A Simple Beginner’s Guide to Smoking Meat
If you’ve ever sat around a campfire, you’ve already experienced the pleasant aroma of wood smoke. And of course you already know how good a cut of beef, pork, or chicken can taste when properly cooked. Combine that delicious taste with the flavor of wood smoke, and you’ve got one of the most magical flavor combinations in the world.
But how do you actually smoke your meat? Here’s a quick, simple guide to smoking, from choosing the right cut to getting the perfect bark.
Choose the Right Meat
One of the nice things about smoking is that cheaper meat actually works better. Save those pricey filets for the grill or griddle. For smoking, you want the fattiest, toughest cuts of meat you can find. This is because smoking is a slow cooking method. Your meat will have plenty of time for fat and gristle to break down.
For beef, look for plenty of fat and collagen. If there’s a lot of marbling, that’s even better. For pork, look for the same thing. And for chicken, look for the greasiest, flabbiest roaster you can find. One thing you don’t want is a massive fat cap. This fat will just sit on the end of the cut, and won’t provide any flavor to most of the meat. Marbling – or, in the case of chicken, plenty of skin fat – allows fat to penetrate throughout the entire cut.
Preparing the Meat
Some people like to leave the fat on their meat before smoking it. If there’s a small amount of fat, this can work out just fine. However, a large fat cap will actually trap moisture inside the meat, leading to uneven cooking. Fat also won’t turn into bark, the delicious, smoky finish that makes smoked meat so special. So if you’ve got a big chunk of fat on one end of the cut, slice it off before you go any further. It’s not like you’re going to eat it, anyway.
Next, you’ll want to truss (tie up) your meat. This isn’t necessary for most beef. For pork, it’s only necessary if there are lots of flabby bits hanging off. But it’s essential for chicken or turkey. Make sure to use a food safe twine. The reason you want to truss your meat is to keep small bits, like wings and drumsticks, from overcooking before the rest of the bird is even cooked.
Then apply seasoning, brine your meat, or use a dry rub or sauce as desired. What exactly you use is going to depend on your recipe, but you might want to check out our page on smoked paprika substitutes.
Preparing the Wood
Now that your meat is ready to go, the next thing you’ll need to do is prepare your wood. Some people like to soak their wood before using it, but this doesn’t achieve much. The water will only soak into the outer layers, and it will turn to steam before the wood starts to smoke. You can skip this step.
Put your wood chips in an aluminum cooking tray, or wrap them in a foil pouch with holes poked in it. And don’t put the tray or pouch directly on your coals or your burner. Set it off to the side of your coals, instead. Dedicated electric smokers will generally have a space for placing wood chips. On a propane grill, set it on one burner, then only use the other burner.
In terms of quantity, there’s no hard and fast rule. For a brisket, pork butt, or chicken, start with about 10 ounces. Then, keep an eye on the smoker. If the wood burns away before the meat is finished, simply add more as needed.
Smoking the Meat
Smoking is not like traditional grilling. In traditional grilling, you want to cook at high temperatures for a short period of time. For smoking, you want to cook at lower temperatures for a longer time period. As a result, you want to make sure that the meat isn’t too close to the coals or burner. This means keeping it off to the side of the heat source.
Next, you’ll need to be patient. You’ll notice that the meat rises very quickly in temperature, then seems to sit just below the recommended cooking temperature for a few hours. This is called the stall, and it happens because water is evaporating from the meat at these temperatures. Waiting out the stall is essential for getting a quality bark.
So, why does the bark appear? It’s because of a process called the Maillard reaction, where proteins in the outer layers of the meat break down, and combines with flavors from the smoke. To get the best results, turn the meat frequently, which will result in more even cooking. Also, consider rubbing down your meat with sugar along with your regular seasoning. The sugar will caramelize, further enhancing the flavor.
As always, make sure to cook your meat to the recommended temperature to ensure that it’s safe to eat. If you don’t already own a food thermometer, this is a great incentive to buy one.
Enjoy the Results
Now there’s only one thing left to do: enjoy your delicious smoked meat! And don’t worry if the results aren’t perfect the first time. Meat smoking is an art, and it takes time to perfect. Keep at it, and your savory smoked beef, pork, or chicken will soon be the envy of your neighborhood.