Marcus Nilsson

These world-renowned pit masters are here to help.

Maria Yagoda
July 06, 2017

To many home cooks, smoking food is an intimidating, mystifying art reserved for pit masters with decades of experience and easy access to artisan woodchips.

This is not the case. Everyone can (and should!) smoke their own meats at home, making sure to avoid some common mistakes. We spoke with some of the country’s most prestigious pit masters to find out the biggest smoking slip-ups—and how to avoid them.   

1. Oversmoking.

“Use wood with your grill as you would any other ingredient,” says pit master Melissa Cookston, the only female barbecue world champion. “It’s a needed component of BBQ, but should not be the main flavor.”

2. Oversized fires.

“A smaller, clean burning fire is much preferred to a larger amount of fuel that you will have to keep ‘choked down’ with your air intakes, or worse, squirted with the spray bottle,” Cookston says. “This will result in much cleaner flavors and more consistent cooking temperatures. White, thin smoke is good; black, thick smoke is bad.”

3. Overreliance on timers.

Franco V., partner and pitmaster at Holy Ground, says people rely too heavily on time to know when their meat is done smoking. Investing in a high-quality digital thermometer will take out all the guess work.

“Every piece of meat is different,” he says. “A lot of people say that it's about an hour and a half per pound of meat. While that can get you in the ballpark, you can't let that be your only guide. Get an accurate, quick read digital thermometer and when your meat hits the right temp, take it off.”

4. Overheating.

"The biggest mistake I see in smoking is cooking at too high of a temperature,” says Jason Goodman, executive chef at Fette Sau and Frankford Hall in Philadelphia. “Smoking is a slow process at lower temperatures to both infuse your meats with the smoked flavor and to properly cook and render each cut of meat. Cooking at higher temperature will lend itself to a finished product that is less smoky and dry. To avoid losing control of our temperature, we can use moist wood, monitor your smoker closely and most importantly give your meats enough time to cook slow and low.” 

5. Over-saucing.

“Saucing meat should be reserved for the last few minutes of cooking, or served as an accompaniment—never cooked on the meat,” says Cookston

If you’re dying to serve your meat with a sauce, consider sticking to just a couple dashes of hot sauce—something smooth and smoky like Tabasco Chipotle Sauce. Or, make store-bought BBQ sauce your own—and pretend it’s homemade—by dashing in a few drops.

6. Eating the meat right away.

Patience is a virtue here.

“Always let the meat rest for about 45 minutes, so the juices can redistribute,” says Franco V., adding for emphasis: “You must let it rest!”