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How to Get Started With Meat Smoking

Have you ever wanted to take your barbecuing and meat cooking skills to the next level? Thanks to meat smoking, many people are discovering how enjoyable it can be to experiment with recipes and learn new techniques for that perfect cut.

Meat smoking is a fun way to experience new ways of cooking meats. It is a unique process that does not use direct combustion of flame and heat to cook meat, but rather a methodical and patient way to let the smoke do the work slowly. There is still fire and heat involved, but not in the same way. If you are interested in meat smoking, here are some tips to get started.

Choosing a Smoker

The first thing you want is your actual meat smoker. The types of smokers are a handful, with the three listed here being useful for beginner knowledge. The first is a small, self-contained unit that is more reminiscent of a conventional grill (ex. Big Green Egg) and works well for low-maintenance smoking. The second is a wood pellet smoker, which is closer to a true smoker except that a lot of the smoke and airflow is regulated for you. Lastly, you have the offset smokers which are the kings and require you to do all the work with airflow and heat so it provides the most freedom but also the most room for error.

Knowing Your Accessories

Next, you need to pick out the right accessories for your smoking needs. Temperature gauges are a must to help monitor what heat your meats are cooking at, and so are gloves (not baking mitts, more akin to surgical gloves, but thicker) for obvious protective wear and to help you handle the meat to determine the texture. You also want a water pan for bigger smokers like the latter two listed in the previous section, because it helps produce humidity and keeps temperatures regulated. You also should consider a journal to jot down your cooking techniques to see what worked and what did not for future reference.

Picking Meats to Smoke

Just as fun as picking the right smoker is finding the right meats to smoke. Things like pork are a good way to start out because pork is pretty forgiving if you mess up the cooking. Once you get better, you can move on to different types of ribs (spare and back loin ribs), and the recipes at can help ease you into more complex meats. The end all be all’s of meat smoker choices, which are the brisket and the beef ribs. They offer the most challenge, but after experimenting with easier cuts like pork and ribs, you will start to appreciate the complexity of the process more.

Using the Right Wood

Your smoker needs the right fuel source to get it going. You cannot just pick up branches off the ground to throw in because it will impact the taste of the meat and get your smoker dirty. However, there are plenty of trees growing near you that may be just fine as these are solid cuts of wood that you can use to help produce good smoke. Oak (the go-to for smoking meats), maple, hickory, mesquite, apple, and cherry wood are all excellent choices and can be more or less impactful depending on what you are smoking. 

Some of the woods, like apple, cherry and maple are excellent for poultry or ham, while mesquite, hickory, and oak are great for red meats. Avoid woods that have high sap content as this can create a bad flavor in your meats as well. Pellets also work, but they will not produce as long of a burn like a log, but the smokey flavor will still be present.

Understanding the Fire Process

Now that you have the smoker, the gear, the peaks, and the wood, you need to know how to maintain the fire. This is not like stoking a campfire where you want the biggest, brightest flame, you want a subtle fire and ember going to keep the wood-burning but not to overdo it. Your fire should be big enough, but not so much that it is tearing through your logs or pellets too quickly. Getting a nice base of coals and kindling to get it going is the basic start. From there you need to manage it well if you have an offset smoker. The darker the smoke, the less airflow you have so you can allow some in by opening the smoker, but it should stay closed.

Getting started with meat smoking is a lot to do with trial and error. The more you are willing to be patient and experiment the better your long-term results will be. Use these tips to help you get started and master your next cooking challenge.

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