SMOKING BASICS + THE 9 STYLES OF SMOKERS
Everything you need to know about smoking and smokers
A shiny new smoker is glistening on your back porch and you're eager to start your first smoke job. Smoking is a delicate science that requires more finesse than grilling brats or burgers.
In this guide we'll cover the basics of how to smoke meat, breakdown the 9 most popular types of smokers, and provide a few best practice smoking tips.
Most of us already love the aroma of smoke from a campfire. Now, imagine that aroma absorbed into the softest, juiciest piece of beef you’ve ever had. Smoke a piece of meat and that’s what you get; one of the most delicious,
But have you ever wondered what exactly it means to “smoke” meat? Are there different smoking methods? How is it different from other methods of cooking? And why even go to the trouble of doing it in the first place?
By the time you complete this article you'll have a full understanding of the various types of smokers and the art of BBQ as it relates to smoking.
What is Smoking Meat?
And Why Bother With It?
If you look up “smoking” meat in the dictionary, the definition you pull up will likely be: The Cooking Method That Makes Barbecue Real Barbecue.
Okay, so it would probably be something a little more defined than that. When people say “smoking meat,” they are referring to one of two methods: preserving meat through long exposure to heat and smoke, which dehydrates it and imparts antibacterial properties; or, now more commonly, barbecuing it.
The first method is the more traditional, having been used for thousands of years for preserving meat.
Now, that's some serious meat smoking.
Wikipedia defines smoked meats as: Smoked meat is a method of preparing red meat (and fish) which originates in prehistory. Its purpose is to preserve these protein-rich foods, which would otherwise spoil quickly, for long periods.
The now-more-common use of the term is that of barbecuing: cooking meat slowly over indirect heat for extended periods (often 12 to 16 hours, sometimes even more), while the smoke flavors the meat and gives it a unique flavor and texture. This is the method we’re talking about in this comprehensive guide to smoking meat.
Now, that's smokin' I'm talking about.
Turkey, in a UDS (ugly drum smoker) by the Pit Barrel Cooker Company. The Pit Barrel Smoker has won our award for the best smoker under $500.
If you think about it, smoking meat (in the barbecue sense) derives from one of the oldest means of cooking used: cooking over an open fire, where the smoke naturally imparts flavor into the meat as the heat cooks it. And who doesn’t love a good piece of steak cooked over a fire? It’s a very primal experience.
Did You Know? A common misconception among those not in the know is that “barbecue” is any kind of meat cooked on the grill, or over open flame. You’ll often hear people invite say they are “barbecuing” this weekend, when really, they are just grilling some chicken and burgers out back. True barbecue refers only to slow-cooked meat over indirect heat, flavored by smoke, until it reaches that soft, juicy, delicate state we all know and love.
What Makes Smoked Meat So Special
Why Put In The Work?
We’ll be the first to admit that smoking isn’t exactly a quick, easy process. It can take all day (and even all night) to get a large pork shoulder or brisket done just right, and a lot of babysitting can go into it, especially when you’re just learning. If you’re more the sear-and-serve type, the process might bore you. So why even bother?
There are a few reasons to smoke a piece of meat instead of just cooking it over direct heat – even with the extended effort. One reason – and perhaps the most important – is flavor.
As the meat sits over the flame, it absorbs the thick, somewhat tangy, comforting flavor of the smoke itself, creating a unique, all-natural, and dare-we-say, smoky, flavor.
People have been doing this to cook and flavor their food for thousands of years, but thanks to science, we can (to a degree) tell you what causes smoked food to taste so good. Smoke contains over 100 different compounds and phenols. Some of these are solids, like ash. Some are gases, like carbon monoxide and dioxide. And, some are liquids, such as water vapor. The exact content of smoke depends on exactly which wood is being burned, how much moisture is contained within it and even how much oxygen is available for the fire to consume.
Much of the smell and flavor we usually associate with “smokiness” comes from the compounds syringol and guaiacol, respectively. The more of these compounds absorbed into the meat, the “smokier” it will taste. Creating maximum syringol and guiacol may be a too complicated for most of us, but we can control how much smoke we create inside our smokers. Methods include limiting the amount of oxygen and air coming into the fire and using wetter wood to create more smoke.
Of course, you don’t want to create too much smoke. That results in a very bitter, acidic flavor that can make your barbecue unpleasant to eat.
Absorbing smoke into the meat also helps create the bark, the dark, chewy, spicy and tangy, crust-like texture that forms on the outside of the meat during the smoking process. The bark is considered one of the tastiest parts of the meat and is an important part of judging smoked meats in competition; it’s formed by the smoke reacting with the meat, moisture and spice rub in what is called the Maillard Reaction more on that later.
What Are Some Other Benefits of Smoking Meat?
Flavor and Bark Are Great, But What Else?
The second advantage to smoking meat is that that it creates a softer and much more tender piece of meat, by virtue of its low-and-slow cooking process.
Melt In Your Mouth...
Cooking over high heat tends to dry the meat out very quickly. Any moisture within the meat is essentially blasted out, leaving it tough, dry and difficult to chew. For delicate meats, cooking over high heat also means that you have less control over the final product, as the internal temperature can quickly rise beyond your desired temperature before you realize it.
Smoking meat low-and-slow, on the other hand, keeps the moisture from evaporating too quickly, allowing you to achieve the perfect combination of tenderness and juiciness.
I've got 99 problems, but findin' friends ain't one.
More importantly, low-and-slow cooking allows the fats and connective tissue – collagens - in the meat to slowly break down (render) into something soft. Collagen has a very high melting point, and when cooked too quickly, dries out and toughens up into something that feels and tastes like rubber, and is just as hard to chew.
Slow cooking, on the other hand, gives collagen time to soften and melt, rendering into a soft, gelatin-like texture. The result? A super-soft, juicy, and tender cut that can be pulled apart and enjoyed. It’ll also be packed full of the meat’s natural flavor. It’s a delectable, melt-in-your-mouth, culinary experience.
That’s why barbecue was invented, actually. Tradition says that Caribbean islanders who could not afford the more expensive, tenderer cuts of meat simply devised a way to render the tougher, chewier pieces (like pork butt or flank steak) softer and actually edible: cooking them over lower heat for hours on end, till all the collagen had rendered.
What Makes Smoking Different From...
Grilling is the process of cooking food by exposing it high, direct heat from an open flame. Grills can use gas, charcoal or wood to create this flame. Each of these fuels has its own cooking properties and creating its own unique flavor; cooking over wood and charcoal creates stronger smoke flavor than cooking over gas.
Grilling is meant to trap the moisture and juices in the meat while creating a crust of sorts on the outside (usually called the sear). Done right, the sear is like a lesser version of the bark formed by smoking. Hopefully, the inside is juicy and tender, too.
Grilling uses hotter, more direct cooking than smoking – often temperatures up to 500 or 600 degrees. If you’re not careful, it can quickly dry out or overdo meats if the right technique isn’t used.
Grill-roasting is the act of roasting your meat on the grill, using said device like an oven to create indirect, convection-heat; you crank up the heat on the sides (either by piling charcoal or using the burners) to heat the grill up to 300 or 400 degrees, while leaving the middle cooler so you can place the meat on it. The lid is left down, to trap the heat in like in an oven.
This method is close to that of smoking meat. The difference is the lack of smoke, which doesn’t impart its flavor into the meat. The roast will incidentally pick up some of the flavor from the charcoal or gas flame, but only a tiny amount – not the strong, bark-forming smoke used in barbecuing meats.
Braising is when a piece of meat is browned in fat or oil, and then simmered over low heat in a liquid (maybe that same fat or oil, maybe in wine) for a slightly-more extended time. This creates a softer, juicer, more tender piece of meat – similar to the soft, succulent meat that barbecue creates – and helps it gain a lot of flavor. It’s frequently used on tougher cuts of meat but works great for virtually anything if tenderness and flavor matter.
Hot Smoking & Cold Smoking
What's the Difference?
As you can probably guess from the name, hot smoking and cold smoking are differentiated by the temperatures at which the food is smoked. Hot smoking is our usual barbecue method, usually somewhere between 225°F and 300°F (or at least 165°F) where the food is cooked while also being flavored by the smoke.
Cold smoking, on the other hand, uses lower temperatures; you’re flavoring the meat with the smoke till it’s delicious, but you’re not cooking it. This is like the traditional definition of smoking that has been used for millennia; drying out and preserving meat with smoke. This would be achieved by placing the meat further away from the flame or in another chamber, where the smoke could reach it.
As with many things barbecue-related, there’s some debate over the exact temperature where these two are differentiated, but generally, a cold smoke is done between 90°F and 120°F, sometimes up to 140°F.
A Word Of Warning: Bacteria breeds rapidly at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. If you leave food out for too long while being cold-smoked, you could be venturing into dangerous territory. Cold smoking is thus best done with caution and with foods that don’t need to be cooked. Doing it properly and safely requires expertise and the right tools.
How to Smoke Meat: The Basics
Now the good part. We’re going to go into detail about how to smoke the ultimate piece of barbecue. A delicacy so smoky that your neighbors will be clamoring at the door for a piece and so tender that died-in-the-wool barbecue fans - from Santa Maria to San Antonio – will be asking for how you did it.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But arm yourself with the know-how in this guide and prepare your next barbecue the right way, you might just find yourself with a brisket that good.
It Starts With the Meat
You can have the most expensive smoker money can buy, the best Wi-Fi thermometer, and all the time in the world, but if you don’t pick the right piece of meat, your dreams of barbecue badassery may never take off. The cut you choose should be good.
There are a few general pointers you may want to take when selecting the right meat for barbecuing.
Make sure it’s from a high-quality source.
Discount pork from the back of the freezer at Mega-Box Grocery might be cheap, but it’s likely old and pumped full of fillers and a gross saline solution (that “3% Added Water” you also see in packaged chicken breasts). This solution oozes out as you cook, which is both unpleasant and can ruin the final cooked temperature.
Instead, head to your local butcher where the meat is less likely to contain fillers, is usually fresher, and comes from higher-quality sources.
If the thought of avoiding budget meats scares you, don’t worry. You don’t have to dish out on grass-fed, or expensive cuts of steak, because….
Fattier, Tougher (AKA Cheaper) Cuts Work Best For Smoking.
No need to dish out for tender, choice cuts when smoking. Fattier, tougher cuts often work best, thanks to the science behind smoking and how it renders tough cuts of meat so tender after hours of low-and-slow cooking.
Remember, that’s why barbecue was invented: to find a use for those cheap and tough cuts of meat that nobody wanted -inedible when cooked over direct heat - and turn them into something soft, juicy and downright delicious.
For the best flavor and perfect barbecue, need to look for cuts of meat with plenty of fat and collagen. These will provide plenty of moisture for the meat as it sits in the smoker, slowly tenderizing, melting and rendering into a giant, juicy, cut full of natural, meaty flavor. It’s better to have a piece of meat with plenty of Intramuscular fat and collagen instead of one with just a giant fat cap, as this will allow it to infuse throughout the entire piece of meat. Additionally, fat caps cover large sections of the meat's exterior, this is not conducive to yielding a tasty crust. This crust, often referred to as 'bark', is key to the perfectly smoked peice of meat; more on this later.
So, in short, don’t be afraid of the tougher and cheaper pieces of meat. Given adequate time and heat in the smoker, and they’ll turn out more tender than a ribeye.
Popular Meats for Smoking
Now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s look at some solid standby options.
Brisket is generally considered the king of barbecue cuts. It’s cheap, chewy, and difficult to make with other methods, but when smoked for 10 or 12 hours, is just the right amount of tender and delicious for a good sandwich - especially when that smoky crust is done just right. The downside is to brisket is that it’s one of the more expensive BBQ cuts and is less forgiving for beginners.
Pork Butt (Boston butt, pork shoulder, picnic shoulder, among other names) is the second most popular choice for smoking, after brisket. Popular in the South as the traditional cut of choice for pulled pork, it’s generally got tons of fat and connective tissue, making for a very soft, juicy cut, and usually comes in 4-8-pound chunks. Pork butt is also cheaper than brisket, and more forgiving. If you’re smoking for the first time, try a pork butt for the best results.
Ribs are another favorite; who doesn’t enjoy the meaty taste of fall-off-the-bone ribs, paired with the right barbecue sauce? Ribs have the right ratio of fat, meat and connective tissue holding them to the bone to soften up after a long smoke; they also don’t need as much time on the smoker as large cuts. Like brisket, however, they can be unforgiving if not done right, and can take some getting used to.
Other Fun Choices For Barbecue
Some meats are more reliable than others, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of fun; barbecue is perfect for experimenting with unconventional cuts of meat, as the low-and-slow process leaves plenty of room for trial and error.
For example, try smoking some chicken wings; they’re cheap, small and quick, and delicious when fall-off-the-bone tender.
You can throw a lot more than meat on the smoker, too; smoked tomatoes are delicious as a topping or side and can even be turned into a smoky sauce. Cold smoke some cheese, which pairs well with salami and crackers. Or, try the old standby smoked portobello mushrooms, which work both as a side for your barbecue or on their own as a vegetarian entrée.
Preparing the Meat
Before you put the meat on the smoker, there are a few things you need to do to get it ready, depending on cut of meat.
To Trim or Not To Trim?
If you’re smoking a pork butt or brisket, one of the first questions you’ll encounter is – do you remove the fat cap, or not?
The answer? Yes, if you want to.
We touched on this earlier, when discussing how to select your cut. Contrary to popular belief, the fat cap will not penetrate the meat as it melts. Meat is too dense, as well as mostly water. Fat is oil. The two don’t mix.
Leaving the fat on or not doesn’t make a huge difference for most of us.
Perhaps if your using a standard grill to smoke you can leave it on, as it can provide a layer of protection from direct heat. However, the fat cap will trap moisture in the meat, you may not get as good and crispy a bark. And speaking of the bark, if it covers a large portion of the meat's exterior this is surface area that gets rubbed with seasonings only to be scraped off at the table, at which time you lose all the tasty flavors.
If you’re just starting out, we recommend removing the fat pad just to make to things easier and to create a better bark. You’re not going to eat the fat, anyway. As you gain more experience, you can experiment with leaving it on and see what you like better.
So, go ahead and trim that fat pad as closely as possible. A neat, nicely shaped piece of meat all the way around helps it cook more evenly.
Tying (or trussing)
The expression “trussed up like a turkey” refers to when a turkey (or chicken) is tied up neatly for roasting on a spit or even in the oven. But is this necessary when smoking, and for other cuts of meat?
You might find that your pork butt comes tied up when you get it at the store. That’s usually just to make a particularly large or unevenly-shaped roast fit a bit more uniformly into the packaging.
If that’s the case, it can be useful to keep the string on when smoking it, keeping any flaps of meat or odds and ends from cooking faster or slower than the main roast. If your pork butt is already evenly shaped, trussing is not necessary.
Trussing is most vital is with chickens and turkeys, however. Since these birds are (quite obviously) shaped irregularly – with legs and wings – tying it up makes a neater, more compact package. This can help it cook evenly, but also makes it easier to turn and move frequently - essential for grilling or smoking. It’ll also prevent the skin from splitting.
The takeaway: truss up birds before cooking, and if your pork butt/brisket/etc has lots of uneven flaps, think about tying them up too.
Properly seasoning meat can mean many things to many people. The one thing everybody can agree on is salt.
Salt does two things: it penetrates the meat and helps tenderize it, making it easier to chew and more pleasant to eat. It also makes it juicier, helping moisture migrate further into the meat and stay there during cooking, so it doesn’t dry out too quickly.
Second, salt adds flavor. Rather, it “brings out” the flavor. An old saying in culinary circles is that meat is flavorless in the absence of salt and fat. Thankfully, a good barbecue recipe has all three.
A good rule of thumb when deciding how much salt to apply, go with about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound or if using table salt go with 1/4 teaspoon per pound.
Adding salt to meat suppresses bitter flavors, enhances sweetness, and helps increase taste bud usage. The result? The meat tastes that much better.
After salt, the most important seasoning is pepper. Pepper adds some spice that helps balance out the salt, ensuring a well-rounded profile on the palate.
For most brines, all you need is a hefty dose of salt applied evenly into the meat, and given adequate time to penetrate. This is commonly called a dry brine.
Salt is about the only seasoning that will penetrate the meat. Additionally, salt literally attacks tough proteins to help break them down through a process called denaturation. Here's a video from amazingribs.com, showing salt getting pulled into the meat.
Brining is best for poultry and fish since these meats contain very little fat which is what makes meats rich and juicy. A brine is really salty, but don’t worry, if done correctly the meat will not taste over salted.
Often you'll see dry brine recipes that call for various seasonings and herbs that have no chance of being absorbed into the meat.
A wet brine, on the other hand, is a solution of salt and other spices – mixed into water. Sometimes it also contains acids, such as vinegar or lemon juice, to further tenderize the meat.
Letting the meat marinade in brine for several hours (sometimes up to 24) allows it to absorb more moisture, as the salt penetrates the meat and brings water with it. This moisture will remain during cooking, translating into a juicier finished product.
Brine With Caution
The danger of brine, however, is the potential for mushy, unappetizing meat. Salt and acid soften the outer layer of the meat, and leaving it unattended for too long can cause it to break down too much, resulting in a soft texture that just doesn’t look – or taste – the way we’re expecting.
You’ll want to add a rub to your meat just before smoking it. Unlike salt, the herbs and spices in dry rubs don’t penetrate the meat and stay solely on the surface. For that reason, they don’t need to be applied more than a few minutes before throwing the meat on the smoker. Rubs are usually made with just a few ingredients; you want to add flavor without overpowering the meat. The base of a good rub is usually salt, sugar, pepper, garlic, and onion. From here you can add any spices or herbs you like to make your very own unique flavor.
Dry rubs are used in a lot of regional barbecue styles. Santa Maria Tri-Tip, for example, uses a mixture of black pepper, lots of garlic powder, onion powder, and some cayenne and maybe paprika for a tangy, spicy flavor. Many dry rubs also include sugar, which adds some sweetness and helps the meat caramelize.
While the simplest barbecue recipes usually just call for a liberal coating of salt and pepper, many traditional recipes from different corners of the country call for a dry rub – a hefty mixture of spices and herbs, in addition to salt and pepper. Pretty much everything from chili powder to jerk seasoning is a dry rub and finding the right one is mainly a matter of personal taste; experiment with some of your own recipes to find what you like you best. We've hand picked a few rubs to try out below.
Rub Recipes To Try
Few things elicit as many strong emotions among barbecue lovers as the sauce being slathered on. Carolina barbecue fans love their vinegar-based sauces, while Texas-style aficionados may not care about the sauce all that much. A Kansas City eatery might give you dozens of sauce choices.
There’s a lot of sauces to try out there, and if you wish to experiment, it’s not hard to come up with your own – whether tomato or vinegar-based.
Just remember: in classic barbecue, sauce isn’t applied until the meat is removed from the smoker, and at the discretion of those partaking.
Wood & Smoking
Types of wood
So, it’s time to start smoking that thing, but not before we get the smoker all set up. First step? Wood.
One of the main reasons to smoke meat is, of course, to get all that delicious smoke and wood flavor in the meat. The kind of wood also has some effect on the final flavor.
Hickory is a common choice for smoking, thanks to the very strong smoky flavor it imparts; it’s reminiscent of bacon.
Oak is another very popular choice; it’s easy to find, well-rounded and works with almost anything you throw on the grill.
Some like their barbecue sweet. In that case, choices might include apple, mesquite, which is popular in Texas barbecue; and almond.
With that said, many people believe that the exact wood being used doesn’t have a huge effect on the flavor of the final product. Just be sure to avoid pine and other sappy woods, which flare up, create a lot of smoke, and give off a bitter, unpalatable flavor. You also want to find wood that has been properly dried and aged (aka, cured). Kiln dried wood is very low in moisture and thus burns much hotter and faster, while naturally-cured wood might have a bit more water in it, burning more slowly and creating more smoke (for more flavor).
You can even try out the same kinds of wood but from different places; each wood is affected by the terroir (climate, soil, weather, etc) in which it is grown, and will taste and burn a bit differently tree to tree. Applewood from New England is different from applewood grown in California.
For a more detailed pairing chart, check out this PDF from Deejay's smoke pit.
Logs, Chips, Chunks, or Pellets?
When smoking with wood, you can get it in wood chips or whole logs, or pellets. The exact choice depends on what kind of smoker you’re using; traditional pit smokers often use logs, smoking on the grill calls for wood chips, and a pellet smoker necessitates wood pellets.
Throwing whole logs into your pit might sound fun and “old-timey,” but requires expertise to get right; whole logs need to burn at higher temps to create clean smoke. Instead, they are often pre-burned into embers, which are then used for smoking.
Chunks are more desirable for pitmasters of all skill levels; they burn faster and are easier to control than logs, but more slowly than chips, giving you more control over the cooking process.
Wood chips are common and can be picked up at almost hardware or grocery store. They’re good for smoking on a gas or charcoal grill, as they can be placed in foil and moved around. And while they burn quickly, you can easily add more by grabbing a handful and tossing them on.
Pellets are becoming more common as pellet grills become more popular. They’re created by taking wet sawdust and pressing it so tightly that it holds together in pellets; there are, no fillers or glues holding them together, and if they became wet, they would merely become sawdust again.
Wood pellets are very convenient as, like chips, you just toss some more into the fire when needed. Many pellet smokers also have automated augers that feed pellets into the pit when the thermostats signals, keeping a consistent heat going. They also create a smooth, clean smoke that imparts a generally desirable flavor.
Avoid using pressure-treated wood, which can sometimes contain toxic compounds.
Soaking the Wood
Many people think it’s a good idea to soak your wood chips or chunks before putting them on the fire, but we don’t think that’s the case. The conventional wisdom is that soaking the wood helps it burn more slowly, while also creating more smoke. In practice,the water barely makes it beyond the outer layers of the wood and the interior remains bone dry.
If you put wet wood on top of the flames, it will smolder while the water on the outside evaporates. Once it has evaporated, the wood will simply burn.
Throwing wet wood right into the pit also makes it harder to keep a consistent temperature, as it cools off the fire before having time to dry and ignite.
Preparing Wood for Smoking
If using wood chips on a gas or charcoal grill, you can prepare them by placing them either in an aluminum cooking tray, or by wrapping them up in an aluminum foil and creating a pouch. Pole some holes into it to let smoke and air in.
You then place this pouch or tray full of wood chips either right on top of the charcoal, or above one of the gas burners. As the wood burns, it gives off the smoke, just like a wood-burning smoker.
Some gas grills come with dedicated smoker boxes, set right over their own gas burners; alternatively, you can purchase a smoke tube. Simply place your wood chips directly in the smoker box and crank up the burner. Voila.
How Much Wood Do You Use?
There really isn’t a rule for this; you’ll need to add enough wood to keep producing smoke as long as you need.
One thing worth mentioning, people often ask if the meat stops taking on smoke after a certain period of time. The answer is no. As long as the wood's still smoking the meat will continue to absorb smoke throughout the duration of the cook.
For a classic pork butt or brisket in a traditional smoker, that usually means starting with about 10 ounces of wood, and adding more as it burns down. On a grill, you can get away with less. On a charcoal grill, you likely need a little more.
Chickens and turkeys need less wood for smoking than brisket or pork as you aren’t trying to impart as smoky a flavor or as thick a bark. Fruits, vegetables, cheeses, etc, need even less.
Always remember, if your creating billowing clouds of smoke you're doing it wrong. Your neighbors shouldn't wonder if you've set fire to your house. Too much smoke will give the meat a bitter flavor after about an hour. The goal is to maintain a light colored, almost invisible, stream of smoke throughout the duration of the cook.
Feel free to experiment and find the amount of wood – and thus the amount of smoke – you prefer for your barbecue.
How The Smoking Process Works:
So, you’ve got your meat seasoned, tied up, placed on the smoker. The wood has been selected and stuck in the smoke box. And now you’re firing up the grill. What, exactly, happens from here?
Direct and Indirect Heat
There are two ways to cook meat: using direct heat or indirect heat. Direct heat is how you grill those tasty burgers. But to smoke, you'll be using indirect heat.
Grilling meat is all about using direct hot heat for short periods of time, while the key to smoking is to use indirect heat to cook meat at a low temperature over a long period of time. Basically, a smoker and a grill are polar opposites.
The magic of smoking lies in indirect heat. In other words, you’re not placing the meat right on top of the flame or heat source; that’s too hot and too hard to control. Instead, you’re letting the heat and smoke from the flame waft over the meat, while keeping it out of the direct path.
Using a dedicated smoker makes cooking with indirect heat simple. A smoker is uniquely designed to keep the meat out of direct heat while still letting smoke reach it and absorb. A good smoker is crafted to ensure smoke and heat properly circulate around the meat for an even cook.
Smoking on a Charcoal Grill
If you’re smoking on your gas or charcoal grill, however, you’ll need to use 2-zone setup, which splits the grill into a hot (direct heat) zone, for browning and searing, and an indirect zone, for smoking and slow-cooking.
A 2-zone setup is simple to create. On a charcoal grill, simply pile all the charcoal on one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty, and ignite. The side with the coals will burn hot as it normally does, allowing you to sear your steaks and get good browning. But the real magic – for smoking – is on the other side. If you own a kettle style grill you can purchase the slow 'n sear, which is an ideal accessory to perfect the 2-zone cook.
The indirect, away from the coals, won’t be hot enough for browning but will let you cook food at a lower temperature, via convection. Perfect for low-and-slow smoking.
Controlling the size of the fire on the hot side will let you get the optimal 225ºF to 275ºF needed achieve maximum tenderness and juiciness. It’ll take practice, as you learn the right amount of charcoal to use, and how your smoker behaves in different weather. But, it’s more than possible with the aid of a trusty meat thermometer.
Smoking on a Gas Grill
Setting up 2-zone cooking on gas grill is even easier. Just turn on the burners on one side of the grill, leaving the others off. Like with charcoal, it will take some experimentation to find exactly which burners to turn on and how high to crank them up. But once you have, controlling the temperature and getting it to 225ºF requires little work.
One trick to help keep a consistent temperature using 2-zone cooking is to place a water pan on the grill. Water absorbs the heat and then radiates it out again, which helps keep overall grill temperature consistent when the heat source spikes or drops suddenly.
The added moisture from evaporating water can also prevent the meat from drying out, keeping it moist and flavorful.
The Millard Reaction & The Bark
We spend a lot of time talking about how slow-cooking creates soft, tender and juicy meat, but that’s not the only thing that makes smoked meat so delicious. Most of us also love that dark, chewy, blackened outside full of smoky flavor that we call the bark.
If you’re familiar with the delicious flavor imparted to a steak by a good sear, take that and amplify it 5x, and you’ll have an idea of the sensory delight that is a good crust.
This deliciousness is created by what, in barbecue and in scientific circle, is called the Maillard reaction. The name comes from the French scientist Louis-Camille, who studied the way foods brown when cooking.
The Maillard reaction is essentially what happens when the amino acids in meat (proteins) are exposed to heat: they react with atoms in reducing sugars (glucose and fructose), creating entirely new compounds. These new compounds result in the brown color and texture we all know and love, as well as the accompanying flavor. That’s how steaks get their beautiful sear and smoked meats get that chewy bark.
So, the Maillard Reaction is super important to getting a really-good piece of barbecue. But it requires some exact conditions to come to occur.
For one, you need to be cooking with a dry heat. Moisture can slow down the process or even sabotage it and prevent that bark from forming. Pat down your meat before throwing it on the smoker.
You can also help maximize browning by sprinkling with some sugar, giving the amino acids more to work with for maximized browning, oiling liberally, and by turning frequently, which slows down the cooking inside the meat and gives the outside more time to brown.
Temperature Standards for Safety and Doneness
Internal Meat Temperature
The smoker's internal temperature isn’t the only the temperature that requires your attention. The final internal temp of the meat is a vital piece of the puzzle for ensuring both ideal tenderness and doneness, and safety.
Meat can harbor various pathogens, such as the particularly nasty E. Coli and Salmonella. To kill them, the USDA recommends that beef and pork chops and steaks be cooked to at least 145°F, while chicken be cooked to 165°F. At these temperatures, you can be sure that your food is completely safe to eat.
Unfortunately, most of us find that cooking food to these temperatures is too much. A steak cooked to 145°F will be encroaching on medium-well territory, far too done for most steak lovers. A chicken breast cooked to 165°F is dry and chewy, not juicy.
Thankfully, a closer reading of the USDA standards shows that’s it’s not totally necessary to cook your meat to those exact numbers. The numbers listed are the temperatures at which pathogens are killed instantly, but they can be also be killed if exposed to lower temperatures for longer periods of time.
Beef, for one, can be pasteurized if held at 135°F for 37 minutes – although you probably won’t want to wait that long.
Most of us who like a good steak are probably just going to take our chances with rare or medium, since any bacteria on the surface will already have been killed. And when it comes to pork, the traditional threat has been trichinosis, which has been all but eradicated in the Unites States over the past few decades.
Luckily, when smoking meats like pork butt or brisket, we don’t have much to worry about, as our target temperature is usually between 195°F and 205°F - plenty hot enough to kill all dangerous bacteria.
The only accurate way to know all this is to use a meat thermometer. When smoking, you’ll want a specialized Wi-Fi or Bluetooth thermometer to let you keep an eye on your barbecue over the course of a 12-hour smoke. At the very least, you'll need an instant read thermometer for checking doneness. Avoid relying on unproven "hack" methods for checking doneness.
Internal (Ambient) Grill Temperature
Why Cook at 225°F?
Grills usually operate around 400°F while a smoker is best around 225°F.
Meats don’t all cook the same way and throwing a pork butt or brisket onto a flaming grill wouldn’t exactly turn out the way we’d like it to. The high heat will have caramelized the outside of the meat – via Maillard Reaction – long before the inside has a chance to heat. Leave it on too long, and it will simply burn on the outside, with a layer of dry, unappetizing meat beneath it.
A general rule of thumb is that the thinner the meat, the higher heat. The thicker the cut, the lower the heat. That’s why we throw steaks on the grill for just a few minutes, but a roast takes all day.
While the high heat from the flame cooks the outside of the meat, the inside is cooked by the radiant heat coming in from the outer layers of the meat. You need to give ample time for the heat to migrate throughout the roast, allowing it to reach the desired internal temp before the outside burns or crusts beyond a desirable point.
Cooking low-and-slow also lends more control over the cooking process, ensuring you don’t overshoot and dry out the barbecue. There’s room for error, and minor heat flareups don’t ruin the food.
The traditional temperature for smoking brisket or pork butt is 225°F, which gives the most control and results in the juiciest final product. Many people, however, find that 275°F gives solid results in much less time, results good enough to satisfy most casual barbecue fans. 300°F is another possibility when you’re in a time crunch, but the meat will likely become noticeably less juicy and tender. For beginners, I always recommend smoking between 225°F to 250°F.
How Long Will It Take?
Smoke times vary widely. The chart provided above is a rough estimate on what you can expect for various cuts of meat, as well as ideal doneness temperatures. But it's hard to provide a one-size-fits-all solution here. Factors that effect cook time include: size of cut, cooking temperature, how much salt there is, moisture, and even the weather.
With that said, it’s possible to give a loose estimate: for a brisket or pork butt, estimate about 1.5 hours per pound at 225°F. That means an 8-pound brisket will take roughly 12 hours. Crank that up to 275°F and you could achieve a similar result in about half the time.
The caveat is that certain things can make it take longer. A very moist piece of meat takes longer because water content causes the meat to “sweat”, essentially. And a cold, windy night can drive heat away and cooking times up.
So a rule of thumb is just that. To make sure your meat is cooked properly and safely, you really need to monitor it with a reliable meat thermometer.
Is Smoking Meat Safe?
Cooking meat low-and-slow is as safe as any other cooking method, provided it’s done right. Since pathogens are killed instantly at temperatures 165°F and above, the outside of the meat – where most bacteria is – will be pasteurized almost immediately once stuck on the smoker at 225°F-275°F, just as if searing. If the temperature remains at 225°F or above the entire cook time, it will remain safe to eat - provided the inside is cooked to safe temperature as well.
Be sure to thoroughly thaw your meat before putting it on the smoker. Since you’re cooking at low temperatures and because a pork shoulder or brisket is large, any frozen meat in the middle can take too long to thaw on the smoker, spending too much time in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F. It’ll also take longer to smoke; additionally, as your meat thaws on the grill it will cause more moisture to drip on your coals cooling them down in the process.
Science of Smoke
You need to have a basic understanding of how smoke works. Smoke is created by the process of combustion. When you light a grill you are creating combustion, which is just the reaction of oxygen when it hits fuel, but combustion is what creates smoke.
Depending on the heat source, coal, wood, gas or pellet, the flavor of the smoke changes because each fuel source produces its own unique combination.
Let’s try layman's terms... when wood burns it creates chemicals, some of those chemicals dissolve, what's left attaches itself to new chemicals found in the meat. The correct combination of chemicals in the smoke and in the meat are essential, too much nitrogen dioxide or smoke, and you will end up with a culinary Hindenburg.
With that being said, the best smoke is almost almost invisible. A common rookie mistake is to create billowing white clouds of smoke. You're after a light blue smoke.
Burning the right type of wood will make or break your meal. You need to use hardwoods for the best smoking flavor, like fruit and nut trees. Softwoods usually contain more air and sap and cause a mixture of garbage that makes your food taste like, well, garbage.
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TYPE OF SMOKERS
Smokers are not created equally. Each as their unique strengths and weaknesses. A gas grill can be used as a smoker, but it is entirely different from a pellet smoker, upright smoker, off-set smoker, etc. Understanding the characteristics of each type of smoker is important in yielding the best final product with any given grill/smoker.
Smoking on a gas grill is a little tricky and requires some hand-holding, but don’t be discouraged it can be done. Just keep in mind, most gas grills are not structurally designed properly for smoking food. One of the signs of a good gas grill is they are versatile enough cook fast and hot, as well as low and slow.
Since smoking is a long process, make sure you have enough gas on hand for the whole cooking period.
To prepare your grill, you’ll need to create two zones inside your grill, a direct heat zone, and an indirect heat zone. The direct zone is where the fire will be burning the indirect zone is where the meat will be.
Smoking is all about a steady low temperature, you might need to experiment with your burner until you find the right mix. If you have a four-burner grill, turning one burner on high should give you close to 225 degrees, two burners, hopefully, will bring you up to 250 degrees. Make sure you use the burners furthest away from the meat. Later when you start smoking, you will need to check the temperature and make adjustments as necessary.
Next set up a drip pan. If you're lucky you can fit it under the grate where you placed the meat, but most likely the burners will be in the way. It is not a good idea to set the pan on top of the burners; your grill was not designed to hold weight on those parts.
The way to fix this is to place the drip pan on top of the grate and then add another grate across the top of the drip pan. For extra moisture add some water to the drip pan too. Continue to add water to this pan throughout the smoking process.
Now you need to make a smoke box. Use a big sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil, place your wood chunks inside and poke a bunch of holes in it. Then set it over the flames and wait to make sure it starts smoking.
Now place the meat in the indirect zone, above the drip pan and you're good to go.
This is not the type of smoking set up you can just start and then leave. You'll need to pay attention to the grill throughout the whole smoking period or else you'll end up with a smokey mess.
Kettle Grills / Webers
To prepare your Weber grill for smoking first, remove the cooking grate from your grill. On one side of your grill place an aluminum drip pan. To add some moisture to your smoker fill thepan approximately halfway with water. On the opposite side of the grill, pile up your coals..
Get your coals nice and hot, when they are white you are ready to add the wood.
You don’t need much wood to get a good flavor but choosing the right wood is important. Wood chunks work best, but if you have to use chips make sure they have been soak for at least an hour.
Place a chunk of wood or a hand full of chips on top of your hot coals and replace the cooking grate.
Now, you're ready to cook. Place the meat over the drip pan, away from the fire, and cover your grill making sure the vents are over your meat, not your coals. Check your vents; they should be set about aquarter of the way open. Now, you wait. Since you are using a grill you will need to occasionally add more coal or wood, but it's important to keep the lid closed as much as possible. There is no need to flip the meat, just let the smoke do its job. Remember smoking meat takes time, therefore, be patient with the process.
Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS)
This is a great project for meat geeks with an insatiable drive for DIY tasks. You’ll need some specific tools, but if you're a hardcore DIY-er then you probably already have all the tools you need.
Constructing a UDS
Although it might sound complicated, building one of these beasts is actually pretty easy for the average do it yourselfer. In a nutshell, it goes like this… get a 55-gallon drum, then strategically drill a bunch of holes into it. Build a charcoal basket and find a 22-inch grilling grate to place inside. Finally, attach some plumbing valves to work as the air inlets. And voilà you’ve got yourself a one of a kind ugly drum smoker.
Lay down a layer of charcoal, UDS experts advise adding more charcoal to the basket than you think you might need because trying to add more charcoal once the smoker is going is pretty tricky. On the same note, try starting fewer briquettes than you think you might need. If the smoker gets overheated it can be difficult to cool it back off.
Once you have your charcoals ready, lay the heat shield down and put the grates back in and place your meat on the rack. Try to keep the lid down, if you need to check the meat, take it out and close the lid while you check it. It might help to close the intake valve before you take the lid off, just remember to open them back up when you close the lid.
What makes a pellet smoker so popular isn’t just the taste it creates but its ease of use. You can easily set it up and leave it until it's done. This is the reason for the huge craze which Traeger has done well to capitalize on. There is no babysitting, hovering or double-checking required. The reason for this, internal temperature control.
Traeger's, unlike other models, have a temperature probe, these sensors tell it if the temperature is too low and automatically feeds more pellets to the fire. You can set up the temperature in 5-degree increments. Other brands and cheaper versions only offer three settings low, medium and high. There is no sensor to monitor the temperature.
Many pellet smokers have automatic starts and large drip pans making prep and clean up easy. Also, you can load up the chamber and not worry about uneven cooking.
Finally, pellet smokers are versatile. They can smoke, roast, barbecue, and bake.
Access to electricity has its downfalls, however. First, if the cord isn’t long enough you will need to make sure you have a proper extension cord. Using the wrong cord is a fire hazard. Do the math (watts/volts = amps) and make sure you have the right extension cord. The smoker is also less mobile, and if it's stored outside it absolutely must have a cover. Electrical components and weather don’t mix.
Propane vertical smokers usually have a very simple design.
Like a standard gas grill, burners are located at the bottom of the smoker and connect to propane tanks. Above the burner lies the wood pan, then a water pan. Above all of that is the smoking chamber.
There is usually a thermometer mounted somewhere on the dome. However, you should seriously consider investing in a grate thermometer as the dome mounted ones can be shockingly inaccurate.
Using a gas smoker is pretty simple. First, fill the water pan and place it in the smoker. Then, with the lid open, light the burner. Once the smoker is warmed up to the right temperature, about 10 to 15 minutes, add the wood chunks.
Once a white billowy smoke begins to escape the chimney you are ready to add the meat.
Check the smoker periodically, you may need to add more water or wood. Otherwise, you can just sit back and let the smoker do its job.
Electric Vertical Smokers
Electric smokers are all about achieving a user friendly smoke. What they lack in flavor they somewhat make up in simplicity.
Electric smokers are some of the easiest to use because the temperature is much easier to control than with other types of smokers. Unlike working with different sources of heat like gas, wood, and charcoal, an electric smoker will regulate the temperature all on its own. Although it is an easier machine, it takes some of the fun out of smoking.
To use an electric vertical smoker, simply add water to the water pan, then add wood chips or chunks to the wood tray. Then turn on the smoker to the desired temperature. Once the smoker has reached the right temperature then you are ready to add the meat. Try to do this step as quickly as possible, while the doors are open you’re losing heat and smoke.
Your work here is pretty much done, you may need to add more water and wood to the tray during the smoking process, but mostly you can just let your smoker do the work while you enjoy a good night's rest.
Bullets / Water Smokers
A bullet or water smoker looks a lot like a knock-off R2D2. But it has the same components of any smoker such as charcoal and water pans and a couple of racks. Luckily, it's not as difficult to understand as R2D2.
As the name suggests water is the key to a bullet smoker. These smokers rely on moisture, unlike other models where the water pan is optional. In the bullet, the water is necessary for maintaining the temperature inside the smoker because it provides a barrier between the heat source and the meat.
Before you start smoking make sure to fill the water pan, then keep a close eye on it through cooking. Refill the water pan as needed, there should never be less than 2 inches of water in the pan. If you let the pan go dry the temperature will shoot up. Make sure to use warm water when you refill the pan or the temperature will fall.
To start the smoker, just fill the fire box with hot coals and add wood chip or chunks; your water pan should already be full.
Set up the grate for your meat but wait until the smoker has reached the right temperature before you put it in. When you add the meat, do it quickly or else you will lose too much heat from the smoker.
Green Egg / Ceramic Smokers
The Big Green Egg is a ceramic smoker that can do anything from oven baked pizza to juicy tender briskets.
The Egg has great insulation, which makes temperature regulation much easier than with some other types of smokers. Like other smokers, the temperature is simply regulated by the vents..
The Egg comes with some special features like a Plate Setter, which is a stoneware part that turns your smoker into a brick oven. You can also turn the Egg into a convection oven. So the Egg can be a versatile tool. Keep in mind, however, that the Egg is really heavy; it's not the kind of smoker you will be able to move around.
To set your Egg up for smoking add the charcoal and the wood chips first. Spread the chips out so they are not placed in just one heap. Then light a few briquettes near the center. These will gradually light the briquettes around it and keep the heat and the smoke going for as much as 16 hours.
After you light the briquettes put the plate setter in, legs side up, to hold the meat. Close the lid and adjust your vent until you have the right temperature.
An offset smoker may be the most difficult to figure out, but once you have it down it's a great all-around smoker. Most smokers feel the offset is what sets real aficionados apart from the rest of the crowd. However, most of the cheap ones are built for people who like the idea of owning an offset smoker, more than they care about how well it smokes. As a result, most offset smokers are better as stand alone grills than smokers.
An offset usually has two chambers, there is a large smoking chamber, then attached to the side of it is a separate chamber for the firebox. The charcoal and wood chunks are set in the firebox, then the smoke rises up and travels through the smoking chamber and out the chimney which is placed on the opposite side of the smoker.
Since the firebox is at one end of the smoke chamber the temperature inside varies. It is higher at the end closest to the box and lower at the opposite side. To make sure you have an even cook you will have to rotate your meats throughout the smoking processes.
Start a fire in the firebox or prepare the charcoal in a chimney starter, open the intake vent and the chimney vent completely.
Close the firebox lid and the lid to the smoking chamber. Adjust the vents until you get the right temperature.
When you've preheated the smoker put the meat on the smoking grate and add wood chips or chunks to the firebox. As you cook you can add more wood to the smoker without opening the smoking chamber.
Final Best Practice Tips
If your lookin' you ain't cookin': Keep the lid closed as much as possible when smoking. When you're grilling the temperature is high enough and reheats quickly enough that the inside of the meat continues to cook even with the lid open. However, smoking meat is all about low and steady temperatures. Opening the lid lets: cold air in, moisture escape and it allows oxygen to feed the fuel; all this leads to major changes within your smoker's environment which can effect your meat negatively. These negative effects vary based on several factors such as the outdoor environment: temperature, humidity, wind, etc. Nonetheless, if you're only opening the lid for a minute or two it shouldn't be a big deal and likely won't affect your final product. Luckily, you don’t need to turn the meat often when smoking, only once or twice.
Rubs are key to a delicious outer crust, make sure to season your meat. Keep in mind, a rub (minus the salt) will not penetrate very far into the meat. This is why rubs are applied just prior to cooking. Salt is really the only thing that penetrates the meat, and to do so it takes hours. Therefore, don't add salt into your rubs as it will only cause the outer crust of the meat to become salty. This means you should be dry/wet brining the meat in salt 10 - 12 hours prior to smoking the meat.
Make sure your smoker is at the right temperature, somewhere between 225 and 275 degrees. Do yourself a favor and purchase a good thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of your grill – those dial thermometers are garbage and are usually off by 25+ degrees.
A water pan is not necessary when using a smoker but there are several benefits. Since water boils at 212 degrees the steam fills the smoker and helps regulate the temperature so you are more likely to stay in that sweet spot of 225°F. Another good thing about water is it helps the heat transfer evenly all around the meat additionally, as moisture adheres to the meat it creates the ideal "glue" for smoke to stick to. One thing to remember when adding water to the pan ensure it is boiling – never add cold water.
Choose the right wood. Mesquite is a famous wood, you hear it being used all the time at great barbecue restaurants. But don’t be fooled. It is strong and overpowering. It is not always the type of wood you want to use, instead, consider a great nut wood like hickory or even fruit woods such as cherry.
As the wood smokes keep in mind the smoke should be almost invisible or at most a light white, if it turns into thick white or black clouds you're doing it wrong. Most likely there is not enough ventilation; check the air flow. Remember, smoking is kinda like wearing makeup...it should look like you're wearing none at all – same thing goes for smoke – less is more. The best tasting smoke is the kind you can barely see, don't feel you need thick clouds of smoke for the entire 7 hour cook time. Most all meat will only absorb smoke for about 3 hours, after that, it's....all smoke and mirrors...
If you must add a serving sauce, such as BBQ, don't add it till the last 30 minutes.
Always use an good internal meat thermometer you can trust to make sure your meat is done properly – never trust suspect "hacks" that claim you can know when meat is done with methods that don't involve a meat thermometer.
Invest in a good pair of grilling gloves. You'll find that you will use them for everything when it comes to smoking and grilling.
Comment with tips that have improved your smoking game.