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The Best Meats to Smoke – Top Cuts of Beef, Pork, Lamb and More for Your Barbecue

Not all meats, or different cuts to be precise, are good for smoking. So we’ve put together a list of the best ones most suited to this style of cooking.

Last Updated: August 28, 2020 | 13 min read

A selection of large joints of meat and sausages

In this post, I’ll go over the best meats to smoke, explain why they work so well and taste so good, and share with you the basics of how to do it.

Fire. Smoke. Meat.

In our high-speed, hi-tech world, there’s something incredibly comforting and timeless about these simple elemental pleasures.

My kitchen is stuffed with relatively useless gadgets and gizmos collected over the years, but I’d trade the lot for a good piece of meat smoked over hot coals and fragrant wood chips.

It’s not just the smoky, seared melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness of smoked meat, it’s the whole experience of setting up, watching, adjusting, finessing.

Leave me be for an afternoon with a rack of ribs and my smoker, and I’m happy as a pig in mud!

But what cuts of meat are best for smoking? And what are the tried and trusted methods? No-one wants to embark on a 10-hour grilling crusade only to end up with charred leather.

What Makes a Cut of Meat Good for Smoking?

Think of a meat that is cheap, fatty and tough. That’s the one that’s perfect for smoking! Meats that would be lousy cooked any other way are great candidates for the smoker.

At very low temperatures over a very long time, these bad boys mellow out and get tender and juicy. Fat renders, collagen melts, connective fibers break down and the result is a hero on your dinner table equal to the mighty prime rib!

Here’s a quick rundown on what to look for – and what to avoid – when choosing meat for the smoker:

Good attributes for smoking:Bad attributes for smoking:
Lots of fat, both marbling, and thick fat capLean
Tough muscle fibersFine texture
Connective tissues (collagen)
Low costExpensive

Another way to think about which cuts are good for smoking and which are not is to picture the animal. The working parts (legs, shoulder, neck) are going to be muscled, sinewy and tough. These are great for smoking.

But the middle back and center ribs of a cow or a pig don’t do a whole lot. These are tender cuts with little muscle fiber. This is where your prime rib, tenderloin, sirloin and other lean, high-end cuts come from. Yup, expensive. And they’ll be lousy in the smoker, dried out and inedible.

For more info on choosing cuts according to which part of the animal they come from, click here.

Best Beef Cuts for Smoking

Many beef cuts are tremendous on the smoker!

Beef stands up well to and carries heavily spiced rubs and strong smoky flavor, still able to shine through and making the smoke a highlight, rather than being masked.

I have an entire article you should check out on all the different cuts of beef and how to smoke them, but for now, here are our favorite few.

Brisket

Smoked and sliced beef brisket on a cutting board

Beef brisket is king of the smoker and the truth is, this massive cut from the chest of the steer is so tough, it would be inedible cooked any other way than low n slow.

Great for feeding a crowd, low and slow smoked brisket has been made a celebrity on the grilling stage by Aaron Franklin, but has been a favorite in many parts of North America for decades.

Watch this video as Aaron shows us how brisket can be transformed into melting tenderness that’ll make you go weak at the knees.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite wood, until it hits 203 F internal temperature.

Beef brisket recipe: Check out the full ‘how to’ on Aaaron Franklins brisket recipe.

Beef Ribs

Close up of smoked and sliced beef ribs

Beef ribs are HUGE and have a sinewy connective tissue that demands a low n slow cook to break it down and make the ribs tender and fall-off-the-bone.

Full of beefy flavor, somewhat briskety, and when cooked right oozing with juices: Nothing says cookout like a huge slab of succulent, slow cooked beef short ribs – also known as a ‘Jacobs Ladder’ – smoking away on the barbecue all afternoon.

You might have to fight off the neighbors who will be drawn by the incredible aroma of this, one of the best cuts of meat to ever hit a smoker!

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite wood, until it hits 203 F internal temperature.

Smoked beef rib recipe: Click here for my own smoked beef rib recipe.

Chuck Roast

An uncooked beef chuck on a cutting board

The chuck roast is another tough and chewy cut…until cooked for many hours and it meets smoke!

Like brisket, this humble cut of meat from the neck and shoulder is full of tough, sinewy connective tissues and veins of fat, that makes it almost inedible when cooked with more traditional methods.

However, it will morph into fall-apart, finger-licking goodness when it’s smoked low n slow.

A favorite of some grillers who like to ‘pull’ this cut to eat in rolls or tacos.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite wood, until it hits 180 F internal temperature for slicing.

Prime Rib

A smoked and sliced, still pink prime rib with a gorgeous crust

Unlike many cuts destined for – or best suited to – the smoker, Prime Rib is a premium cut, and one of the most desired cuts on a whole side of beef.

It comes from the rib primal, between the loin and the chuck. It is heavily marbled and has large veins of fat running through it.

Prime rib takes on smoke well, and improves by being cooked low n slow. However, you still want to get a good sear on it, to add a flavorful Maillard crust and to help render out the fats.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite wood, until it hits 130 F internal temperature for medium-rare.

Tri-Tip

A smoked then sliced tri-tip with a ramekin of chimichurri

Also known as Sirloin tri-tip, which gives the game away as to where this comes from the animal: The sirloin primal.

It has a somewhat boomerang shaped, triangular appearance, and actually consists of three different muscles, which is where the ‘tri’ in tri-tip comes from.

Highly marbled, it’s packed full of beefy flavor, and because it’s typically 3 to 5 pounds or so in weight before trimming, it smokes in a relatively short amount of time.

You can also cut it into individual steaks for grilling, but leave it whole and slice after if you wish to smoke it.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite wood, until it hits 130 F internal temperature for medium-rare.

Ox Cheeks or Beef Cheeks

Three raw ox cheeks on a cutting board with thyme

Ox cheeks and beef cheeks are the same thing, and using the name ‘ox’ may be just a marketing gimmick to make them seem more exotic? I don’t know…

Anyway, ox cheeks are one my very favorite things to put on the smoker, though they really aren’t for everyone due to their texture!

Because they literally are the cheeks of a cow, an animal that spends much of it’s waking hours chewing grass and cud, this cut gets an insane amount of work and has a huge amount of tough connective tissue.

And this is precisely why I love it so!

After a good 3 hours low n slow smoking, followed by a good 3 hour braise in a dark ale or broth, all the connective tissue and collagen renders out and melt, leaving an incredibly tender, but sticky and somewhat gelatinous cut that is great for pulling and sticking into tacos.

Some people hate the goo-like texture, I adore it. And wow, do they pack some flavor that is only kicked up a notch by a good lick of smoke.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite wood for 3 hours, then braise until they tender and falling apart.

Ox cheek recipe: Try out my own recipe for smoked and pulled beef cheeks.

Best Pork Cuts for Smoking

Pork is an amazing meat for the smoker because many pork cuts contain connective tissues and have a high fat content, meaning that they can stand up to a long, slow smoke with ease.

Pork is also highly versatile, a bit of a blank canvas upon which you can use many, many different flavor combinations to create something special.

Here are our favorite pork cuts for the smoker.

Shoulder or Boston Butt

A smoked and sliced pork shoulder on a chopping board

A pork shoulder and a boston are not the same.

Yes, many people use the terms interchangeably which is confusing, but because a butt is in fact part of the shoulder, they aren’t necessarily wrong.

Anyway, the pork butt – or Boston butt – is the better cut for smoking. With a large fat cap that essentially bastes the meat as it cooks, this large inexpensive cut is just golden in the smoker.

Pork butt is the infamous cut used in most ‘pulled pork’ recipes, the mainstay of many a backyard smokers repertoire and rightfully so!

It’s so fatty and juicy that it’s very forgiving and hard to get wrong, making it in many peoples opinion one of the very best meats for smoking if you’re a beginner.

Also, it’s a great canvas to start with to build up flavors with any combination of different rubs, injections, marinades, sauces and smoke.

This cut comes in generous hunks of up to 6.5kg, that will satisfy a large number of hungry diners. Bring on the pig picking party!

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with apple, cherry, hickory or pecan wood, until it hits 203 F internal temperature.

Spare, St. Louis, Baby Back Ribs

Some smoked and sliced, heavily sauced baby back pork ribs

Pork ribs are a solid favorite for the grill or smoker.

These smaller cuts will cook to smoky pull-apart perfection in just 4 to 7 hours…a short time by many smoking standards.

It’s a personal choice as to which kind you prefer, but ribs of any variety, dry rubbed, plus low n slow cooking with a lick of smoke, then slathered with sauce is pretty much a match made in heaven.

You should check out our article on the different types of pork ribs, then use our guide to the 3-2-1 rib method to smoke them.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with apple, cherry, hickory or pecan wood, until it hits 190 F internal temperature. Then probe for tenderness, and when tender throughout, they are ready (anywhere from 190 to 205 F.)

Pork Picnic

A raw pork picnic ham on a cutting board with onion and herbs

Often described as a picnic ham, it’s not a true ham as this cut comes from the upper front leg, and not the rear legs like a true ham.

Like a ‘butt,’ this large cut of up to 5kg is also used in many pulled pork recipes if it isn’t ground for sausage meat.

The beauty of pork is that it is a very forgiving meat and the cheap fatty cuts are hard to overcook. An excellent choice if you’re new to smoking.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with apple, cherry, hickory or pecan wood, until it hits 203 F internal temperature for pulling.

Ham

A smoked and sliced glazed ham

Two ways to smoke this classic pork cut.

Purchase a cooked ham, give it a tasty glaze and take it to the smoker to pump up the flavor to a whole new level.

Or do it from scratch which will involve curing (brining) the ham before glazing and then smoking for a solid 7 hours or so.

Sure, it’s a process, but a properly prepared ham will keep for 6 months and bring you many delicious moments of pig heaven. For more on how to smoke a ham from scratch, click here for a step by step recipe.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with apple, cherry, hickory or pecan wood, until it hits 145 F internal temperature.

Best Lamb Cuts for Smoking

Lamb is somewhat unique in that it tends to take on smoke a little too readily, and hence is easy to over-smoke.

Personally, I like to cook it low n slow, and the smoky flavors that come from single species charcoal tends to be enough of a smoky hit for me.

However, if you have very well made charcoal that is truly just 100% carbon and gives of very, very little smoke, then you can add a small chunk of wood…but no more! Because nobody likes eating what tastes like an ashtray!

Leg

Smoked leg of lamb with onion and garlic

A medium sized cut, thin at one end, thick at the other and full of connective tissues that make it a very hard cut to cook to the same doneness all the way through.

But this is sometimes a blessing, serving those who like well-done meat from the thin end, and those with a penchant for rareness taking perfect slices from the thick end.

Lamb leg is very fatty, full of flavor, and does very well with a low n slow cook, but it takes on smoke so well, that some might say too well, so go easy on the smoke!

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with any fruit wood (apple, cherry, peach, etc.) until it hits 145 F internal temperature.

Shoulder

A smoked lamb shoulder on a dark surface with pomegranate seeds

Lamb shoulder can be cooked very similar to pork shoulder, and even pulled in the same manner. It makes a very refreshing and flavorful change to the usual ‘butts.’

Benefiting well from spicy African flavored rubs, then smoke low n slow until 200 Fahrenheit+, it will pull easily and is great on a bed of couscous, in flatbread or even sandwiches.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with any fruit wood (apple, cherry, peach, etc.) until it hits 203 F internal temperature for pulling.

Rack of Lamb

Barbecue rank of lamb in a white dish

With its attractive pattern of ribs, this cut has a real wow factor when it reaches the table. Add just a lick of smoke, and the flavor is incredible too.

Rack of lamb is also a great choice for faster cooking if you don’t happen to have all day to noodle away at your smoker.

With this beauty, you can be standing proudly with your carving knife within 2 hours of starting the smoking session.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with any fruit wood (apple, cherry, peach, etc.) until it hits 135 F internal temperature to stay pink.

Best Poultry for Smoking

Chicken, turkey, duck, Cornish hens – they’re all fantastically improved with a lick of smoke!

But because crispy poultry skin is somewhat the best part of the bird, smoke at a little higher temp of 300 to 350 F, in order to render out the fats under the skin, then give a high heat blast at the end of the cook to crisp up that skin.

Rubbery smoked skin is OK, but crispy smoked skin is to die for!

Chicken

A smoked whole chicken with some peppers

A leaner, more delicately-flavored meat like this will require a little less smoke, so it’s not overpowered. In fact, the number one mistake beginners make with smoking poultry is to overdo the smoke.

You’re aiming to flavor and complement the meat, not completely overpower it. Too much smoke will give these birds a bitter taste. But hey, smoke chicken just right, and you’ll never roast one again, it’s that good!

All parts of the chicken are great fo smoking: Whole chicken, legs, drumsticks, quarters, wings, skin-on breast the works.

But with breast – skin on or skinless – make sure to not go a single degree over 165 F, else it will dry out and not be pleasant.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 350 F, with apple, cherry, peach or pecan wood, until it hits 165 F internal temperature.

Turkey

A dry rubbed and smoked whole turkey in an oven tray

Again, a leaner meat and also a bigger bird. To prevent drying out and to keep the meat moist, it’s worth taking the time to brine it first to add moisture, or to cut it into a few smaller pieces that will reduce the cooking time and result in no stick-in-the-throat stuff.

It’s also recommended to not cook any Turkey over 14 pounds maximum. Because it’s so large and will take so long to cook, there’s too high a risk of it being in the ‘food temperature danger zone’ of between 40 and 140 F for too long, where bacteria multiply.

But stick to 14 pounds or less, and smoke at a slightly higher pit temp of 300 to 350 F, and you will be rewarded with the best turkey you’ve ever eaten, be that a whole bird, drumsticks or a crown.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 300 F, with pecan wood, until it hits 165 F internal temperature.

Best Game and Exotic Meats for Smoking

You can pretty much smoke anything…and believe me, people do!

But when it comes to exotic meats and game, the following are the main ones that pop up from time to time.

Whole Hog or Boar

A smoked whole hog laid out on a table

Ok, not for your regular gas or kettle grill of course, but if you have a large offset smoker, a whole hog is one of the best meats to smoke and you can do this thing.

As in grass-fed beef or free-range chicken, the meat of a feral hog or a wild boar is superior to basic supermarket meat.

Darker, naturally more flavorful and slightly gamier, this is a special meat for a special occasion and will have your taste buds screaming for more.

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with apple, cherry, hickory or pecan wood, until it hits 203 F internal temperature.

Venison

A smoked venison haunch with a sauted mushroom dish and some red sauce

Deer has a distinctive “gamey” flavor that is subdued and improved greatly by smoking.

A lean meat, venison responds well to low and slow smoking, with shoulders and tenderloins being best, but be careful to remove it once it hits 140-145°F or it will become dry.

A good option is to wrap it in bacon for added moistness and fat (when is it ever not a good idea to add bacon?!)

Recommended Smoking Technique: Smoke at 225 F, with oak, hickory or mesquite wood, until it hits 140 F internal temperature.

Buffalo or Bison

Every bit as good as beef in the smoker and a tad heart-healthier too due to its lower fat content. However, less fat means brining is essential to help the meat retain moisture as it cooks.

A good 12 hours soak in a flavorful, salty wet-brining bath should do the job.

Gator and Ostrich

Well, if you have the good fortune to find these rare yet delicious meats to smoke, know that they will be fantastic!

Like Buffalo, they are lean with ostrich having a more beefy flavor and gator tending more toward chicken, which surprised me when I ate them on a visit to New Zealand.

Both will work best brined or marinated first.

What’s the Point of Smoking?

Well, thousands of years ago before Weber ever thought up their iconic kettle grill, people the world over were smoking meat and fish for practical reasons: preservation without spoiling.

No refrigerator, no problem.

Smoking contains chemical compounds that act like an acidic coating on the meat’s surface, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. This time-honored technique also dries out meat which makes it harder for bacteria to take hold.

Today we don’t need to use smoke to preserve food, but it’s still hugely popular as the ultimate “low n slow” cooking method. In my opinion, smoking is hands down the best way to tenderize and add flavor to tough inexpensive cuts like brisket.

A Word about Regular Grilling with a Hint of Smoke

A dark image of a grill with smoke coming out of the top vent

I’ve covered some of the classics on the smoker here: bigger, cheaper cuts that blossom into greatness with low and often prolonged cooking with smoke.

But the truth is, you can smoke just about anything! And you do not need a huge, dedicated smoker and a full day free to smoke something. You can smoke meats on your regular grill.

Follow my guide here to make yourself a foil packet, throw in a handful of wood chips and add it to a regular gas or charcoal BBQ even for just a few minutes of cooking and you can add subtle smoky notes to steaks, small chicken pieces, pork chops, vegetables, and fish.

Plus almost anything else you can think of throwing on the grill!

If it Ain’t Smoked, Don’t Fix It!

On the flavor scale, smoking is grilling times ten. Adding smoke will always enrich and deepen flavor whether you’re embarking on a marathon 15-hour brisket cook or just adding a handful of fragrant chips to quick grilled chicken.

So get yourself an assortment of smoking wood and let loose with your grill or smoker. Because while there are many great cuts of meat to cook as covered in this post, there is no one way to smoke. It’s a process and it will take some practice. But I can promise you’ll have a great time working on it.

Let us know what worked for you in the comments below. What do you consider the best meats to smoke?

If you found this post helpful, please share with your grilling friends. And don’t forget to keep checking in with us for more info, recipes, guides and tips about cooking in the great outdoors.

Happy grilling!

Leave a Comment

2 Comments

Gerry Morris

Beef brisket is my favourite but it can be a tricky one for beginners. What’s your best tips for brisket for beginners?

Reply

Mark Jenner (Author)

Hi Gerry,

We have a whole load of information in our ‘BBQ and smoking’ category, linked to from the menu, then scroll down to the brisket section. There is a collection of 12 or so articles there to get you going 🙂

Reply