How to Smoke Meat: The Only Guide You Will Need

November 18, 2022

From prepping to resting, you will learn how to smoke meat – pork, poultry, and beef – in a step by step process.

Not only do I come from a long line of pitmasters, but I have also trained and worked as a professional chef. So, I am the perfect person to show you how to smoke all kinds of meat.

In this post, I will outline how to set up your smoker, what kind of cuts to choose, an d how to smoke each type to perfection. Let’s begin!

How to smoke meat

What Happens During the Smoking Process?

Now, if you are new to the world of smoking meat, then it is only natural to wonder what all the fuss is about. So, what is smoking and what does it do for your meat?

Smoking is known as a low and slow cooking process. This is where the meat is cooked at a very low temperatures for extended periods of time.

To make the smoking process complete, wood chips or chunks are added to the grill or smoker and the lid is closed to trap the heat.

One benefit of smoked meat is the delicious, smoky flavor, of course. Apart from this, smoking meats at a lower temperature for longer allows for fat and connective tissue to break down, resulting in juicer, fall of the bone meat.

What is Cold Smoking?

Cold smoking has become pretty popular recently but what is this smoking process? Well, in this case, the meat is smoked at temperatures below 71 degrees Fahrenheit – far below that of the traditional smoking.

With cold smoking, the key is to infuse the meat with flavor rather than cook it. This is why most of the meat has to be cured before it undergoes this cooking process. Otherwise, it will not be safe to eat.

For the most part, this process works best for cheeses, pork, and salmon.

Is It Hard to Learn to Smoke Meat?

If you have only ever seen pitmasters at work, then you may imagine that smoking meats is a tough business. However, this isn’t the case at all.

Now, there are some ground rules that you need to follow. You also need to grasp certain concepts like indirect and direct cooking, checking internal temperature, and knowing how to smoke according to the cut of meat.

Once you have a basic understanding of these things, though, you should be a smoking pro in no time at all.

What Do You Use to Smoke Meat?

One of the main questions you may with how to smoke meat is what do you need for smoking meat.

Technically, you do need a smoker to smoke meat. That being said, it is easy to turn an electric, gas, or charcoal grill into a smoker.

The biggest difference between a smoker and grill is the features and function. A grill produces a greater amount of heat and minimal smoke. A smoker, on the other hand, produces lower temperatures but a greater amount of smoke.

As with grills, you can find electric smokers, charcoal smokers, and pellet smokers. There are also smoker grill combo models.

Grilling Baby Back Pork Ribs over Flaming Grill

What is the Best Kind of Smoker?

For the most part, the answer would be down to preference. If you are the old school type and want a true blue smoky flavor, then a charcoal smoker would be the way to go.

The only issue with smokers like this, however, is that they can be finicky to use. This is because it is difficult to set and alter the temperature.

Pellet smokers are also becoming increasingly popular. This is because they give you a good balance between flavor and ease of use. The wood pellets for these smokers can be a bit pricey though.

Then there is the electric smoker. These, too, are fairly popular because they are easy to use. There is a set it and forget it method to these smokers that make them a breeze for new users. The only issue is that the smoke flavor isn’t quite as potent with these machines.

How to Turn a Grill Into a Smoker?

With a kettle grill or charcoal grill, this is fairly easy to do. In this case, you simply set up two zones in the grill. One zone has direct heat and the other zone is for indirect heat.

To get this, you pile the charcoal and some wood chips or wood chunks onto one side of the grill. This is the direct heat zone. The section without any of the hot coals, chips, or wood chunks is the indirect heat section. It is on this side of the grill that the meat will be placed on.

You will need to add more charcoal and dry wood for longer cooks.

With a pellet grill, the switch is even easier. All you have to do is to set the temperature to around 200 or 220 degrees Fahrenheit and close the lid.

Now, when it comes to the electric or gas grill, the process isn’t quite simple. Now, as with the charcoal grill, you do have to create two zones. In this case, though, each zone is achieved through the burners.

If the electric or gas grill has three burners, then you turn the one on the right or the left one – this will be the heat source . The burners that are not lit will be the indirect heat.

If there are four burners, then light the two burners on the outside and leave the middle burners unlit. This is the area where you will smoke food.

What is the Best Meat for Smoking?

Technically, you can smoke any kind of meat that you want. However, some meats stand up better to the process than others.

Tougher meats like red meat and pork hold up best.

You can smoke chicken and turkey as well – even chicken wings. It is important to be mindful of the fact that chicken and turkey don’t have nearly as much moisture or fat in them.

Due to this, you cook meats like this, there is a higher risk of them drying out. This is why you need to brine the chicken or turkey as well as smoke them at a lower temperature.

Smoked Turkey with Veggies

How Long Do I Smoke Meat For?

One of the biggest mistakes that you can make when smoking meats is to imagine that you can time how long it will take to smoke the meat.

While you can use time as a guide, you will be better served by tracking the internal temperature via a meat thermometer instead.

Each meat – pork butt, brisket, etc. has to be cooked to a specific internal temperature. This will let you know exactly when your food is done.

A Step by Step Guide to Smoking Meat

If you want to learn how to smoke meat the right way, here are the guidelines that you need to follow. Remember that all these instructions are for meat that has been defrosted – never use frozen meat.

Step 1: Choose the Meat

Pork

If you would like to smoke pork, your best options are pork butt or pork shoulder if you want to make pulled pork.

If you would like ribs, you can choose spare ribs, St. Louis ribs, or country style ribs.

It is possible to smoke pork chops as well.

Beef

For beef, brisket and ribs are your best option.

Now, with brisket, you have two options who can choose to smoke a full packer brisket. However, this can weigh anywhere from 12 to 20lbs. It can also take over 12 hours to smoke meat like this.

Therefore, it is best to leave a whole brisket for large parties or gatherings.

For the rest of the time, you can choose between a flat or a point. The flat has more lean meat, while the point has more fat and a heartier flavor.

Chicken and Turkey

With chicken and turkey, you can choose to smoke the entire bird or sections such as the breast, thighs, etc.

If you will be smoking meat sections such as the breast or thigh, look for pieces with the skin on and bone in. This will ensure juicier and tastier smoked meat.

Raw Meat - Beef Pork and Chicken

Step 2: Prep the Meat

Each type of meat needs to be prepared in its own way.

Pork

If you are smoking pork butts or shoulders, then there is minimal prepping involved. Simply get rid of any excess fat.

At most, there should be only 1/4th of an inch of fat around the cuts of meat.

Anything thicker than that and the heat will not be able to penetrate the lean meat and the cooking process will take a whole lot longer.

Beef

When it comes to cuts of meat like brisket, start by cutting off the silver skin and any gristle around the meat.

It is is a good idea to trim the cut so that it is in a more uniform shape and, so, will cook evenly.

You will also need to trim down any fat so that the layer is no more than 1/4th of an inch thick.

If you are making beef ribs, then make sure remove the thin membrane. To do this, slip a knife under the membrane at one corner of the ribs. Wiggle it around until enough the membrane is freed.

Then gently pull off the membrane until it is removed from the entire rack.

Chicken and Turkey

If you are planning on smoking a whole chicken or turkey, then it is a good idea to spatchcock the bird first. This way, you will be able to lay the bird flat, allowing the meat to cook more evenly and for the smoke flavor to permeate through the entire bird.

pig neck on a wooden board

Step 3: Brine or Inject the Meat

Before smoking meat, I prefer to either brine or inject the meat. This ensures that the smoked meat comes out moist and delicious each and every time.

Now, when it comes to the brine, you can choose a dry or wet rub. However, I always prefer a dry brine for raw meat. Not only is it easier to work with, but it does a better job of trapping moisture without diluting the flavor of the cooked meat.

Pork

I always prefer to inject the pork instead of brining it. Here is the recipe for the mixture that I use. It makes about one quart. You will require about an ounce per pound of meat.

  • 2 tbs. of coarse kosher salt
  • 1 tbs. of sugar
  • 1 tbs. of Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbs. of apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup of apple juice or low sodium stock
  • 3 cups of water

Mix well until all the crystals have dissolved in the liquid. Pour the liquid into a tall, narrow glass.

Fill the syringe with the liquid. Then, stick the needle deep into the meat and depress the plunger. Pull the needle out and repeat the process in another injection site about 1.5 inches away. Continue this process in a grid-like fashion.

Once done, refrigerate until you are ready to smoke the meat.

Beef

Take kosher salt in between three fingers and hold your hand several inches above the cut of meat. Sprinkle the salt and continue to do so until the entire cut is covered.

It is important for all sides of the meat to be covered in salt.

Then, refrigerate, uncovered, for 12 to 24 hours.

Chicken and Turkey

Place a wire rack on top of a baking tray. Place the whole bird or pieces on the wire rack.

Sprinkle kosher salt over he entire bird and make sure to get it into all the nooks and crannies as well.

The salt should be rubbed underneath the skin too.

Place in the refrigerator, uncovered, until ready to smoke.

Food scientist injecting raw meat

Step 4: Taking the Meat Out of the Refrigerator

You should always take the meat out of the fridge at least an hour before smoking meat. This way, the meat is allowed to warm up a little before it goes into the charcoal, electric, or gas grill.

Cold meat cooks more slowly and more unevenly too. So, it is a good idea to let the meat sit outside for a bit.

However, for the sake of food safety, you should never leave the meat out for longer than an hour. After this point, the meat enters a temperature range known as the danger zone – a range where dangerous bacteria can multiply incredibly quickly.

Woman Putting Raw Meat in Refrigerator

Step 5: Seasoning the Meat

Unlike with the brining process, there is no choice between a dry or wet rub – you simply use a dry spice rub.

When it comes to additional ingredients like barbecue sauce, you should always wait until the meat has finished cooking to add these wet ingredients.

Pork

If you are seasoning a pork or Boston butt, then the following ingredients work well as a dry rub. This should be enough for about 8lbs of pork butt.

  • 1/4 cup of brown sugar
  • 2 tbs. of salt
  • 1 tbs. of smoked paprika
  • 1 tbs. of chili powder
  • 2 tsp. of garlic powder
  • 1.5 tsp. of dry mustard
  • 1.5 tsp. of cumin
  • 1tsp. of onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. of cayenne pepper

Combine all the spices in a bowl. Then, apply a thin layer of yellow mustard over the meat. Then, sprinkle on the spices.

You can use this rub for spare ribs as well.

Beef

This is another good BBQ rub for smoked meats. This should be good for about 8lbs of meat.

  • 3 tbs. of cracked black pepper
  • 1 tbs. of brown sugar
  • 1 tbs. of onion powder
  • 2 tsp. of garlic powder
  • 2 tsp. of chili powder
  • 2 tsp. of mustard powder
  • 1 tsp. of cayenne pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Apply a thin layer of yellow mustard over the beef and then sprinkle the spices on top.

Chicken And Turkey

This is a good rub for poultry:

  • 1 tbs. of brown sugar
  • 1 tbs. of smoked paprika
  • 1 tbs. of garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. of onion powder
  • 1 tsp. of thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. of salt
  • 1/2 tsp. of black pepper

This is enough for an entire chicken. When applying the rub, make sure to get it under the skin as well for added flavor.

raw pork meat seasoned with seasonings

Step 6: Choose the Wood Chips or Wood Chunks

Keep in mind that you can only use wood chunks for a charcoal grill.

If you have a gas grill, then you will need to use a smoker box – this is where the chips will go. Place wood chips in the box and set on one of the burners. The chips will heat up and produce smoke. This ensures the meat tastes smoky.

Pellet grills or smokers, on the other hand, can only take pellets.

Pork

Pork is a very mildly flavored meat. Due to this, you don’t want to overpower the natural flavor profile with a strong tasting wood.

What’s more, pork is complemented by sweet fruitwoods. Due to this, apple and cherry are the best option here. However, pecan and maple can be just as nice.

Beef

Beef has a much stronger flavor to it. Due to this, it holds up well to smokier woods like hickory or mesquite.

Just make sure not to use too many wood chunks or chips as the flavor can end up being quite bitter.

If you want a slightly milder flavor, then go ahead and use oak.

You will find a lot of people recommending you to soak the wood in a water pan beforehand, but don’t do this. Always use dry wood as wet wood only creates steam not smoke.

Chicken and Turkey

Chicken and turkey, like pork, tend to have milder flavors. As a result, it is best to go with milder fruitwoods like cherry, apple, maple, and pecan.

You can also try oak, just make sure to not go overboard.

Metal Smoker Box with Wood Chips on Charcoal

Step 7: Set Up the Grill

If you are using a charcoal grill, then set up and light the coal and wood chips on only one side of the grill.

On the other side, underneath the grill grate, place a drip pan or a water pan. The drip pan will help to catch any fat or liquid coming off the smoking meat.

As such, the drip pan can help to avoid messes. The drip pan can also prevent flare ups.

If you want a wet smoke, then fill the drip pan with water or apple juice.

Once the burning wood and wood chips have turned to embers and reached the target temperature, then you can place the meat in the cooking chamber and cook meat until done.

For a gas grill, gas smoker, pellet grill, etc. always follow the start up instructions provided by the manufacturer.

If you wish, you can use a drip pan below the grate for these machine as well.

For a gas grill, you will need to place wood chips inside the smoker box.

For an electric smoker, there will be an insert for the wood.

Barbecue grill

Step 8: Set the Smoker Temperature

When smoking meat, it is all about going low and slow. This is why, for the most part, the ideal cooking temperature is between 225°F and 250°F.

This gives the tissue and fat enough time to break down. At the same time, it also prevents the meat from drying out.

Make sure to maintain the desired temperature inside the cooking chamber throughout the entire cook.

Smoke coming from smoker BBQ

Step 9: Monitor the Cook

It should go without saying that it is important to keep an eye on your meat, even with this low and slow cooking method.

The good news is that tools such as wireless meat thermometers that can be synced to a mobile app can make it a lot easier to track the internal temperature of your food.

Many modern grills and smokers also come with a sensor that tracks the temperature inside the chamber.

If these aren’t features or tools that come with your make and model, it is a good idea to buy third party tools. These will make it a lot easier to track the rate at which your meat is cooking.

These tools are also great at preventing you from opening the grill or smoker too often. Remember, every time you open the lid, you are letting hot air out and cold air in. This can cause temperature swings.

In turn, it can throw off the rate at which the meat is smoking. So, hold off on opening the lid as much as possible.

Some people believe that you should spray or baste the meat while it is cooking. However, this is something that you should never do.

There are two problems with basting and spraying.

The first is that mopping or spraying removes the spices from the surface of the meat. This, in turn, ruins the bark.

The other issue is that whenever you add moisture via mopping or a spray bottle, you are causing the temperature to go down. And, keep in mind that you need a consistent temperature for a good smoking rate.

Garden Barbecue

Step 10: Overcome the Stall

The stall is a point at which your meat stops smoking for a period of time.

See, once your meat has been cooking for a certain amount of time, moisture begins to evaporate from it. When this happens, this liquid cools the air surrounding the meat. Therefore, the food stops cooking for a period of time.

The stall can lengthen the cook time quite a bit, which is why most people try to find a way to overcome it.

Now, you should bear in mind that the stall doesn’t always happen. It is most likely to take place with larger cuts of meat – those that are above 5lbs or so. If you are dealing with smaller cuts, it is unlikely to happen so you can skip the wrapping process.

You also don’t typically wrap chicken, turkey, etc.

So, how do you know that your meat has stalled? Well, this tends to happen at around an internal temperature of 165°F. Once your meat hits this temperature, monitor the temperature over the next hour. If there has been no change in the internal temperature, then the meat has stalled.

If so, it is time to wrap it up. I always prefer to use pink butcher paper instead of aluminum foil.

The thing about aluminum foil is that it traps too much moisture inside the seal. Due to this, your bark ends up getting a little soggy.

As butcher paper is more porous, it allows some of the heat and moisture to escape, ensuring that the bark is a bit crispier.

When wrapping the meat, make sure to do so very tightly. You should be able to see the outline of the cut when you are done.

Place the wrapped meat directly on the grate, close the lid, and continue to smoke with the same smoker temperature as before.

Cooking Juicy Spare Ribs

Step 11: Check Internal Temperature for Doneness

In terms of learning how to smoke meat, understanding the right point to take out the meat is a key element.

You will often find people telling you that your smoked meat is done when the bark turns a certain color, when the smoke ring is a certain level of pink, etc.

The reality is that these methods aren’t reliable at all. This is because there are so many factors to consider here. This includes ambient temperature, how your smoker functions, the size of the cut, etc.

You are much better off checking the internal temperature of the smoked food. However, keep in mind that the final ideal temperature can vary by the type of meat that you are cooking.

Pork

Technically, pork butt and shoulder is done at 145 to 165°F. However, if you want a tender, fall of the bone texture for pulled pork, then you should take it out at around 195°F.

Now, with ribs, there isn’t enough meat on the bones to use this method. Due to this, you have to get a little creative.

Use a pair of tongs and grasp the rack of ribs in the middle. Lift the rack up – if you notice that that ends droop significantly and there is slight cracking in the middle, then the ribs are done.

Beef

Beef is a lot tougher than pork so you usually have to leave the meat on the smoker for a bit longer.

For the brisket, you should take the beef out of the smoker when it hits between 195°F and 203°F. This is when the meat will be truly tender.

In the case of country style ribs, cook the meat until it registers at 205°F.

Chicken and Turkey

If you are cooking turkey breast alone, then you should cook until the internal temp registers at 160°F. For turkey thighs, cook until the temperature is at 175°F.

If you are cooking a whole bird, then it can be tricky to meet the ideal temperatures for both sections. As a result, you should take the bird out of the smoker at 150°F.

This can seem like a pretty low temperature, but there is a process known as carryover cooking. Immediately after you take the bird out of the smoker, the meat continues to cook. It can go up by as much as 10°F.

Therefore, let the meat sit for some time and it will be cooked to perfection.

The same rules apply to chicken. The breasts are done at 165°F, while the thighs need to be cooked to 175°F.

You can get the best of both worlds by taking the chicken out at 165°F.

Woman Measuring Temperature of Whole Roasted Turkey

Step 12: Let the Meat Rest

The resting period is just as important as any other part of the smoking process.

When you cook meat, the tissues in the muscles contract, forcing the water out. When the meat is allowed to rest, the tissues relax and reabsorb this liquid.

This results in tastier and juicier meat for you.

Pork

If you are smoking a small cut, then you can let the pork rest for about an hour. With a larger section, though, you have to let the meat rest for at least 2 hours.

Do you want your meat to remain nice and warm during this time? Then, you can try the holding method.

Fill a cooler with several gallons of hot water. Close the lid and let the water sit for about half an hour.

Drain the water and line with aluminum foil. Then, placed rolled towels at the bottom. Place the pork in the middle, close the lid, and keep until you want to slice and serve.

Beef

If you are cooking an entire brisket, then you should let the meat rest for about 4 hours. For smaller cuts, allow the meat to rest for at least an hour or two.

Chicken and Turkey

Poultry doesn’t need to rest for too long – leaving the meat on a cutting for about 15 minutes should do the trick.

For smaller sections, about 5 to 10 minutes should be enough.

Large barbecue smoker grill

Wrapping It Up

So, there you have it, all that you need to know about how to smoke meat. It doesn’t matter if you are a novice or just want to pick up some useful tips – you will be able to find all that you need right here!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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