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 smoked? 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.
In this post, I’ll go over the best meats for smoking, explain why they work so well and taste so good, and share with you the basics how to do it.
Contents - Click to Jump to Section
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.
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 cap|
Connective tissue (collagen)
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.
What are the Best Meats to Smoke?
The kneejerk reaction here is beef and pork, but smoking works great with many other types of meat. You can get creative!
Check out our handy guide below to the most popular meats for smoking:
Best Beef Cuts for Smoking?
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, this cut has been made a celebrity on the grilling stage by Aaron Franklin.
Watch this video as Aaron shows us how brisket can be transformed into melting tenderness that’ll make you go weak at the knees.
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 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! Click here for my smoked beef rib recipe.
Another poor relative of the elegant tenderloin until it meets smoke!
Like brisket, this humble cut from the neck and shoulder will morph into fall-apart, finger-licking goodness when it’s smoked. A favorite of some grillers who like to ‘pull’ this cut to eat in rolls or tacos.
Best Pork Cuts for Smoking?
Shoulder or Boston butt:
Yes, confusing, a butt is in fact the shoulder. But 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!
Spare, St. Louis, Baby Back ribs:
A solid favorite for the grill or smoker, these smaller cuts will cook to smoky pull-apart perfection in just 4 to 6 hours…a short time by many smoking standards.
It’s a personal choice as to which kind you prefer, but ribs of any variety plus low n slow cooking with a lick of smoke is pretty much a match made in heaven.
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.
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.
Best Lamb Cuts for Smoking?
Leg of lamb:
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!
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.’
Rack of lamb:
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 smoke.
Best Poultry for Smoking?
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 a chicken just right, and you’ll never roast one again, it’s that good!
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.
Best Game and Exotic Meats for Smoking?
Ok, not for your regular gas or kettle grill of course, but if you have a large barrel 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.
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?!)
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 bath should do the job.
Gator & 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. Both will work best brined or marinated first.
A Word about Regular Grilling with a Hint of Smoke
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! It doesn’t have to be a day-long process.
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.