Smoking Meat

Before freeze drying or refrigeration, people would preserve foods by smoking them – especially meats. Smoke would extend the shelf life for the winter and add flavor while making the meats tender.

Now, smoking has evolved into a fun way to add tons of flavor to your cuts of meat. You might think that it’s as easy as putting meat on the grill – but it’s a very different process. Here are some things to consider when you want to smoke meat:

Choosing a Smoker

You might think that smokers are just canisters that contain smoke, but they are a bit more complicated than that. Here are a few things to consider when purchasing a smoker.

Price. Typically, they range in price from $50 – $10,000 depending on the quality and size. For beginners, we recommend a small, vertical water smoker. They are less of an investment but high-enough quality that it will help you decide whether you’d like to continue smoking on a regular basis.

Fuel. Smokers are usually fueled by charcoal, hardwood, wood pellets, propane or electricity. Charcoal and wood smokers offer a more authentic taste to the meats. Different woods can have a different effect on the meats and provide different flavors.

Charcoal smokers are usually the cheapest smokers. Electric smokers can be less expensive but typically don’t offer as much flavor because they don’t have the wood to add that real flavor. There are even electric smokers that heat up wood and allow you to control the smoking process with a computer to get it exactly right.

The type of fuel used by your smoker will mostly depend on how involved you want to be in the smoking process.

Size. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to start out really big. Some of the smallest smokers can produce enough meat for a large family. Larger smokers would produce enough meat to throw a neighborhood party. Most smokers will specify how much they can make on the packaging. As a general guideline, 1 pound of raw meat will smoke into enough meat for one person.

Types of Woods to Smoke

Depending on the type of smoker you have, you might not even need to use wood in your smoker. If that’s the case, just skip this next section.

However, for those of you still reading, the type of wood you use can be a big deal. Fresh cut hardwoods are typically the best for smoking. They have a more compact cell structure with a lot of water in them – up to 50 percent of the wood weight – which produces a lot of steam that helps flavor the meat better.

Dried cut hardwoods typically have about 5 percent water weight but still offers a good cell structure for smoking. The woods contain a lot of cellulose and hemicellulose – large molecules of carbohydrates and sugars. These really help with the flavor.

Smoke flavor is influenced a lot by the climate and soil and the species of the wood. This could mean that two hickories grown in different parts of the country can have a different flavor compared to hickory or pecan that are grown in the same area. It makes things a little more complicated.

Enthusiasts will tell you that woods from gardens or lumberyards are full of chemicals and they should be avoided. They typically recommend cutting down your wood pieces to something smaller than the palm of your hand.

Best Woods for Smoking Meat
Wood Type Characteristics Good Foods to Smoke
Hickory Very smoky flavor, almost bacon-like Pork, chicken, beef, wild game and cheeses
Pecan Similar to hickory but more rich flavor. Burns very cool. Ideal for long cooking. Pork, chicken, lamb, fish and cheeses
Mesquite Sweeter than hickory. Burns hot. Most meats, especially beef.
Alder Best for light meats because of its delicate flavor Salmon and other fish. Chicken and pork.
Oak Good taste that blends well with other flavors Beef, poultry and pork
Maple Mild smoke flavor, somewhat sweet. Poultry, vegetables and ham
Cherry Slightly sweet and fruity Poultry, game birds and pork
Apple Slightly sweet but denser flavor. Fruity smoke flavor Beef, poultry, game birds and pork
Peach or Pear Slightly sweet, woodsy Poultry, vegetables and ham
Wine Barrel Chips Wine and oaky flavors. Beef, turkey, chicken and cheeses

Not Using Wood?

Like we mentioned, a lot of smokers don’t use wood as a fuel source. Instead they rely on charcoal or briquettes. If that’s the case, don’t start your fire with a lot of lighter fluid. This can often add an unpleasant taste to your meat.

What to Smoke

The most popular items to smoke are things like ribs, brisket and pork shoulder. However, other people will smoke regular steaks, nuts or even cheese.

Historically, the smoking process started with the worst cuts of meat – to try and tenderize the meat and add better flavor. For example, the brisket. It’s a very tough part of meat that is very hard to eat unless you tenderize it with low temperatures very slowly.

Whatever cut of meat you decide on, make sure that the meat is at room temperature before you place it in the smoker.

Just Add Water

Start by soaking your wood chunks for at least an hour. This will help the wood steam better. Be sure to shake dry the wood pieces before adding them to the fire though.

Most smokers come with a water pan too. This will assist in the steaming process and add moisture to the meat. Some people will add barbeque sauce, marinades, alcohol or juices to the meat to help this process too.

With larger cuts of meat, you might have to refill your water pan a few times throughout the smoking process.

Position the Smoker

Always cook with your smoker on a level surface that is heat-proof. Be sure to smoke outside, away from buildings, power lines or trees.

Start Your Smokers

One of the biggest tricks of smoking effectively is temperature control. Meat smoking is done best between 200 and 220 degrees F. The internal temperature of the meat needs to read at least 145 degrees for red meat and 165 degrees for white meats.

Ideally, you’ll have two thermometers inside the smoker – one in the meat to gauge internal temperature and one outside to track the smoker temperature.

A lot of avid smokers will follow the mantra – “low and slow.” Cooking your meat slowly gives the smoke time to sink into the meat and add the desired flavor. The long duration also breaks down the connective fibers in the meat making the meat more tender. It also breaks them down into sugars so that they taste is even better.

You will have to check the meat periodically, which will release heat and smoke. As a general rule of thumb, add 15 minutes of smoking time to your meat every time you open it up to check.

Whatever smoker you decide on, you’ll want to make sure that smoke fully surrounds the meat. Make sure that smoke isn’t just touching one side of the meat cut. You’ll want a good thick stream of smoke around the meat at all times. The smoke will also always need to be moving to maximize exposure and avoid making the meat bitter. You don’t want a buildup of creosote on the outside of your meat.

Make sure that your meat isn’t directly over the heat source – you’re not going to be grilling the meat, you’re going to be smoking it.

Calculating Cook Time

The length of time to smoke your meat depends on how hot your smoker is, the type of meat and the thickness of the cut.

Generally, you’ll need about 6-8 hours to smoke your meat. Pork and ribs usually take 8 hours while a brisket can take 22 hours.

A lot of meats will follow the 3-2-1 rule. The first 3 hours are for smoking the meat, then you wrap the meat in tin foil to help cook the center for the next two hours. The last hour you unwrap the meat again and smoke it. This process will cook the meat thoroughly and make a nice crisp exterior.

Check That It’s Done Right

You can determine whether you’ve been successful with your smoking by a pink layer that will form around the meat. The nitric acid in the meat will rise to just below the surface and create a pink ring around the meat. If you see that pink ring after you cut into the meat, you know you’ve done it correctly.

What Recommendations Do You Have?

What advice do you have for first-time smokers? Comment below and tell us what we should know about smoking meats for the first time.

~ Brandon Garrett

Brandon Garrett is a preparedness consultant and team member of The Ready Store.  He writes informative articles and information for the ReadyBlog, the Ready Store's blog and educational section pertaining to topics of the economy, resiliency, and preparedness issues. 

Full disclosure: Based on our existing relationship with The Ready Store, will receive a small commission as an affiliate for purchases made through the Ready Store. This will not impact the price you pay and the proceeds we received will be immediately invested to fund new features and functionality for this site.

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My wife just bought me  a smoker.  This article helps a lot.