With everyone spending more time at home this year, you’ve likely made a few new equipment purchases for cooking in your backyard. If you went the smoker route (or have been on that path for a little while already), it’s important to remember that no matter how great your tools are, the wrong cut of meat can put a damper on your results. Knowing the right meat and style of meat to buy is a huge part of the smoking process.
We’ve broken down the essential cuts of meat to smoke, and how you can order them straight to your door. Each type of meat has an ideal purpose, and some are better fitted to smoking than others. Though it’s doable to smoke big cuts of steak, don’t waste your best sirloin or ribeye—they’re better served with the hot and fast sear they deserve from the grill. It’s actually the less-expensive, tougher cuts that are better suited to a low and slow process, as they’re full of fat and connective tissues that break down into the most tender meat. That collagen naturally sweetens the deal and keeps things moist, whereas a leaner or thinner cut like pork loin or beef filet will come out tough and dry.
Though we won’t get into types of smokers here, everything from charcoal smokers to stick burners will require the use of wood chips or pellets to get the best smokey flavors out of your meats. Hickory is a classic multi-use wood, and works best with pork butt and ribs. Apple, maple, and cherry wood are milder flavors that lend themselves to pork, turkey, and chicken, respectively. Mesquite wood is stronger and smokier, better for open-air or smoking darker meats. Oak is great for brisket but not ideal for poultry as it can overwhelm the meat. Cedar is best reserved for fatty fish since it has a very strong flavor.
Most meats should be smoked between 200 and 225 degrees, with the internal temperature reaching 145 degrees for red meat (depending on the cut) and 165 for poultry. For ribs and brisket, though they’re technically done at 145 degrees, experts recommend getting them up to 180 degrees or higher by the end to really tenderize the meat. While it might feel counterintuitive to cook meat beyond well-done, for barbecue, those higher temperatures are where the magic happens.
If you’re just starting out in your smoking journey or want something a little faster than a 12-hour brisket, a whole chicken is a surefire win. It’s good for beginners, cooks fairly quickly, and generally stays moist while smoking. The process will take 35 to 45 minutes per pound of chicken at 200 to 225 degrees in the smoker (yes, you can do two at once side by side!). Check for the internal temperature to reach 160 to 165 degrees, and wrap it in a foil tent to rest before diving right in. Those flavorful juices will redistribute and make for the most succulent bird you’ve ever had. Try it with mesquite or hickory wood chips.
Brisket is generally easy to find, and naturally has an excellent layer of fat that retains moisture as it cooks. You’ll need about 90 minutes per pound and to keep the temperature at around 225 degrees, and ideally get the internal temperature up to 195 degrees. Use oak, hickory, or mesquite for brisket purposes. To account for generous fat rendering, plan to purchase at least one pound of meat per serving.
A small pork shoulder or pork butt is a great starting point for those new to smoking. Pork shoulder is sold in two forms. The lower part of the foreleg, called picnic shoulder or picnic roast, will have slightly less fat and marbling and is sold with the skin on (great for pork roast and cracklings). The pork butt, or Boston butt, (not actually the butt of the pig, as that is ham) is the higher part of the foreleg. It’s a rectangular cut, well-marbled, and gives us our beloved pulled pork. Pork butt is great for stewing and braising, but it shines best from slow smoking. The marbling bastes the meat from the inside and renders the fat over time as it cooks, making it ultra-tender. It takes about two hours per pound at 225 degrees on the smoker, and like brisket, it is “done” at 145 degrees but will be perfectly tender and ideal for pulled pork at 195°F. Use apple or hickory for this piece of meat.
There are two styles of ribs to use on the smoker. The first is spare ribs, also referred to as St. Louis-style, which are meatier with more fat and bone. The second is the eternally popular baby back ribs from the loin, which are smaller and more tender. Baby backs will cook faster than spare ribs, but feed fewer people due to their, well, baby size. Overall, ribs are the most cost-effective meat. Just remember to remove the lower membrane to allow the rub and sauces to penetrate. Keep your smoker at a steady 230 degrees, and expect about 45 minutes per pound to get to the 185-degree internal temperature. Ribs go by the famous “3-2-1” rule, which suggests three hours of smoking, then two hours wrapped in foil with liquid, then another hour back on the racks covered in your chosen BBQ sauce. Oak, hickory, and mesquite are all good choices for ribs.
We know you were thinking it, and it’s a classic project for avid barbecuers to try their hand at a smoked turkey. Keep the smoker at 225-250 degrees, and expect 30 minutes of cooking time per pound. Make sure to bring the turkey to room temperature before cooking (about an hour outside of the fridge) to ensure it cooks evenly from the get-go. Be sure to prep with brine to keep it moist, and avoid smoking turkeys that are oversized (the interior will sit in the temperature danger zone for too long while heating up). Fully cooked it should reach 165 in the breast or 180 in the largest part of the thigh. Use hickory or mesquite wood for the best flavor.
If you’re not looking for single cuts or have a large family to feed, several places offer quarter, half, or even whole pig or cow packages. If you know you want ribs one weekend and a shoulder the next, this can be a cost-effective way to have everything on hand. You can even order a whole suckling pig from $275, if you have lofty smoker goals. Farm Foods offers 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, or even an entire pig or cow if that suits your style (and you have the freezer space).
An order of 1/8 Pig for $269 gets you:
An order of 1/8 Cow for $500 includes: