A beginner’s guide to smoking meat

Smoked meat

So you’ve mastered the art of barbecuing a steak to char-broiled perfection, and your cedar-plank technique is beyond compare. You know enough to soak your wooden skewers ahead of time and when to keep the heat low and slow instead of hot and searing.

Well, it’s time to move your grill skills to the next level and learn the basics of smoking meat—trust us, your taste buds will thank you.

Get it straight

Grilling means cooking quickly over high heat, creating a crust that keeps whatever you’re cooking tender and juicy. Most cooking done on a barbecue is actually grilling.

Barbecuing takes longer and involves cooking over low, slow, often indirect heat—think about what you’d do to create pulled pork or tender, fall-apart ribs.

Smoking involves putting food in a low-heat, smoky environment—either a barbecue or a smoker—for several hours, allowing the smoke to penetrate throughout the meat and impart an unmistakable smoky flavour.

Be patient

Smoking meat is a long-term commitment, but it has serious payoffs. Make sure you set aside at least four hours (or often more) to allow your meat to smoke thoroughly. Slow cooking over low heat breaks down the collagen in the meat’s muscle fibres, making it tender and keeping it juicy.

Ribs can take between five and seven hours to smoke, while roasts and briskets may need up to an hour per pound. Don’t peek at your meat as it’s smoking, unless you need to add more coals to maintain a consistent temperature or refill your water pan (more on that below).

Decide between wet or dry

Wet smoking meat involves including a pan of water with the coals to create a steamy, smoky atmosphere that helps keep meat moist. You can use water, fruit juice or experiment with other liquids to add extra flavour. Wet smoked meat doesn’t tend to develop a flavourful crust or “bark,” which a lot of people enjoy, and if you let the water burn off, beware: the temperature can spike quickly and you’ll have nothing but lumps of carbon left of your lovely meat.

Get the heat just right

A smoker makes maintaining a consistent heat pretty simple, but if you’re a beginner and don’t have a smoker yet, a regular charcoal kettle will work just fine.

Use lump charcoal or high-quality briquettes, and stay far, far away from lighter fluid—unless you like the taste of chemicals throughout your meat. Using a chimney starter, get your coals hot (they should be at 250 degrees Celsius). If you don’t have a thermometer, hold your hand over the coals and count. The ideal temperature is when you can get to “two Mississippi” before having to take your hand away from the heat.

Pile your coals over the bottom damper, add your smoking wood (see below), and then put your meat on the grill on the opposite side of the coals. Maintain a temperature of around 220 degrees. You can add more coals if necessary, but it’s best if they come off another grill you have going so that you’re not adding cold ones.

Pick the right wood

Hardwood chunks are best—look for hickory, apple, cherry or oak. If you can’t find chunks, use chips that have been soaked in water for at least an hour. Mesquite has a definite and strong flavour to it, but it’s one that many people like. Don’t use pine or other sap woods—they’ll make your meat taste like you’re sucking on a pinecone.

Pick the right meat

Not all meat is well suited for smoking. Chicken and turkey are fine, but the skin likely won’t stand up to the long, slow cooking process, and they have a tendency to get tough, though brining can help. Fragile white fish also won’t work very well. If you’re craving some seafood, pick oily fish like salmon. Pork, beef, lamb or game meats will also yield the best results.

Use a rub

For a classic pit master’s rub, combine a 1/2 cup of kosher salt, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of lemon pepper, 1 tablespoon of black pepper, and 2 teaspoons of chili flakes. Rub this all over your meat before you start smoking. Once the meat is done, glaze it with your favourite barbecue sauce.

Want more tips for smoking meat? Check out the articles below:

The science of barbecue—smoking meat

How to get bark when smoking meat

How to smoke food on a gas grill