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Best Meats to Smoke? There’s More Than Brisket & Ribs

Here at Burning Brisket, we smoke almost every day of the week. We also own a boutique beef ranch. And, in the process we’ve smoked pretty much anything and everything at least once.

Smoking is a unique way of cooking meat. While it’s perfect for breaking down the otherwise tough collagen in meats such as brisket, some meats like a great steak are ruined by going low and slow.

Whether you’ve just got your first smoker and are new to smoking, or you have some experience up your sleeve but are bored with your current line up, in this article you’ll find the very best meats to smoke.

Yes, you’ll see fan favorites here. But, we’ve also included some not so well-known cuts that are equally as delicious. There’s plenty of budget-friendly options too.

Below that we also share our best tips for choosing quality meat. We’re always quite picky with which actual brisket we buy and we’ll teach you how to choose a good one from the rest.

After all, barbecue is all about the protein and you can’t make great smoked meats by starting with a mediocre ingredient.

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Table of Contents

The Best Beef Cuts for Smoking

Beef is the meat that’s most often thrown on the smoker. With a stronger flavor that’s well suited to taking on smoke, it’s versatile, physically large, and depending on the cut, can be quite affordable.

Brisket is the large cut of meat that comes from the lower chest or breast of a cow.

It’s a relatively tough cut of meat with a high amount of connective tissue that becomes really tender only if you cook it low and slow.

Smoked properly, brisket is mouthwateringly delicious and tender. It has a rich and robust flavor that takes on a smoke well.

There are two parts to a brisket, the point end which thicker and fattier, being attached to the rib cage, and the flat end which is generally leaner. The point end is often cubed to make my personal favorite, burnt ends, while the flat end is sliced.

Being able to smoke a brisket well is often considered to be the ultimate sign of a pitmasters ability.

Brisket isn’t the easiest cut of meat to smoke. But, don’t be intimidated by people overcomplicating it either. With the right gear and approach, smoking a brisket is totally doable.

It’s growing popularity for smoking has pushed the price of this smoking cut up. But, brisket is usually a fairly affordable price per pound and there’s so much you can do with leftover brisket!

Tri-tip is another of our favorite cuts of beef for smoking. With a rich flavor and medium size, tri-tip is something you’ll see in just about every Santa Maria-style bbq cookbook.

This cut of meat is triangular and comes from the bottom of the sirloin.

It’s leaner than most briskets and can develop the most delicious bark while being juicy inside.

Although they’re not as popular as pork ribs for smoking, beef short ribs are big, meaty, and richly marbled with an intense flavor that can handle some stronger smoky flavors.

If you do want one of the best meats to smoke, make sure you’re specifically getting the plate ribs, not chuck ribs or baby back ribs as there’s less meat on those.

Beef ribs can handle a little bit of a higher temperature than some cuts. I tend to smoke no hotter than 300°F and find that transforms the chewy collagen into falling off the bone goodness.

Although you can sometimes buy short ribs already cut up, it’s hard to stop them from drying out if smoke them individually.

While they’re not the cheapest type of meat for smoking, because they’re so rich, I find you can usually get away with serving less of them so that’s a way to keep the total cost down if you need to. But, smoked well, short ribs are nothing short of memorable.

Chuck roast is often an overlooked cut of meat for smoking that’s sometimes called “poor man’s brisket”.

Cut from the shoulder area of a cow, this economical yet flavorful meat has a really good balance of marbling and connective tissue, making it perfect for low and slow temperatures.

I prefer to look for a fatty chuck roast if I can. That way, it’s hearty flavor does turn out quite like that of brisket.

Cube it to make burnt ends or pull it for sandwiches, tacos, or anything else that requires pulled meat.

Flat iron steak that comes from the shoulder area of a cow, is an inexpensive cut of beef that’s been gaining popularity for smoking in the last few years.

Taken from the top blade muscle in the chuck region, flat iron steak is relatively lean and I think, has a flavor that’s similar to tri-tip with the tenderness of a tenderloin. It’s not at all bad!

While traditionally used for grilling or pan-searing, flat iron takes on smoke well and is best reverse seared. This means you’ll smoke it at a low temperature first and finish at high heat to give the steak a nice crust.

Check out this Flat Iron Steak recipe from Traeger.

Prime rib is an expensive cut of meat that’s not usually kept for smoking. But, smoked prime rib turns out incredible!

Cook one low and slow for about 6 hours and you’ll have a super tender and well marbled piece of meat that’s got more depth to the flavor than if you’d cooked it in an oven.

Like a flat iron steak, we like to reverse sear our prime ribs as well as just smoke them. It’s the only way to get that really good crust you expect on a cut like this.

The cheek isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But, smoked beef cheek turns out oh so great! They’re also usually one of the cheapest cuts of beef so great if you’re trying to smoke on a tighter budget.

Beef cheeks are naturally a very tough cut of meat. And, although a single cheek isn’t large, you need to give them a long time for the collagen and connective tissue to melt and absorb into the meat.

But, the results are well worth it!

Incredibly moist and juicy with a strong beefy flavor, pork cheeks that are cooked for long enough will pull apart. They’re ideal for barbacoa tacos. The slightly sticky texture is all the collagen which is great for your health too.

The Best Pork Cuts for Smoking

Pork is another king of the barbecue that’s both versatile and affordable.

The mild flavor of pork takes on smoke well and shows up deep, red smoke rings beautifully. The fat content also provides good insurance against your meat drying out.

Pork ribs are a quintessential and exceptional choice for smoking due to their perfect balance of meat, fat, and connective tissue. The interplay of these elements allows ribs to transform into a tender, flavorful masterpiece when subjected to the slow and steady process of smoking.

Good marbling throughout a quality cut of ribs ensures that they stay moist and succulent while also absorbing good flavor and developing strong smoke rings.

Whether baby back, spare, or St. Louis style, pork ribs are a cut of meat you can never go wrong with throwing on the smoker.

Pork shoulder is the cut of meat that’s most often used to make pulled pork. You might also hear it being called pork butt or Boston butt. Either way, it’s from the shoulder section of a pig and is a barbecue staple.

Pork shoulder is usually fairly cheap, well marbled for smoking, and has quite a mild flavor that takes on smoke, spices, and sauces nicely without being overpowering.

It’s best cooked low and slow and you really need to take a pork shoulder over at least 203°F in order to get that true, falling apart effect. This is also the point at which all the collagen and connective tissue renders taking it from tough and chewy to tender and succulent.

Pork loin doesn’t have the high fat content that pork ribs or shoulder have. But, this naturally tender cut of meat does well when smoked low for 2-3 hours.

It comes from the upper side of the rib cage and is a large cut of meat that’s often sliced into pork chops or steaks. For smoking, I prefer this cut of meat whole because it’s easier to cook without drying it out.

With quite a neutral flavor, I like to use dry spices on pork loin and pair it with a fruitwood to make sure I don’t overpower this delicate cut.

Smoked pork belly is becoming a sought after cut for smoking.

Some people like to cook it hot and fast but I really prefer to low and slow, giving the fat longer to render so it’s not so oily.

Finished well, smoked pork belly tastes a bit like bacon. But, it’s a huge slab that you can serve as is, slice into thin strips, or even make pork belly bites.

These smoked pork belly burnt ends are always a hit in my family.

Pork tenderloin, with its lean yet tender profile, is an excellent choice for smoking and gives a good break from the fattier cuts of meat that are most often used for smoking.

It’s mild flavor acts as a versatile canvas, taking the smoke on well.

But, one other reason why pork tenderloin is one of the best meats to smoke is that it’s quite quick. If you haven’t got all day to smoke a pork shoulder, a tenderloin can be done in 2-3 hours at 225 ˚F / 107 ˚C.

Try this Traeger smoked pork tenderloin recipe which incorporates a few pork favorites, apple, sweetness, and a little bit of thyme.

The Best Chicken Cuts for Smoking

Chicken and other poultry generally has a light flavor that’s perfect for showcasing the particular flavor of your wood.

It’s affordable, easy to get and makes for great leftovers too.

When I feel like a bit of smoked chicken, I usually go it whole because I like the way the skin holds the moisture in.

Smoking a whole chicken is often, in my opinion, overcomplicated with people worrying about the different cook times needed for different parts of the bird. But, the sole reason why smoked whole or butterflied chickens don’t turn out so great is that they’re simply overcooked because no one ever wants to underdo poultry.

And, rightly so!

If you want to smoke a chicken whole, butterflied or any way for that matter, I always recommend using a meat thermometer. That way you’ll know exactly when it’s reached the safe 165°F and can get it off the smoker before it dries out which can happen pretty quickly.

Chicken thighs are my favorite poultry cut of meat to smoke simply because they’ve got a good amount of fat in them so it’s hard to overdo it and dry them out.

Because thigh’s aren’t a large cut of meat, they smoke in about an hour making an easy mid-week meal.

Top them with some dry spice or lather on your favorite sauce. You can’t really go wrong.

Chicken legs are often really cheap and as such, are a great meat to throw on the smoker when you’re entertaining.

They’ve got enough fat that you don’t need to stress about them drying out, they take on whatever flavor you throw at them, and most people like them including the kids.

Another party and tailgating favorite are cheap and plentiful chicken wings!

There’s not a lot of meat on a single wing so they’re the fastest cut of chicken to smoke. They’re great with just about any spice and sauce combination. And, they’re an easy appetizer while you’re waiting for the main event.

Most people tend to prefer a lighter smoke profile to cook chicken wings. But, if you like a stronger flavor, woods like hickory can knock your socks off in a good way.

Other Great Proteins for Smoking

While your beef, pork, and chicken usually take the spotlight when it comes to smoking meat, there’s a lot of other choices that add a bit of variety in terms of both nutrition and flavor.

Here are some of our favorites.

Sausages made from beef, pork, chicken, or game are often featured at top barbecue restaurants around the world. And, for a good reason too! They’re utterly delicious.

To smoke a sausage, I’d recommend buying a good quality brat from a butcher instead of using pre-cooked cheapies.

Pre-cooked sausages are already par-cooked so they won’t absorb the smoke like completely raw meat will.

Set the smoker to 225°F and they should be ready to eat within 2-3 hours.

Turkey is the star of Thanksgiving but who says you should only eat it in the month of November?!?

In fact, I’ve often been able to pick up great deals on turkey meat outside of it’s regular yearly time spot. And, with a flavor that’s light and similar to chicken, it’s perfect for playing with different types of woods to really enjoy the smoking experience.

Salmon is often reserved for cold smoking. But, if you’ve never tried it, hot smoked salmon is incredible for a hearty meal that’s not as overwhelmingly smoky as the cold varieties can be.

Smoked at a low temperature, salmon absorbs the woody flavors quickly and because it’s got a stronger flavor, it can handle your stronger woods as well.

But, other fish that also has a high fat content is another often overlooked meat that’s great for the smoker.

Tuna, sea bass, mackerel, cod, and trout are also great hot smoked on any smoker. But, what’s cheap and readily available to you will depend on where you live.

Lamb is quite a fatty cut of meat which makes it perfect for smoking low and slow where some of that oiliness can render out, leaving you with a tender and flavorful piece of meat.

Being a red meat, lamb can handle a wood with a stronger smoke profile. But, if you like it plain, there’s nothing wrong with that either. I tend to smoke lamb leg without any spices and rely on the flavor of the wood to shine through.

Just like pork shoulder, lamb shoulder is a great cut of meat to smoke for pulling.

Done low and slow, the fat and connective tissue melts perfectly so the whole thing should just fall apart after it hits an internal temperature of above about 205°F.

Unlike the lamb leg, I usually like to add some spices and/or sauces to a pulled lamb as well as using a stronger wood. Generally, treating it like a pork shoulder works well and gives you that same sort of versatility.

What to Look for When Buying Meat to Smoke

When it comes to buying high-quality meat to barbecue, it’s not as simple as just choosing one of the best cuts.

There are a number of factors that influence the taste and texture of the final product. And, no matter how good they are, the rubs and sauces can’t make the meat more tender, improve marbling or be a substitute for a rich and complex meaty flavor.

For the most delicious barbecue, buying meat that ticks at least one of these boxes is a good start:

Start by looking for naturally raised meat that’s free from antibiotics, hormones, steroids or other chemicals. These animals are often leaner and less flavorful than naturally raised ones. You’d also be ingesting potentially harmful chemicals by choosing this type of meat.

To help with avoiding the harmful chemicals, look for animals that have an additive-free diet. Grass-fed varieties are fairly common and show that the animal was allowed to naturally graze for fresh food. Most grass-fed animals are fed grain to fatten them up before processing. This is sometimes preferable for barbecue as the additional fat helps to retain moisture and add flavor. Fully grass-fed varieties are generally leaner so they may be less tender.

Traditionally farmed breeds are slowly being replaced in favor of fast growing animals with higher yields. But, these breeds hold less flavor and aren’t generally as healthy as heritage animals. Look for heritage bred meat that’s been raised in open pastures and is more naturally resistant to disease. This also reduces the need for antibiotic use.

USDA certified organic meat means that the animal was fed a pesticides, antibiotic and artificial hormone free diet. It can be costly but it does guarantee that you’re getting the highest-quality meat that’s free from additives that could be harmful to your health.

But, regardless of where you’re getting your smoking meat from, you’re also going to want to look at the specific piece of meat you’re buying and assess it for the following factors:

More fat usually means more flavor and tenderness.

Look for pieces with good marbling, that is, thin strips of fat throughout the meat. Because you’ll be cooking it for at least a couple of hours, most of this fat will melt helping to keep it flavorful and juicy.

Do remember that different cuts of meat naturally have different levels of marbling. And, meat can also be too fatty. It’s not just a matter of more is better although excess fat can be trimmed off.

A good butcher will leave enough but not too much fat on, cut pieces to a similar size and thickness, remove bone and connective tissue, and won’t accidentally knick the muscle.

Basically, it should look clean and neatly trimmed.

Modern day processing and packaging techniques make it easy for producers to preserve the bright color of fresh meat.

This means the color isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of how old the meat is or how well it’s been stored.

When you’re buying red meat, don’t be put off by a dark color. Darker colors often indicate a stronger flavor and that the meat may have been dry-aged.

Pork should be dark pink to dark red and shouldn’t look like chicken. If you see any meat with uneven color or spots, skip it.

The color of chicken can vary based on what the bird was fed. But, chicken should never be greyish or greenish.

Because the color isn’t always the best indicator of freshness, smelling the meat should give you a good idea.

Fresh meat should smell mild to moderately and should never be offensive to the nose.

While you can’t give that brisket a good old sniff in the middle of Costco, you can check it out at home before you cook it and buy somewhere different next time if the meat isn’t very fresh.

Where Do You Buy Meats for Smoking?

Now that you’ve got an idea of which are the best meats to smoke and how to select a piece, the next question is where do you get it from?

Most grocery stores these days do sell at least a couple of smoker-friendly meats. And, at the very least you can get the good old staples, chicken and a pork shoulder. But, if you’re looking for a more unusual cut or want better quality there’s two places we recommend, one, your local butcher, or two, online.

If you’ve got a quality butcher nearby, it’s great to support local. They’ll more than likely even be able to give you more information about where their meat comes from. It might even be a local farm.

But, if there’s nowhere that sells quality meat near you, you like shopping online, or are after something extra special, the range of meat you can get online these days is next to none!

Most ship frozen while some ship fresh to your door.

These are some of the best places to buy meat for smoking online:

Porter Road

  • No hormones
  • No antibiotics
  • Pasture-raised
  • Extensive range
  • Good prices

Snake River Farms

  • Ranch to table
  • Specialise in American Wagyu Beef and Kurobuta Pork
  • Most ships frozen
  • Eco-friendly packaging

Agridime

  • Farm to table
  • Great selection of meats
  • Choice of grass or grain fed
  • Supply some of the USA’s top bbq restaurants

For the full list of favorite online meat retailers, check out our review of the best meat subscription boxes for smoking.

We’ve also done a round up of the top mail order steaks if you’re after meat for grilling too.

FAQs on the Best Meats to Smoke

Brisket, tri-tip, short ribs, chuck roast, and prime rib are great cuts of beef to smoke. They all have a strong flavor that can handle moderate or strong woody flavors.

Yes, pork butt actually comes from the shoulder area on a pig and is in fact, not it’s butt.

Because it doesn’t have a lot of fat on it, it is more difficult to smoke chicken breast without drying it out.

Brining and using a lower smoking temperature can help to retain it’s moisture. Also be sure to use a meat thermometer for smoking to effortlessly hit that sweet spot where the chicken is safe to eat but not overdone.

Spare ribs come from the belly area, while baby back ribs are closer to the spine. Spare ribs are meatier and are a better cut for smoking for this very reason.

With a high fat content and rich flavor, lamb is an ideal meat to smoke on a barbecue.

My personal favorite is smoked lamb leg. But, lamb shoulder pulls nicely just like a pulled pork. And, lamb flaps do okay on the smoker too, you’ve just got to be careful not to dry them out because they are a less meaty cut.

Yes, we always smoke different cuts of meat together. Variety is the spice of life!

Using a separate meat thermometer probe for each different type of meat makes managing different smoke times easy and is what we do.

Jared Brown, an avid lover of all things meat has a fearless enthusiasm for experimenting with anything that's grilling, smoking or outdoor cooking. With a wealth of experience across a range different barbecue types, Jared's got a real knack for helping others make a decision they're happy with, ensuring they find the perfect fit regardless of conventional notions of the 'right' choice. This unique approach has made Jared a trusted guide in the world of barbecue.

About Burning Brisket

Burning Brisket is one of the leading, independent authorities on all things barbecue. Family-owned and run, it's our mission uncomplicate the art of smoking to help you enjoy making incredible food at home for your family and friends to create memories over.

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