Smoking Meat for Beginners: 7 Quick Tips

Barbecue is one of the world’s purest forms of outdoor cooking. And the good news is that BBQ can be done by anyone with a backyard and a smoker. From best smoking woods to airflow management, here are 7 quick tips to turn you from BBQ smoking beginner to pitmaster pro.

BBQ Smoking Meat for Beginners

Of all the BBQ cooking methods, smoking remains my absolute favorite. Yes, it’s quite literally a slow burn but the results more than make up for it.

What appeals to me most about it is that there are so many steps along the way that all contribute to the final result. From your choice of wood chips to your marinade selection, there’s a lot to keep in mind.

bbq smoking meat for beginners
Photo: Your Best Digs

For some grill-ists (yes, I’m calling them grillists) this can be quite daunting. But as much as it might seem like smoking is a hard-learned skill, it’s actually much easier than it looks. No one should be daunted by it.

With that in mind, here are my top tips to smoking meat.

Smoking a brisket bay leaf and pecan smoke
Photo: Lars Ploughmann

Cook low and slow

If you haven’t seen this term yet then get ready: You are going to see it a lot. Almost any article on BBQ smoking, and even grilling, gives some mention to cooking ‘low and slow’.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: It involves cooking meat at a low temperature over a long period of time. It forms the basis of the majority of BBQ cooking, and is especially true when it comes to smoking.

Low temperatures allow the fat and juices in meat to infuse the meat with added flavor, while its exposure to the moisture in smoke and aromas in wood chips allow it to take on even more flavor.

As a rule of thumb, 225°F (107°C) is the best temperature to smoke at. There are exceptions where we go up to 250°F, or as low as 150°F. But if in doubt, go for 225°F.

Use a water pan

Always, always, always user a water pan. Prolonged exposure to heat can dry out meat, so keeping a full water pan in your smoker’s chamber will help prolong the flow of smoke while keeping the heat and humidity inside stable.

A lot of modern smokers come with their own water trays. But if you are using a charcoal grill as a smoker then you will have to provide – or even make – your own. Try using a disposable foil pan, fill it with water, and place it in the drum of your grill.

how to season new smoker
Photo: Todd Dyer

Keep a constant airflow

Good airflow is key to smoking. Ensure that your smoker or grill vents are open so that smoke is drawn from your charcoal and/or wood, passing through your meat, and then out the top. This helps keep your smoke clean, infusing your food with moisture and flavor, without destabilizing the temperature inside your grill.

If you are new to smoking, make sure you learn how to regulate the temperature of your smoker.

Keep a watchful eye over it

While smoking is a long form of cooking and tends to stay at a stable temperature, it’s important that you don’t let your smoker or grill completely leave your sight. Your water tray will need refilling every hour, and you need to monitor the internal temperature of your meat.

I recommend getting a meat and smoker thermometer to help keep an eye on the temperature of your meat, letting you know exactly when it is done. Check out my grill thermometer guide here.

Leave well alone

While it’s true that you can’t necessarily ‘set and forget’ your meat, it’s also true that you shouldn’t tamper with it. Opening the chamber of your smoker or grill can disrupt the internal airflow, destabilizing the temperature levels inside it.

Try to only open the chamber when you need to refill the water tray or add more wood chips. Having a thermometer will help calm the urge to check on the meat outside of these instances.

chicken rub recipe

Experiment with meat prep

While the star of the show is undoubtedly your choice of meat cut, there’s a lot to be said for a good marinade or meat rub. A lot of people miss out this step – don’t be one of them.

Marinating meat is an excellent means of preserving its moisture, while using a good dry rub can help enhance it with spice and herbs. Try out my smoked chicken dry rub.

Just be careful not to use so much that it overpowers and dominates your central piece: The meat.

big green egg smoking
Photo: Otto Phokus

Keep the smoke clean

As the name suggests, the key to the quality of your cooking is the quality of your smoke. A good rule of thumb to follow is white smoke is good, and black smoke is bad.

A constant stream of white smoke helps infuse your meat with woody flavors and moisture. Black smoke isn’t so pleasant, and can ruin your food.

A good way to keep the smoke clean is to have good ventilation running through the smoker at all times, and don’t allow any of the juices of fat from the meat drip onto the flames.

Another way to ensure that smoke stays clean is to make sure that the smoker itself is clean. You can do this by seasoning it at least twice a year. This doesn’t mean to use seasoning like salt or pepper. Instead, this means to use cooking oil to guard it against the effects of rust and corrosion over time. It’s one of the best things you can do for your smoker, so learn how to do it.

Get a smoker thermometer

Using a good smoker thermometer is the best way to know when your meat is well and truly done.

Meat is only done when its internal temperature has hit a safe number. For chicken it’s 160-165°F, brisket is 190°F, and pork ribs is 185-190°F.

While it is true that there are some good other indicators of doneness, internal temperature is the best and safest way to know when your meat is ready to serve.

Get a dual probe thermometer that can read ambient cooking heat and internal meat temperature. The ThermoPro TP20 has been my favorite since its release, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a new probe. Check it out on Amazon here.

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