Everything You Need To Know About Smoking Meat
There are few things more delicious than smoked meat.
It’s both an art and science, and everyone has different ideas concerning style, cooking process and more.
Smoking originated as a way to preserve food back before refrigerators and chemical preservatives were invented, and even though the former have become rather ubiquitous in the present day, smoking is far from being forgotten. Despite becoming obsolete as a method of food preservation, the sheer deliciousness of smoked food has kept the tradition alive. Through years of culinary trial and error, humanity has determined the best smoking techniques — and in the process, elevated the age-old practice to a level of mastery on par with any other food-related endeavor.
There are entire books written on the subject, but contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take years to learn how to smoke. We’ve put together all the information you need to know to dive right in and start smoking like a seasoned meathead in just a day.
Buying a Smoker
You basically have three choices when it comes to picking a smoker: you can opt for wood, gas, or electric — but you’ll want to choose wisely. Each type comes with it’s own set of pros and cons.
- Electric smokers use electricity to heat up a rod or other heating element, which then causes the wood to smoke. These are probably the easiest in terms of heat control, since all you have to do is turn a dial to adjust the temperature.
- Gas smokers work almost exactly like electric smokers, but use a gas-fueled flame instead of a heating element to make the wood pellets smolder. These are pretty simple as well, and might be a better choice for people for people in areas where electricity is expensive or scarce.
- Wood smokers are definitely the way to go for flavor, but they require the most attention and care out of these three because they’re harder to keep at a constant temperature. For this reason, we only recommend wood smokers after you’ve learned the basics.
Choosing a Good Cut of Meat
When hunting for the right chunk meat, try to pick something that will benefit from the slow cooking process. Don’t shy away from cuts with lots of connective tissue and fat known as “marbling”. A generous marble will make the finished product more succulent and delicious. We highly recommend Waygu beef if you can find it.
Picking the Right Wood
Alder has a light and naturally sweet flavor, which makes it great for pairing with fish, poultry, and any white meat.
Applewood has a fruity and sweet smoke that pairs wonderfully with pork, fish, and poultry
Hickory has a strong and distinct flavor that’s ideal for red meat – especially ribs.
Pecan gives your meat something of a fruity flavor and burns cooler than most other barbecue woods. It’s similar to hickory and is best used on large cuts like brisket and pork roast, but can also be used to compliment chops, fish and poultry.
Maple has a sweet and delicate taste, and tends to darken whatever meat you’re smoking. Goes well with alder, oak, or applewood, and is typically used for poultry and ham.
Mesquite is undoubtedly the most pungent and powerful wood you can smoke, and can easily overpower your meat if used improperly. Avoid using mesquite with larger cuts that require longer cooking times, or simply use it with other woods.
Oak, on the other hand, is great for big cuts of meat that take a long time to cook. It has a subtle flavor that will emerge the longer the meat is in the smoker.
Cherrywood’s flavor is best suited for red meat and pork and it also pairs well with alder, hickory and oak.
The Importance of Brining
Brining your meat keeps it from drying out during the smoking process. In it’s most basic form, brine is nothing more than salty water, but brines are perfected with the addition of herbs & spices. Since brining is a bit of a double edged sword (it helps meat retain moisture, but also makes it saltier), some chefs use sugar & molasses to combat the salty flavor. To make a good base, add three tablespoons of salt to one quart of water – then throw in whatever else you prefer.
It’s all about science when it comes to brining – the salt in the brine makes the proteins in the meat more water absorbent. When sodium and chloride ions get into the meat tissue, their electrical charges mess with the proteins, (especially myosin) so they can hold onto moisture more effectively and lose less of it during the cooking process. For optimal moisture retention, soak your meat in brine for 10-12 hours before smoking.
A Few Words of Wisdom
Slow and low is the key to good meat. Keep your temperature between 212°F and 230°F for best results. These lower temperatures generally won’t cause the meat’s cell walls to burst, which makes it more succulent and helps the food retain nutrients. Cooking at low temperatures also makes it possible for tough collagens in the connective tissue of meat to be hydrolized into gelatin without overheating the proteins. In other words, smoking it slow and low lets all the tough tissue dissolve into the meat while simultaneously giving the smoke time to absorb. It’s a bit of a process, but the results are well worth the effort.