Table of Contents
- What Is Meat Smoking?
- How Do Smokers Work?
- Equipment You’ll Need
- Helpful Tips Before You Get Started
- Using a Smoker For Beginners: Step-By-Step Guide
- Where To Go Next…
If you’ve hosted barbeques in the past, I don’t have to tell you the joy of cooking and eating meat straight off the barby.
But consider cooking meat on a barbeque as 2nd gear – are you ready to crank things up several notches and go into 5th? This is the equivalent of smoking meat instead of grilling it.
In this article, we’ll cover how to use a smoker for beginners, including the equipment you’ll need and helpful tips to know before you get started. But first, what is meat smoking? And how do smokers work?
What Is Meat Smoking?
Meat smoking is a cooking method that involves cooking big cuts of meat over indirect heat while infusing it with smoke.
It’s a low and slow form of cooking, meaning you cook meat over low temperatures for a long time.
The lower temperature and slow smoking process help melt away the meat’s connective tissues and fats, giving it that finger-licking tender texture.
How Do Smokers Work?
How a smoker works depends on the type of smoker you have. The main types of smokers are: a charcoal smoker, gas smoker, electric smoker, offset smoker, and pellet grill.
Charcoal smokers use charcoal as the fuel source. They rely on air vents to control the temperature and airflow and wood chips to create smoke.
Gas smokers, on the other hand, use propane or natural gas for fuel.
They have a burner at the bottom of the smoker – this heats up a metal plate which radiates heat. You add wood chips or chunks to create smoke and use the regulator to control the temperature.
Electric smokers work in the same way but use electricity as the fuel source.
However, pellet smokers are different, requiring compressed wood pellets for fuel and using a fan to circulate the smoke.
Offset smokers have a built-in firebox on the side of the cooking chamber.
You create heat and smoke by loading charcoal and wood into the firebox, which a chimney then draws into the cooking chamber.
However, whatever smoker you have, the basic principle is the same: the heat and smoke cook the food slowly, at a low temperature, giving it a smoky flavour and tender texture.
Can You Use Your Gas or Charcoal Grill?
In short, yes. You can use your gas or charcoal grill instead of splashing your cash on a smoker. And this may be the wise choice if you’re a beginner to smoking meat, as it may not be something you wish to continue.
However, using your grill may require more attention and effort, as you’ll need to monitor the temperature to ensure consistency.
Some combination grills and smokers are also available, so these are worth looking out for if you haven’t purchased one.
Using a gas or charcoal grill for smoking requires a different cooking process to a smoker, as you’ll need to cook the meat over indirect heat, keeping it away from the heat source.
Furthermore, when adding the wood, you’ll need to place it in a foil packet or smoker box for a gas grill or directly to the hot coals in a charcoal grill.
Equipment You’ll Need
Your wonderful smoker (or grill)
Your preferred wood chips
A water pan
This trusty guide by your side
Helpful Tips Before You Get Started
1. Set Time Aside
Here’s the thing about smoking meat – it is the best method for cooking tough cuts of meat that you want to be tender and juicy. However, it’s very time-consuming.
Smoking will likely take all day, and it’s not one of those jobs you can leave and forget about.
If it’s your first time smoking meat, I don’t recommend going and doing your weekly shop or picking up the kids while your meat is smoking away. Otherwise, you risk the coals burning too much and the heat source diminishing.
Instead, set aside a day and set a timer at regular intervals throughout the day to remind you to check the smoker’s temperature.
2. Choose Your Wood Wisely
There’s no better time to choose your wood wisely than when you’re smoking meat. Smoked meat comes down to its flavour and texture – wood plays a crucial role in adding flavour to the meat, making it truly delicious.
The main types of wood used for smoking are:
Hickory: By far the most popular wood for smoking. This has a strong, smoky flavour and smoulders rather than flares up. It’s perfect for big cuts of meat like a whole chicken, a rack of ribs, or a beef brisket.
Apple: Another excellent wood for smoking. It has a milder, sweeter flavour than hickory, making it perfect for meats with a subtler flavour, like pork shoulder, pork butt, or poultry.
Oak: A wood that provides a mild flavour, ideal for extra-long smoke times. Oak is highly versatile and will complement any meat.
Cherry: This fruitwood has a mild fruity flavour. Like apple wood, this wood works well with more delicate meats like fish, poultry, and pork.
Mesquite: Another popular wood for smoking, but use with caution! Mesquite has an extremely punchy, earthy flavour that can overpower meats if they require particularly long smoking times or have a subtle flavour.
Once you’ve chosen your type of wood, it’s time to decide between wood chunks and wood chips. Due to their size, large chunks of wood take longer to burn and produce more smoke.
This makes them perfect for particularly large cuts of meat that will smoke for a long time.
In contrast, wood chips burn quickly and give off less smoke, making them the prime choice for smaller cuts of meat. In this instance, mesquite’s powerful flavour punch works wonders.
3. Don’t Forget the Rub
Adding a rub involves rubbing your meat with spices, herbs, or sauces before you smoke the meat to enhance its flavour.
A rub also helps add a crust to the meat, keeping the moisture locked in and giving that all-important crunch when you bite into it.
You can opt for a dry rub made from herbs and spices or a wet rub made by mixing spices with a liquid like vinegar, mustard, or oil to create a paste.
A sweet rub is an excellent choice for meats like ribs, as you can make a barbecue sauce to complement the meat nicely.
MY FAVOURITE MEAT RUB: Magic Dusty All Purpose Seasoning & BBQ Rub
4. Take Care With the Cooking Temperature
Finding the correct temperature for your chosen type of meat is essential in the smoking process, as it’s the difference between tough and tender meat.
Smoking meat at higher temperatures may cause the meat’s exterior to cook too quickly, creating a hard outer skin that the smoke can’t penetrate.
And when the meat is smoked at too low a temperature, the connective tissue and fat may not melt away, leaving your meat rubbery and tough.
Another factor to consider with cooking temperature is temperature control.
Unlike your regular oven or even a gas BBQ, a smoker won’t keep a consistent temperature automatically.
Therefore, it’s your job to keep an eye on the temperature gauge as you cook, adding to the fuel source if necessary.
5. Don’t Buy Cheap Coals
While I’m all for saving where you can, buying cheap coals is a big no-no when smoking.
You’re probably asking, why?
Well, manufacturers typically pump cheap coals full of additives to help them light quicker. I’m talking lighter fluid, mainly.
Because of the lighter fluid content within, these coals will only burn for a short period, burning out quickly.
While this may not sound like a hassle, you’ll think otherwise when you’re halfway through your smoke and out of coal already.
Furthermore, cheap coals don’t typically burn evenly, causing big temperature fluctuations.
While this would be fine for grilling, you must maintain a consistent internal temperature when smoking meat. Otherwise, all cooking times go out the window, and you may end up with tough meat.
Instead, invest in lump charcoal or high-quality briquettes – these will burn for long durations and don’t typically contain nasty chemicals.
Using a Smoker For Beginners: Step-By-Step Guide
Step One: Prepare the Meat
The first step to using a smoker is to prepare the meat.
As a rule of thumb, meat should typically marinate in a rub for 1-2 hours, but this varies depending on the type and cut of meat, with larger cuts sometimes requiring 24 hours.
As a general guideline for preparing meat:
Marinate thin meats like pork chops and chicken wings for 1-2 hours.
Marinate larger meats like pork shoulder and brisket for up to 24 hours.
Fish requires less marinating time, as the marinade’s acids can break the fish down if left for too long – 30 minutes should suffice.
Ensure you marinate your meat in the fridge rather than at room temperature. Otherwise, you run the risk of bacterial growth – yuck!
Step Two: Bring Your Smoker Up to Temperature
Once you’ve prepped your meat and left it for the desired time, it’s time to bring your smoker up to temperature.
That means lighting your coals if it’s a charcoal or offset smoker, wood wood pellets if it’s a pellet grill, or turning the fuel source on if it’s an electric or gas smoker.
For charcoal smokers, the more coal you light, the hotter your smoker.
As the smoker temperature only needs to be low, add around 30 briquettes for small smokers or 50 – 75 for larger smokers. Then it’s time for fire management – if the temperature gets too hot, open the air vents.
For a gas or electric smoker, simply adjust the burner settings if the temperature is too hot or cold.
Step Three: Add Your Wood and Water Pan
Once your smoker is up to temperature, it’s time to add your wood and water pan to generate some smoke.
The water pan also has the added benefit of working as a form of temperature control.
Fill your water pan three-quarters full with cold water, then place it directly above the heat source.
Then, add your wood. The best way to add your wood depends on your smoker type.
General guidelines are as follows:
Offset smoker: Add your wood to the firebox in the main cooking chamber.
Electric smokers: Place wood on the wood chip tray near the heating element, then slide it back into the smoker.
Charcoal smoker: Add your wood chunks or chips to the hot coals.
It’s important to note that if you want a smokier flavour, soak your wood chips in water for 30 minutes before adding them to your smoker.
This may not be necessary for electric or pellet smokers, but it typically works well in charcoal and offset smokers.
MY FAVOURITE PRODUCT: Exstream Smoking Wood Chips
Step Four: Add the Meat to Your Smoker
Now, for the all-important part! Add your meat onto the smoker grates.
If you’re cooking multiple pieces of meat, ensure they’re evenly spaced and not touching each other. Then, close the lid to allow the smoke to circulate.
Step Five: Monitor the Smoker’s Temperature
And now it’s a waiting game. Check back on your smoker regularly to ensure it’s keeping a constant temperature.
If it drops below the necessary temperature, add more coals or turn up the heat.
If your wood has burnt down and is no longer producing much smoke, add more to keep the smoke going. Similarly, top up your water pan if it’s running low on water.
Step Six: Check Whether Your Meat’s Cooked
Using a meat thermometer, check your meat’s doneness.
If it’s cooked, leave it to rest for a few minutes before slicing and serving it. However, if it’s not reached the desired temperature on the thermometer, continue cooking and check back on it later.
The desired temperature for your meat will depend on the cut of meat you’re cooking. However, as a general guideline, rare meat should be around 52°C, medium rare 57.2°C, medium 60°C, medium-well 68.3°C, and well done 71°C.
Where To Go Next…
Using a smoker is harder than cooking on a regular BBQ – requiring more skill, precision, and time.
However, by following these six steps, you can successfully smoke meat using a smoker or grill, even as a rookie.
And as you gain practice and experience, you can experiment with different cuts of meat, rubs, and wood types, creating your own unique recipes and flavours.
If you haven’t purchased a smoker yet and are looking for recommendations for a new smoker, check out DIY Garden’s article: The Best BBQ Smokers of 2023.