We know how it is – you're standing there at the butcher counter, looking at all the different cuts of meat and thinking about what you would like to smoke this weekend. Maybe beef, or pork – but what about a whole chicken or some turkey drumsticks? Figuring out the best meat for smoking isn't always easy. If you've fallen into the habit of just grabbing baby back ribs or a pork butt every time you fire up the smoker, it can be difficult to be creative and try new things.
In this article, we'll share some of the best cuts of beef, pork, and poultry for smoking and we'll try to give you some inspiration for creating the most memorable smoked meats ever. We'll share our favorite recipes and seasonings with you and give you some expert tips to make sure your smoked meat is delicious every time.
The Best Meats to Smoke: From Beginner to Expert
The great thing about smoking meat is that with the right cut, the right flavorings, and a little know-how, even the most inexperienced person will have success smoking meat. The biggest thing is learning to control the temperature of your smoker to get the correct flavor and level of doneness. Once you've mastered temperature control, everything else is easy.
Smoking Tips for Beginners
We've got lots of information for you on our blog and our YouTube channel that show you the basics of smoking, so we aren't going to get into that too much right now. The most important tip for beginners is learning how the vents work on your smoker. Take a little time to read our article here that explains how to use the vents on your smoker to your advantage. Once you've got that skill down, you'll be ready to smoke anything out there to perfection.
Patience is the main thing you'll need to learn. Nothing screws up a good slow cooking session than trying to rush through the last hour or so because everyone is hungry. Start early in the day for big hunks of meat and have a clean, empty cooler handy to store the meat in until you are ready to eat.
Beef Cuts for Smoking
Beef makes for one of the best meats you can chose to cook on your smoker. Beef has a hearty, robust flavor that stands up to intense smoke and the right cut of beef will come out tender and delicious. There are lots of different cuts of beef, some of which make better choices for smoking than others.
Beef ribs are one of the more common cuts to smoke. Ribs tend to come out tender and delicious in the smoker because the connective tissues and fat render and make the meat moist while slow cooking. But not all rib cuts are equal – some are better for smoking than others.
Picking the Best Beef Ribs
The best ribs for smoking are the chuck ribs. You can identify this cut because it will have five bones. It comes from the front of the cow, so this is a hard-working muscle group. Smoking chuck ribs gives you a nice, tender, and amazingly flavorful smoked rib. Back ribs also make an excellent choice. Look for thicker back rib cuts for the best results. Baby back ribs are a popular cut. This cut is the beef ribs removed from the spine. The bones are typically no longer than six inches and taper down, hence the name. They are great with a dry rub and smoked.
What to Avoid
The beef ribs you want to avoid are individually cut ribs, typically from the short ribs. These won't smoke very well because you'll have a disappointing amount of meat left at the end of the process. Just grill those individually cut short ribs.
This might be the best cut of meat to smoke. Alright, honestly, it might just be the best cut of meat for eating. The rib roast (or prime rib) is the thick meaty section that sits under the ribs along the back. Most of the time, the butcher will trim this portion out since it is significantly more valuable than ribs. You'll find bone-in and boneless prime rib roasts. We prefer bone in because the bones enhance the flavor. This is typically an expensive and very large hunk of meat, but it's totally worth it.
The beef brisket is a tough cut that makes up the front, lower chest of the cow. Brisket is ideal for smoking because the meat has long, tough fibers and connective tissue that make it difficult to eat when grilled or roasted. Smoked beef brisket is simply delicious, but it does take a long time to cook so you'll want to plan ahead. Smoked brisket makes the ultimate sandwich filling.
You've probably seen burnt ends on one of those TV shows where they go around and eat amazing stuff. Burnt ends are an easy to make item on your smoker. We show you how in this article. Burnt ends are funny because they used to be tossed in the grinder, but today, they are a specialty delicacy. Oh, how things change.
A smoked chuck roast is a real treat. This cut is difficult to cook on a grill because of the tough fibers, but becomes a whole different situation when you put it on the smoker. Low and slow is the only way to go when it comes to making an epic chuck roast. Try shredding the beef when it's done smoking and use the meat to make shredded beef burritos.
Smoking sirloin can be a touch tricky. That's because this cut is lean and cooks rather quickly, even at low temperatures. You'll often find sirloin marketed as London Broil. Plan on smoking sirloin for about 45 minutes per pound. This is a great cut to play around with different combinations of wood to get a unique, smoky flavor. Try using a fruit wood like cherry or a even a nut wood like pecan.
If you've ever been to Texas or California and gone to a smokehouse, you've seen what a good smoke can do to an otherwise troublesome cut of beef. Tri-tip is notoriously tough and it can dry out quickly on the barbecue, but when you smoke it, the tough meat becomes tender and juicy. The real trick to getting a great tri-tip isn't the way you cook it, it's the way you cut it. We've got a great video on our YouTube channel showing you the proper way to trim, cook, and cut tri-tip for professional results.
Pork Cuts for Smoking
Pork makes for a great smoking meat. Many of the cuts that come out dry and tough on the grill suddenly turn into mouthwatering meals on the smoker. Okay, maybe not too suddenly, since it takes some time. But you know what we mean.
Just like beef ribs, pork ribs are fantastic on the smoker. In some ways, they are even better than beef ribs. Pork tends to be fattier and meatier, so you'll get a bigger bite. Flavoring is essential, so get creative with dry rubs and mix it up when you choose the type of wood you want to smoke with. We love using apple and oak for pork ribs. Treat the cuts of pork ribs the same as you would with beef ribs and you'll never go wrong. Like beef ribs, pork ribs have lots of connective tissues that renders down to create flavor.
St. Louis-Style Spare Ribs
You'll often see pork ribs labelled as St. Louis-style. All this means is that the ribs are cut from the lower portion and have been trimmed to create a fairly uniform shape. This is the best pork rib cut for smoking as you get a fatty meat that renders to a smoky meal. You'll pay more for St. Louis cut ribs than for other types. If you happen to see a spare rib rack for a better price, pick it up. St. Louis-style ribs are cut from the spare ribs.
Pork Butt Roast
This funny sounding and inappropriately named cut of pork is probably the ideal meat to learn smoking techniques. While it may seem like a butt roast would come from the behind, it's actually taken from the front pork shoulder. It cooks up beautifully, with tons of flavor. It's also very versatile. You can smoke a nice, fat butt roast and have enough meat to really go around a big table. Make pulled pork sandwiches, Mexican food, or just simply eat it with your fingers. If you are new to smoking, a butt roast will help you learn the right methods for keeping your temperature consistent for a long period of time. You'll often find it labelled as Boston Butt.
You can also smoke an entire pork shoulder if your smoker is big enough to handle it. One of the best tips for smoking large hunks of meat like pork shoulder is to wrap the meat in butcher paper once the internal temperature hits about 165. This helps push the pork shoulder through the cooking stall and prevents drying the meat as it finishes cooking. Once the shoulder is smoked, you can cut it into more manageable pieces. Smoking a shoulder is a challenge due to the size and time requirements. A large shoulder may take between nine and twelve hours or even longer to smoke thoroughly.
Chops are a difficult cut to smoke. Often, they are cut too thin and will dry out easily. Sometimes, you'll find pork chops that are very thick. These are excellent to smoke. Make sure to keep your temperature low throughout the smoking process. Chops are a lean cut and they will get tough if you over do it. They can be fun to smoke, though because they don't take that long. You can smoke chops in two hours or so. Smoked pork chops make a great menu item when you've got lots of mouths to feed.
Anyone who has been to a State Fair will tell you about the delicious aroma of smoked turkey. It tastes even better than it smells, and there is just something amusing of grabbing a whole turkey leg and getting after it like a character on the Flintstones. Smoking poultry is a little different than smoking beef or pork. Most of the time, you'll want to smoke a whole bird rather than trying to smoke cuts.
One of the most popular meals around our house is smoked chicken. We use whole Cornish Cross chickens that are fat, juicy, and tender. The best way to smoke a whole chicken is to brine it for about 24 hours then let it air dry in the refrigerator for several more hours. We use a stand to smoke our chicken upright. You can also use a bottle, beer can, or just lay the chicken down on the grates. A whole smoked chicken makes for an impressive display on your table.
It's a good idea to use a grilling thermometer for chicken that has at least two probes. Place one in the breast and the other in the thigh, since these areas will cook at different rates. With practice, you'll find a balance between cooking the breast all the way without overcooking the thigh meat. Keeping temperatures low is essential.
You may run across a young turkey in your local store once in a while. These smaller birds are great for smoking since they will actually fit on the grates. We use the same brining method for turkey as we do for chicken. It leaves you with a nice crackly exterior, the perfect smoke ring just below the skin, and tender, flavorful meat.
When you are looking for a real treat, try smoking a whole duck. You can do it just like a chicken or you can use a hook inside your smoker to hang the bird while it cooks. This is the way the Chinese do it when they make Peking Duck. Duck has a more pronounced flavor than chicken or turkey, so you can get more aggressive with the flavoring. In the US, Peking Duck is most often made with five spice and other Asian flavors. Interestingly, the Chinese don't do it that way. Chinese Peking Duck is all about the crispy skin and the beautiful fat. Don't forget to place a tray under your duck to catch the fat as it renders out. Of all the fats in the world, there may be no better tasting thing than rendered duck fat for frying potatoes.
FAQs About Meat Smoking
Q: What is the right temperature for smoking meat?
A: The ideal temperature for smoking most meats is going to fall between 200 and 250 degrees. Higher than that and you'll start grilling. You can smoke at lower temperatures, but shouldn't because of the risk of bacterial growth that can happen when you are cooking really low and slow.
Q: How long does it take to smoke something?
A: The amount of time it takes will depend on a few factors. For example, thicker pieces will take longer. Leaner pieces won't take as long. A good rule of thumb is to plan on an hour per pound.
Q: Should you turn meat in the smoker?
A: There is no benefit to turning meat in the smoker. In fact, turning it will do more harm than good. The lid should stay closed the entire time you are smoking because opening it lets out smoke and causes the temperature to change. Quite often, opening the lid increases the temperature and it's always harder to lower the temp than raise it.
Q: How do you know when the meat is smoked all the way?
A: Use a meat thermometer to tell when the internal temperature is correct. We like to use a temperature probe while cooking and then use our Bearded Butchers instant read thermometer to verify the correct temp.
Now that you have a good idea of the best cuts of meat for smoking, it's time to get outside and get that smoker lit up. In fact, all this talking about the best meat for smoking has us pretty hungry. Probably the most important tip to keep in mind when choosing meat to smoke is to pick thick cuts with a good amount of fat. Fat is flavor and without it, you may end up with dry, tasteless meat.
Above all else, whether you have been grilling and smoking meat for years or you are new to the game, take your time and let the meat slowly cook. Smoking should be an enjoyable experience, not something that is stressful. It's a great opportunity to spend time with family and friends while you let the meat smoke for a long time.