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Smoking meat is next level barbeque that pitmasters are famed for across the world. Sure, you can cook a mean steak on the grill, but it doesn’t come close to the flavor and texture you can achieve with smoking.
If you’re new to the slow cooking scene, this guide will give you everything you need to know about smoking meat and low ‘n’ slow barbequing to help you expand your techniques and cook like a pitmaster.
How to Smoke Meat for Beginners
What is Smoking?
Smoking meat involves surrounding the meat in a chamber filled with flavorful smoke and then cooking the meat for a long time at a low temperature. By doing this you allow the meat to take on the delicious flavors of the smoke which gives it a unique and incredible flavor profile that can’t be matched.
In general, a smoker will cook the meat at a temperature between 200º-225º. But this depends on the type of meat you’re working with.
As well as giving an unbeatable flavor, the smoking process also acts as a preservative by dehydrating the meat and because the smoke has antibacterial properties.
This method of preserving dates back long before we had refrigerators or other preservative chemicals. The main reason this form of preserving meat has lasted into the modern era is the unrivaled flavor the smoke imparts on the meat.
This is a process of smoking meat that involves low temperatures – shocker, we know.. This is usually achieved by having smoke pumped into a chamber filled with meat from a separate chamber.
This process is used in conjunction with a curing or preservative process to add flavor to the meat. However, some food products can be cold smoked that do not require curing.
The basic process of cold smoking is to cure meat to extract water and reduce bacterial growth and then to expose the cured meat to flavorful smoke over a period of hours or even days to impart that smokey flavor.
Common Meat Smoking Mistakes to Avoid
Smoking meat is a great way to enhance but there are some common pitfalls beginners should try to avoid.
1. Using Lighter Fluid
One of the most common mistakes with the meat smoking process is using the wrong process to get the wood smoking in the first place.
The main reason for this is laziness and wanting to get the fire going as quickly as possible.
So of course, the most convenient way of doing this is to use a chemical to initiate the fire.
The main issue with using lighter fluid or other chemicals is that they have their own distinct small that imparts onto the meat. This nasty taste will be noticeable for a long time.
There are odorless chemical alternatives if you really don’t want to take the time to start the fire properly but the pro way is a charcoal chimney starter.
The structure allows you to get an even charcoal burn with very little tinder and no unpleasant smell. It’s a little more effort, but you’ll be glad you did it!
2. Starting too Fast
The best way to smoke meat is to do so slowly and gradually increase the temperature. If you add too much fuel too quickly you can significantly increase the temperature but you want it to be a slow process. It usually takes hours to days to smoke the meat.
You want to gradually increase the heat and keep control of it so that you can get the best temperatures for the meat and to impart flavor.
3. Not Preheating the Smoker Properly
Whatever recipe you use, it will tell you how long it will take to smoke that particular piece of meat. You’ll also be given a specific pre-heat temperature so you’ll have to warm up the smoker first.
Yes, this makes the process longer, but it will give you the ideal cook and smoke temperature to get the perfect flavor.
4. Using Too Much or Not Enough Heat
Provided they are not too big, temperature fluctuations are not a bad thing for meat smoking. That being said, large changes in temperature can have an adverse effect.
Large fluctuations can increase the time it takes to smoke the meat and worse, will often lead to the meat becoming dry – no thank you!
The more practice and experience you have the better you will become at keeping the temperature consistent. Having a high-quality smoker can also help you with this.
5. Constantly Changing the Grill Settings
Remember that smoking is a slow and time-consuming method of cooking. If you’re constantly changing the settings, you’re going to ruin the meat.
The key to maintaining temperature is to only make slight changes. Opening the lid and changing air vents will change the temperature dramatically. If the temperature gets too high, this can be the hardest issue to correct.
Make small setting changes over time if needed to keep the temperature fluctuations to a minimum.
6. Using Too Much Wood
You don’t want huge clouds of smoke but a simple stream of smoke to effectively flavor the meat. A huge amount of smoke can overpower the flavor of the meat and even make the meat inedible.
You need to gradually add a small amount of wood to maintain the gentle stream of smoke. Always keep the airflow moving using the air vents to make sure the smoke is moving.
10. Using Poor Quality Wood
Never use non-seasonal wood, green or wet wood. Green wood is reserved for seasoned professionals who know exactly how to use it.
If you’re a beginner, green wood can cause the meat to become bitter. Ideally, you should use seasonal wood but not resin wood.
11. Using Poor Quality Meat
Don’t skimp on the quality of meat. Buy it from a reputable butcher and get the best quality you can afford. Poor quality meat can affect the taste and leave you with dry, chewy meat. Not ideal after all that effort of smoking it!
Investing in top quality meat will make the flavor and texture so much better.
Types of Smoker
These use electricity to heat a rod that causes the wood to smoke. The advantage of these is that it’s really easy to control the temperature of the smoker. They do unfortunately tend to impart the least amount of flavor but there are some great budget electric smokers on the market to get started with.
These work in the same way as electric smokers but use gas-fuelled flames to heat wood pellets. They are simple to use and can be more cost-effective than electric ones.
These are king among the BBQ masters because charcoal imparts more flavor than gas or electric. They are also cheaper again but you will need to buy charcoal constantly to refuel. You will also need to maintain a fire without technology which can be more tricky.
These are the smokers for the purest flavor of cooking. They take the most amount of attention and are difficult to keep a constant temperature. So they might not be the best for beginners. But if you’re looking to up your smoking game, a wood smoker is a great choice.
These are similar to wood smokers but the wood has been formed into a pellet, making it easier to use. Instead of stacking and looking after the flame you can load the pellets up inside. A great quality pellet smoker is good value for money and easy to use for beginners.
This is a simple smoker with a metal drum that comes in various forms. They are often handmade and therefore come in a range of designs. They have become more commercially available and can be found taller for greater capacity.
These hold the temperature well too which can help beginners.
These have a large chamber where you can place the meat. Then there is a separate chamber to start the fire and the smoke moves from one to the other. Offset smokers are easy to control the temperature using the vents on the sides.
If you’re unsure which type of smoker is best for you, check out our guide to the best smokers here.
Types of Smoking Wood
Once you know the type of smoker you’re going to use, next you’ll want to know which wood is best for the type of meat you’re smoking.
This is the number one favorite for meats. It is easy to use which makes it a great place to start for newbie smokers.
It has a medium to strong flavor that is not overpowering and works best with lamb, beef, brisket and sausages.
Having a mild and sweet yet mellow flavor profile, it gives a great taste but can take a long time to impart on the meat. Apple works best with chicken, wildfowl and, of course, pork.
This is a versatile choice as it can be smoked in many different ways. Too much can cause a bitter taste in the meat though, so quantity is key with this one.
If used right, it will have a sweet, hearty and bacony taste to it – perfect for ham, poultry and pork.
This is a really subtle wood to smoke with and imparts only a slight flavor. It’s good for giving a light, sweet taste so works best with poultry, pork and game.
This wood has an intense flavor and is great for grilling the meat afterwards. It is best used in small amounts due to its unique flavor and works best with red meat.
A mild and fruity flavor that works well with other hardwoods such as hickory. Combined, these two can give a tremendous flavor that works well with chicken, turkey and ham.
This wood gives off a rich, sweet and nutty flavor and is often combined with another wood due to the sweetness to bring some balance. It works best with brisket, roasts and ribs.
This is a delicate but sweet and light flavor that doesn’t need as much balancing. It works best with fish, especially salmon.
Getting a Good Smoke Ring
What is the smoke ring I hear you ask? It’s a region of pink-colored meat around the outskirts of the meat that’s about 8-10mm thick. It’s usually found in chicken, pork and beef.
Why is it important? Well, it’s considered the defining factor in how well a piece of meat has been smoked and cooked.
The type of wood and the amount of moisture present can affect how well the smoke ring is produced. This is due to the gases that are released during the smoking process.
Making sure the surface of the meat is moist or sticky before cooking can also help with absorption of the gases that produce the ring and the flavor profiles that absorbed.
It’s also good to remove any fat from the meat as this will expose more meat area to the smoke and increase absorption.
The longer and lower the temperature that the meat is cooked at will also allow for more absorption of gases leading to richer and more defined flavors.
Desperate to get that smoke ring? There is a way to cheat…
By coating the meat in salt tenderizer, the surface of the meat will load up quickly with the gases produced by smoking.
This is the main reason why smoke rings are no longer taken into consideration in competitions.
How to Get Thin Blue Smoke Every Time
Thin blue smoke coming out of the smoker indicates that your fire is burning cleanly. This is the standard to aim for and will not create creosote.
Here’s how to achieve that sought-after blue hue:
1. Minimize the Volume of Smoke
Volume of smoke is not an indicator of how much flavor you will get out of your smoker.
In fact, you can harm the flavor by creating an overpowering taste if there is too much smoke.
This is especially important with flavors like hickory and oak that can overpower the flavor of the meat. So be mindful of woods with strong flavor profiles.
The harder it is to see and monitor the smoke coming out of the smoker the better.
You should only be able to see a trail of smoke coming out of the smoker. While it’s not necessary to have blue smoke coming out, it should not be white and fluffy.
The smell coming off it should only be subtle too.
After all, the aim is to impart a subtle flavor not to swamp the natural flavor of the meat.
2. Build A Fire Like a Pro
If you use a charcoal smoker, charcoal is the fuel to produce the heat and the wood is there only to give flavor. Adding to much wood can lead to it becoming a fuel source.
In offset smokers, the wood produces the heat and the smoke so this doesn’t apply.
Start with coals and get them very hot as these are the heat source. The introduce the wood you want to use for smoking when the heat is at the right temperature.
Don’t use too much – two or three logs will be plenty. Too much wood can lead to too much smoke and can smother the coals or overpower the meat.
Only add more wood when the existing logs have become part of the coals.
3. Use the Right Type of Wood
First of all, there are some woods that should never be used. These are woods that have been treated such as plywood or particleboard. Or woods that give off a lot of resins such as pine, cedar or other evergreens.
See the types of wood above to pick the right type of would to impart the flavor you want onto the meat you have while achieving that thin blue smoke.
4. Manage your Airflow
Oxygen is a key component in combustion so airflow is a vital part of the process of smoking.
It’s not only vital to control the temperature but also to make sure the smoker is burning efficiently.
It’s also not as simple as saying the more air the better.
You will get to know your smoker and be able to get the best results out of it with time and practice. Don’t be disheartened if it takes a few tries to nail the airflow.
Can You Reuse Charcoal for Smoking?
In short, yes!
To save money, be environmentally conscious and time-efficient, you can and should reuse your charcoal.
This is a great advantage of using a charcoal smoker over a wood smoker.
Once you have finished cooking, shut all the vents. This will put the coals out and maximize the amount that can be reused.
If you want to clean the smoker out, you can empty the coals into a container to clean the smoker. Use a small container to cool the coals quicker.
Injecting the meat is not needed to ensure a tender result but it will give a great taste throughout your meat.
While the standard method of marinating meat has its own part to play, things like rubs and glazes can only sit on the surface of the meat.
Alternatively, if you want to cure the meat, it’s a long slow process. In fact, a pound of meat will take around an hour to cure in brine. To put that in perspective, an entire pork tenderloin could need to brine for twelve hours or more, which is a lot of time to have pork taking up space in your fridge!
Not only that but there are some safety precautions that need to be taken into account when curing meat like this.
On the other side of the coin, injecting meat takes just a few minutes to do and delivers moistness throughout the meat.
The Best Types of Meat to Inject
Injecting works best with larger pieces of meat. These include:
- Whole hogs
- Whole poultry
- Pork shoulders
While there are more benefits of injecting larger pieces of meat, you’re not limited to them. Naturally dry or bland meats can also benefit from injecting.
Make sure that you inject into the center of the meat as this will have the biggest impact on the flavor. Other meats you can try injecting include:
- Pork loin
- Lamb leg
- Beef roast
- Thick pork chops
What Should You Inject into the Meat?
The solution you inject doesn’t need to be complicated. It just needs to make your mouth water.
An important thing to remember when planning your solution to inject is if you do find something spectacular, it might be good to keep it under wraps. Everyone loves a secret family secret recipe!
Remember not to go crazy with the salt, sugar or distinctive flavors. Just like smoking, you want to enhance the flavors not overpower them.
If you’re stuck, here are some easy examples of what to inject:
- Solid ingredients such as garlic or spices are fine. But they need to be well ground up into powder or paste.
- If you have a thick or chunky solution such as a chutney or pickle, you’ll need an appropriate needle to inject it into the meat.
If you are looking for inspiration, check out Chris Lilley’s recipes – a six-time World Championship Winner.
A Step by Step Guide to Injecting Meat
Below you will find a quick and simple method for injecting solutions into meat to enhance their flavor.
1. Choose an appropriate needle for the size of the job
If you have an injector that allows for different sized needles then take some time to think about which needle will be the best one to use on your meat. The size and cut of the meat as well as the viscosity of the solution will all play a part. Thick needles will be able to deliver thicker solutions but may tear the meat or damage it in some way.
2. Gather your equipment
Make sure that the equipment is clean and there is no residue from past injections present. Not only is this an important food safety protocol as bacteria can grow in this environment but it can also negatively impact the flavors that you are injecting. Remember to have a tray handy to sit the meat on and a container to keep your solution in. You may also want to have an apron in case of any spillage.
3. Make sure that your solution is well mixed
The solution does not need to be complicated but it does need to be looked after. A great pork injection recipe includes just 5 ingredients: apple sauce, water, sugar, salt and Worcester sauce. To make sure the ingredients are well combined, use a bottle or container to shake well before transferring it to a bowl in which to draw from. An 8-12 pound piece of pork can take a much as 2 cups of solution.
4. Fill the syringe with the solution you have prepared
Dip the needle into the solution and pull the plunger back towards you, drawing the solution into the tube of the syringe. If the syringe is clear you will be able to see clearly how much solution you are drawing into it. If you need to, tip the bowl to make sure you’re not drawing any air into the needle.
5. Decide where you’re going to inject your solution into the meat
If the meat has a bone, you’re going to want to inject the solution in and around the bone if you can. It’s easier to inject into the muscle of the meat rather than the top and sides where it can be thin. This will result in a minimal amount of lost fluid. You should be able to see the muscle fibers begin to plump up as more solution is added to it.
6. Inject the solution into the meat
To inject the solution, simply push the plunger down and let the solution enter the meat at a steady pace, making sure the needle is well embedded in the meat to avoid too much liquid loss. If the needle has holes in the shaft make sure they are all in the meat to avoid getting it all over you.
7. Keep applying pressure and evenly distribute the solution throughout the meat
If you use a small needle, you may have to move the needle around and inject in a few places to make sure you have an even distribution. Turn the meat around and inject from both sides. This gives better coverage than injecting from the top or bottom.
Low ‘n’ Slow Barbecuing 101
Low ‘n’ Slow is what you’re aiming for when barbequing. It’s simply cooking at a low temperature for a long period of time. This famous method allows larger pieces of meat to fall apart into mouth-watering, tender and flavorsome chunks. It’s an especially good technique for pulled pork, brisket and ribs.
Benefits of Low ‘n’ Slow Barbecuing
1. Helps Keep the Meat Moist
When meat is cooked at a low temperature it allows the oils and natural moisture to remain intact. This in turn retains the natural flavors of the meat as well as any other flavors you impart on it when smoking the meat.
2. Helps Keep the Nutritional Value of Meat
There are many proteins and vitamins in meat that can break down at higher temperatures. By slowly and gently cooking the meat, more of these remain intact, maintaining the nutritional value of the meat.
3. Heats the Inside of the Meat Before the Outside Burns
To make sure that meat is perfect, it needs to be evenly cooked. By doing slow and steady cooking, the meat is cooked evenly without drying or burning the meat.
Essential Tools for Low ‘n’ Slow Barbecuing
The first thing you are going to need is a grill. This can be gas, charcoal or a combination of the two, but many avid pitmasters prefer to use a charcoal grill.
The next thing you need is time -a lot of it! If you’re going to be cooking using the low and slow method, you’ll need a good few hours to prepare and cook your meat. Not only this, but it can need a fair amount of attention, so you can’t be popping off to run errands while it cooks.
Make sure you have everything you need for the day as you are in for the long haul. Remember, you’re cooking on an active fire and the temperatures can fluctuate so you’ll need to be on hand to control it for the best results.
How to Prep Your Grill
You’re going to want to make sure that the grill clean and you have all your tools ready to go.
Next, make sure you have your cooking fuel. Whether that’s gas, wood or charcoal.
If you want to add some extra flavor, you can add some wood to smoke the meat as it grills. If you do smoke using wood, you need to wait until the fire has been established for a few hours before adding it.
Make sure the grill is prepped for indirect heat cooking. A drip tray is also a must-have to catch fat as it falls onto the coals. Filling it with water will also help to keep the meat moisture locked in.
If you’re using a small kettle grill, it’s best to start some charcoal in a chimney starter first. Place this over some unlit coals in the kettle grill. This will keep the coals going for a much longer time and lends itself to the low and slow method of grilling meat.
What’s the Difference Between a Smoker and a BBQ?
Smokers are not the same as a traditional BBQ. When using a charcoal barbeque, the meat is added directly to the grills and cooked over a direct or slight indirect heat for less time.
On the other hand, a smoker cooks over a long period of time using heat, smoke and moisture to slowly cook and infuse the meat with flavor.
The trick of smoking is to smoke the meat at a low temperature for longer. It will take a minimum of two hours to smoke a piece of meat but often a bit longer. This will of course depend on the size of the piece of meat and the type of meat you use.
Although it takes significantly longer, the flavor and texture of meat achieved with a smoker can’t be beat by a normal charcoal barbeque.
Best Low ‘n’ Slow Recipes
Here is some inspiration for delicious recipes you can try using the low ‘n’ slow barbeque method:
For an unbeatable brisket that will have guests drooling, check out this recipe from The Gentleman’s Gazette.
Want sticky BBQ ribs that melt in your mouth? It doesn’t get better than this recipe from Hey Grill Hey.
Pulled Pork Burger
Serve up incredible pulled pork burgers at your next cook-out with this epic low ‘n’ slow recipe from Serious Eats.
Low ‘n’ Slow Turkey
Push the boat out at Thanksgiving or Christmas with this awesome recipe from Lang BBQ Smokers for a whole turkey.
Most Famous Low ‘n’ Slow Joints in the World
Franklin BBQ – Austin, TX
What started in a small trailer is now the world-famous joint visited by celebrities, chefs, even former president Barack Obama. The familiar smell of oak-smoked brisket is what Franklin BBQ in Texas is known for and will make you rethink everything you know about low ‘n’ slow barbeque.
Moonlite BBQ Inn – Owensboro, KY
This small join in Kentucky is famous for its incredible barbeque buffet. They smoke meats using hickory wood for a long time to give their signature flavor people travel from all over to try.
Big Mista Barbecue – Long Beach, CA
Neil Strawder is the pitmaster of this BBQ joint in California. He’s a long time pitmaster competitor with a signature low ‘n’ slow BBQ method that makes this place a bucket list venue. The authentic, delicious smell of smoked brisket hits you as you enter and you’ll see the famous pits from the front of the store.
SMOKESTAK – London, England
When it comes to Europe, there is no better BBQ than SMOKESTAK in London. Their famous brisket burger is world-famous and each dish they serve is a masterclass in low ‘n’ slow barbeque.