Ultimate Beginner’s Guide: How to Smoke Meat at Home (Like a Pro)
Updated: March 31, 2022
If you want to step up your meat game, then smoking meats is where it’s at. We wanted to provide this useful How to Smoke Meat Guide for those looking to learn using their current grill or smoker.
Sure, you may be a master of grill lines on your steaks, but can you smoke your own brisket, pork butt, bacon, cheese and more?
If not, then you need to expand your horizons.
“But I don’t have a smoker,” you cry out, despite the fact that you’re sitting alone on your computer.
That’s okay, friend…because you don’t have to have a smoker, though you can get better results with one.
If you’re using only a grill to smoke, all you need is:
- A pile of wood chips
- Your trusty grill
- And this handy guide
If you have a smoker, even better. You can use this guide to help ensure you finish with a beautiful, tender and juicy smoked meat that’s slow-cooked to absolute perfection.
In the end, smoking meats is like art. Strike that, smoking meats is an art.
Like any artistic endeavor, it takes time, patience and practice to master your craft (some subscribe to the 10,000 hour rule). Once you do, you’ll never go back to cooking the old way again.
With that in mind, let’s get to the basics of smoking meat.
Why Smoke Your Meats?
If you’re not the type of person who likes to take extra steps in the cooking process, then you may be wondering if it’s worth it to smoke your meats at all.
Does it really make a difference?
Here’s a fun way you can answer that question yourself: Find someone who does smoke their meats and have yourselves a good, old-fashioned cook-off!
Put your current cooking style up against the smoker’s, side-by-side. Invite friends to sample both dishes, and see the feedback for yourself.
In the end, the goal is to taste test your regularly-grilled meat against your friend’s smoked meat. Then, decide if the flavor difference is truly worth it.
Unless you’re dead inside, or have malfunctioning taste buds, you’re likely to understand the reason immediately.
If you don’t happen to have a friend who smokes meats, or the person just doesn’t want to accept your challenge, we can confirm that smoking is done to create better overall flavors and aromas in your finished product.
Smoking also tenderizes meats that would normally be too hard to eat. If you’ve ever had fall-off-the-bone ribs, then chances are that they were smoked as opposed to grilled (see our How to Smoke Ribs Guide).
That said, the level of smoke, as well as the taste, can be highly subjective. Some folks may find certain woods more appealing than others overall, or in concert with a specific type or cut of meat, and in certain ratios.
That’s why the art of smoking meat takes time to perfect as you experiment with various aromas and flavors. Thus, before beginning your journey to the promised land of smoked meat, it’s important to remember that that smoking is all about finding the right balance.
As a novice smoker, you’ll have to invest time and effort to experiment with different woods and techniques to find those that work best for you (i.e. imparts the flavor, aroma and finished product that tickles your taste buds).
While it can seem daunting at first, remember that there’s no better time than now to get started! It will make take your finished products to a new level…and you may even be able to call yourself a Grill Master with enough practice!
Buying a Smoker vs. Using Existing Grills
So, now that we’ve convinced you to start smoking your meats, you may be wondering if you should go all out and buy a high-class smoker.
The fact is that you can get good results with your current grill, regardless if it’s gas or charcoal. This will keep your mouth happy while you save up for the best grill smoker combo that fits with your budget.
Do I need to buy a separate smoker?
If you’re just getting into smoking, we don’t suggest buying a separate smoker for your food just yet.
However, if you do know you enjoy smoked meats and are in it for the long haul, then definitely consider upgrading to an offset smoker or smoker grill combo.
Most of our tips and tricks in this guide are meant for people who want to use their current grill, but they can absolutely be applied to dedicated smokers.
Using Your Existing Grill as a Smoker
When it comes to a traditional outdoor grill, there are two things that you have to remember when using it to smoke meat:
- You don’t want your meat directly over the heat source
- You want to cook it for hours on end
With that in mind, we must first determine which kind of grill you’re using, as the techniques required to smoke with your existing grill will vary, depending on which one you have.
How to Smoke Meat with Your Charcoal Grill
If you have a charcoal grill already, then the setup to use it as a smoker is relatively straightforward. Here’s how:
- First, pile your coals on one side.
- Place a drip pan on the other side.
- Light your coals and bring them to cooking temperature.
- Place a layer of wood chips on top of your coals.
- For best results, place a layer of liquid into your drip pan to aid with the smoking process. (Tip: if you’re feeling a bit saucy, you can use apple juice to infuse a bit of sweetness into your meat. Otherwise, water will suffice!)
- Once your coals are going and the wood is on, place your meat on the side over the drip pan.
- Finally, close the lid, leaving it cracked slightly for ventilation (smoke should be allowed to slowly escape).
We’ll go over the importance of ventilation a little later.
How to Smoke Meat with Your Gas / Propane Grill
Whether you have a small 2-burner set up or a monster 6-burner gas grill, your smoke setup on a gas grill will be different from the charcoal version we described above.
- Since you can’t place wood chips over coals, you’ll have to put them into a metal pan or smoker box — which you will insert directly over the flames. Once again, only place your wood chips on one side of the grill.
- To get the best results on a gas grill, you will want to preheat everything by keeping all burners on high for about 20 minutes. This will warm everything up and allow for the cooking process to be much smoother.
- After preheating, turn off the burners that are not below your wood chips.
- Then, place your meat on the opposite side.
- Close the lid, leaving it cracked slightly for ventilation.
Ventilation: Why Smoke Flow Is Important
When smoking meat, it’s imperative that you allow for the smoke to circulate and escape. You don’t want things to stagnate inside the grill; otherwise, it will create some sub-optimal results.
When smoke accumulates too fast, your meat starts to burn from the hot temperatures, which means that you will have a charred, ashy taste to your meats. No one wants that. You also want to allow the by-products of combustion (your fire) to escape the cooking chamber — read in more detail here.
The proper level of ventilation, or smoke-flow, as it’s called, depends on a variety of factors. As long as you leave a small opening you should be okay. This is one of those things that you can experiment with to get your desired results.
The Basics of Wood Smoking
The better the wood and meat, the better the flavor.
The best smokers in the world have curated the best wood possible, which not only creates a luxurious flavor in your mouth, but helps to create the tenderest and juiciest meats possible.
As a beginner, you probably don’t know which wood is best, which is why we’re going to give you this handy chart.
Again, the exact level of smokiness and flavor depends on your own preferences and taste buds, so use this as a guide rather than a hard and fast rule.
Graphic: Best Woods for Smoking Chicken, Seafood, Pork & Beef
Looking at the chart above, you will notice that sweeter and lighter woods pair well with chicken and seafood, whereas stronger smelling woods like mesquite and hickory go best with pork and beef.
Again, feel free to experiment with different woods as you like, but remember that chicken and seafood will absorb more flavor than while pork and beef.
Using Wood Chunks vs. Chips vs. Pellets
Once you’ve determined the type of wood that you want to use, there is another decision that you have to make: The size and shape of the wood.
You can get chips or chunks, and there are benefits and downsides to both. In all honesty, there is no right answer here, only preferences. Some smokers swear by chips, whereas others like chunks.
Below, we’re going to break them down.
Wood Chips for Smoking Meat
If you’re planning on smoking for only a couple hours or so, then chips are your best bet.
The important thing to remember about the size of the wood is that the thicker it is, the longer it will last.
To help ensure that your wood doesn’t burn out before your meat is done, you should soak it in water first for up to 30 minutes.
Wood Chunks for Smoking Meat
If you’re a serious smoker, then you probably want to cook your meat all day long rather than just a few hours at a time.
If that’s the case, then wood chunks are your best friend as they will last much longer and provide more smoke.
To help get the most out of your wood pieces, soak them for up to an hour in water beforehand.
Wood Pellets for Smoking Meat
There is a third option, smoker pellets, but pellets can burn off quickly and should only be used with pellet smokers. These smokers are designed to burn pellets in a controlled way that allows the meat to absorb the flavor.
These are best if you only want a little bit of smokiness to your food, rather than cooking for hours on end.
Smoking Temperature: How hot should I make my grill?
Because you’re cooking for hours at a time and since you use indirect heat (as opposed to cooking on an open flame), the goal is to keep the heat low and steady.
In our opinion, the best temperature range lies somewhere between 200 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit — “low and slow.”
This is where you will need a quality thermometer to see how warm your grill is during your cook times. There are a ton of options to check out on Amazon and elsewhere. Bluetooth connected temperature probes are a great investment — you can insert the probes and monitor the temperatures of your meat and smoker from the convenience of your home.
If you plan on smoking your meats for hours on end on your charcoal grill, remember that you must manage your fire by changing your charcoal and adding wood every couple of hours.
If you are using a gas grill, then you still need to swap out for new wood when the previous batch has burned out.
Regardless of the grill you’re using to smoke, be sure to keep an eye on your temperature level so that it doesn’t get too cold inside! The best results come from a steady smoker temperature.
Do I need to flip my meat when smoking on the grill?
NO! Sorry for being so brash, but this is a common mistake that many novice smokers will make.
When smoking, you don’t have to worry about one side getting hotter than the other, because the meat cooks indirectly.
That means that you should keep your lid closed (but still ventilated slightly) until the meat is ready. Remember: “If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin!”
The only reason you should touch your set-up is to make room for new wood chips or charcoal, or if you’re planning to spritz your meat at certain intervals.
Do I have to soak my wood when smoking meat?
No, you don’t have to — but if not, then you will have to change it much more often.
Additionally, soaking your wood beforehand results means that you won’t get as sharp of a smoke flavor added to your meat.
The best flavor comes from a nice, even coating of smoke; using dry wood (unsoaked) can sometimes create too much aroma at one time.
How do I know if the meat is cooked all the way through on a smoker?
Generally speaking, if you are smoking for two or three hours, the meat should be thoroughly cooked.
We recommend you check it with a Bluetooth meat thermometer to be sure (especially with chicken). If you don’t want to get dirty, there are also infrared meat thermometers, but we suggest a quality Bluetooth thermometer with multiple probes and a connected app to save your smoke histories.
Different meats have different temperature recommendations. We highly suggest you consult a food temperature guide for the type of meat you are cooking, and familiarize yourself with the new recommended temperatures for cooking meat from the USDA.
A 160 degree temperature is high enough to kill all of the bacteria that may still reside in the raw meat by the time it reaches your refrigerator. However, you can kill bacteria at a lower temperature, it just takes longer.
When looking at pork or beef, you may notice that the outside layers of the meat are pink in color. That doesn’t always mean that the meat is not cooked well enough, it’s just a side effect of the smoking process. Hardcore smokers call that the “smoke ring.”
Can I smoke pre-cooked meats?
Yes, you absolutely can smoke pre-cooked meats.
The reason you might want to do this is so you don’t have to worry about food temperatures, as well as the fact that you will have a much shorter cooking time.
If you do decide to smoke pre-cooked meat, make sure that it wasn’t smoked before it reaches your grill.
Otherwise, you could be adding too much flavor, which will likely end up imparting too much smoke flavor that’s overwhelming to some palates.
Should I marinate my meats before placing on the smoker?
Of course you can! In fact, in most cases, we feel you should definitely do that.
Because smoking takes so long, you want to make sure that you get as much flavor as possible.
Marinades, sauces and rubs complement smoking perfectly as they add layers upon layers of complex flavors.
As stressed earlier, adding marinades, sauces and rubs takes some experimenting. For chicken and poultry, you will want to soak it in a marinade or brine for a full day or so before smoking.
This will ensure that you get the meat thoroughly infused before you toss it in the smoker.
For beef and pork, a dry or wet rub will do nicely.
Some pitmasters do not apply their dry rubs until an hour or so before the meat is scheduled to go on the smoker. Others will apply the dry rub, wrap in plastic or butcher paper, and throw in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
The choice is yours! As is a recurring theme with smoking meats, you need to experiment
What does the liquid in the drip pan do in the smoker?
Water / liquid pans in your smoker simply help control your smoker temperature. Here’s a general rule of thumb: The more liquid that you have in the pan, the lower the ambient temperature will be.
As a result, you want to make sure that the level is about half an inch; otherwise, it could lead to increased smoking times.
If you want to experiment with flavors, use juice or beer instead of water in your drip pan. Pineapple and apple juice are the best, especially for poultry.
Much like marinades, liquid in the drip pan can enhance the complex flavors in your smoked meats.
Do I leave the meat uncovered the whole time in a smoker?
If you want to get a juicier cut of meat, you can wrap it in foil or butcher paper for part of your smoking time.
Some smoking aficionados leave the meat fully exposed to heat and don’t touch it until it’s done. However, that doesn’t mean that wrapping it in foil ruins your meal.
Rule of Thumb for Wrapping Meats
Generally speaking, there is a ratio that you can follow for wrapping your meat to enjoy a juicier final product. It goes like this:
- Leave your meat exposed for half the cooking time.
- Then, you wrap it in foil and cook it like that for a third of the overall cook time.
- Finally, unwrap it and leave it open for the remainder of the cook time.
Example Wrapping Schedule: 2 Hour Smoke
As an example, if you plan to smoke your meat for two hours, follow this schedule:
- Leave your meat unwrapped / exposed for one hour (half the cooking time);
- Wrap it in foil or butcher paper for 40 minutes (one-third of the overall time);
- Lastly, unwrap it for the remainder of your cook (which in this case will be 20 minutes).
Following this wrapping schedule will ensure that your meat stays juicy and tender throughout the smoking process.
How can I adjust my results for the next time I smoke meat?
Because smoking is more of an art than science, it will take time and lots of practice to find a method that works for your tastes, and with the equipment you have.
Thus, you will want to keep a smoking journal and fill it out with the different variables that you use. The more data points you can log, the more you’ll learn, and you’ll be a much better smoker over time.
Here are a few data points you should consider logging on a regular basis to become a better smoker:
- Meat / Food
- Source (where you purchased it)
- Frozen or fresh
- Dry Rub / Marinade
- Brand or ingredients in your rub or marinade
- When you applied the rub
- If you marinated the rub, and for how long
- Mop Sauce / Spritzing
- What sauce you mopped on, if any
- What spritz you used, if any
- Time of cook when you added mop sauce or spritzed
- Smoker temp
- Meat internal temp (at each hour mark)
- Outdoor temp
- Type of wood used
- Amount of wood used
- Style of wood used (chips, pellets, chunks, splits)
- Intervals / time at which you added wood, and the quantity
- Outdoor Conditions
- Any other variables of note
For example, your first smoking session may be unmarinated chicken on a gas grill for three hours using cherry wood chips. Next time, you may try your hand at ribs, and cook the meat for four hours with hickory wood chunks.
Note the temperatures of the grill and even the weather conditions outdoors. Windy days may affect the smoking process by whisking away smoke faster compared to days without a breeze.
The more detailed you can get, the easier it will be to make adjustments for next time. The other important things to write down are the overall flavor and tenderness of your meat.
If you think that the smokiness is too much, then you can reduce the amount of chips or the frequency you replace them. Don’t be afraid to try new things and mix it up.
There are so many variables when it comes to smoking that you can create new recipes and methods for years to come.
How to smoke meat if it’s still cold?
You could with cold meat, much in the same way that you could eat raw beef.
While it’s technically possible, we don’t recommend it at all.
For best results, make sure that your meat is at room temperature before you toss it on the grill. This way, you don’t have to worry as much about the insides getting hot enough.
Plus, bringing your meat up to room temperature before placing it on the smoker makes it accept smoked flavors more readily.
With that in mind, however, if you plan on smoking your meats all day, then it won’t really matter what the internal temperature is before you start smoking, as it will inevitably get cooked all the way through regardless.
Finally, NEVER use frozen meat in a smoker. This will create too many problems and could lead to food safety issues.
Should I check on my meat regularly while it’s in the smoker?
No, just let it be. If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’.
Newbies will always worry that the meat is getting overcooked or too well done, and will check the meat obsessively.
This is a huge mistake.
The more times you open your grill, the more smoke will come pouring out and the greater fluctuation you will have in your cooking temperature.
Only open the hood when you have to, meaning that you should only check on things to replace wood, add more charcoal or check the temperature to make sure that it’s still optimal.
Can I use sauce when smoking?
Yes, some of the best barbecued meats are smoked and sauced at the same time.
However, you will want to avoid putting any sauce onto your meat until the last 10 or 20 minutes.
For best results, pull out the meat once it’s done, slather it in sauce, and then let it smoke for 15 minutes.
The extra time will allow the sauce to bake into the meat, making it much more potent and delicious.
How to smoke food other than meat? Can I do it?
Yes, you can. In fact, smoking vegetables and cheese is a fantastic way to put your new skills to work!
How to smoke other food items, like vegetables
The process is still the same, but the biggest difference is that you have to put your food into a metal container so that it won’t fall through the cracks.
For most vegetables, a moderate wood like maple or cherry will do just fine.
For cheeses, you will need to use something a bit more “smokey” like hickory or mesquite and use a technique called cold smoking.
So, now that you have all the tools you need to smoke, what are you waiting for? Use your new knowledge on how to smoke meat to prepare some delicious food.
While your first time may not be the best, the fact is that smoking your meats is a much better way to get the results you want.
As long as you’re patient and are willing to go through a few trials to get the right recipe together, you will get the best meat of your life once you’re finished.
As the saying goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well.
Now that you are smoking some delicious food, consider reading our guide to pairing beers with your delicious smoked morsels.