5 Best Meats to Smoke on Your Smoker (With Awesome Recipes)
You have a smoker or you’re getting ready to invest in one. You’ve had delicious BBQ at your favorite restaurants and when you’ve visited around the country. Maybe you’ve even enjoyed some amazing smoked meat at a friend’s or neighbor’s house. Bottom line, you’re sold on this unique style of preparing meat and are ready for some do-it-yourself action.
The big question is, what are the best meats to smoke in a smoker? You already know about the popular ones when it comes to pork, beef and chicken. Is there more to it? Yes, and that’s because there also so many parts (a.k.a. cuts) to choose from in these categories. In fact, so many that it becomes overwhelming figuring out where to start. You need to know what cut and what qualities to look for when making your purchase. Then, you want to know how to best smoke it and get that melt-in-your-mouth texture and flavor you know is all too possible.
No one said it’s easy when it comes to truly satisfying our carnivorous appetites at the smoker. Rest assured, you can reach your goals by focusing in on a few important criteria: Again, what meats to smoke, what each one’s most promising cuts are, and a few tips on how to smoke them.
In this mini-guide, we cover the main list of meats you can smoke. We then give you some details about how to select a good cut and why. Then, within each section we provide you with some awesome recipes you can get going on. With this information, you’ll be ready to fill up your smoker with some delicious meats and start firing away.
1. Pork is King: THE Best Meat to Smoke?
If you talk to any experienced food smoker in the South, they’ll tell you that pork is the only real meat that is meant for smoking. We’ve all heard of St. Louis-style spare ribs, and you may also know that the Carolinas are known for smoking the entire pig. Whole or not, pork comes naturally high in fat and gives us seemingly countless cuts to choose from.
No one can deny the wide array of succulent flavors you get from smoking swine. We all love ribs, pulled pork, bacon, ham, tenderloin. pork chops and more. Further is how smoked pork flavors can be enhanced using any and all of the flavor features called upon when smoking. Pork takes well to them all: sauces, mopping mixtures, dry rubs and glazing. When it comes to smoke, pork’s never-ending fat, sweet, and all around rich meat does wonders. Hungry yet?
Pork Cuts Used for Smoking
There are five main types of pork you can buy for your smoker. Check out the following cuts and what you can make with them:
- Side: Spare ribs and Belly (typical U.S. bacon)
- Leg: Hams and Roasts
- Shoulder (or Butt): Sausages and ground pork
- Picnic shoulder: Ham hocks and smaller picnic hams
- Loin: Tenderloins, pork chops, and rib roasts
As far as quality grading, pork meat is not measured on any standard scale by the USDA as with other meats. Like pretty much any food however, it is inspected for general quality. For smoking, this means you can usually count on it being just fine for you to go to town on in a smoker.
Setting the Record Straight on Pork Meat
Historically, pork has gotten a bad rap. It’s generally fatty, so it’s often seen as less healthy. It also potentially contains harmful bacteria and the parasite trichinosis, that unless taken to hot enough temperatures can bring about severe illness if eaten. The truth is, pigs today are bred and raised to be significantly leaner than in recent decades. Diets and the conditions they are raised in are also much improved leading to more sanitary fare.
Along with improved safety, you should be aware of how suppliers potentially meddle with pork meat. Never purchase cuts that have been marinated, injected or cured by a manufacturer directly. You’ll need to check closely as these additives are often not readily apparent in hams, shanks or pork bellies given there is no regulation or standard on the way this meat is packaged for selling.
Smoked Pork Meat Dishes You Must Try
Now let’s look at some of the ways you can smoke pork. This list alone can get you started if you haven’t really used your smoker yet.
Baby Back Ribs
You can’t get much better tasting or much easier cooking than with smoked pork baby back ribs. Aside from their delicious, tender taste, baby back ribs are great for beginner smokers since they cook so evenly and in a decent amount of time. Check out Debbie and David’s how-to for smoking these wonderful pork ribs:
Spare rib cuts come from the bottom of the pig, taken from the belly side. They are larger ribs their baby-back cousins so they bring you more meat, but it’s not quite as tender. These are your classic St. Louis style ribs, famous for their incredible flavor and unique style. This is one piece of meat that takes to smoke really well, and we all love it. Here’s a way to prepare it that will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Pitmaster Malcom Reed from How to BBQ Right has got this goin’ on.
Pulled Pork Butt
The most common cut from the shoulder blade is the pork “butt” (no, it does not come from the rump of the animal!). Known also as the Buston Butt, blade meat can be deboned or done in a rolled style.
Pork butt is one of the best cuts of pork to smoke because it contains a good amount of fat along with solid connective tissue. The latter breaks down as the fat keeps everything super moist, and of course incredibly delicious. Check out an awesome take on this from Carrian and Cade over at Oh Sweet Basil. These two dive into the steps and secrets to creating the best tasking Carolina pulled pork. It’s just too much yum.
Of course these are just a few of the best pork cuts to smoke. There’s no doubt other tasty dishes like Smoked Ham, Pork Chops and Cured Bacon do extremely well in a smoker. With so many good options for pork, it’s no wonder it’s one of top meats people choose to smoke.
2. Beef: Slow and Flavorful
If you want quintessential Texas BBQ, then you’re talking long, slow-smoked beef that results in a luscious inside and crusty bark on the outside. Beef needs a cook’s patience because the ideal cuts will contain a good amount of fat with vast and complex connective tissue that needs to be broken down over long cook times.
The only way you get there is with hours and hours of smoking. This long smoking time helps develop rich flavors that only smoking can give you. Use the following tips, and you’ll have everything you need to know about what kind of beef to smoke and how to get to the results you love. From awesome beef ribs to home-smoked pastrami. From reverse-seared tri-top to delicious smoked prime rib and au jus we honor all that beef offers our BBQ hearts (and appetites).
Best Beef Cuts to Smoke
First things first. Here’s what to look for when choosing the best beef to smoke. A USDA grading scale divides the different cuts up in a way that is helpful to differentiate fattiness and leanness. Remember, the fattier (more marbling) a beef cut has the better it is for smoking, so you get tender and juicy results. Fat helps to protect the tissues from high heat to guard against dryness.
TIP: Make sure you check out the actual stamp on the meat package when shopping. A store will often include “Choice” or “Select” in their brand, but that won’t be the official grade necessarily.
Easy Beef Cuts for Beginner Smokers
When just starting out in your beef smoking career, it’s a good idea to start small when you make a choice on the best beef cuts to smoke. Go for a Choice grade (not terribly expensive) brisket flat that is around 7 or 8 pounds, or pick up a rack of short plate ribs. This is great meat to smoke because of how they cook the so evenly. They have a decent amount of fat and the temperature is really easy to monitor throughout smoking.
Best Beef to Smoke
Now that you know a little bit of the basics, follow some of these amazing recipes for smoking beef.
Beef Ribs (short ribs)
Beef plate ribs are a fantastic choice when it comes to the best meats to smoke. If you like to eat, this is the cut for you. That’s because a smoked beef rib is huge. Even a “short rib” is plenty long. Taken from the section that is between the brisket and the flank steak, it’s plenty easy on the tongue since this is a well-marbled area on the cow. Just the right amount of fat to provide moisty, heavenly flavors when smoked.
Beef ribs are easy to smoke: Their large bone size lends to a more evenly cooked meat and offers extended cooking time once desired internal temps are met. And you really only need salt and pepper for seasonings. 8-10 hours of smoking later, you’re ready to dig in.
When you pick up your cuts from the butcher, just ask for full plate short ribs. You can have them cut into single bones or do at home if you have some good knives. If you want some amazing beef ribs, follow what Jess Styles does in his full guide on smoking beef plate ribs. You won’t be disappointed.
Okay, now we’re talking popularity when it comes to smoked beef brisket. This is part of the “breast” meat from the cow and gets its notoriety from its wonderful blend of tenderness and outer bark when done just right.
Here’s the full story…
Brisket is actually one of the more challenging meats to smoke correctly. This is mostly due to it being a tough meat. You have to make sure you pick a cut within the ideal range; one with the most marbling for the deepest flavors. You also want a nice, untrimmed fat cap. This is the thickest fatty-white part you see on top when it’s in the package. Leave this on as it will help insulate the meat when smoking and add to the already great flavors.
When smoking you’ll need patience since this cut of meat doesn’t just go in and come out hours later; you need to monitor temperatures and cook based on those and not so much time. For example, you have to work through what’s called “the stall”. This is just the point in the smoking process at which the internal temperature stops rising for a bit of time. This is owed to the cooking process of the meat, where collagen gets converted to gelatin. It also depends on how much moisture is in the meat. It’s only temporary though, and the temps will begin rising again.
To help you learn more and conquer your own trials and tribulations when smoking briskets, follow what Ronda does at Kitchen Dreaming. She takes you from intimidated cook to brisket smoking master with her terrific tips and guidelines. She keeps it easy but gives you everything you need to know for perfected results.
Out of best steak meat to smoke, nothing gives you more satisfaction while smoking AND eating than a smoked ribeye. This is because you get the best of both worlds when it comes to BBQ’ing in the generic sense: You get a rich, smokey flavor and through a step called reverse searing, you get that nice grilled texture on the outside when you’re all done.
This is a lightly used muscle in the cow, so what you get is a naturally tender cut of beef. When buying, go with a bone-in cut. You’ll get a more flavorful result with the “cowboy cut” (keepin’ that bone in pardner).
Take a look at the preparation technique used at Randy’s Favorites. As Randy says, with the red smoke coloring and bacon-ish flavors, you really can’t produce a better steak.
The above three smoked beef highlights are by no means the only dishes you should try. There are countless other cuts and recipes to try. Favorites include: Tri-tip, Beef Tenderloin, Corned beef, Pastrami, Prime Rib, Strip steak, and Round Steaks. All darn good meat cuts for smoking.
3. Poultry: Quick and Versatile
Poultry is truly like no other when it comes to the best meat to smoke. Not only is it generally affordable compared to all other meats, it’s what you can do with poultry that really opens up your cooking landscape. This meat when smoked, can be sauced up, skewered, injected, marinated, brined or stuffed for the widest spectrum of flavors available. Poultry can be hot-smoked or smoke-roasted, including spice-infused rotisserie smoked chicken or an impressively smoked turkey using whiskey (see more below).
Common smoked poultry also includes barbecued chicken, Chinese tea-smoked duck or Jamaican jerk. The unique character that wood smoke gives chicken alone has given the world some of the best tasting and most popular dishes.
Poultry also affords you the convenience to get to know your smoker as well as working with temperature settings. This is because it doesn’t require the super long smoke times that other meats do to get amazing results.
As a general rule, all pieces of the chicken work well for smoking individually, except any of the breast areas ( boneless/skinless, split breast, and breast quarter). If you want smoked breast meat, keep your chicken intact and smoke the whole bird. The other parts will help insulate the white meat, and the skin helps keep it moist during smoking.
Best Chicken Dishes to Smoke
You’ve probably tried these before, but perhaps not in your own backyard yet. Give it a whirl, and your family will never want chicken cooked another way. (Ok, that’s a pretty bold statement).
This dish is like no other when it comes to smoking any kind of meat. In general, it’s hard to just flat out smoke a whole chicken. You get a nice smokey flavor, but the skin suffers greatly; its texture is nothing close to crisp or appetizing. Enter rotisserie-style smoking! This brings you the best of everything. You get the intense smokey flavor coupled with the moisture-rich and crispy skin that comes from the rotisserie method.
While this is a good meat to smoke, chicken doesn’t have powerful flavors naturally. You want to infuse a smokey flavor restrictively. The best way to do this is with a milder wood that won’t overtake the flavors. Apple or Cherry wood for burning will give you really nice results.
See how culinary expert Victor over at iFood Blogger pulls this off. He gives you the low-down on this low and slow chicken smoking approach that will make you never want to eat chicken any other way.
Smoked chicken wings is something any meat lover, well…loves. The best part is they are great for smoking. Plus, what other meat gives you the choice between two types when you eat them? In this case, it’s a drumette and a middle joint. Since the bones are small there is not much carry-over heat to aid cooking, but these cook up relatively fast (about 90 minutes).
A few quick tips: Remove the small wing tip before smoking. What tiny amount of meat that’s there won’t really be edible anyway. Also, throw on your rub the night before and let your wings rest overnight before smoking. Finally, with wings you’re using high heat. This is perfect for a crispy skin and ideal rendering of the fat content.
When it comes to smoked chicken wings, it really is an equation of meat + spice + smoke to get your favorite texture and flavor. How you spice up your wings is endless, but if you need a great place to start check out Leigh’s preparation steps at Don’t Sweat the Recipe. She combines a simple, but flavorful rub with some good smoking practices that will make you incredibly happy.
Whiskey Smoked Whole Turkey
Grill and pitmaster Steven Raichlen says it all when it comes to smoking a whole turkey. This whiskey smoked version will leave your mouth watering for days. It doesn’t take much longer than a traditionally oven-baked turkey but it does have some important secrets to success.
Steven says you have to be sure to brine your turkey for 24 hours. Then, inject the breast meat with butter before setting in the smoker. Since the white meat and dark meat completes its cooking at different times, this is the best way to offset and ensure a tender flesh in your breast meat. Be sure you have a baster in your BBQ tool set so you can saturate the turkey towards the end. Enjoy his video and give it a try with your smoker. He uses a pellet smoker, but you can easily adapt this to other types such as an electric smoker.
Of course poultry isn’t just chicken and turkey meat. Smoked Duck and Game Hens are also other popular dishes you can try smoking. Additional takes on smoked-poultry include: Orange Chicken, Tandoori Chicken and even Turkey Burgers.
4. Lamb: Expand Your Smoking Horizon
Lamb is certainly a lesser known choice of meat when it comes to smoking and BBQ. It’s more of a regional delicacy in the U.S., with some popular spots existing in places like New York, such as the local favorite lamb belly banh mi in Brooklyn or in Kentucky, home of the mutton capital of the world.
Whether you’re convinced that you like lamb or not, when it comes to smoking it no other meat offers such a positive transformation of rich flavors. Smoking lamb meat gives you a variety of cuts and provides a large range of cooking and time temperatures. For example, traditional cuts like chops are cooked using high heat in relatively fast times. Pieces like shanks or necks need a low and slow approach to reach their highest taste potential. All in all, shorter cook times are possible and still give you tremendous flavors.
When it comes to the best sheep and lamb meat to smoke, it’s pretty simple. Lamb comes from animals that are less than a year old. Anything older generally refers to sheep, which we know as mutton. Since lambs are smaller and of course younger, the meat’s connective tissue is not as developed as in older sheep. This provides a more tender but less fatty meat. This makes is great for smoking.
Be sure to serve and eat lamb meat right off the smoker. Don’t let it cool down. If you need to wait more than a few minutes after removing, simply cover loosely. It will continue to cook, which is fine but most importantly, it will stay warm so you can enjoy it to the fullest.
Popular Smoked Lamb
A few basic but immensely popular smoked lamb meat recipes you simply can’t go wrong with: Smoked “Lollipop” Lamb Chops, BBQ Lamb Shank, BBQ Lamb Ribs.
5. Game Meat: Unique and Delicious
When it comes to smoking (or even cooking) wild game, you’re talking history. Throughout the world and for centuries, animals other than what we traditionally find in our grocery stores today have been smoked both for basic survival, and also out of adventure, because many folks just plain hunting what they BBQ.
When it comes to smoking game meat, it’s your chance to step outside your comfort zone depending on your background and experience. If you smoke things right, you might just find you have a few new favorite meats to cook up smoker style.
You can even take your smoking pursuits up a notch by salt curing and smoking as a way to preserve game meat. Outdoorsmen and adventurous cooks alike have been doing this with venison, large game and game birds for some time. Preserving meats like this can give you a big stock of delicious proteins to last a season.
Best Game Meat to Smoke
Here are a few dishes that when perfected are the cream of the crop among all smokable meats: Venison Tenderloin (deer loin), Whole Pheasant, Bison Rib-eye, Wild Boar, Quail, and Elk Strip Loin.
A Note About Safety When Smoking Any Meat
Before you even open up your smoker and pop in your selected meats, you have to make sure it’s safe to eat. If you’re buying meat at the store, normal safety precaution are always at play. But this outdoor cooking style often brings fresh meat from the wild. Just be aware of diseases, like Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD ), which wild deer, elk and moose may contain.
Simply be cautious if you hunt these types of animal and follow methods to entirely bone out deer away from where this meat would be consumed. Also be wise and avoid infected parts of the animals like the eyes, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils and brain. Another general rule is to avoid killing and handling any animal that appears sick or acting out of the norm.
The meats listed above are just that, a list. There really is no comprehensive list because when it comes to smoking virtually anything can be tried and most likely perfected into a good dish. For reference, here are just a few additional meat cuts and dish you can try. You might find them to be some of the best meat to smoke depending on your tastes and experience level. Bottom line? Try and find what you most enjoy.
Fish & Seafood
- Salmon (steaks, salmon dip)
- Fish jambalaya
- Haute dogs
- Prime rib
- Beef Kabobs
- Hamburgers/Onion burgers