If you’ve been looking at our website, you now know more about smokers than over 75% of the population. All you need to do now is to learn what to smoke. It’s not really magic. If done properly, pretty much anything can be smoked, at least to a degree. But there are some cuts of meat that respond especially well to the smoking process. In this guide, we will explore the qualities that makes a particular cut of meat a good candidate for smoking. Based on my 35+ years as a professional chef, outdoor cook, hunter and fisherman, here are my favorite cuts of meat for the smoker.
Making The Cut…
To start off, we need to understand what makes a particular cut of meat such a good prospect for smoking. Is it the flavor? Is it the texture? Is it the fat content? The answer is that is it’s a little of all three, plus a few other factors. And, in addition, there are some cuts that, while on their own may not be such a good choice, but they can be made to smoke good with just a little extra preparation beforehand.
One of the best choices for the smoker are meats that are really not suited for much else. Tough cuts like brisket, ribs, mature chickens and poultry, mature beef and pork, are really good in a smoker because they are too tough for anything else.
The long, slow smoking process does several things to them. First, it allows the collagen (connective tissue/gristle), which is the main thing that makes the meat tough, to break-down and be converted into several types of sugars. This adds a sweetness to the meat, as well as making it super-tender.
Other meats such as fish, chicken, and various game animals can also be smoked with a little extra preparation. As a rule, game meats are going to be leaner, tougher, and drier, so extra precautions must be taken to ensure they do not dry out, or get tough while smoking. Your best defense against this with any meat is brining. Soaking any kind of meat in a saline solution greatly improves both the flavor, and moisture retention. We won’t go into great detail here, but for more information, see the section, “Brining” on our website.
The Best Meats For The Smoker
Based on my experience, and personal taste, here are my favorite meats to throw in the smoker:
1. Feral Hogs, Javalena, Razorbacks, and Russian Boars
All four species are interchangeable as far as the smoker is concerned. As an avid hunter, I am blessed to be living in a place with good populations of feral hogs and Russian Boars. From a cooking standpoint, they are a completely different animal than domestic pork. Tender, moist and succulent, smoked wild pork is the finest land-meat available anywhere on earth. If you’ve never had slow smoked wild pork, you have been missing out on one of natures finest meals. Nothing, but nothing, tastes like smoked wild pork. Although hickory is the standard smoke-wood to use with pork, wild pork responds exceptionally well to mesquite, and has an unbelievable flavor. It is darker than domestic pork, more closely resembling deer, or young beef. The taste is sweetish, with complex nuances that will make your taste-buds scream with pure ecstasy. The texture is mildly stringy, tender, very moist, and not overly greasy. The best parts to smoke are the ribs, spare ribs, the shoulder (Boston Butt), the picnic (lower legs), loins, or for a really great taste sensation, and if you have a big enough smoker (or small enough hog), the whole hog in one piece. Whole-hog smoked pork has a much more complex flavor profile than individual cuts. The rear hams can be turned into ham like you’ve never dreamed about, and the hocks, side meat, and jowl can all be turned into the best bacon you’ve ever had. The only thing you have to remember when smoking them is, “Low and Slow”. I never smoke whole-hog wild pork any hotter than 200ºF (93.3ºC), and never less than 14 hours, no matter what size the hog is, and sometimes as long as 36 hours.
2. Pork Ribs
One of the most popular meats for the smoker. Ribs have a lot of fat, and a lot of collagen, perfect for smoking. The only other way to get ribs edible is to boil them for several hours, then bake them, but this is a far cry from the great flavor of smoked ribs. Ribs are cheap, and most grocery stores carry them. The standard smoke-woods to use with pork are hickory, and apple-wood. When smoked, they become moist, fall-off-the-bone tender, and have a sweetish, complex flavor that makes you wonder why you eat anything else. The only bad thing about ribs is that, for the best results, they must be properly prepared before smoking. You can’t just take them out of the package and throw them on the smoker (most meat requires a little bit of prep for the best results). This first thing to do is remove the tough membrane along the back of the rack. This can be easily pulled off. There are those that say you can leave this on when smoking, but your ribs will not have the same flavor, or texture if you do. They will be poor imitations of what they should be. Ribs actually come in two sections, the ribs proper, and the lower spare ribs, joined by ligaments. A lot of meat-packers separate them at the plant, and sell them separately, but you can find the whole rib section intact in some places. Many people prefer to separate them into upper and lower sections, which is easily done, and depending on the size of your smoker, you may have to. But your ribs will be a lot more flavorful if you leave the sections intact. Now, if you want, they can be rubbed, or whatever else you want to do to them, and then thrown on the smoker. Ribs have enough fat so as not to dry out if you use the water bowl/drip pan for wet-smoking. But personally, I never throw anything in my smokers without brining it for at least 4 or 5 hours. Brine them for 45 minutes per pound. As with most pork, ‘Low and Slow’ is the rule. Don’t go above 225ºF (107.2ºC). Smoke them for about 1-1/2 hours per pound. If you want to barbecue them, after they have been smoked, remove them from the smoker, slather them with your favorite barbecue sauce and place them in a 350ºF (176.6ºC) oven for 10 minutes or so, until the sauce forms a nice crust on the outside. Never put barbecue sauce on meat while it is smoking, because it adversely affects the smoking process.
3. Beef Brisket
Another all-time smoker favorite, and the official barbecue meat for Texas-Style barbecue. Brisket, in it’s natural habitat, is tough, chewy, and almost flavorless. But in a smoker, wonderful things happen to it. All the collagen melts, bathing each meat fiber in a wonderful, moist, flavorful gelatin. The fat melts and injects it’s flavor into the meat on a cellular level, and that tough, chewy piece of leather turns into a melt-in-your-mouth tender, sweetish, wonderfully stringy, complex piece of culinary heaven. Properly smoked, brisket tastes like a cross between really good roast beef, and really good steak, and more tender than both. It’s my #2 choice for taco meat, right behind goat. Brisket is easy to smoke, as long as you remember, Low and Slow. This is more important for brisket than for any other meat, because it takes time to break down all the connective tissues. Other thawing it out, brisket require very little advance prep. You can put a rub on it, or brine it (highly recommended), and throw it in the smoker. It needs 1-1/2 hours per pound to smoke properly. For Texas barbecue, after it is smoked, you can just slice it thin, and drop in a tray full of hot barbecue sauce, and give 10 minutes or so to soak up some of the sauce, and you’re good to go.
4. Whole Turkey
Every Thanksgiving season, I spend a week or more smoking turkeys for all my friends and neighbors. Smoked turkey is such a superior product that I honestly don’t understand why anyone would prepare this noble bird in any other fashion. Prepared any other way, a turkey is just a souped-up chicken (in my opinion). Smoked turkey has a delectably moist and firm texture, and a creamy-sweet taste that takes on the flavor of your smoke wood, with complex overtones. The aroma alone is worth the extra trouble. I prefer wild turkeys, because they have more flavor, but even domestic turkeys have a definite affinity for the smoker. What works for turkey also works for chicken, pheasant, goose, and duck, as long as you adjust the timing for the size of the bird. Turkeys and other birds do require brining to keep them from becoming dry, but again, it’s more than worth the effort. Just brine them for 1 hour per pound. Then you can rinse them, dry them off, and apply a rub…or not. Turkeys, and other birds respond very well to rubs. Smoke the turkey at 225ºF (107.2C) for 30 minutes per pound. Be sure to keep water in the water/drip pan. Allow the turkey to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
5. Cornish Hens (Rock Hens)
If you really want to impress someone, nothing beats the sight of a smoked Cornish Hen. Along with some expertly-prepared potatoes, or rice, and vegetables, on a plate. Smoked Cornish Hens have a much more delicate flavor than a regular chicken, or turkey. The closest thing I can compare them to is partridge. They can dry out easily, so brining is a must. Brine them for 1-hour per pound. Cornish Hens work really well with rubs, and I highly recommend them. One of the best I have ever used with Rock Hens is Chub Rub’s Apple-Smoked rub. In addition to giving the birds an unforgettable flavor, it creates a wonderful crust. The absolute best smoke wood for these little avians is mesquite. Smoke them at 225ºF (107.2C) for 45 minutes per pound, then be prepared for some of the best poultry you’ve ever eaten….
Normally dry and gamey, deer can be transformed into an outstanding repast in a smoker. All the parts of a deer can be smoked, but the shoulders and tenderloins work the best. The secret is to brine the deer meat overnight. The brine supplies much-needed extra moisture, and the smoking process takes away the feral flavors. Deer responds especially well to apple smoke-wood, but oak also works well. Any fruit-woods, such as cherry, do a good job of removing the gamey taste. Properly-smoked deer tastes like really good roast beef, with a nice semi-stringy texture.
I am originally from the great state of Texas. Growing up, we ate a lot of goat (we referred to it as ‘Texas porch-deer’). Goat has less fat than any other red meat, with the possible exception of Whitetail Deer. It is lower in cholesterol, and calories than just about anything but fish. While not very popular in the US, goat is the most consumed meat in 75% of the rest of the world. When smoked, goat has a wonderful smokey, sweet, taste, and a slightly stringy, firm texture. It makes the absolute best taco meat you’ve ever had. The closest thing I can compare it to is really good deer meat. As long as you treat it like deer meat, it will come out just fine in the smoker. Brining is a must, or you will wind up with shoe-leather. Brine a goat for 1-hour per pound. Goats work really well with a lemon-pepper style rub, and mesquite smoke-wood. Smoke your goat at 200ºF (93.3C) for 1-hour per pound. Be sure to keep the water/drip pan filled with water during smoking. Goat makes outstanding barbecue. Lamb can be prepared the same way as goat, and the two are almost interchangeable, as far as smoking is concerned.
Carp is a much maligned fish in the US. I have no idea why. Carp meat is firm, medium fatty, medium-white, and has a wonderful sweet taste, with what I can only describe as floral overtones. It is not oily or fishy at all. In my opinion, carp tastes as good, or better than any other freshwater fish, with the possible exception of salmon, walleye, and crappie. They are hard fighters on a fishing rod, especially a fly rod, and are usually more than willing to bite, anytime of the year. There are millions of them, and they are free for the taking. Not only are there usually no limits or seasons on them, many places would pay you to catch them if they had the money. They are considered trash-fish. Carp are a vastly under-used and under appreciated resource in the US. Some of the bad feelings about carp may be because it is a little more trouble to prepare, but it’s more than worth it. All you have to do is fillet them as you would any other fish, then slice out the dark-red strip of meat along the lateral line (it tastes bad…). Then locate the Y-shaped bones along the side. Just cut the fillet off above the Y-Bones, then cut another fillet off below the Y part of the bones. Repeat for the other side, and your done. You get 4 nice thick fillets from each fish. If you’re really worried about a fishy-taste, just soak the fillets in salt water, milk, or buttermilk for a couple of hours before smoking them. This removes a lot of the oils from the flesh. The oils are where the ‘fishy’ taste comes from. Carp are out-of-this-world when smoked with mesquite wood. Smoke them at 250ºF (107.2ºC) for 3 hours, then adjust the temperature to 180ºF – 200ºF (82.2ºC – 93.3ºC) for 45 minutes per pound. They can be served as soon as they are done, or allowed to chill for 24 hours, and served cold….outstanding…..
Thanks for reading, we hope you find this guide helpful. Keep checking our website, where you will always find the latest, information, tips, tricks, recipes, and other valuable information about all things smoking.