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Fire has done a lot for us. It’s the basis of a lot of important stuff, from grilling to, you know, civilization. But if you’re a devotee of insanely delicious BBQ, smoke is the real secret.
Smoke is fire’s alluring, mysterious cousin. It’s got those subtle flavors that sneak up on you and give some of our favorite meats their distinctive character. Smoking can work all kinds of magic on all kinds of meat, and learning the secrets of smoke is how you work your way up to becoming a pitmaster.
If you’re scheming on some brisket, ribs, pulled pork or any other classic BBQ meat, it’s time to get familiar with how to do your own BBQ smoking. Get your grill gloves on and “meat” us on the patio!
What Is BBQ Smoking Meat?
Smoking is a cooking method that uses indirect heat from a low-temperature fire to gradually cook food. Our ancestors used smoking techniques for thousands of years to preserve meat for long journeys. Today, however, we mostly smoke meats for the flavor — because, oh man, it’s a really good flavor.
Lots of different smoking techniques exist, but all fall into one of two categories: cold smoking and hot smoking. Cold smoking, which you’ll often see used for delicate foods like salmon or cheese, uses very low temperature fires that burn around 100 degrees or less. In most cases, cold smoking doesn’t actually cook the food completely.
Hot smoking, on the other hand, is suitable for all kinds of meats like pork and beef. It produces fully cooked meats with a robust flavor that people love at cookouts and parties. If you’re doing BBQ, you’re almost certainly doing hot smoking.
What Does Smoking Do to Meats?
Smoking does some important things to meat that makes it an essential part of BBQ:
- Tenderizes cuts that might otherwise have a tough, chewy texture
- Adds a delicious woody flavor with lots of rich complexity
- Creates a firm, caramelized “bark” on the outside that adds both texture and flavor
- Helps marinades, rubs and spices absorb into meat
However, to get these delicious effects, you’ve gotta be smoking the right cuts of meat.
What Kind of Meats Should I Smoke?
The answer is, of course, that it depends on your taste buds! However, the most traditional meats for smoking have common characteristics: fat and collagen (connective tissue). These are extremely important to prevent the meat from drying out, and they absorb the smoke flavor of the wood well.
For these reasons, fatty cuts like Boston butt, beef brisket and spare ribs are ideal for smoking. Cuts that are already lean and tender, like a filet, usually don’t fare as well in a smoker. A lean cut doesn’t have enough fat to keep it moist during hours of smoking, so save them for high temp cooking.
What Kind of Smoker Do I Need?
Buying a smoker can be a tough decision, especially as anovice. Many types of smokers, such as the well-known offset smoker, are more complex and challenging to operate than the average beginner can handle. On top of that, not everyone wants to dive in the deep end by buying a standalone smoker right away.
Looking for something that’s a little cheaper and a little more versatile? Kamado grills, a traditional style of East Asian grill, are a great choice for both smoking and grilling. These grills use a ceramic firebox to contain the heat, which results in wonderfully consistent and even cooking.
Pellet grills also make excellent smokers since they can maintain consistent heat levels for hours. These grills use wood pellets, which can be a lot easier than worrying about stacking and storing firewood for fuel. You can even choose the pellet blend by the specific wood flavor you’re looking for.
What’s Good in the Wood
The type of wood you use in your smoker will have a big effect on how your meat tastes, and different woods are better suited to smoking different meats. Now, trust us when we say that if you ask 10 pitmasters which wood is best for which meat, you’ll get 11 different answers and someone is leaving with a black eye.
If you’re just getting started with smoking, here’s some basic conventional wisdom about wood choices that won’t steer you wrong. Hickory, pecan and oak are popular for their sharp and distinctive flavor that’s perfect for beef and pork. For those who like it real smoky, mesquite may be the answer, although it’s often best applied in limited quantities.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got fruit woods like apple, cherry and peach. These are the softer woods, and they impart the most delicate flavors to smoked meat. Fruitwood pellets are popular choices for seafood, as well as pork. Mainly due to how well those meats take on different kinds of smoke. Chicken is another versatile meat that will taste good over almost any kind of wood smoke, depending on what flavor you’re seeking.
Tips and Tricks for Starting Out
- Marinate your meats before you smoke them. Smoke and marinades interact in many complex and wonderful ways, and it will also help the meat retain moisture during smoking. You can also apply a spice rub to give your BBQ that special flavor you crave.
- STOP OPENING YOUR GRILL. Your instinct might be telling you to open the smoker up and flip the meat, but that will do more harm than good. The smoke is circulating inside and cooking the meat a little bit at a time, and the last thing you want is fluctuating cooking temperatures. Take your hand off the handle — yes that means you, stop it!!
- Use a meat probe when trying to determine when your food is ready. Each cut of meat is different, so to get the best results possible make sure you’re only removing the meat when it’s ready!