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How to Smoke Meat: 10 Effective Steps for Beginners

Welcome to the world of smoking meat!

Here at Burning Brisket, we’re passionate about helping the anyone’s and everyone’s of the world cook really great barbecue.

It’s something that’s often overcomplicated. And, yes, there’s a lot you can learn to hone your skills over time. But, simple is often the very best thing when it comes to meat and heat. With a few of the right tools (we won’t suggest you buy everything), and a bit of guidance, you too can make really incredible smoked meat in your own backyard.

In this guide on how to smoke meat, we dive into everything you need to know to get started with smoking.

The things we discuss in this guide can be used and adapted to any type of smoker. But, we’ve also included some smoker-specific tips too.

Forget the complicated jargon, we’re here to make it easy and enjoyable. Everything’s broken down into simple steps and we’ve focused on giving you the most effective tips so you can start making really great food you, your family, and friends will love.

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Table of Contents

Why Smoke Meat?

Since you’ve searched for a guide on how to smoke meat, I’m going to assume you know how incredible smoked meat tastes.

Whether you’re trying to recreate the best dry rub ribs you ate at an awesome BBQ joint, want to master the holy grail of brisket, or simply need a way to process your own latest catch, smoking meat is the only way to create that unmistakable, deep woody flavor.

Smoking meat is also a great way to cook cheaper and tougher cuts of meat which a lot of people are looking to do these days as well.

But, smoking meat isn’t just about the meat itself.

There’s something special about gathering around a barbecue with family and friends, enjoying a cold one, and watching the kids eagerly learn about food. It’s a sociable way to cook where the benefits extend far beyond the plate, and the memories can last a lifetime too.

Essential Equipment for Smoking Meat

When you look into ALL the things you can buy for barbecue, those price tags add up fast!

And, while all the gadgets serve their own purpose, we’re not going to tell you to go out and buy them all just to smoke your first brisket. No way José!

Barbecue was originally done because it was practical and cheap. If you want to keep it that way, you can. You will need a few basics though, and we’ll talk about the essentials here.

If you’re an accessory person, check out our favorite smoking accessories. We also tell you which ones are the most over-rated.

A Smoker

If you’ve got your heart set on smoking on a particular type of smoker, go ahead and do it.

Yes, some types of smokers are easier to use than others. That’s why they’re often recommended for beginners. But, if you really want to use something more difficult like a stick smoker, and you have the passion and patience to learn how to tend the fire, today’s the best day to start doing just that.

If you’re after a smoker that’s easier to use, and can make great meat, check out these types:

Pellet smokers are the very easiest type of smoker to use.

Their digital control panel looks after burning real hardwood pellets for legit, 100% wood-fired flavor without any of the work.

Some people think they’re cheating. But, pellet smokers are used in the competitive circuit too. I think they’re simply a smart way to make smoking easy and are a great option for anyone who wants to focus more on the food and good times rather than the fire.

They’re also perfect for people with young kids or otherwise busy lives because they’re literally a set and forget smoker.

For consistent and great wood-fired results now, a pellet smoker is the way to go.

Check out our best pellet smokers round-up, or our best pellet smokers under $500 for a budget-friendly model.

If you like the ease of a set and forget but just love that charcoal smell, they make digital charcoal smokers these days that regulate the temperature for you while giving you that unmistakable flavor.

Check out the Masterbuilt Gravity Series Grill and Smokers, or the Kamado Joe Konnected Joe for two great, beginner-friendly digital charcoal models.

Electric is another easy type of smoker that’s often picked up by beginners because they’re so cheap.

With an electric heating element that’s automatically controlled by a thermostat, just like your oven, they’re thought of as set and forget. But, on many models you actually need to be feeding wood chips into them every hour or so to get any wood flavor.

Electric smokers also hold all the moisture inside their air-tight case. So, while your meat will never dry out, it often turns out too wet, and because there’s no actual fire, you’ll never get that true, crispy bark.

We do, however, love electric smokers for cooking fish! They’re so good for loading up the weekend’s catch.

Check out our best electric smokers reviews for a range of the best buys. We’ve also rounded up the best electric smokers under $200 if you want to keep it cheap.

Heavy-Duty Tongs

If you’re smoking larger and heavier cuts of meat like a pork shoulder or brisket, you’ll need something heavy-duty to pick up the meat to take it on an off your smoker.

We’ve been through many a pair of bbq tongs. Most of them are pretty lightweight and the locking mechanisms usually fail sooner rather than later.

We do like these Traeger BBQ Tongs. They’re actually heavy-duty enough to be able to pick up big stuff pretty easily.

Grab a pair or something similar.

Meat Thermometer

After a smoker and a pair of heavy-duty tongs, the single best smoking accessory that will make your meat turn out better is a meat thermometer.

Smoking meat based on time alone isn’t a reliable way to cook. Instead, smoking it to the right internal temperature for the type of meat and how you want it cooked will make your results infinitely better.

And, buying a meat thermometer doesn’t have to be expensive.

You can grab yourself a cheapie instant read thermometer that you pop in at or near the end to check if your meat is done. But, I’d recommend grabbing a wireless smoker thermometer that you can leave in the meat throughout your cook instead.

There are still models to suit a range of budgets.

The pros use them. They’re not cheating. They’re simply giving you the information you need to know exactly when that brisket is perfectly done.

Choosing the Right Fuel for Smoking

There’s no doubt that what you burn is important when smoking. The wood and/or charcoal provides both heat and smoke which equals flavor.

When you’re new to smoking, don’t get hung up on which wood to use! Start with something and branch out from there.

Here’s how to find your starting point…

What Type of Charcoal Do I Use?

If you’ve got a charcoal or kamado smoker, you’ll be using charcoal as the basis for your heat.

Offset smokers can be run on charcoal instead of pure wood as well. Just choose hardwood or charcoal based on your personal preference and availability.

As for the lump charcoal vs briquette debate, check out this quick comparison.

Personally I tend to use lump charcoal because I like to keep all my ingredients as pure as possible.

Check out our favorite lump charcoals and preferred charcoal briquettes for a more detailed look at the brands.

Do I Use Wood Chunks, Chips, or Logs?

When you’re using charcoal as your heat, you don’t have to use wood in your smoker. If you do, you’re simply adding an extra woody flavor on top of what your meat will get from the charcoal smoke.

But, if you’re using a pellet smoker, stick burner, electric, or propane smoker, the wood is your only source of smoky flavor.

Wood size (logs, chunks, chips, etc.) depends on what type of smoker you have. Use the table below to guide you…

Wood for Flavor

You’ll see wood flavor matching charts on almost every bag of smoking fuel. And, while you can use these as a guide, they are just that, a guide!

When you’re starting out, I’d recommend choosing one type of wood, something mild or moderate is good, and sticking with it for a while so you can master the other elements of smoking.

Oak is a great staple that’s the basis of almost every wood blend out there. It’s also used in just about every single style of regional barbecue because it burns well and gives a noticeable but not overpowering taste.

Fruitwoods are also popular choices for smoking beginners. They give a very mild flavor and are readily available as well.

Check out our guide on the best type of wood for smoking for a more in-depth look at flavor.

The Best Type of Meat for Smoking

Pork ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket are quintessential meats for smoking. But, there are lots of other cuts that are excellent to throw on the barbecue low and slow.

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

Known for its toughness and high amount of connective tissue, it’s often made into ground meats. But, if it’s made it to the barbecue whole, cooking a brisket low and slow breaks down all the collagen leaving a tender, rich, and flavorful cut of meat that’s synonymous to bbq.

Brisket isn’t the easiest piece of beef to cook. But, if you’re a beginner with a will to do it well (like we once were), there’s no time like now to start working on it.

Cheaper, and in my opinion, easier to cook than brisket, chuck roast is another good cut of meat for the smoker.

Once it’s cooked, slice it, cube it for burnt ends, or pull it for great Barbacoa tacos. There’s a lot you can do with a simple chuck roast.

Pork ribs, with their ideal mix of meat, fat, and connective tissue, are a superb choice for smoking low and slow.

Because the meat’s not that thick, they can be easy to burn or dry out when you’re new to smoking.

Opt for a meatier cut like St Louis style and follow a simple 3-2-1 technique, wrapping them in butchers paper mid-cook for absolutely delicious smokiness.

Pork shoulder, often known as pork butt or Boston butt, is the cut you use to make the barbecue classic, pulled pork.

It’s usually pretty cheap to buy, easy to cook, and takes on smoky flavor well for a versatile meat that’s great for leftovers too.

Take it all the way to an internal temperature of 203°F if you want it to fall apart. By going this hot you won’t need meat claws, it’ll just pull apart easily with a couple of forks.

Good as a quicker mid-week smoked meal, butterflied chicken turns out beautifully on a smoker.

As long as you pop a meat probe into the breast to make sure it doesn’t dry out, smoked chicken is moist and full of flavor.

Serve it hot off the barbecue alongside a salad. Just make sure to do an extra one for shredding into cold smoked chicken for tomorrows lunch.

Another cut of meat you’ll find in bbq joints around the world is the simple sausage.

If you haven’t tried it before, smoked sausage readily absorbs smoke, giving it a complex flavor while staying nice and juicy.

When smoking sausage, make sure you start with high-quality, raw sausage meat, not pre-cooked sausage. You need the meat to be raw to absorb the flavor from the wood properly.

Read our full run-down of the best meats for smoking for even more top cuts.

Setting Up Your Smoker

When it’s time to cook, the best advice I can give is to simply read the instruction manual your smoker came with.

That will tell you how to set up your exact type of smoker and explain how to use any extra features like water pans, super smoke modes, and how to adjust the vents to control the temperature.

All of this knowledge is very specific to the particular type of barbecue you’re using. It might be as simple as turning a pellet smoker on and setting the temperature, or involve more steps to get your barbecue up to temperature.

But, no matter what type of smoker you’re using, give it time to get the temperature before you put your meat in.

Smokers are just like ovens and do best if they’re given time to preheat. So, turn it on and then get your meat ready. Which leads us to the next question…

What Temperature Should You Smoke At?

The most standard smoking temperature is 225°F (107°C).

You can hot smoke anything at 225°F including brisket, ribs, pulled pork, fish, turkey, and game. You can’t really go wrong with it.

But, 225 isn’t some magic number. You can smoke hotter than this. Some dedicated smokers like the Pit Barrel don’t even go this low. A higher temperature will just cook faster although you should be careful not to burn or dry out your meat in the process.

And, you can also smoke lower which is particularly common on electric smokers. Smoking at a temperature lower than 225 will simply take longer.

When you’re starting out though, set the temperature somewhere in the 200 – 250°F range and you should be just fine.

Prepping the Meat

While your smoker is warming up is a great time to get your meat ready for the ‘cue.

Trimming It Up

To prep meat for smoking, I always like to trim off any excess fat.

Some fat is good to help retain moisture, stop the meat from drying out, and give great flavor. But, too much fat causes excess flare-ups, limits smoke absorption, and can leave your meat a greasy mess once it’s done.

So, remove any big hunks of fat, and don’t worry about deposits of fat in the grain. That’ll render out and give great flavor.

You’ll also want to think about the meat’s shape while your trimming.

Any thin edge pieces that would dry out and burn can be sliced off. You can even cook these separately for a mid-smoke snack because they will cook faster than the main event.

Check out the video below to see how to trim meat in action.

Seasoning

Seasoning your meat with at least some salt actually helps the meat to absorb smoke to create more flavor and a deeper smoke ring (that reddish tint you see around the edge of smoked meats).

Choose from one of these three things to season your meat before smoking:

When you’re smoking, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple. Rub some Kosher salt  on, or mix it with a little pepper. The larger grains are ideal for heavier cuts of meat.

Using a simple salt and pepper mix is a common thing done in barbecue restaurants. By keeping the flavor to a minimum, you keep more of the focus on the meat and wood smoke rather than the spices.

There’s thousands of premixed barbecue seasonings available these days. Grab one that’s well suited to the type of meat you’re cooking and rub it on before putting your meat on the smoker.

Hardcore Carnivore is our absolute favorite brand of pre-made rubs. We use RED on all of our pork and you’ll see the BLACK and TEX-MEX featured in our reviews too.

Mixing your own barbecue spices is a great way to do it cheap and unleash your creativity while you’re at it.

There’s practically an endless number of recipes online and nothing stopping you from making up your own mix either. Just be sure to include at least a little salt to enhance the flavor.

Inserting a Meat Probe

If you’re using a smoking meat probe that monitors the internal temperature of your meat throughout your cook, now is the best time to insert your probe.

Make sure the probe is fully inserted into the thickest part of the meat. This will give you the most accurate reading and ensure your meat is cooked all the way through.

Smoking Your Meat

While there are a lot of different approaches people take on how to smoke meat, and disputes about the best techniques, follow these basics and you’ll be doing alright.

Maintain a Steady Temperature

If you’ve got a set and forget smoker that digitally regulates the temperature for you, you can tick this job off.

You do want to keep the lid closed as much as possible as opening the lid lets out a lot of heat causing a dip in the cooking temperature that takes time to recover from, extending your total cook time.

But, if you’re using an offset or charcoal smoker where the fuel needs to be topped up, check the temperature every half hour or so, adjust the vents if required and add small amounts of charcoal and/or wood frequently. If you wait until the temperature really starts to dip, it’ll take a while to get the fire going again and cost you valuable time.

Wrap Your Meat

Everything’s controversial when it comes to smoking and there’s no hard and fast rules. We do, however, like wrapping out meat mid-cook.

There are a number of reasons why wrapping your meat is beneficial.

The Benefits of Wrapping Meat During Smoking

No matter what type of meat you’re smoking, there’s a point during cooking where the temperature will stop rising quickly. It’s commonly called ‘the stall’ and happens because moisture evaporating from the surface of the meat temporarily halts the rise in the meat’s internal temperature.

Wrapping your meat helps to get past that stall faster, shortening the cooking time so you can put dinner on the table sooner.

You can also bump the temperature up if you need to because the wrap will insulate and protect your meat from higher heat while locking in the juices.

Regardless of whether you prefer to use aluminum foil or butchers paper, wrapping your meat holds moisture in and helps to stop your meat from drying out.

The bark (the surface of your meat) is what absorbs the most smoke and takes on that smoked color.

While some people like to wrap their meat when it reaches a certain internal temperature, others do it when the bark looks a good color to them. It’s personal preference and something you’ll discover as you smoke more.

What's the Best Thing to Wrap Your Meat In?

When wrapping your meat on the smoker, you’ve got two choices, aluminum foil or butchers paper.

Aluminum foil is the classic choice.

Being a solid surface, it holds the moisture in really well. Some people say too well because wrapping in aluminum foil will soften your bark and stop the smoke from penetrating your meat.

Butchers paper is a more popular wrap choice these days.

Butchers paper is permeable. It allows some smoke to pass through so your meat can still take on more woody flavor while it’s wrapped. And, while butchers paper does hold most of the moisture in, some is allowed to escape, leaving your bark a little crunchier than a solid aluminum wrap.

Our preference?

We wrap pork shoulder in butchers paper (to protect it from the aluminum foil) with aluminum over the top to retain as much moisture as possible. And, we wrap everything else in butchers paper only.

When to Wrap Your Meat

There’s no hard and fast rules as to when is the best time to wrap your meat either.

Some people prefer to wrap at a certain time, some people wrap when the meat reaches a particular internal temperature, and some wrap based on what the meat looks like.

To keep things simple when you’re starting, we recommend wrapping your meat when it’s internal temperature reaches 165 – 170°F. That’s around about when the stall occurs and after most of the smoky flavor and bark development has happened.

When to Unwrap Your Meat

If you like your bark crispy, you can unwrap your meat for the last part of it’s smoke.

Doing so will help to dry the bark out again, getting rid of any mush.

Aim for having no more than 1 hour of cook-time left before you unwrap.

If you’re using a meat thermometer like the MEATER that estimates your remaining cook time, that’ll be easy to judge. If not, look for your meat hitting 10 – 15°F under your target temperature.

Smoking to Temperature

Having an idea of how long it’s going to take to smoke the meat you’re smoking is helpful. But, if you want really great results, you need to smoke to temperature, not time.

There’s so many variables in smoking that it doesn’t always take the same number of minutes for the pork to be ready to pull, the collagen in the brisket to have melted, or the ribs to have that perfect pull.

But, how hot the meat is inside will tell you that. So, for the most consistent, reliable results, aim for the following target temperatures.

Mopping and Spritzing Your Meat

You might have heard about mopping or spritzing your meat while you smoke.

They’re talking about spraying or rubbing liquid on the outside of your meat every half hour or so while you’re cooking.

The idea behind it is that you moisture to your meat for a juicier finish.

But, like all things barbecue, people are divided on it’s effectiveness with a lot of people arguing that mopping or spritzing your meat can actually wipe off any spices you’ve used, jeopardizing the flavor. It can also soften a good bark, and lengthen the cooking time because you’re opening the lid regularly, letting the heat out.

We’re going to say, mop or spritz if you want to. But, if you want to put your barbecue in the smoker and leave it to do it’s thing, that’s also perfectly fine.

Check out the video below where All Things BBQ test spritzed vs non-spritzed ribs side by side.

Sauce and Smoking

Adding the sauce too soon when your grilling or smoking is a common beginner mistake.

Sauces are largely made up of sugar and, at any heat, sugar burns, especially if you’re leaving it in a smoker for hours.

So, how do they do those incredible saucey ribs, burnt ends, or sticky pulled pork?

The sauce is actually added towards the end of cooking. In fact, if you’re smoking at 225°F  it’s best to leave it to the last 15 minutes before you brush on some sauce. But, giving it some time to heat and caramelize on the smoker does give a better flavor than pasting it on while the meat is resting.

You can add multiple layers, say every 5 minutes for a thicker, stickier finish.

But, it’s equally okay to smoke meat without adding any sauce at all.

Resting Meat After Smoking

We get it, it’s hot off the barbecue and all you want to do is devour it!

But, resting your freshly smoked meat is beneficial because it:

When meat is exposed to heat during smoking, the juices inside move towards the surface. Allowing the meat to rest after cooking enables these juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat, leaving the final piece nicely moist throughout.

Resting gives the meat a bit of extra time to cook in the residual heat. This extra time helps break down tough collagen and connective tissues, creating a more tender result. It’s also easier to cut or pull.

When the last of that gelatin and collagen break down while your meat is resting, it actually helps to intensify the flavor and texture of the meat.

How Long Does Meat Need to Be Rested For?

As a general guide, the larger the cut of meat, the longer the resting time should be.

So, while you can get by giving your steak 10 minutes or so, a pulled pork does better with 1 – 2 hours, and a large brisket can easily sit for a few hours before being sliced into.

When you’re starting out, I’d aim for about an hour of resting time if you can. And, instead of being frustrated by not getting to eat the meat, use it as a buffer time and cook any sides you’re going to serve up with the main event.

Tips for Smoking Meat

Be Aware of Heat Zones

Depending on what type, make, and model of smoker you have, some areas inside your barbecue might be hotter or cooler than others.

This isn’t a sign of a bad quality barbecue. It’s merely physics and you can actually use it to your advantage.

Pay attention to where things tend to cook faster or burn more to work out where the hot spots are. Generally, it’s hotter closer to the fire. But, hot air rises. So, the top racks on some barbecues can run quite warm too.

Then, use the warmer spots for large cuts of meat that can handle a little extra heat and save the lower temperatures for things like sides that you want to cook slowly. Or, reverse that and use the hot spots to grill some veggies too. You’ll work out what works for you.

Don’t Overcrowd the Smoker

Just like it’s hard to barbecue with someone watching closely over your shoulder, meat won’t cook as well if it’s too packed in there.

Instead, always give the things you’re cooking enough space.

Doing so means that the heat can flow better throughout to cook everything more evenly. It’ll also help you to maintain better control over the heat.

Clean Your Barbecue While It’s Still Warm

When your meat is resting and the sides are prepped, give the grates a quick scrub while they’re still warm.

It’ll only take a couple of minutes if you do it right then and there. But, it’ll save you a heap of elbow grease over leaving it until your mess has cooled.

If you need a good grill cleaning brush, check out our favorite safe options.

Try Stuff, Practice & Do More Of What You Like

Smoking meat is in no way an exact science! So much of it comes down to personal preference and the only way you’re going to get really good at what you like is by trying it.

Luckily though, practicing barbecuing is never a drag and even a burnt brisket can successfully be used for leftovers.

So, crank out your barbecue on a regular basis, try different recipes for dry spices, experiment with techniques, and pay attention to what is and isn’t working for you.

I keep a smoking journal to write down ALL the details of my cooks so that I can easily see what worked and what didn’t because I always think I’ll remember and never quite do. It’s a cheap investment into better barbecue.

Putting It All Together...

Well, after reading all of that, I hope you’re feeling like you’ve got a clear direction to go in when it comes to smoking your first brisket, rack of ribs, or bowl of pulled pork.

In this guide, we’ve broken down the most essential things to know when you’re just starting out with smoking.

Remember, try not to get overwhelmed thinking you have to do it this way or that way. Barbecue is all about opinion and if you’re cooking for yourself, it’s your opinion that matters the most!

So, regardless of what type of smoker you’ve got and what you’re planning to cook on it, remember to have fun above all else!

Smoking meat isn’t just about cooking good food. It’s a social experience too. Get the family involved, invite some friends around, or simply enjoy the smell of the smoke in the air while you enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.

Just get out there and enjoy it!

FAQs About How to Smoke Meat

For beginners, pellet grills, digital charcoal smokers, and electric smokers are the easiest to use. With automatically regulated temperature control, they let you focus on other variables like the meat, spices and wood to get used to the basics of smoking before you have to worry about stoking the fire and adjust vents.

When you’re just starting out, I’d recommend experimenting with smaller and/or cheaper cuts of meat like butterflied chicken, a rack of ribs, or a chuck roast.

With a shorter cook time, you don’t have to manage your smoker for quite so long. And, you can get used to how to work your smoker without worrying about ruining an expensive, 12 long hours smoked brisket.

To get meat that falls apart, you need to bring it’s internal temperature up above the 200°F mark. 205°F is optimal. At this temperature the connective tissue has melted allowing the fibers to easily pull apart.

It also needs to have been cooked for a number of hours to reach this temperature slowly. Simply taking the internal temperature of any cut of meat up to this heat over a very short period of time won’t cut it.

Yes, meat does get more tender the longer you smoke it, up to a point.

If you look at a pork shoulder, butt, brisket, rack of ribs, or any other piece of meat on a smoker before it’s ready to eat, it’ll be tough as a rock.

But, leave it for the internal temperature to keep rising, melting tough connective tissue and you’ll have a tender, falling apart pile of deliciousness.

No. You absolutely don’t have to use a water pan when smoking meat. Even in an electric smoker when it comes with one.

Some people like the moisture that placing a tray of water inside the smoker creates. Others claim it gives a smokier flavor as well.

But, when you’re smoking low and slow over indirect heat, your meat should have enough fat and connective tissue not to dry out. Just be sure to use a meat thermometer to check you haven’t over-shot the ideal internal temperature for your particular type of meat.

That’s the most common reason for dry meat, especially chicken!

This is another hotly debated smoking topic. And, while there’s valid arguments for both sides, we’re fans of keeping the wood dry.

Wood chips, chunks, and logs for smoking are all properly dried because wood can only smoke properly when it’s moisture content is below a certain level.

Wet wood will steam and look like it’s smoking more. But, the right chemical reactions for good, clean smoke can’t happen unless the wood is dry.

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Kate Brown, the founder and voice behind Burning Brisket, is not your typical pitmaster or restaurateur. Her expertise in barbecue grew from a humble desire to cook exceptional meals for her family. From overcoming burnt brisket mishaps to establishing her boutique cattle ranch, Kate shares her passion to help 'ordinary' individuals cook extraordinary barbecue, believing that simplicity often yields the best flavors. Kate is committed to making great barbecue accessible to all with the right resources and some tasty practice.

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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