Perfectly smoking meat is as much an art as it is a science. If you know the correct temperature to run your smoker and the ideal internal temperature of your meat, you stand a good chance of getting the science part right. The artistry is all about the flavors, spices, and wood you choose. Today, we are going to explain how to time your smoker perfectly so that you never have to worry about over- or under-cooking your meat.
Meat Temperature Health and Safety
Even more important than getting great tasting results from your smoker is cooking healthy and safe food. The United States Department of Agriculture lists standards for safe meat temperatures. These guidelines are in place because certain types of bacteria can grow in your meat that can make you sick. Bacteria can grow at a wide range of temperatures from 40 degrees up to 140 degrees.
The most common types of food-borne bacteria are Norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Clostridium botulinum (botulism), Listeria, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and Vibrio are less common but are more likely to lead to hospitalization. The CDC says an estimated 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses and around 3,000 people die.
The most critical thing you'll need to learn in order to do a good job smoking meat is controlling the temperature of the smoker. Each smoker is different so you'll need to experiment with your smoker to learn the best way to control smoker temperatures. We've got a post that explains some of the tips and tricks to help you get familiar with controlling smoking temperatures.
The Proper Temperature for Smoking
Smoking can be done at any temperature up to about 245 degrees. Beyond that point, the meat is being cooked quickly with heat rather than slowly with smoke. Cold smoking is a very low temperature smoke typically useful for smoking fish, cheese, and salt. Cold smoking temperatures are typically between 90 and 140 degrees and require either special equipment or a special setup to work properly.
Why Do People Smoke Meat at 225?
Most types of meat require a smoker temperature of between 190 and 225 degrees to smoke. This temperature will ensure that your finished temperature of your meat is high enough to cook all the way and not present a home for bacteria. Cuts of meat like pork butt, prime rib, or baby back ribs must reach a higher temperature in the smoker to get tender and juicy meat than when smoking something like a salmon filet. Many people smoke meat with a targeted smoker temperature of 225 degrees because it allows for slight changes without risking the cooking process.
How Long Do You Smoke For?
Smoking meat is a slow process. It can take anywhere from a few hours to smoke pork ribs up to more than 18 hours for a large brisket. The lower temperatures and indirect heat take a long time to cook your meat. The same low and slow method is also what allows the meat to take on the rich and flavorful smoke. You can't rush smoking meat by raising the temperature like you can when cooking in the oven, so learning to be patient is part of the science.
How to Accurately Measure Smoker and Meat Temperatures
The only way to accurately know the temperature of your smoker is to use a thermometer. Most smokers have a built-in thermometer that is typically mounted in the door so that it measures the temperature near the grill grate. The closer to the heat source the thermometer coupling is located, the higher temperatures it will display. It can be beneficial to have two or more thermometers measuring the smoker temperature particularly with large smokers and vertical smokers.
You'll also want to have a dedicated thermometer for measuring the internal temp of your meat. We recommend using a good digital meat thermometer with a probe that stays in the meat while it is cooking for smoking. This tool will prevent you from having to open and close the smoker which lets the flavor out and drops the smoker temperature. We also like to use an instant read thermometer for smoked meat particularly near the end of the smoking session.
Making Sure Your Thermometer is Accurate
We've seen plenty of brand-new smokers over the years from reputable companies have built-in thermometers that are off by as much as 20 degrees. When you are smoking meat, that is simply too big of a difference. Many smoker thermometers are adjustable, but you'll need to calibrate the smoker with a known temperature.
The easiest way to do this is to use a thermometer that you know is accurate. Some thermometers are certified calibrated which gives you the best chance of accuracy. An old-school mercury thermometer works great for checking accuracy. This is the test to check accuracy of a thermometer. Water boils at about 212 degrees, so you can boil a pot of water, remove it from the burner, and immerse the probe in the water. If you are using the mercury thermometer, immerse it alongside the probe, but not touching the pan or the probe. You should see the results being very close to 212 degrees.
Smoking Times and Temperatures: A Detailed Breakdown
There are lots of handy smoking times and temperatures chart diagrams out there that can be helpful for timing your smoke correctly. We are going to give you a detailed break-down of the times and temperatures for safely cooking your meat. These guidelines should be used as information only – always check the temperature of your meat with an accurate thermometer because there are several variables that can lead to longer or shorter smoking times.
Beef Smoking Times and Temperatures
Beef is generally considered to be safe to eat at temperatures above 145 degrees. Even though it might be safe to eat, your beef might not be ready to eat at this temperature. Many cuts of beef will require a higher internal temperature to break down fat and collagen to produce a tender and juicy finished product.
- Brisket: A beef brisket is a large, tough cut of meat that requires a very long smoke to become tender. Most pit masters aim for around one hour per pound of brisket and a final internal temperature of 190 to 200 degrees. Try to keep your smoker in the 225 to 245 degree range and use the "Texas Crutch" if your temps stall. A properly smoked brisket is done when a probe slides in easily and the entire muscle jiggles like jello.
- Ribs: Beef ribs are excellent smoked and are a great way for beginners to get experience hitting the perfect temps. When ribs hit around 190 degrees, they are ready to eat. Watch for the meat to begin pulling away from the bones and a crackly exterior as an indication your ribs are done. An average rack of ribs' smoking time will take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to smoke. A smoker temperature around 225 is ideal for ribs.
- Prime Rib: One of our all-time favorite meats to smoke, prime rib is delicious when it is properly smoked. You can smoke a prime rib with slightly lower temperatures of between 205 and 225 degrees. A medium done prime rib will have an internal temperature of about 135 degrees. Wrap and rest a prime rib in foil after smoking to let it finish correctly. Plan on about 15 minutes per pound for smoking time.
- Tri-Tip: Tri-tip is another popular beef for smoking because, like brisket, it's a tough cut of meat. Smoking allows for a tri-tip to become tender and juicy. You'll want to keep your smoker in the 225 to 245 degree range and aim for an internal temperature of 135 degrees for medium doneness. Tri-tip will take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to smoke and is done when a probe slides in easily.
Pork Smoking Times and Temperatures
Pork is fantastic for smoking because the light-flavored meat benefits from the intensely aromatic flavors of the smoke. According to a temperatures chart, pork should have a minimum internal temperature of at least 145 degrees to be considered safe to eat. But most pork cuts are best when smoked to an internal temperature of around 190 degrees.
- Pork Butt: Pork butt is one of the more versatile cuts out there and is a great way to practice smoking since it is usually affordable. Plan on smoking a pork butt for about 1.5 to 2 hours per pound and aim for an internal temp around 190 degrees. It is always a good idea to wrap your pork butt in foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes after smoking.
- Pork Rib: Pork ribs are amazing in the smoker. You'll want to give yourself about five to six hours to smoke most pork rib cuts. Like beef ribs, you'll see they are done when the meat begins to pull away from the bone. Properly smoked ribs don't "fall off the bone" but retain a little bite. An internal temperature of 180-200 degrees is appropriate. Smoker temperatures should be around 225 degrees.
- Tenderloin: Tenderloin is one of the more underutilized cuts out there, which is a shame because it's very flavorful and easy to smoke. Run your smoker at around 225 degrees for about three hours until your tenderloin has an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
Poultry Smoking Times and Temperatures
Poultry can be a bit tricky to smoke as the most common type (chicken) often has little meat and lots of bones that impact the times and temperatures. With that said, properly smoked poultry can be among the tastiest dishes you'll make when done correctly. In order to ensure safe eating, always cook poultry to at least 165 degrees.
- Whole Chicken: Smoking a whole chicken can be a great experience, but there are some things to watch for. For instance, wings, thighs, and legs will cook quicker than breast and back meat, so you'll want to use at least two temperature probes and wrap the chicken in foil when the thinner pieces are done. Plan on about three hours for a whole chicken when operating your smoker at 275 degrees. Internal temperature of the breast should be a minimum of 170 degrees before you call it done.
- Whole Duck: Duck is delicious, but it is also one of the fattier meats you'll encounter. Like smoking a whole chicken, you'll want to monitor temperatures in a few places to ensure all of the bird is done before you finish smoking. A smoker temperature around 225 degrees for about four hours should give you an internal temperature at the breast of 170 degrees minimum.
- Turkey Leg: Like bringing the State Fair home with you, smoked turkey leg is fantastic. You'll run the smoker at a hotter ambient temperature around 275 degrees for about three hours until your internal temperature hits 170 degrees.
The Problem with Charts
Charts are a great way to get an idea of how long it will take to smoke a particular type of meat, but they are just an estimate. Cooking meat in the smoker will depend on several factors that can vary from day-to-day and cut-to-cut. We will explain a few of the biggest factors that limit the usefulness of cooking time charts.
Not Every Cut is the Same
This one is a little obvious, but also something you'll need to pay attention to when smoking meat. You can buy two tri-tips that are vastly different in size and shape. Smoking meat that is bone-in will take longer than boneless. Two cuts that weigh the same but are different thicknesses won't smoke for the same amount of time. The size and shape of the meat you are working with will play a role in how long it takes to smoke. We always recommend starting early and having a clean cooler handy to rest your meat in. Cuts like brisket and tri-tip can rest for three or four hours in a cooler while you finish up other items.
Cold, windy, and rainy weather can make your cooking time longer than expected. Cold weather allows heat to be lost from your smoker faster, which may require that you run temperatures higher than normal to get the exact temperature you need. Similarly, hot weather, and particularly humid weather, can drastically change how fast your meat cooks. The more moisture in the air, the slower your meat will cook. Hot, dry weather will speed things up and make it more difficult to keep temperatures stable.
If you live in particularly cold areas, there are a few things you can do to help keep your temps accurate. Wrapping your smoker in an insulator or an old welding blanket can help reduce heat loss, for example. If you can safely set your smoker up under a carport or other well-ventilated structure, you can help reduce the impact of cold, wet, and windy weather.
Accuracy and Consistency of Smoker Temp
Pellet smokers and electric smokers are easier to use than their charcoal counterparts because they allow you to essentially set the temp and leave the smoker alone. Charcoal requires regularly checking the temperature and being prepared to add hot coals (not fresh charcoal) to the fire box. Big swings in desired temperature can have a major role in how slowly or quickly your meat smokes. Learning to properly maintain the ideal temperature over long periods of time takes practice, but it is essential to getting consistent results. Practice with your smoker and learn when you need to make adjustments to the fire box, vents, and surroundings.
Practice (and a Thermometer) Makes Perfect
Factoring the proper amount of time and temperature for your desired results takes some practice. you can use time and temperature charts to get a good idea of the amount of time you need, but only practical experience and a good digital thermometer will make sure you hit the sweet spot for perfectly smoked meats.