Injecting Meat for BBQ and Smoking: Increase Flavor and Tenderness

The art of grilling includes the art of flavoring and tenderizing meat before it goes on the fire. Learning to apply marinades, rubs, and to use brines effectively can elevate your grill experience to a whole new level.

While those methods are nice, injecting is even better.

A meat injector sitting on a white chopping board beside a large joint of pork

If you’re among those who get queasy and wobbly-legged at the sight of a needle, this isn’t for you. Because a needle – sometimes multiple needles at once – are key to the art of delivering flavor and tenderness way beneath the surface.

It’s a simple process which yields tons of flavor. In this article, we’ll detail the why and how of injecting.

What are the Benefits?

Injecting delivers flavor deep down in seconds. By contrast, brining and curing can take weeks. Marinades can take hours, and only get a few inches beneath the surface. Rubs and pastes stay on the surface.

For a quick way to get flavor through and through your meat, you’ll want to try, as Steve Raichlen of Barbecue Bible describes it, “marinating from the inside out.”

What Meats Benefit Most?

Thin cuts of meats can be injected, but for the most part are fine with a rub or marinade. Injection mostly benefits two types of meats:

Large cuts:

Lean meats:

  • pork loin or chops
  • round roast
  • leg of lamb

Injection Equipment List

There isn’t a lot needed – a liquid, something to put it in, and something with which to deliver it into the meat.

A variety of options on those basics await you. Whether you’re cooking for one, two, or 400, you have options.

What To Look For in a Great Injector

Needles

They are generally made of stainless steel and have a sharp, tapered tip to prevent unnecessarily tearing the meat.

Holes run up the sides of the barrel. It can be thin, to deliver only liquids; or it can be wider to accommodate seasoning-thickened liquids, like jerk seasoning, a hearty barbecue sauce, liquefied cheese, or pesto. For these more paste-like seasonings, an injection kit may include a metal spike to open small cavities into the meat.

For large-scale injection projects, you could opt for a wicked-looking claw which holds four equally spaced needles.

Injector Tubes

They are available in plastic, glass, or metal. Choose a nonreactive metal; brass, copper or aluminum may look great but, holding a salty solution (most injection solutions, should be one to two percent salt) will trigger a chemical change which will change the taste and texture of the food being cooked.

For small projects, an injector capable of holding between 2- and 4-ounces is more than sufficient since meat contains a lot of water. It’s about 75% water, so there isn’t much room for other liquids.

Injector Pump Bottles

You’ll need these if you’re really going whole hog; say you’re entering a competition or serving a large graduation crowd.

These look the same as the bottles used to deliver insecticide or feed the lawn and are usually in half- or full-gallon sizes.

Tubing connects the drum to the sprayer. A plunger on top is used to force air out of the drum, creating a vacuum which will enable the liquid to flow easily. A couple of pumps of the handle to prime and you’re ready to go.

Getting A Good Grip on Injecting

Generally, small injectors deliver their liquid by means of a plunger. Simply pull it up to fill the injector chamber, then push it down to deliver the liquid.

Drum-type injector systems feature a hand-grip. This can quickly become tiresome if you have a lot of meat to inject. In that case, many will opt for an electrically powered injector which only requires a few priming pumps to get it going.

Delivering the Liquid to the Injector

For small batches, a deep, narrow container – like a bottle – works very well in quickly filling the injector tube with minimal mess. For the large injectors, consider using something with a pour spout to quickly and neatly fill the injector drum.

The Injector Liquid

Salt is an important feature of the injecting liquid. It acts as a tenderizer and sparks the flavor of the other ingredients. A list of basics includes:

  • Broth
  • Strained stock
  • Melted butter
  • Oil
  • Alcohol
  • Sauce (fish, hot, soy, Worcestershire)
  • Juice
  • Molasses
  • Warmed honey

To deliver fat, seasonings, and moisture, use these ingredients, a lot together or just one or two at a time.

Always match the seasonings to the meat; complement, don’t overwhelm the natural flavor of the meat. Keep dark liquids for red meats and light liquids for pork, poultry, and veggies. It just makes the end product look nicer.

How Long Before Going on the Grill?

Some will recommend allowing the meat to rest an hour after injection; others will take the injected meat straight to the grill. Try both methods and see which works better for you.

Remember that the salt will begin breaking down the muscle, tenderizing it. If it sits too long, you’ll get a mushy mess.

Tried and True Injection Techniques

Angle/Grain

Insert needle(s) at a slight angle. Go with the grain; you’re going between fiber bunches, not into them.

Minimize the number of punctures into the meat by angling the needle(s). Slightly withdraw, then re-insert needle(s) at different angles to introduce more of the liquid into more of the meat.

Muscle Depth

The whole point is to deliver flavor deep into the meat so dive! Dive! Dive!

Operating the Injector

Holding the meat, Char-Broil recommends pinching it – insert the needle deep into the meat. While slowly withdrawing the needle, let the injection solution seep into the meat. A slow, steady pace will maximize the amount of fluid delivered, and reduce the risk of having fluid geysering out.

Angle the needle(s) to thoroughly saturate the interior of the meat. You’ll know you’re there when the fluid begins coming to the surface. Gently mop away the excess liquid.

Caring for the Injector

Depending on what you’re using, the holes of the needle(s) can get clogged with seasoning or tiny pieces of meat.

To avoid bacterial build-up, hand wash needles in hot soapy water. Look carefully to ensure water runs clearly through all of the holes. Dry thoroughly and safely store away.

Some injector sets come with storage; if yours doesn’t, get creative by repurposing a lidded food container, use a pencil case, or makeup bag.

Conclusion

When done right, your barbecue or smoked meat will be tender and flavorful. And, who knows? Maybe the more you inject your barbecue, you may find your fear of needles has faded away. Because barbecue is good for you.

Happy grilling!

Mark Jenner

Hi. I'm Mark Jenner, owner and creator of FoodFireFriends.com.I grill and smoke food outdoors at least three days a week on a wide range of equipment, have done so for years, and love nothing more than cooking good food, over live fire, enjoying it with friends. The aim of this site is to educate and help others to do the same.

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