You may perhaps be an outdoor grilling enthusiast or a recreational hunter and would like to expand your skills and cooking techniques to include smoking, meat in particular. Smoking is a time honored method of cooking and preserving meat. There is something so intoxicating about the aroma that emanates from the vent of a smoker while it is hard at work. Yes, the smoker does pretty much all of the work for you.
Before you run out and purchase a smoker you may be looking for some guidance on what types of smokers are available and the different methods of smoking meat. You might also be wondering if this method of cooking is worth the effort. It is so worth it and really does not take much effort once you have tried it a couple of times.
In this basic guide we’ll endeavor to address all of these things so that you can forge ahead with the knowledge you need to start smoking meats. Also, be aware that you can smoke all kinds of produce, including vegetables, fruits, herbs, and nuts.
Necessary Items for Smoking Meat
You need a few basic items to smoke meat. These include:
- A smoker or grill with a lid
- Smoke source: commonly wood, wood chips, or pellets
- Liquid to enhance the smoking environment
- The actual protein
- Flavor in the form of a seasoning rub, brine, or sauce
- Meat thermometer
Grill: There are a variety of smokers available. If you are not quite ready to spend money on another piece of equipment, you can start by using your charcoal or gas fired grill as a smoker. By setting up the grill with an indirect heat source the grill becomes an affordable way to smoke meat. This method involves setting up your grill with heat or flame on one side and the grill for the meat on the other side, not directly over the flame.
Electric smoker: It can be overwhelming when shopping the electric smoker options, as there are so many. These are basically insulated metal cabinets that you plug into an outlet. They still need a smoke source, such as wood chips. The nice thing about electric smokers is that they have wire racks that stack vertically so that you can smoke multiple layers of food. You can get them with glass doors so that you can actually watch the process.
Propane smoker: The propane smokers are similar to the electric smokers in design and process. However, these run on a canister of propane gas and can be placed anywhere outside. This is a nice option if you don’t have a source of electricity nearby. You just have to be mindful of remembering to fill the canister with fuel when using propane. It is very frustrating to run out of fuel half way into the cooking.
Eggs and Barrels: Some smokers are shaped like eggs or bullets with a domed cover. The racks stack vertically in the well of the smoker. To some, the top loading aspect of these smokers is awkward. These deep smokers can be metal or ceramic and can use a variety of fuels. I think these capsules are nice for cold weather smoking, as they seem to be well sealed to keep the smoke in and the cold out. They are also convenient for smoking on a spit suspended over the heat.
With all of the above smoker options you do need something to actually produce the smoke in addition to the heat source.
Wood: Large charcoal based smokers will often use small logs or chunks of wood offset from the meat to generate a steady stream of smoke. The best woods for smoking are hardwoods because they last a long time while producing consistent smoke.
Wood chips: With gas grills, electric smokers, and propane smokers you need a small amount of wood chips that can be placed directly over the coals, flame, or heat coils. These can be placed in a foil packet or in a tray or pan. Electric and propane smokers have side or bottom trays that you can place the wood chips in. The chips are available in many “flavors” of wood, such hickory, mesquite, cherry, apple, pecan, etc. These are easy to find in packages at supermarkets, hardware stores, grilling supply stores, or online.
Pellets: Some smokers use pellets. These are made by taking wet sawdust and compressing it so it retains a cylindrical shape. These are used just the way you would the chips. The smoke from pellets is fairly clean, sometimes called “white smoke”. They tend not to have a lot of flavor, in my experience.
Liquid is recommended as it helps to retain the moisture of the meat. The liquid is placed in a tray or bowl just above the wood chips. Alternatively, the wood chips can be soaked for approximately 60 minutes and placed right on top of hot coals in your grill. The most common liquid used in smoking is plain old H2O. If you want to add another dimension of flavor, you can use things such as apple juice or cider, beer, or water and apple cider vinegar.
The attractive thing about smoking is that size does not matter, other than how much room is inside your smoker. You can smoke a whole turkey, a bone-in ham, a brisket, a shoulder roast, and a whole fish. Or, you can smoke individual chicken thighs, ham hocks, sausages, and hamburgers. It really is endless what proteins you can cook this way and at what portion size.
It is possible to successfully smoke cuts of meat that are inexpensive and considered tough. The slow process will tenderize the meat. That said, you really want a premium, fresh product. I wouldn’t go digging in the back of your freezer for a brisket that has been lost in there for a year. Take advantage of your butcher, your recent hunt, or the fresh meat aisle of your market.
There are many ways to prepare your meat for the smoker. One of the most popular methods is to brine in a solution of water, salt, and sugar overnight. A method I use often is coating the meat with a dry rub of salt, sugar, and lots of my favorite spices, such as a Cajun seasoning mix. You can also make a wet marinade or sauce, such as a barbecue sauce. If going with a wet sauce it is common to do what is called wet mopping. Wet mopping is literally mopping or brushing more liquid onto the meat at intervals as it cooks. This technique results in a nice outer shell also referred to as a bark.
I can’t stress enough how important a good quality meat thermometer is. Since smoking is not a direct cooking method with a definitive time frame at a set temperature, such as braising or roasting in an oven, the results can vary from smoker to smoker. To be sure the meat is thoroughly cooked you should check the internal temperature. I recommend an accurate digital, instant read, probe thermometer. These are affordable, ranging in price from approximately $15 to $50. Some smokers come with thermometers attached to them.
Smoking meat takes time. The key to a successful end product is the low and slow method. The temperature is fairly low ranging from 120˚F to 300˚F. While the prep is generally a few minutes, the smoking can take several hours. You won’t be doing too much, as you do when tending a grill. However, you do need to check the levels of wood, liquid, and hot coals approximately every 60 minutes and replenish as necessary. The small vent on the top of your smoker will let you know when there is a need for more smoke or fire. No smoke means it is time.
Steps to Successfully Smoking Meat
As mentioned, smoking meat is not really a complicated procedure. It just takes equipment and time. Each protein requires different timing. What is most important is making sure the food reaches a safe temperature for consumption. Here are some recommendations:
- Beef and lamb are best at 125˚F for rare and 190˚F for fall off the bone. Generally, steaks are good at 135˚F.
- Pork should be cooked to a minimum of 165˚F. For pulled pork, take that up to 190˚F.
- Poultry needs to get up to 170˚F.
- Fish varies, depending on the species. Generally 145˚F is recommended.
Follow these basic steps for smoking meat. A simple recipe for smoked hamburgers is included at the end of the steps to help your get started. It is pretty hard to mess up a hamburger.
1.Preparation of the meat: Find a good recipe. There are many online and on our website. Clean, rinse, dry, and trim the meat. You can leave some fat on the meat for added flavor. But, any silver skin will be chewy and is best removed. For poultry, be sure to remove the giblets. With fresh fish you will want to remove the inner organs and outer scales.
If needed, truss or tie the meat so it will hold together. This is especially smart if your meat is stuffed. Yes, it is okay to stuff your meat, such as a stuffed and rolled porchetta made with tenderloin and belly meat. Prepare the meat by brining or marinating overnight, applying a dry rub, or covering with a sauce per the recipe instructions. Take the meat out of the refrigerator while the smoker heats up. It is best to have it at room temperature before it goes into the smoker.
2.Set up of the smoker: Preheat your smoker to the temperature the recipe recommends. Most smokers have a heat gauge on the lid. Add wood chips or pellets to the tray. Place a bowl or tray of liquid in the smoker. Or, add soaked chips directly to your charcoal fire. Open the top vent.
3.Cook the meat: Place the prepared protein directly on the wire rack above the wood smoke source and liquid. If cooking meats and vegetables at the same time, place the meat below the produce so that you don’t have raw meat juices dripping down on to them. Set a timer for the hours needed. Every 60 minutes check your chips, liquid, and coals. Replenish as needed. Remember to check the internal temperature near the end of the cooking time. Continue smoking until the recommended temperature is achieved. Meat can take anywhere from 3 hours to 12 hours to smoke.
4.Rest the meat: After the smoking is finished, remove the meat to a clean cutting board and allow it to rest for at least 15 minutes before carving. This allows for the juices to be reabsorbed into the muscle fibers. Don’t skip this step.
5.Enjoy: Slice your meat and serve with your favorite side dishes. The sides can all be smoked if you have room. I have successfully smoked a foil pan of macaroni and cheese, trays of tomatoes, whole ears of corn, heads of cabbage, and many more. These items take approximately 1 to 2 hours and should be placed in the smoker during the last hour or two of smoking the meat.
Basic Smoked Hamburgers
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 60 to 90 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6 people
2 Lbs. ground beef chuck
Cracked black pepper
Slices of American cheese (optional)
Rolls for serving
- Remove 2 wracks from the smoker to place the burgers on. Form the ground beef into 1/2″ thick patties that are approximately 5 to 6 ounces each. Place the patties on the racks and generously season both sides with salt and pepper. Allow the burgers to come to room temperature while you prepare your smoker.
- Prepare your smoker by adding wood chips to the tray and water to the bowl. Preheat the smoker to 225˚F. Open the top vent.
- Place the racks of burgers into the preheated smoker. Smoke them for 60 to 90 minutes until they reach on internal temperature of 150 to 160˚F. Check the burgers at 60 minutes. Replenish the wood chips and water if needed.
- If you want cheese on your hamburgers, place it on top of each patty when there is approximately 10 to 15 minutes of smoking time remaining. Smoke for the remaining minutes to just melt the cheese.
- Serve the burgers on rolls with toppings, such as sliced onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup, or mustard.
I hope this primer gives you some insight into the basics of smoking meat. While this is not a recipe, you can navigate our website to get some definitive smoking recipes.
As I suggested, you might want to try your hand at smoking on your grill using the indirect method before you invest in a fancy smoker. This is actually trickier because the heat fluctuates. I do almost all of my smoking on my charcoal grill. It took some practice, but the flavor is amazing. When you are ready to take the plunge, do some homework on the best smoker options for the space and resources you have.
We welcome any comments or suggestions. We would love your feedback.
Frequently Asked Questions
In the eternal battle of the best grills and smokers, many wonder if it’s better to go with electric or propane. They both have their benefits, as well as drawbacks, and we’ve detailed a lot of them above. In a nutshell, electric smokers are very easy to use – you simply plug them in, add your pellets, and get to smoking. On the other hand, propane gives you more control and some say you can infuse more smoke into your food using a propane smoker. It’s best to look at all the pros and cons of each model and choose the one that best fits your lifestyle.
Choosing the right smoke source is the first step in producing a greater quantity of smoke. The best way to create smoke is with wood. You can use small logs, or you can purchase wood chunks. The second best way is wood chips, which should be soaked first to produce more smoke. Finally, pellets work, although they don’t produce smoke as dense as the other two methods.
Using a thermometer is crucial to producing a perfectly smoked piece of meat. You can use an instant read meat thermometer to check the temperature on demand, but we recommend using a probe thermometer. This allows you to probe the meat when it’s raw and monitor the temperature over time. There are many types of probe thermometers, including ones that have bluetooth connectivity to your smartphone.
Unless you are cold smoking, most meat is smoked between 200 to 225 degrees F. Your recipe will tell you if you should set your smoker higher or lower than this range, but in general this will produce meat that reaches a final temperature between 135 to 200 degrees F within a safe amount of time, depending on the cut of meat.
Yes, smoking ground beef, lamb, turkey, or chicken is easy to do. Simply follow our recipe for smoked hamburgers. You can serve the patties as-is on a sandwich bun, or you can crumble the cooked meat into chili.