Let’s face it—outdoor cooking isn’t that difficult.
Anyone, including my grandkids, can throw a few hot dogs and burgers on the grill and come up with a vaguely edible meal. Well, assuming they could manage to tear themselves away from their Snapstergram or Tickety Tock for five minutes.
But, smoking takes a little more effort.
Presenting a flavor-rammed, tender, aromatic, and low and slow cooked meat to your family and friends separates your barbecues from the average Joe’s (or Jane’s) tedious bi-monthly cookouts.
And, there’s one simple way to ensure your fiery-fayre is the talk of the neighborhood—just use the best meats for smoking.
The Ultimate Smoker Meats
- Beef brisket.
- Boston butt.
- Whole chicken
- Pork ribs.
- Beef ribs.
- Lamb’s legs.
The Greatest Grilling Gaffe
With 70 percent of US citizens owning a grill—cookouts aren’t exactly uncommon. So, if you want to stand out and be the Marco Pierre White of the charcoal, pellets and wood—you need to have an extra trick up your sleeve.
And that’s smoking.
However, putting on a few mesquite pellets onto your outdoor fire cooker isn’t sufficient.
You need the correct meats to smoke.
I know that you want to impress—whether it’s one-upmanship on your neighbors or to woo a bashful young lady.
And here lies the biggest mistake of smoking novices—they believe the answer is to use the best cuts of meat available.
It kind of makes sense, right? The perfect side of beef, enhanced with your expert concoction of smoking pellets and hitting the ideal internal temperature—it’s bound to lead to the ultimate in meaty perfection.
But, that’s not necessarily true.
I’m going to let you in on the best-kept secret in smoking—use the cheapest cut of meat.
Yup, you heard me right.
Firstly, it keeps your partner happy. While she (or he) may encourage your caveman instincts—they will be less enthusiastic when you steal the prized Kobe beef from the freezer.
Secondly, using bargain cuts of meat allows you to experiment with rubs, marinades and smoking pellets without wrecking your bank balance.
Thirdly, as I will soon explain, these apparently sub-par meats deliver the best results.
And finally, not all of the guests at your cookout deserve prime shoulder. Like Jed, my next-door neighbor, who still hasn’t returned my lawnmower from two summers ago.
Damn you, Jed.
Choosing the Best Meats to Smoke
Smoking is a low and slow method—adding flavor and tenderizing your cuts.
Here’s the truth—meat that you would usually consider unremarkable quality, cheap, or ‘bad’ is the perfect fleshy fare for the smoker.
Typically, you smoke for at least 30 minutes per pound—often much longer. If you used the best cuts of meat—they’d become tough, inedible and dry. However, the lesser standard grades usually possess higher levels of fat and more connective tissues (such as sinews and tendons) than the upmarket types.
Smoking for long periods allows the fats and collagen-rich tissues to break down—increasing moisture, improving tenderness and elevating taste. By the time your bargain-basement cut of meat leaves the smoker—it’s soft, palate-pleasing, and more abundant in luscious layers of flavor than the most expensive steak on the market.
The Ultimate and Best Meats to Smoke
Here’s the good news—there’s no smoking police that are going to come round to your backyard and arrest you for using the wrong cuts of meat.
If I were to give you just one piece of advice, it would be this—don’t be afraid of trial and error.
Different cuts, cooking times, rubs and pellets can combine to be absolute triumphs or complete disasters. Ok, you may get some strange glances from your friends and family when you tell them you’re off outside to ‘experiment with your pork’—but don’t worry about it. They’ll appreciate the smoke flavor when your impressive meat is in their mouth.
However, there are some tried and tested best meats to smoke. And, unless you dramatically undercook them—or smother them with an awful rub—you can’t go wrong.
Here are my top four:
1. Beef Brisket
Smoked brisket cooking time: One hour per pound at 250-degrees Fahrenheit.
Best brisket smoke pellets: Mesquite and hickory.
Internal temperature: 180-degrees Fahrenheit.
For me, beef brisket is the king of the smoker.
After lengthy cooking, it arrives on the plate tender, succulent and sweet—even without any enhancing rubs. The secret behind its success is its location on the cow.
You see, cattle don’t have collarbones (clavicles).
Hence, they need some seriously impressive muscle tissues to support their massive body weight. Since brisket comes from the breast of the cow—it’s crisscrossed with strengthening collagen. And, as I’ve mentioned—this is essential for the smoker.
Although virtually any piece of beef brisket will be a grilling success—choosing one of the best cuts possible will have your family and friends begging for more. Look for meat that’s rich in marbling and with a substantial layer of fat.
And while the smoke will tenderize—purchasing an already succulent cut will provide the ultimate in culinary perfection. Just politely ask your butcher to raise one corner of the brisket a little—if it bends easily, it will tenderize easily too.
2. Boston Butt (Pork Shoulder)
Smoked pork cooking time: 1-1.5 hours per pound at 225-degrees Fahrenheit.
Best smoke pellets: Hickory, maple and pecan.
Internal temperature: 160-degrees Fahrenheit.
Despite its name—Boston Butt comes from the shoulder of the pig, not the rear end.
Many people suggest its rather incongruous title comes from pre-revolutionary New England—where butchers packed pork shoulders into barrels for storage and transport. And, back in those times, these casks were known as butts (a term the once-invading British still use).
Pork butt typically has a prime ratio of 25 percent fat to 75 percent lean meat—making it an excellent choice for tenderness—and its simplicity of cooking means it’s ideal for the novice smoker.
Once thoroughly cooked, you can enjoy a remarkably rewarding yet straightforward pulled-pork sandwich, a decadent mac and cheese with Boston Butt, or a homely smoked pork casserole.
3. Whole Chicken
Smoked chicken cooking time: 3.5-4.5 hours at 225-degrees Fahrenheit.
Best smoke pellets: Cherry, apple and mesquite.
Internal temperature: 165-degrees Fahrenheit.
In my opinion, there’s nothing more satisfying than removing a steamy and crispy-skinned chicken from the smoker.
While phenomenally simple to cook—the key to impressive results is choosing the correct bird to smoke in the first place.
Chicken disappears fast at any cookout—so ensure you select one large enough for the number of guests. As it’s as easy to cook two chickens as it is one—personally, I’d opt for the latter. The worst-case scenario is you have some succulent breasts to nibble on the following day.
Additionally, opt for a fresh (not freshly frozen) chicken that the farmer hasn’t injected with any ‘solution’—typically a brine mixture to ‘plump’ up the bird. Smoke and water aren’t good bedfellows—a watery chicken prevents absorption of flavor, and salt will impair the taste.
A quick tip.
You want crisp skin—not tough and rubbery. Hence, during the last 45 minutes of smoking—ramp up the temperature to around 350-degrees Fahrenheit. This will create satisfying bite-through skin—not a chewy outer texture.
When cooked, you can carve up the bird as you would a broiled or roast chicken—or treat it as you would a pork shoulder—pulling apart the meat with a pair of forks. If you opt for the latter, I’d suggest a reasonably sweet barbecue sauce and layer onto some fresh buns for the ultimate sandwich.
4. Pork Ribs
Smoked pork ribs cooking time: Five hours at 225-degrees Fahrenheit.
Best smoke pellets: Red oak, hickory and mesquite.
Internal temperature: 170-degrees Fahrenheit.
For kids, grandchildren and seniors that are young at heart—pork ribs are one of the best meats to smoke.
After some low and slow cooking—they’re tasty and tactile finger food that, although messy, deliver incredible savory satisfaction.
Seek out a rack that’s fairly even in thickness throughout—otherwise, you’ll find some ribs are burned to a crisp while others aren’t sufficiently cooked. Ensure you trim off any loose meat and fat (as they will just char) and remove the membrane—it blocks the flavor of the smoke.
My favorite method of preparation is to apply a rub. I prefer spicy, but dependent on your guests (and whether you like them sufficiently to cater to their tastes), you can equally opt for a sweet or savory touch.
Just ensure you don’t rub your ribs too early—this can lead to an almost ‘hammy’ taste and dry the meat out. Do it as close to smoking time as possible. And, where you can, avoid overhandling your meat—the more you touch and play with it—the increased likelihood of your flavoring efforts dropping off your food and lowering the taste.
Best Meats to Smoke FAQs
What Is the Quickest Meat to Smoke?
Smoking times depend on the size of the cut of meat. Hence the smaller the joint, the more rapid the cooking duration.
What Meat Can You Smoke in 4 Hours?
The ideal four-hour smoking meat is a whole chicken—which you should be able to thoroughly cook in this time period.
What Is the Best Cut of Beef for Smoking?
Beef brisket, with extensive marbling and a generous fat layer, is the optimum cut of beef for the smoker.
Is Smoked Meat Healthy?
As long as you’ve cooked the meat thoroughly—there are no more gastrointestinal issues associated with smoking than with other food preparation methods. However, research does indicate that smoking meat increases the number of carcinogens present in the food.
The Best Cuts of Meat to Smoke Conclusion
If you want to be more like Smokin’ Joe Frazier and less like Gorgeous George Foreman—then you need the best smoking meats.
And that means going for the cuts that other backyard grillers treat with disdain.
Choose meats that demand long cooking times, are packed full of taste-elevating collagen, and host a generous fat layer. This will lead to the most flavorsome, succulent and tender cuts that will have your family and friends marveling at your fiery fayre.
And, if you’re new to smoking—stick with the failsafe staples of smoked brisket, pork shoulder and whole chicken.
Just don’t tell Jed your secrets.