Ultimate Beginners Guide on How to Smoke Meat At Home Like A Pro
If you want to step up your game, then smoking meats is where it’s at during colder months.
Sure, you may be a master of creating perfect grill lines on your steaks, but can you smoke your own bacon or other pork products?
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, amigo…
…because you don’t need one.
In fact, all you need is a pile of wood chips, your trusty grill, and this handy guide to help you along to make sure that you finish with a beautiful slab of tender, juicy smoked meat slow-cooked to perfection.
In the end, smoking meats is like art.
It takes time and patience to master your craft, but once you do, you will never go back to cooking the old way again.
With that in mind, let’s get to the basics of home smoking.
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?
To answer that question, you should try to find someone who does smoke their meats, and then have a cook-off.
In the end, taste test your regularly grilled meat against your friend’s smoked meat and decide if the flavor difference is truly worth it.
Unless you’re dead inside, or have a malfunctioning tongue, you will 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, just know that smoking is done to create a better overall flavor.
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.
That being said, the level of smoke and the taste can be highly subjective, meaning that you may only find certain woods appealing, and in certain ratios.
That’s why the art of smoking takes time to perfect as you try various aromas and flavors.
Thus, before we can begin, you have to understand that smoking is all about finding the right balance.
You must experiment with different woods and cooking methods to find one that works for you.
It can be a lot of work, but it will make your meats taste so much better and you will able to call yourself a Grill Master with enough experience.
Choosing a Smoker vs. DIY
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.
While that could make things easier for you, the fact is that you can get the same results with your current grill, regardless if it’s gas or charcoal, saving you the hassle and expense of buying a smoker.
Unless you plan on opening up your own meat packing business or selling your food to people, we don’t suggest buying a separate smoker for your food.
However, if you have a bunch of cash lying around and don’t know what to do with it, you might as well spring for a deluxe model.
Keep in mind, however, that all of our tips and tricks are for people who want to use their current grill.
Getting Started with a Grill Smoker
When it comes to a traditional outdoor grill, there are two things that you have to remember.
First, you don’t want your meat directly over the heat source, and second, you want to cook it for hours on end.
With that in mind, we first have to determine which kind of grill you are using, as the method will vary depending on which one you have.
If you have a charcoal grill, then the setup is relatively simple.
All you have to do is pile up your coals on one side and have a drip pan on the other side.
Once your coals are lit and hot enough for cooking, then you will place a layer of wood chips on top.
For best results, place a layer of liquid into your drip pan so that it can help with the smoking process.
If you’re feeling a bit saucy, you can use apple juice to infuse a bit of sweetness into your meat.
Otherwise, water will do.
Once your coals are going and the wood is on, then you place your meat on the side over the drip pan, and then close the grill.
You do need to leave an opening, however, so smoke can ventilate out.
We’ll go over the importance of ventilation in a little bit.
Gas Grill for Grilling
If you use this type of grill, then the setup will be a little different.
Since you can’t place wood chips over coals, you will have to put them into a metal pan, which you will insert directly over the flames.
Once again, only have them on one side.
To get the best results on a gas grill, you will want to preheat everything by keeping all burners on high for about twenty minutes.
This will warm everything up and allow for the cooking process to be much smoother.
Once your preheat session is finished, then you turn off the burners that are not below your wood chips, and you put your meat on the opposite side.
Close the lid, leaving a little space for ventilation.
When smoking your meats, it’s imperative that you allow for the smoke to escape and move around.
You don’t want things to stagnate inside the grill; otherwise, it will create some bad 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.
While 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.
Without having the best wood, your smoking process does not go very well.
The best smokers in the world have curated the best wood possible, which not only creates a luxurious flavor in your mouth but it helps to create the tenderest and juiciest meats you can find.
As a beginner, you probably don’t know which wood is best, which is why we are going to give you this handy chart.
Again, the exact level of smokiness and flavor depends on your tastebuds, so use this as a guide rather than a hard and fast rule.
Looking at this chart, 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.
Feel free to experiment with different woods as you like, but remember that chicken and seafood will absorb more flavor, while pork and beef will not.
Using Chunk vs. Chips vs. Pellets Wood
Once you’ve determined the type of wood that you want to use, there is another decision that you have to make, and that’s the size and shape of the wood.
You can get chips or chunks, and there are benefits and downsides to both.
There is no right answer here, only preferences.
Some smokers swear by chips, whereas others like chunks.
Here is a breakdown of each.
Using Chips when 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.
Using Chunks when 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.
Using Pellets when Smoking Meat
There is a third option, but pellets can burn off quickly, so they should only be used if you plan on doing a light smoke to your meats.
These are best if you only want a little bit of smokiness to your food rather than cooking for hours on end.
Considering that you’re a novice to the whole concept of smoking, we know that you have a lot of unanswered questions.
Thus, we’ll try to touch on all the different topics that might come up during your smoke session.
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.
The best temperature range lies somewhere between 200 and 250 degrees.
This is where you will need a quality thermometer to see how warm your grill is during your cook times.
If you plan on smoking your meats for hours on end, then you must change your charcoal and wood every couple of hours.
If you are using a gas grill, then you still need to swap out for new wood once the old batch has burned out.
Thus, be sure to keep an eye on your temperature level so that it doesn’t get too cold inside.
Do I need to flip my meat when smoking on grill?
Sorry for being so brash, but that is a rookie mistake.
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 until the meat is ready.
The only reason you should touch your set-up is to make room for new wood chips or charcoal.
Do I have to soak my wood when smoking meat?
No, you don’t, but if not, then you will have to change it much more often.
Additionally, soaking your wood means that you won’t get as sharp of a smoke flavor to your meat.
The best flavor comes from a nice, even coating of smoke, and using dry wood will 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.
If you are nervous or paranoid about it, then check it with a meat thermometer to be sure (especially with chicken).
The inside of the meat should be at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
This 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.
When looking at pork or beef, you may notice that the inside looks pink.
That doesn’t 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 can.
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 make it taste worse.
Can I still marinate my meats before placing on smoker?
Of course you can!
In fact, you should definitely do that.
Because smoking takes so long, you want to make sure that you get as much flavor as possible.
Marinades complement smoking beautifully as they add layers upon layers of complex flavors.
As stressed earlier, adding marinades 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.
What does the liquid in the drip pan do in the Smoker?
It simply helps control your smoker temperature.
The more liquid that you have in the pan, the lower the ambient temperature will be.
Thus, 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 for part of your smoking time.
Real 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.
Generally speaking, there is a ratio that you can follow for juicier meat.
It goes like this: you first 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 time.
Lastly, you unwrap it and leave it open for the remainder of the cooking time.
For example, if you want to smoke your meats for two hours, follow this pattern.
You leave your meat exposed for one hour (half the cooking time), then you wrap it in foil for 40 minutes (one-third of the overall time), and then unwrap it for the remainder, which in this case will be 20 minutes.
Following this ratio will ensure that your meat stays juicy and tender throughout the smoking process.
How can I adjust my results for 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.
Thus, you will want to keep a smoking journal and fill it out with the different variables that you use.
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, 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.
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 fifteen 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 cheeses is a fantastic way to put your new skills to work.
How to smoke food
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.
So, now that you have all the tools you need to smoke, what are you waiting for?
While your first time will 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.