Barbecue is one of the world’s purest forms of outdoor cooking, and it can be done by anyone with a backyard and a smoker. From best smoking woods to airflow management, discover how to turn from BBQ smoking beginner to pitmaster pro.
Barbecue smoking is often considered the top tier of outdoor culinary skills. Anyone can grill, some can do a good barbecue, but only a few can smoke meat so that it’s melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a unique set of skills to become a master of the smoker – it just takes a bit of patience and access to the proper knowledge.
Luckily you’ve landed in the right place. From nailing your smoker setup to prepping your meat, here’s our guide to smoking meat for beginners.
Choose Your Meat
When it comes to smoking meat, the cardinal rule is ‘low and slow’. Ideally, you want a meat cut with high collagen and fat content. These fats break down during the cooking process, essentially basting the meat from the inside out, helping to keep it tender and juicy.
So where to start? For forgiving cuts loaded with fat and flavor, the best meats to smoke for beginners are:
- Boston Butt (Pulled Pork) – This is a great cut of meat to start with. Pork butt has a nice, even fat content and can often be bought on the bone, which will add a whole extra dimension of flavor to it. Pork is also cheaper than beef, so it’s a great meat to experiment with and learn how your smoker works without worrying about the cost. Discover how to smoke pork butt with our easy recipe.
- Pork Ribs – There are two types of ribs you can use for smoking – spare ribs and baby back ribs. Spare ribs are meatier and have more bone and fat content, whereas baby back are smaller, more tender, and take less time to cook. All ribs are best cooked following the 3-2-1 method.
- Beef Cheeks – Beef cheeks are often a well-marbled meat (meaning they have a good amount of fat content) which means they are ideal to be cooked over low heat for a long time.
- Beef Brisket – The holy grail of all things smokey, if you can perfect your smoked beef brisket, then you’ll go down as a barbecue legend.
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail – we’ve all heard that quote, right? While failing to prepare your meat won’t end in a total disaster (it’s still meat and tasty after all!), making sure you prepare it properly can make a big difference to the finished flavor and texture.
Brining is an excellent way to bring extra flavor to your meats. It’s a way of seasoning uncooked meats to keep them juicy and firm once cooked, but it’s important to choose the right method. You can either wet or dry brine meat; let’s take a closer look at each option:
- Wet brining is most commonly used for small, lean meats that cook quickly, such as pork loin, bird breast meat, and fish. Wet brining increases the moisture content of the meat so that they don’t dry out when cooked.
- Dry brining is used for tougher meats and roasts that take longer to cook. Essentially it’s just a way of salting and resting meat before cooking. Dry brining is generally considered to be easier to do – it also takes up less room than wet brining and uses less salt.
Using a dry rub on your meats means that you can seal in all the flavor while also creating a delicious outer crust that helps to lock in the smocked taste.
As the name suggests, a BBQ dry rub is a combination of dry ingredients that you mix together and rub into the outside of the meat before smoking. Since the ingredients are dry, you really want to massage it into the meat (if it’s having trouble sticking, you can try adding a very light coating of oil to the meat) and get it into every nook and cranny.
Perfecting Your Smoker Setup – The Fundamentals
Smoking works by providing a constant source of steady heat to your meat from the coals while also introducing smoke to give it that delicious flavor.
Getting the Coals Going
Ordinary charcoal briquettes are ideal for use in a smoker as they burn at the proper temperature for smoking meat. However, you don’t want to put ‘raw’ coals directly into your smoker as it’ll mess with the temperature as they start to burn and get to the stage where they are ready to use. Instead, it’s good to have either a separate grill just for starting coals off or getting a charcoal chimney.
A charcoal chimney works by creating the ideal conditions for the coals to begin burning quickly and evenly. You start by placing something that can be used as kindling (rolled up newspaper works well) at the bottom of the chimney and then stacking the coals around. You need to take care to leave space for adequate airflow between the kindling and coals; otherwise, the chimney effect won’t work.
Light the kindling and watch for a few minutes to ensure it doesn’t go out. Once you can see that the charcoal has caught fire, it will continue to keep going even after the kindling has burnt out, thanks to the design of the chimney. The heat generated by the lit coals draws more air into the bottom of the chimney, which provides more oxygen for the fire to continue burning. Once the coals have a covering of white ash on the outside, they can be carefully tipped into the smoker.
When it comes to smoking meat, the main aim of the game is to get that authentic smokey taste infused into your meats. The best way to add that smokey flavor is by using wood chips. Wood chips don’t burn quickly; instead, they smolder and produce smoke – they aren’t there to be used as the heat source to cook the meat in our smoker; they are just adding flavor.
Different types of wood can produce different levels and tastes of smoke, which adds a whole other level of experimenting to the smoking process. Oak is the go-to all around wood for smoking; it’s a great one to try when you’re just starting out and don’t want to mess around with too many different tastes that might not mesh well.
Hickory is another popular choice, but you have to be careful to balance the flavor; too much hickory smoke can cause the meat to have a slightly bitter taste.
Adding water into the mix when you’re trying to cook meat with smoke might seem counterintuitive, but using a water pan with your smoker can make a world of difference.
Firstly, it can help stabilize the temperature in your smoker as water holds and radiates heat well. It can also act as a barrier between the meat and the charcoal to stop any potential flare-ups from dripping fat and stops there being direct heat on certain areas of the meat. Most importantly, it helps to keep the air moist in the smoker, which stops the meat from drying out or burning.
We’ve already said that the number one rule with smoking is ‘low and slow’ but just how low are we talking?
The ideal temperature for smoking meat is between 220 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. We need the heat to be low and consistent as we want to give the smoke time to permeate the meat (too high a heat would ‘seal’ the outside of the meat) and also time for the connective tissues and fast to break down and keep the meat juicy.
Use your smoker’s vents to control the temperature. If the heat is too high, you can close vents which reduces the amount of oxygen and stops the coals from burning as quickly. If the heat is too low, you open the vents to reintroduce oxygen and get the coals burning quicker.
Having a set of accurate digital thermometers is the best way to monitor the temperature. You want one inside the smoker where the meat will sit, as well as a thermometer placed in the meat to keep an eye on the internal temperature.
Meat Internal Temperature
Due to the way smoking works, it’s important to remember that meat is only done and suitable to eat when it has reached a certain temperature, not after it’s been cooking for a set amount of time. In order to measure the internal temperature of your meat accurately, you want a probe thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat and avoiding any bone (as bone conducts heat and can give a false reading).
You want meat and fish to be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celcius) and poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celcius).
To Wrap or Not to Wrap? That Is The Question
Wrapping meat is pretty much what it sounds like – it’s when you wrap the meat you are smoking in foil or butcher’s paper partway through the cooking process. Of course, there are pros and cons to wrapping meat when smoking, but the general consensus tends to lean towards it being the right way to do things.
Pros of Wrapping
- It can decrease cooking time – wrapping your meat helps keep the internal temperature higher, meaning it cooks quicker. This can also help to beat ‘The Stall’
- Keeps the meat moist – when meat is wrapped it keeps the juices locked in, so you don’t have to worry about it being dry
- Stops meat taking on too much smoke – if you don’t want your meat tasting too smokey, wrapping it prevents it from absorbing as much smoke
Cons of Wrapping
- It can ruin the bark – by trapping moisture around the meat, you can often lose the crispy bark that has been built up around it
- Risk of overcooking – as the wrap traps heat and moisture around the meat, the internal temperature can climb more quickly than you might expect, resulting in it being overcooked
Avoiding ‘The Stall’
The Stall is a term used to describe a smoking phenomenon where the internal temperature of larger cuts of meat plateaus and stops rising. The barbecue stall happens because the evaporation of juices on the surface of the meat cools it down – much in the same way as sweating helps us to stay cool when we exercise.
The good news is that meat won’t remain stuck in a stall forever; there’s only a certain amount of excess moisture there, and once that’s gone, the meat will start to heat back up again. The bad news is that, although there is only a certain amount of moisture to ‘sweat’ out, it drags down the temperatures of the meat to a point where it can add hours to the cooking time.
By wrapping your meat partway into its cooking time you can avoid ‘the stall’. It’s a technique often referred to as the Texas Crutch, which was first made popular by the pros on the competition BBQ circuit and is now a standard method for cooking meat in restaurants as well as home smokers. You wrap your meat tightly in foil or butchers paper to stop the excess liquid from evaporating – this also raises the humidity inside the wrap and effectively braises the meat.
There is also the option to raise the temperature of your smoker to try and beat the stall instead of wrapping your meat.
The main downfall with this is that you have to get the temperature change precisely right so as to not disrupt the process of the fats melting in the meat – turn it up to high, and you could be left with meat that’s tough or worse still, burnt.
You’ve spent hours keeping an eye on your smoker, maintaining the perfect temperature, making sure the wood chips are smoking and that the meat is not drying out. You’ve hit the perfect internal temperature and you’re ready to take the meat out and enjoy the smokey fruits of your labor, right? Well, not quite yet.
Another big step in the perfect smoking process is allowing your meats to rest after being cooked.
Why Resting Meat is Important
When we remove our meat from the smoker, it’s still holding a decent amount of heat. We wanted that heat before to help break down the fats, proteins, and connective tissue in the meat to keep it moist, but now we need to allow the meat to cool down and those juices to solidify slightly. If you cut into your meat while it’s still hot, all those liquid juices will come pouring out, meaning not only do you lose the delicious flavors, but you also end up with a dry meal.
How to Rest Smoked Meat Properly
If you’re going to rest your meat, it’s worth doing properly – luckily, you don’t need anything high-tech. You can create the perfect resting place with some tinfoil, some towels, and a cooler!
You want to take your meat from the smoker and, if it’s not already wrapped, wrap it in aluminum foil or butcher’s paper.
Swaddle the wrapped meat in some old towels and place the bundle into a cooler box. Shut the lid of the cooler and leave the meat to sit for a few hours. How long you leave your meat to rest depends on the size – joints such as brisket and pork shoulder will do best when rested for 2-3 hours, whereas smaller cuts such as ribs and cheeks will only need around 60-90mins resting.