Have you ever bitten into a pork baby back rib smoked to such perfection it seemed to just melt off the bone? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could learn how to smoke meat at home and produce your own mouth-watering venison roast?
Some of my fondest memories were of my father’s love of outdoor cooking. He grilled everything from salmon to bananas and barbecued all the beef and pork he could find in between. When he discovered smoked meats, he introduced an entirely new dimension of taste to our dining room table.
I am not here to tell you smoking meat is the simplest thing in the world to accomplish. You can certainly do it if you have the right tools, but it does require time and patience. Where grilling a steak generally takes minutes, proper smoking of most cuts of beef will require hours. However, the process is fun and the results highly satisfying.
I have been cooking for my own family for a few years and decided to compile what I have learned about how to smoke meat into a tutorial. I feel that you can re-create a slice of smoked meat that rivals or even surpasses that of a renowned restaurant in the comfort of your own home. I want to also outline the simplest and most straightforward means to achieve an impeccable result. I am sure you would love to establish some family meal traditions and legends of your own.
Equipment and Supplies You Will Need
- Marinade, brine, or rub
- Drip pan or pan from broiler oven
- Wood – pellets, chunks, or chips
- Chimney starter
*Pro Tip #1 – Whether to use wood chunks or chips will ultimately boil down to personal preference. I recommend pellets only for smoking that will require an hour or less (some fish and seafood). They last an extremely short time. I prefer wood chunks because they smolder the longest. This means fewer times opening the grill or smoker to change them out.
*Pro Tip #2 – Sauce is optional for even further enhancing the flavor of your cut of meat. If you do use a sauce, I recommend only adding it in the last twenty to ten minutes of smoking. Any earlier and you stand the risk of it disappearing during cooking.
*Pro Tip #3 – An electric smoker is an option as well, but food experts agree the end product does not have a traditional smoke flavor.
- Grills – You can use a charcoal or gas grill if you do not have access to a smoker. I provide detailed instructions for smoking meat on grills. You will need coal briquettes, as for your smoker, if using a traditional charcoal grill. You can bring the same tender and tasty quality to a smoked entrée with a grill if you do not own and/or do not want to invest in a smoker.
- Aluminum foil – Some people choose to cover their meats during part of the smoking process. Others leave them completely undisturbed throughout the entire cooking time. If you want to cover a pork butt, for example, you will need aluminum foil. I recommend partial covering as it often makes the cut turn out juicier.
Step 1 – Choose type of meat
If you grill often, you know there are very few foods you can’t just pop over the coals for a quick-seared finish. This is not true of smoking. Ideal types of meat that hold up well in the smoker are lamb and mutton, pork, beef, and game. Poultry like chicken needs additional care so it does not dry out. Skip the white fish. However, the oily and sturdy composition of salmon makes it a delicious alternative for the smoker.
Step 2 – Marinade
Select marinades or rubs based on your personal preference. Chicken will more likely need a marinade as it tends to require additional moisture when cooking. Beef and pork can suffice with a dry or wet rub. A rub is similar to a marinade but imparts flavor without the necessity of long exposure before cooking. Both rubs and marinades can be from homemade recipes or store-bought.
- Easy rub – Mix 3 tablespoons brown sugar, 1.5 tablespoons paprika, 1.5 tablespoons Kosher salt, 1.5 tablespoons of black pepper and 1 teaspoon of garlic powder. This is perfect for short ribs. Rubs do more than directly flavor your food. They break up the natural barrier that forms around meat in the cooking chamber. This phenomenon allows smoke to permeate the food rather than flow around it.
- Brine – soaking chicken in salt water greatly assists in keeping it nice and moist during smoking. Add about ¾ cup of Kosher salt for every gallon of water. The goal is to use an amount of water sufficient to immerse an entire bird if cooking a whole chicken. You can add sugar to help brown the skin. Add a myriad of other spices to achieve the desired flavor.
- Easy basic marinade – Whisk together ½ cup of olive oil, ¼ cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of minced garlic, and 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard. When smooth marinate your chicken or turkey, for example, for eight to 24 hours.
Step 3 – No cold meat please
Bring your chosen cut of meat to room temperature before exposing it to the heat of your smoker. For beef or pork, it should already be at room temperature when you are ready to apply the rub. Coat with your selected recipe of spices and you’re good to go. Chicken that has been sitting in a marinade for several hours should be allowed to warm on the counter before smoking. The exception is if you will smoke the meat all day. In this case, the meat has time to warm slowly before starting to cook.
Step 4 – Choose type of wood
Choosing which kind of wood to use when smoking different classes of meats are rather intuitive. Heavier stronger woods perform better to flavor beef, mild and sweeter woods for chicken and fish, and medium woods for pork.
- Beef – cherry, mesquite, oak, hickory
- Chicken, turkey – alder, apple, cherry, oak, maple. Mulberry
- Pork – alder, cherry, hickory, oak, mulberry
- Seafood – alder, cherry, apple, oak, mulberry
Step 5 – Prepare your smoker or grill.
Nothing beats the convenience of a smoker grill for smoking meat. After all, it was designed for this very purpose. The disadvantage is it is more complicated than a standard grill to operate. You may even need a few dry practice runs to get the settings exactly right. Nevertheless, you will not need to move the food to add coal or wood and you can more accurately control the heat of the cooking chamber.
- Light your charcoal in a chimney starter for about fifteen minutes. The coals should be just starting to ash.
- Add your fuel source to the firebox. Using coal as your main fuel and wood as a supplement creates a more manageable heat source than using wood as the primary energy. Using too much wood can create excessive smoke and ash.
- Preheat the smoker to 225 degrees to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. I recommend you use at least one thermometer in addition to the one built into the smoker. This one you can place closer to the heat source. You can bore a hole near where the meat will sit or utilize an installation kit designed for this. It enables you to check temperature periodically without opening the smoker (simply insert a thermometer to measure then remove when you have your reading).
- Maintain the smoker between 225 degrees and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. This is where it can get a bit tricky. There are two baffles or vents equipped on the smoker that control oxygen flow across the coals (intake) and smoke in the chamber (chimney). In the initial stages, you want to mainly focus on the intake baffle to stabilize the temperature. Close this valve gradually until the temperature remains steady.
- Add wood to the coals. I recommend wood chunks in a smoker because they smolder more slowly than chips. When adding wood to coals, soaking in water first is often unnecessary and perhaps even undesirable as you don’t want to dampen your coals.
- Add the water pan (optional). Moist smoke tends to help smoked foods absorb more flavor. Smokers come equipped with a water pan. Add water to about a half inch of depth to the pan and place it on top of a rack (usually there is a place for it on top of the coals). Not everyone uses a water pan.
- Allow your food to cook. Once you have a stable temperature and have added your water pan and wood, you should not open the smoker except to add more coal or water or to wrap the meat. Opening the smoker to “check” the cooking process disrupts the low steady heat you need by allowing both heat and smoke to escape. Knowing approximately how long your food will take to cook will help you refrain from opening the smoker prematurely. Brisket – one and a half hours to two hours per pound depending on thickness Short ribs – five to eight hours (internal temperature 190 to 200 degrees) Country style ribs – two to four hours total cooking time (internal temperature 175 to 180 degrees) Meatloaf – three hours and smoked at 275 degrees Fahrenheit smoker temperature (internal temperature 165 degrees) Pork Butt – 12 to 14 hours (internal temperature 205 degrees) Spare ribs – five to six hours (internal temperature 180 to 185 degrees) Chicken – four to five hours (internal temperature 165 degrees) Salmon or tilapia fillets – one hour (internal temperature 130 to 135 degrees) Steaks – an hour per one and a half pounds, maybe less depending on how well-cooked you want it (rare internal temperature 125 degrees, medium rare 135 to 145 degrees)
- Brisket – one and a half hours to two hours per pound depending on thickness
- Short ribs – five to eight hours (internal temperature 190 to 200 degrees)
- Country style ribs – two to four hours total cooking time (internal temperature 175 to 180 degrees)
- Meatloaf – three hours and smoked at 275 degrees Fahrenheit smoker temperature (internal temperature 165 degrees)
- Pork Butt – 12 to 14 hours (internal temperature 205 degrees)
- Spare ribs – five to six hours (internal temperature 180 to 185 degrees)
- Chicken – four to five hours (internal temperature 165 degrees)
- Salmon or tilapia fillets – one hour (internal temperature 130 to 135 degrees)
- Steaks – an hour per one and a half pounds, maybe less depending on how well-cooked you want it (rare internal temperature 125 degrees, medium rare 135 to 145 degrees)
*Pro Tip – The exception to smoking meat uninterrupted is when you want to wrap it. Around the midpoint of cooking, wrap the meat in aluminum foil. It does not have to be very tight, just enough to seal juices. Keep it wrapped for about a third of the total cooking time (eg. If cooking a roast for 6 hours, wrap at the 3-hour mark and keep covered for 2 hours, then unwrap for last hour or so).
Charcoal grill (eg. Kettle grill)
It is easy to transform your charcoal grill into a smoker, eliminating the need for high-cost technical equipment. The steps are quite similar to using a smoker so I will mention only the variations.
- Once coals have been heated in the chimney lighter, add them to the bottom of your grill. Isolate the pile on one side. Make sure you have a ventilation hole on your grill.
- Add a drip pan on the opposite side to the charcoal. If performing a wet smoke, place water or juice in the drip pan. You will place your meats on the rack over the drip pan.
- Place wood chips or chunks on top of the hot coals.
- You can use a thermometer similar to how you use it in a smoker to attain a temperature of 225 degrees before placing the food. Add your chicken thighs or brisket to the grill and close it.
- Place your wood chunks or chips in a metal pan and set them directly over the flames on one side of the grill.
- Preheat your gas grill by turning settings on burners to high and leaving them like that for twenty minutes. Temperatures will be more difficult to maintain without this step. Once time is up, turn off all burners except for the one under your wood chunks.
- Place the meat you are smoking on the grill opposite to the pan holding wood.
- Close the lid to the gas grill, leaving a small gap for ventilation and circulation of the smoke.
Wet Versus Dry Smoke
Just as the description suggests, wet smoke is the addition of moisture to the cooking chamber to create a humid smoke. This is most commonly and readily done with a liquid-holding pan. Wet smoke is more about enhancing flavor by enabling the smoke to perfuse the meat better and less about keeping the food from drying out. Once again, personal preference prevails.
*Pro Tip #1 – you can omit a water pan and simply spritz the meat towards the end of cooking if it looks dry. A little bit goes a long way. Use a spray bottle that can produce a very fine mist.
*Pro Tip #2 – you can use juice in the water pan instead of water. I recommend pineapple or apple juice to complement the wood. The sweet juices are well-suited to chicken or turkey
To Soak or not to Soak Wood Chips
The main purpose for soaking wood before using them to smoke meat is to keep them from burning. There are two schools of thoughts on this subject. Soaking wood prevents it from bursting into immediate flame and therefore the fire remains more manageable and requires less monitoring. It also does not need to be changed so frequently, lessening the number of times you must open the smoker or grill and expose it to wild fluctuations in temperature.
Proponents of dry wood are often professionals who point out that burning wood is one of the only ways to create the thin blue smoke credited with producing the ultimate holy grail of smoking perfection. Allowing wood to burn, however, does require steady nerves and constant attention.
I have tried both ways. I prefer the taste of smoked meat that comes from not pre-soaking wood, but soaking the wood first makes the smoking process easier. If you have extra time to devote to smoking, I would recommend trying dry wood chunks.
Despite the science behind cooking food, most of you would likely agree that smoking meat is an art form. Every time I smoke a rack of spare ribs, it invokes emotions of warmth and bonding that stems from early family barbecues. Wouldn’t you love to experience the extreme satisfaction that comes from smoking the most succulent prime rib you ever saw fit to rival that of a 5-star steakhouse? I aimed to show how you can smoke meat with basic equipment from the comfort of your own backyard. Any of you with extra time and patience can do it.
I hope you enjoyed the tutorial and were able to find value with it. Feel free to comment below on the article or if you have picked up any additional tips about smoking meats you would like to share. Perhaps you have a friend who is passionate about barbecue; pass this article along.
Frequently Asked Questions
You can smoke a variety of meats, as well as fruits and vegetables. The most popular meats to smoke are poultry (chicken and turkey), pork, beef, and lamb. Many people also smoke seafood, although cold smoking is more popular for most types of fish.
Cold smoking meat is defined by the temperature inside the smoker. If you smoke meat at temperatures below 100 degrees F, you are cold smoking. This type of smoking is typically done between 68 to 86 degrees F. Since this method does not cook meats, you will need to cure your meat before smoking it to ensure it is safe to eat.
It’s easy to turn your gas or charcoal grill into a smoker! Simply soak your wood chips, and place them in a smoker box or an aluminum foil pouch. Punch a few holes in the pouch to make sure the smoke can escape. Then, fire up the grill with an indirect heat zone and place the smoker box over the direct heat side. Put the meat on the indirect heat side and cook it according to your recipe’s directions.
In theory, you want your meat to come to room temperature before smoking it. This will help it cook evenly from edge to edge, including the center of the meat itself. Keeping food safety in mind, we recommend letting your meat sit on the counter for about 30 minutes before placing it on the smoker.
Every type of meat has a different time and temperature setting on the smoker. We recommend checking your specific recipe before getting started. The best way to know when your meat is finished is to use an instant read thermometer.