.
Coal vs. pellets
There are two main types of BBQ smokers. One is the classic coal smoker, and the other is the more modern wood pellet smoker. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll outline below.
Charcoal smokers come in a few different varieties. The most suitable kind for beginners is the vertical smoker. It’s simple, easy to use, and often comes with water pans that provide moisture. Offset smokers are more elaborate and versatile and therefore better suited for experienced users. The biggest argument for coal smokers is that distinct coal flavor most of us expect from grilled and smoked food.
What’s more, coal is one of the cheapest fuels for BBQ smokers. You can also use briquettes, which burn longer and at a lower temperature. That’s convenient for smoking meat, but for the best flavor, you’ll want charcoal. As for the downsides, coal takes longer before it’s ready to use than other fuels, and there’s more to clean up afterward.
Pellet smokers use high-energy wood pellets to produce the smoke. Most of these have a socket you fill with pellets and a temperature controller. The smoker feeds the pellets in automatically at the right times to keep the appropriate temperature. Thiat makes them both versatile and almost effortless to use.
They do take up to 15 minutes to heat up, but that’s faster than coal anyway. These pellets have the same flavoring effects as the wood chips you’d use with a coal smoker, but it’s harder to find some wood types. Due to the electronic components, pellet smokers aren’t very portable, and they may be prone to malfunctioning. And, unlike charcoal smokers, most pellet smokers can’t grill very well.
The 14 Best Meats to Smoke
Now you have a general idea of what meats to choose and what to do with them. Let’s take a closer look at the best meats to smoke and how to make the most of them. These cuts appear in no particular order. Remember that the best cuts to smoke are the ones you like the most.
1. Pork shoulder
Pork shoulder is among the best meats to smoke if you’re a beginner, in particular. It’s a good cut in general, but it’s one of the easiest to smoke, and it’s cheap. There are a few different types, such as picnic roast and Boston butt. Since it has a fairly neutral flavor, it’s one of the best meats to smoke if you want to experiment with different wood types and methods. You’ll want to cook it for 12 to 14 hours at 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and all woods will make it delicious. As for seasoning, you can experiment with different rubs and marinades. You can’t go wrong with a pork shoulder. Pork is safe to eat when the internal temperature exceeds 145 Fahrenheit, but this cut is best a bit higher, around 190.
Smoked ham is a real classic and something convenient to keep around for sandwiches and salads. When smoking, it’s best to use a bone-in ham, but boneless ones work too. You’ll get the best results if you cook it in the 220-250 Fahrenheit range for one hour per pound of meat. It should have a final internal temperature of 160 Fahrenheit. Brining your ham before smoking it will improve the taste and texture, and that’s all it needs for perfection. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like smoked ham, and therefore it’s one of the best meats to smoke.
3. Chuck roast
Also known as chuck roll, chuck eye, and chuck pot roast, this meat is ideal for smoking. It’s a tough cut, so you’ll want to smoke it for at least 12 hours, although we recommend up to 18. You’ll want a temperature between 225 and 250 Fahrenheit, and an internal temperature of 190 to 200 in the end. A classic barbecue rub is the perfect seasoning. Regarding wood, almost anything works, but we advise against lilac and alder. Cherry, mesquite, and oak are ideal choices.
4. Pork ribs
Sheer popularity shows us that this is one of the best meats to smoke, not to mention the flavor. What’s more, they’re very easy to get right. A bit of marinade or rub is all you need. Then you smoke them at 225 to 250 Fahrenheit and aim for a final temperature of 180. Spare ribs should stay in for about six hours, while baby back ribs are best around five.
5. Lamb's shoulder
This cut is a lot like pork shoulder, but it only takes five to six hours to cook in the 225 to 250 range. You’ll want it to reach 160 Fahrenheit inside when it’s ready. Other than alder and lilac, lamb will taste fantastic with most smoke woods. Apple and Cherry are top picks.
6. Beef brisket
You can’t list the best meats to smoke without mentioning brisket. This cut comes from the strong chest region of cattle. Since the muscles support more than half the body weight, the meat is dense and tough. For this reason, it takes a slow cooking procedure such as smoking to make it palatable. Some like to baste their brisket for the best results. It takes between 12 and 20 hours at 225 to 250 Fahrenheit. The ideal final internal temperature is 190 to 200. It lends itself well to the same woods and seasoning as the chuck roast.
What’s more mouth-watering than smoked salmon? You can keep it minimal with nothing but salt or get creative with the seasoning. Most woods are excellent for fish, especially alder, but we don’t recommend mesquite. It’s best to smoke it at 220 Fahrenheit. Filets only take an hour, and a whole fish will take longer. Keep an eye on it and take it off when it starts flaking. Cold smoking is even better.
8. Whole chicken or hen
What’s the difference between the two? Farmers raise chickens specifically for meat production, while hens are more natural and usually serve for egg production. Thus, hens are smaller and leaner. Both birds call for the same procedure, and it also works for other birds like duck and pheasant. Getting the internal temperature above safe levels is crucial, and you’ll want it around 170 degrees when it’s ready. You’ll want to smoke the bird for two to three hours at 275 to 300 degrees. As for seasoning, anything goes, and you can stuff them.
9. Pork chops
They’re underrated in the barbecue context, but they’re among the best meats to smoke. You want to get thick, bone-in chops and brine them before smoking. Two hours at 220 Fahrenheit will give you a nice result. You’re aiming for an internal temperature of 150.
10. Prime ribs
For juicy medium prime ribs, you’ll want to aim for an internal temperature of around 135 degrees. You get there by smoking it for five hours at 225 degrees. Hickory or cherry wood will perfect the taste, but any kind works. As for seasoning, a simple BBQ rub will do the trick.
11. Leg of lamb
While not that common in the west, a smoked leg of lamb is a soft, delicious treat. With some salt, garlic, and your favorite herbs, it becomes one of the best meats to smoke. First, remove any excess fat, then apply your seasoning, then smoke it at 250 Fahrenheit. For a full smoky flavor, you’ll want to leave it in for eight hours, although you can take it out once it reaches 160 degrees inside if you’re impatient. Walnut is the perfect wood for lamb leg, but any kind will work.
The tri-tip comes from beef sirloin, so you’ll want to treat it with care. Smoke at 225 degrees for four or five hours will bring it to medium with a nice surface. Salt, pepper, and a light sprinkle of your favorite spices will give you an excellent tri-tip, especially over oak or orange wood. If you do it right, it’s one of the very best meats to smoke.
13. Chicken quarters
Chicken leg quarters are mostly dark chicken meat, which makes them excellent for smoking. You can season them however you like, and it’s hard to fail with these. Keep the heat between 275 and 300 degrees and cook them for two hours. Use a thermometer to make sure they’ve reached 170 internally.
Like salmon, trout is excellent for both hot and cold smoking. Smoke filets at 220 Fahrenheit for an hour, and whole trout until flaking begins. Maple and applewood give it a lovely smoked fish flavor. Plain salt or an herbal rub perfect it.
Meats You Shouldn't Smoke
If you’re tempted to throw a nice steak or pork tenderloin in the smoker, we advise against it. These meats do better on the grill or in a pan. Smoking won’t have the best results, and you’ll cover their natural taste with the smoke. It’s a waste of money and time. The best meats to smoke are generally cheaper and turn out better.
Final Thoughts on the Best Meats to Smoke
Now you have many options to try out. Let’s not forget that the best meats to smoke are the ones you like the most. There’s something for everyone, and you’ll have many ways to impress guests at a barbecue with your new insights. Once you get the hang of each, there are endless ways to experiment and experience new flavors. We hope you’ll have a great time with it. Check in regularly for more smoking and barbecue wisdom.