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Meat Smoking Guide

The Ultimate Meat Smoking Guide

Last updated on 9/01/2021

Pitmasters use wood, smoke, and some basic equipment to turn tough cuts of meat into mouthwatering barbecue. If you’re more of a pit-novice than a pit-master, you may wonder how to cook meat with smoke. Knowing the style of barbecue you want to sell is the first step, then you need to gain the machinery, tools, and techniques to prepare it. Use our beginner’s guide to smoking meat to learn BBQ basics.

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Use the following links to navigate and learn more about the smoked meat process.:
  1. 2 Types of Smoked Meat Explained
  2. Best Smoking Woods
  3. Equipment for Smoking Meat
  4. Commercial BBQ Smokers
  5. Which Cuts of Meat Should I Smoke?
  6. Beef Short Ribs Definition
  7. Pro Meat Smoking Tips

What Is Smoked Meat?

texas bbq with pulled pork brisket and hot links

Smoked meat is a protein that was exposed to smoke for the sake of cooking, flavoring, or preserving it. Smoking is one of the oldest cooking methods and has two styles: cold smoking and hot smoking. Hot smoking is how American pitmasters make barbecue, and cold smoking is the technique used to create smoked salmon.

What Is Cold Smoking?

Cold smoking is a method of preserving and flavoring foods by keeping them away from the direct heat source and exposing them to low-temperature smoke. The smoke is typically between 60-120 degrees Fahrenheit and will not cook food, so many butchers cure meats before cold smoking them.

What Is the Difference between Cold and Hot Smoking?

Hot smoking is another term for barbecue. Barbecue employs smoke between 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit to cook meat. Hot smoking flavors the surface of the meat with smoke and tenderizes meats by slow cooking them. In contrast, cold smoking uses cooler smoke to preserve and flavor meats but doesn’t cook them.

Best Wood for Smoking Meat

Wood smoke affects the flavor of barbecued meats. Discover the four best woods for smoking meat below:

  1. Hickory Wood - If you can only stock one wood, order hickory. BBQ experts call hickory the universal wood for smoking meat. Hickory wood has an inherent sweetness and releases an abundance of smoke, creating the perfect sweet-savory combo. It lends well to large cuts of ribs, poultry, red meat, and pork shoulders.
  2. Mesquite Wood - Mesquite is a dense, hot burning wood with a rich, earthy taste. The powerful flavor of mesquite wood lends well to red meat, so it's the darling of beef-centric Texas style BBQ.
  3. Apple Wood - Choose apple wood if you want to add a sweet and fruity flavor to your smoked meat. Apple wood has a subtle flavor that takes time to develop, so it’s perfect for the low and slow BBQ method. It lends well to pork, chicken, ribs, and wild fowl.
  4. Oak Wood - Oak has a smoky flavor between apple and mesquite. You can use it on its own or blend it with other woods such as cherry, hickory, and apple. Pitmasters often use oak wood to smoke brisket, beef, and sausages, making it another popular choice for Texas style barbeque.

Worst Woods for Smoking

Avoid using softwoods in your smoker because they contain elevated levels of oil and resin that release dense, pungent clouds of smoke. The worst woods for smoking meat are spruce, pine, and fir. Across wood types, always discard rotten, waterlogged, or rotten pieces.

Best Size Wood for Smoking

The size of the wood you smoke meat with matters. Wood chips ignite quickly and burn fast, so they’re used with short cook time items like fish, steak, and pork chops. Wood chunks burn steadily for hours in a smoker, making them the ideal size for low and slow smoked ribs, brisket, and pork butt. Pitmasters use logs as a source of smoke and fuel in large area pit barbeques and offset smokers.

What Is the Difference between Using Charcoal and Wood to BBQ?

Typically, the smoke from burning wood or charcoal creates the indirect heat used to BBQ. For the American BBQ tradition, burned wood smoke is the preferred heat source. When you burn wood, its natural flavor releases in its smoke, imbuing barbequed meats with earthy essences. Pitmasters tailor their wood selection to complement their meat menu.

Meat Smoking Equipment

Invest in meat smoking equipment so you can start creating delicious smoked proteins. Here are the top 6 smoking tools you’ll need:

  1. Smoker - There are a variety of commercial smokers you can purchase. Most manufacturers categorize them by how they generate heat.
  2. man with apron and hat smoking barbecue on backyard pro smoker outside
  3. Wood - Hardwoods work best for smoking. Research the ideal type of wood and wood size to use with your smoker.
  4. Thermometers - Invest in quality thermometers to assess your smoke and meat temperatures.
  5. Water Pan - Use a water pan to create humidity inside your smoker’s cook chamber. The moisture helps the meat absorb the smoke and keeps it from drying out.
  6. Spray Bottle - Certain sections of meat are more prone to drying than others, so you’ll need to use a spray bottle to moisten vulnerable areas during each cook session. Spray bottles with adjustable nozzles work best. You’ll want to release equal parts mist and stream. A pure mist spritz will evaporate before reaching the meat, but a pure stream may dampen the wood.
  7. Drip Pan - If your smoker doesn’t have a pre-installed drip pan, you’ll need to add a large, shallow pan underneath its grate. Meat releases grease and rendered fat during the long smoking process. These drippings can turn rancid or cause fires when left unchecked.

Types of BBQ Smokers

These are the types of commercial BBQ smokers you can purchase to churn out delicious low and slow smoked meats.

  • Commercial Indoor Smokers - BBQ restaurants with limited space and high traffic may require a commercial indoor smoker. There are full, half, and under-counter cabinet models, accommodating a variety of menu and space requirements.
  • Pig Roaster - Perfect for Carolina-style whole hog BBQ, cook smokey, whole roasted pigs inside your commercial kitchen with pig roasters.
  • Indirect-Heat Pit/Offset Smoker - Indirect-heat pits, also known as offset-smokers, have enclosed chambers that pull smoke, heat, and air from a firebox. This cooks the meat low and slow and creates a smokey flavor profile. Pitmasters fill their firebox with woods that complement their meat. Off-set smokers are popular for Texas-style BBQ. Some commercial outdoor grills come with a smoking function.
  • Smoker Grills - Wood-fired pellet grills are diverse pieces of equipment that add woody flavor to grilled items. While smokers turn vegetables to ash, smoker grills give produce a smoky essence without overcooking them. Smoker grills are perfect for restaurants that want to test out smoking, special menu preparation, and outdoor catering applications.
  • Subterranean Pit - Subterranean pits are underground pits that trap foods with an indirect heat source, cooking them evenly and saturating them in smokey flavors. Originally called Pachamanca, subterranean pits date back to the Inca Empire and are the earliest barbequing method. While uncommon, some old-school pitmasters still use subterranean pits.

Meat Smoker Accessories

Stock-up on these must-have BBQ smoker accessories:

  • Heat resistant BBQ gloves
  • BBQ grill brush
  • BBQ Tongs
  • Basting Mop/Brush
  • Butcher’s Block
  • Boning Knife
  • Rib Racks
  • Shredding Claws


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Best Things to Smoke in a Smoker

The best cuts of meat for smoking are full of fat and connective tissues (collagen). Smoking is an indirect cooking method that uses low temperatures and long cook times. The cuts of meat we usually consider inferior quality hold up under the smoking process. When the connective tissues have time to break down slowly, they convert to sugar and moisten the meat while it cooks. Smoked meats are a great example of the power of the Mailliard reaction to enhance the complexity of food.

The three classic types of BBQ meat are beef brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs. Beginners to smoking meat should start out with easy and inexpensive cuts such as a Boston butt or picnic roast. Experts in the art of smoking may want to try their hand at smoking a prime rib or leg of lamb. We list the best meats to smoke below, so you know exactly what to ask for when you go to your local butcher shop.

  • Boston Butt - While its name suggests otherwise, Boston butt (also called pork butt) comes from the thick, marbled upper portion of a pig’s shoulder (aka the blade roast). It begins directly behind the pig’s neck and typically contains a small piece of its shoulder blade. When smoked, Boston Butt meat falls apart with ease, making it the ideal cut for pulled pork recipes.
  • large barbecue smoker grill at the park
  • Picnic Cut - Also known as picnic shoulder/pork shoulder, the picnic cut is well-exercised pig shoulder meat. This arm roast begins where the Boston butt ends and continues down the leg to the hock.
  • Brisket - Brisket comes from the breast of a cow. Lacking collarbones, cattle use their pectoral muscles to keep the front half of their 12,000-to-1400-pound bodies off the ground. Their breast meat is dense, tough, and loaded with connective tissue.
  • Pork Spareribs - The long cuts from the stomach to the shoulder of a pig are called spareribs. A rack of spareribs will have 11 to 13 bones that offer meat both atop and between the bones.
  • St. Louis-Style Ribs - Characterized by their rectangular shape, butchers extract St. Louis-style ribs from a pig’s belly. Once removed, they trim away the breastbone, cartilage, and tips.
  • Pork Back Ribs - Back ribs (also known as baby back ribs / loin ribs) come from the top of a pig’s rib cage below its loin muscle between the spine and spareribs. Baby back’s short, curved shape makes them easy to hold.
  • Pork Country-Style Ribs - Cut from the shoulder blade end of the loin, country-style ribs are the leanest cut of pork ribs and offer the most meat per bone.
  • Back Ribs - Beef back ribs are cut from behind the shoulder of a steer (the top dorsal area). Butchers remove the rib bones to access the prized prime rib roast. Butchers leave little meat on top of the rib bones, so most of the meat found on the back rib cut is between the bones.
  • Plate Short Ribs - Plate short ribs come from the lower portion of a cow’s rib cage known as the short plate. Sandwiched between the brisket and flank steak cut, the short plate runs between the 6th and 10th rib. Nicknamed “brisket on a stick”, plate short ribs typically have 2” of meat on top and span 12”. This fatty cut of ribs does well with the low and slow cooking method.
  • Chuck Short Ribs - Chuck short ribs come from below the chuck at the front of the steer. They’re shorter than plate short ribs and run from the 1st to the 6th rib.
  • Whole Chickens/Turkeys - Smoked poultry is a lighter but equally delicious barbecued meat. It takes approximately 3 hours to smoke a whole chicken and between 6-10 hours to smoke a whole turkey.

What Cuts of Meat Shouldn’t Be Smoked?

It’s a waste of time and money to slow smoke premium cuts of meat like steaks that grill well. We suggest saving your filet mignon for the sous vide and keeping your lean roasts and pork loins out of the smoker.

What Are Beef Short Ribs?

Beef short ribs are a cut of cattle beef that comes from the chuck, plate, rib, or brisket area of the animal. This cut features the end of a cattle’s ribs near its breastbone. Beef short ribs provide less meat than steak, but they also offer more umami flavor. Their high fat content suits the low and slow cooking style.

Butchers fillet beef short ribs in two dominant cuts: flanken and English. The English cut has several sub styles. How butchers cut beef short ribs affects how well they respond to smoking. The thicker, fattier beef short rib cuts stay moist and tender during the low and slow smoking method. Discover the variations on beef short rib cuts below:

  1. Flanken Cut - The meat on a flanken-style short rib is a half inch thick strip that runs across the bones. Butchers typically cut chuck short ribs in the flanken style and sell it with four to five pieces of accompanying bone. It is the ideal cut for Korean Kalbi style short ribs, but it doesn’t hold up well in the American BBQ style.
  2. English Cut - To create the English cut, butchers sever between the ribs and leave a thick piece of meat sitting atop the bones. Plate short ribs are commonly cut in the English style. Butchers usually sell English cut short ribs into racks of four bones or as individual pieces.
large piece of smoked beef brisket with a dark crust

There are several variations of the English style cut:

  • Trimmed English Cut: butcher removes the exterior fat cover and much of the latissimus dorsi muscle (aka the prime rib cut)
  • Lean English Cut: same as trimmed, but the butcher removes more of the fat layer
  • Riblets: a type of English cut where the butcher slices the bones into individual pieces and then cuts short, 1-2-inch-long sticks topped with a thick round of meat.
  • Boneless: you can purchase English style ribs as a boneless slab between 1-2“ thick and roughly 8” long. To create the boneless cut, butcher’s remove both the bones and the intercostal meat.

BBQ Smoking Tips

Once you have everything you need to smoke your meat, here are some expert-tested tips to help you create premium BBQ.

  1. Write out a BBQ schedule and practice mise en place. Long cook times lead to forgetfulness and fatigue. Ensure your meat is ready when you need it and don’t miss vital steps along the way by following a detailed schedule that outlines when to increase heat, wrap meat, and factors meat rest times.
  2. Avoid opening your cooking chamber. The lid traps the smoke inside and ensures your meat cooks.
  3. Aim for a light blue smoke; it has the best flavor.
  4. If you’re smoking an uneven cut of meat, use a trussing for a more even cooking process.
  5. Smoke dry wood; wet wood causes uneven smoking.

Smoking vs Grilling

Smoking and grilling are two distinct cooking methods. Smoked meats are cooked low and slow over an indirect heat source (smoke) in an enclosed, circumvented cooking device. Grilling is a cooking method that exposes the surface of foods to a direct, dry heat source. Grilled foods cook in under an hour (usually in a matter of minutes) at heat temperatures over 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Large cuts of meat such as slabs of ribs, beef briskets, and pork shoulders become succulent and tender when you smoke them. Whereas grilling is perfect for smaller cuts of meat like fish, steak, and chicken breasts that aren’t filled with collagen.

What Is Pit BBQ?

Pit BBQ is not a dish or a cooking device, it is a method of slowly cooking foods using indirect heat from smoked wood or charcoal. In contrast, pit cooking is the act of roasting meat in a large, level hole in the ground. To start, load a stack of logs approximately 2 1/2 times the volume of the pit into the earth and set them ablaze. Allow the hardwood to burn until it reduces, then half fill the pit with burning coals. This process requires 4 to 6 hours of burning time.

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Smoking is a wonderful way to transform cheap, undesirable cuts of meat into gourmet meals. Whether you want to add smokey brisket nachos to your appetizer list or create a full-fledged BBQ menu, use our guide to smoking meat to get started.

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