There are few things more delicious than smoked meat. It’s both an art and science, and everyone has different ideas concerning style, process, and more.
Smoking originated as a method of preserving food back before refrigerators and chemicals were invented. Even though these modern techniques have become rather ubiquitous in the present day, 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 cooking 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 meat like pro within a day.
Buying a Smoker
You basically have five choices when it comes to picking a smoker: electric, propane (aka gas), charcoal, wood and pellet. 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 similar heating element), which then causes the wood to smoke. These are the easiest in terms of heat control, since all you have to do is turn a dial to adjust the temperature. They also tend to be the most expensive, and they impart these least amount of smoked flavor compared to the other options.
- Propane 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.
- Charcoal smokers are a favorite among barbecue masters, who believe that charcoal imbues more flavor compared to propane and electric. Charcoal smokers tend to be cheaper, but you also have to buy charcoal every time you want to smoke. Charcoal also requires you to start and maintain a fire without the help of modern technology.
- Wood smokers are definitely the way to go for the most pure flavor, but they require the most attention and care out of all the options because they’re harder to keep at a constant temperature. For this reason, we only recommend wood smokers after you’ve learned the basics.
- Pellet smokers are similar to wood smokers, but the wood has been condensed into convenient pellet form (hence the name). However, they are much easier to use. Instead of stacking firewood and babysitting the flame, you simply load the pellets into an oven-like compartment. The only downside? Like their electric brethren, pellet smokers tend to be expensive.
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. Beef brisket is a go-to, and you can never go wrong with ribs. Pork shoulder is another meat that lends itself to smoking. If you want to smoke a steak, the bigger the cut, the better. We highly recommend Waygu beef.
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 somewhat 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. It goes well with alder, oak, or applewood, and is typically used for poultry and ham.
- Mesquite is undoubtedly the most pungent wood you can smoke, which means it can easily overpower your meat if used improperly. Avoid using mesquite with larger cuts that require longer cooking times. You can also use it with a mix of 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 is best suited for red meat and pork; 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. It’s all about science — 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 a brine for 10-12 hours before smoking.
In it’s most basic form, brine is nothing more than salty water, however it benefits from the addition of herbs and spices. To make a good base, add three tablespoons of salt to one quart of water, then throw in whatever else you prefer (here are a few recipes to get you inspired). Brining is a bit of a double edged sword: it helps meat retain moisture, but also makes it saltier. Some chefs use sugar and molasses to combat the salty flavor.
Keeping it Slow and Low
Slow and low is the key to good meat. Keep your temperature between 212 degrees Fahrenheit and 230 degrees Fahrenheit for best results. These lower temperatures generally won’t cause the meat’s cell walls to burst, which makes the meat more succulent and helps it to 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.
Article first published on April 29, 2016. Last updated by Nicole Raney on December 12, 2017.