A successful smoked piece of meat starts with selecting the right cut of meat. Plus, some meats require a close watch on temperature, while other meats are more forgiving during the cooking process. Many people love smoking meat, not just for the flavor but also for the process and experience. It takes time setting it up, watching, adjusting, and finally tasting your hard work. Learn about the best meats for smoking and get tips and tricks to get the most of your chunk of meat.
What are the best meats to smoke?
The best cuts of meat for smoking are ones that are fatty, tough, and can absorb lots of flavor. Meats that people usually avoid when they’re cooking make wonderful possibilities for the smoker.
Smoking is a low and slow method of cooking, which is why it’s important to choose the right piece of meat before getting started.
Look for cuts of meat that:
- Are high in fat
- Have good marbling
- Have a thick fat cap
- Have tough muscle fibers
- Are low cost per pound (but due to the popularity of smoking, prices have been rising)
Another way to think about the right cuts of meat for the smoker is to think about animal anatomy and physiology. We can divide animals into different cuts of meat and those pieces of meat are going to be tough or tender based on what that part of the animal does.
Tough cuts are going to be things like the shoulder, the legs, the neck – parts of the animal that support its weight or do a lot of activity. These muscles are tough because they have a lot of collagen, which help hold the muscles to the bone.
Collagen makes muscles tough and chewy, but heat can break it down over time, which is why they make excellent cuts of meat for the smoker.
Tender cuts, e.g. steaks and chops, have less collagen and don’t require the long cooking process.
Best Beef for Smoking
Beef cuts that come from the chuck, back ribs, and brisket are excellent choices for the smoker. Beef cuts do well over the heat and absorb the smoky flavor really well.
Brisket is in the front of the lower chest of a beef, which supports a lot of the cow’s body weight. Because of the location on the cow, brisket can be a large piece of meat, anywhere between 8 and 20 pounds. This cut comes from a highly active muscle, which is why it’s rich in connective tissue, making it a tougher piece with moderate amounts of fat.
Creating the perfect smoked brisket can take some trial and error. But it’s one of the best cuts of meat to smoke. The flavor and texture depend on the type of smoker you use, wood chips used, the temperature during the smoking process, and the cooking time.
Smoking a brisket takes 1-1.5 hours per pound, so most cuts will take 10-14 hours at 225 degrees F. Smoking brisket isn’t for beginners and is known as the most challenging meat to smoke. Read our article on how to smoke brisket.
Beef ribs have connective tissue that requires low and slow cooking, like smoking. Most people describe ribs so tender they fall off the bone (though this is highly debated and Michael believes they are overdone if they fall of the bone). It takes practice to get to this perfection, but with the right techniques you’ll master them soon enough.
Use a dry rub on your ribs and go with oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite wood.
Smoked Donair Meat (Halifax / East Coast Donair)
Here is a curve ball for you. Donair’s are very popular in Canada and in parts of Eastern US. Donair meat is essentially a culmination of numerous Eastern European spices mixed in with ground beef. Typically the meat is not smoked, but Angry BBQ put a spin on a classic and used the smoker to add some southern flavor.
Making smoked donair meat is very economical as you are only purchasing ground beef. Once the donair meat is cooked to temp, slice and fry it to make it crispy. Get a pita and spread on some sweet sauce, donair meat, cheese, tomatoes and onions, and enjoy.
Tri-tip comes from the sirloin primal and is usually triangular shaped. It actually comprises three different muscles, hence the tri in its name. Tri tip is highly marbled and full of beefy flavor. This cut usually weighs 3-5 pounds before trimming, making it smoke faster than some of the other beef cuts.
Michael recommends doing a reverse sear cook with Tri Tip. Simply smoke at a very low temp for an hour, then crank up the grill to sear both sides. Only take about 1.5 hours.
Chuck roast comes from the chuck primal – the neck and shoulder area of the cow. These meats often have a lot of marbling and fat, which leads to a lot of flavor. They’re also usually a lower-cost piece of meat.
Any of the cuts with chuck roast in the name (blade chuck roast, 7-bone chuck roast, chuck center roast, etc.) are going to be good on the smoker. Smoke a chuck roast for 10-12 hours at 205 degrees F. Choose hardwoods, like oak, mesquite, or alder for chuck roast cuts.
Best Pork for Smoking
Many pork cuts contain a lot of connective tissues and high fat content, meaning they need the long cook time to make them editable. Pork is probably one of the most smoker friendly meats available and is a great type of meat for beginners.
Pork is a highly versatile meat and the flavor combinations are endless. Here are some good pork cuts for the smoker:
Pork butt is a top choice for smoking because of the large fat cap. We often used pork butt in pulled pork recipes and is easy meat to start with if you’re a beginner to smoking meat.
This cut comes in larger chunks, making it a great option if you’re feeding a crowd.
Smoke pork butt at 225 degrees F with apple, cherry, hickory, or pecan wood. Keep in mind since this is a sizeable chunk of meat, it requires longer cook time of 12-16 hours to fully cook.
Just like beef ribs are a great option for the smoker, so are pork ribs. Pork ribs can be smoked to perfection in about 5-6 hours.
It’s a personal choice between beef or pork ribs. But most of us agree you can’t go wrong with either option.
Here is something you wouldn’t think to smoke everyday. Pork Belly is not the most popular cut in the smoking community unless you plan to smoke it into bacon. Another great way to use Pork Belly is making burnt ends out of it.
There is a lot of fat on a pork belly but when you smoke it just right and render the fat, it turns into meat candy. You can buy pork belly for a song. Just make sure to by skinless pork belly.
Pork picnic comes from the upper front leg of the pig. It’s a large cut of meat and is also used in many pulled pork recipes.
This is one of the best cuts of meat if you’re new to smoking because it’s very forgiving. It’s hard to overcook and because of the marbling has good natural flavor.
Smoke at 225 degrees F over fruity woods, like apple or cherry.
Best Poultry to Smoke
Chicken, turkey, duck, and Cornish game hens can all be cooked over the smoker. One trick is to get crispy smoked skin. You want to avoid the rubbery smoked skin.
Chicken on the Smoker
We’d recommend trying chicken on the smoker after you’ve smoked other meats. The reason is many people make the mistake of overdoing it on the smoke with chicken.
Since chicken is a leaner meat, it doesn’t take as much time on the smoker. All parts of the chicken can be smoked: whole chicken, chicken legs, drumsticks, chicken wings, and chicken breast with the skin on.
Make sure you reduce the heat when you’re cooking chicken breast since it’s the leanest cut.
Turkey on the Smoker
As with chicken, it’s important to balance the heat and smoke to prevent drying out your meat. We recommend brining the turkey to add moisture or cutting it into smaller pieces before putting it on the smoker.
Stick with a turkey under 14 pounds. Anything over that will probably take too long to cook and you risk certain areas not being cooked and there’s a high risk of it being in the food temperature danger zone (40-140 degrees F) where bacteria multiply, making the meat unsafe to eat.
Smoke turkey at 300 – 350 degrees F over pecan wood for a delicious meal.
Best Fish to Smoke
Salmon is one of the best choices of seafood to smoke. Since salmon has a high percentage of fat and is an oily fish, it does well on the smoker.
Unlike some of the other meat, salmon does well when planked – grill the meat on a plank of wood and let the woody flavor infuse into the fish. Try our traditional Smoked Salmon recipe or add sweet pineapple with Pineapple Teriyaki Salmon.
Salmon is also a meat that can be cold smoked.
Best Meats to Smoke For Beginners
When you are beginning your journey of smoking meats, it is best to keep it simple so you can build your skills quickly and not lose confidence in the process. We have picked meats that extremely forgiving and are usually a very simple recipe process to follow. We also took equipment into consideration and picked meats that can be used in simple electric smokers or gas smokers. Horizontal or Vertical smokers can be used with any of these recipes.
Smoked Pork Butt
Smoking a pork butt is the easiest meat to smoke by a long shot. There is very little preparation involved (light trimming and seasoning), and then you simply throw it in the smoker for quite a long period. Eventually wrap it in some foil or butcher paper and cook a bit longer. After about 12-18 hours, the pork butt is done. Let is rest. Shred it and serve it on a bun with your favorite sauce, coleslaw and you have a great meal.
Smoked Pork Ribs
Smoking pork ribs (babyback or side ribs) is the second easiest meat to smoke. They work well in any type of smoker, you only need 5-6 hours and there are just a couple simple steps to follow. All you really need to do is some light preparation (trim, remove membrane and season), smoke for 3 hours, wrap in foil with some honey and butter and smoke another hour or so, then unwrap and slather in sauce and smoke for another 30 mins. Try our most popular recipe (Proper way to Smoke Ribs) and we explain it all in detail.
Smoking Salmon is overlooked. It is very popular on the Northern West Coast from Washington State to British Columbia. I have a lot of family in B.C. so I’ve been spoiled with so many smoked salmon recipes.
Smoking salmon is very easy and actually works best in an electric smoker because it is best to smoke at real low temps. Pellet smokers cannot smoke at low temps so electrics, or charcoal smokers are best for Salmon.
Michaels smoked salmon recipe is very easy to follow and always turns out well.
Time to Smoke Some Meat
Don’t worry about perfection when you’re smoking meat. Smoking gives you another option for cooking a great dish. It enhances the flavor and taste. Make sure to keep the temperature stable and maintain moisture and smoke levels. Other than that, have fun and enjoy your dish.