While most any foods can be smoked, at least to a certain extent, there are some that just work better for smoking than others. Based on my 30+ years as a professional chef and outdoor cook, I have selected the factors that, in my opinion, make a meat good, or not so good, for smoking.
The Science Behind Smoking Meats
To understand what makes a cut of meat suitable for smoking, you need to understand a little bit of science, mainly some light physics and chemistry. All cooking is basically just applying some physics to affect a chemical change in your food. This does a lot of things, such as making the food more tender, making it taste better, safer to eat, and most importantly, it allows us to digest things that under normal circumstances, would be difficult, or impossible. A good example is wheat. In it’s raw form, it is not a very good food for humans. But once it is ground, mixed with liquid, and a little leavening, it becomes those wonderful baked goods that are almost irresistible. Cooking meat destroys most harmful bacteria, makes the meat keep better, and improves the flavor, and texture.
Until We Meat Again….
We’ll start by examining exactly what meat is. Generally speaking, meat is the muscles of various animals. Some organs also are considered meat, but they are made of smooth muscle, and have completely different characteristics. For our purposes, we are only concerned here with striated muscle, which are the muscle groups that act on bones to provide movement, and stability.
Striated muscle is made up of many small fibers, about the thickness of a human hair. These are bundled in groups, which are bundled in larger groups, and so on. These bundles are wrapped in a tough, elastic fiber made up of elastin, and collagen, also called connective tissue, and sometimes referred to as gristle. As an animal gets older, or exercises more, the connective tissues get larger and tougher, making the meat tougher.
The muscle fibers are made up of several proteins, actin, myosin, and most importantly for us, myoglobin. Myoglobin is what gives meat the properties that make it appealing to us. Actin and myosin are what makes muscle fibers contract, but mysosen is what supplies water and fuel to the fibers so they can function. Actin and myosen are not water soluble, but myoglobin is, which makes it so important for cooking. Myogloben is also what gives meat it’s pinkish color. It also contains other proteins and enzymes. When people see liquid myoglobin seeping from packaged meat, they mistakenly think it is blood. This is incorrect. Blood, when not circulating, quickly oxidizes and breaks-down. You really want the meat to retain as much of the myoglobin as possible. Myoglobin seepage from your meat can be retarded by applying salt, such as in a brine.
The Two Types of Striated Muscle:
- Fast Twitch Muscle. these muscles are designed for very quick reactions for a short period of time, sort of an emergency-boost to use for fight, or flight. These contain less myoglobin than other muscle, making the meat lighter in color, which is where you get ‘white’ meat. White meat has less fat than other muscle, and is drier, which is why it can’t sustain it’s action for as long. It is also less flavorful. Chickens and other poultry, as well as fish, some mammals, mollusks, and reptiles have significant amounts of white meat. Domestic pigs and hogs are kept in pens, as a rule, to limit their physical activity, causing them to develop more fast-twitch muscle, earning them the moniker, “the other white meat”. Wild pork has much darker meat.
- Slow Twitch Muscle. these muscles contain much more myoglobin, giving the characteristic ‘red’ meat color. They are designed to be able to perform more paced functions over a longer period of time, giving them much more potential endurance. Mammals, in particular, have large amounts of red meat, especially grazing animals. Red meat is moister, has more fat, and more flavor than white meat.
All things being equal, red meat is more suitable for smoking. However, white meat can be made perfectly smoke-able by adding moisture and fats to them during the smoking process. This is done by brining, marinading, and ‘wet’ smoking.
One reason smoked meat gets so tender is that during the slow smoking process, the collagen slowly melts into various sugars, turns to gelatin, and coats the muscle fibers, making the meat sweeter, moist and tender. So tough cuts of meat respond extremely well to the smoking process.
Fat Is Where It’s At….
In addition to collagen, muscle tissue also has fat deposits running all through it, and also in large pockets. Fat is basically extra nutrients that are stored in special cells for future use, when needed. It is saturated fat. I know I am going to upset a lot of ‘health gurus’ by saying this, but not only is saturated fat not unhealthy, it is an extremely good food source, full of energy, and every nutrient that the body needs to stay healthy. It is a complete food. Your digestive system knows exactly what to do with saturated fat, and barring any specific health issues, can function quite well with little else. Saturated fat is an ultra high-energy food, and it doesn’t take much of it to supply all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs. Fat does not create fat. Unused nutrients do. Artificial fats such as trans-fats and polyunsaturated fats, are different. The body has a hard time figuring out what do do with them. Contrary to what you may have heard from sources with an axe to grind, barring specific heath-issues, no food consumed in moderation is unhealthy for you.
With that said, fat content is very desirable in meat that you plan to smoke. As it heats up, it melts, tenderizes, and moisturizes the muscle fibers, as well as making them more flavorful. Yes, I said it. Most of the flavor in your meat comes from the fat. Lean meats have less fat and are tougher. Without a certain amount of fat, meat will not even cook properly, which is why in the past, less desirable cuts of meat, often from a horse, were sometimes wrapped in bacon to add fat, and marketed to the unwary as expensive ‘Fillet Mignons”. Without the bacon, you’d be eating an expensive piece of leather. The public caught on to this eventually, and now in a restaurant, Fillet Mignons are usually made with a good piece of beef ribeye wrapped in bacon.
One of the signature characteristics of smoked meat is the pink “smoke-ring” on the outside layer of your meat. During normal cooking, the heat and oxidation causes myoglobin to turn greyish. But the slow smoking process, unlike cooking at higher temperatures, creates significant amounts of carbon monoxide (CO), and nitrogen monoxide (NO). These interact chemically with the moisture in the meat to prevent the myoglobin from turning grey. They they can only penetrate a little ways into the meat, which is why the smoke ring only goes in about ½”, or so. As a wise man, Paul Harvey, once said (frequently…), “Now you know…..the rest of the story.”
How To Select The Right Meats For Your Smoker
Now that you know the basic make-up of meat, you can make a better, more informed choice about what meat to select for your smoker. While just about anything can be smoked, to a certain degree, some things just work better smoked.
What you want in a meat for the smoker is a large, or thick cut, as a rule. This will give it a chance to develop the smoke flavor without drying out, or cooking too fast. A good rule of thumb is, the thinner the meat, the less time you can smoke it. This is why it is best to use the total weight of the meat to determine smoking times, usually 20-30 minutes per pound. But this will only work if your cuts are all similarly sized. Otherwise, you can time each type, and remove the smaller ones earlier, allowing the bigger ones to continue smoking. For example, if you wanted to smoke a whole brisket, and some thick pork chops at the same time, you can just calculate the time for the pork chops and the brisket individually. Subtract the pork chops time from the brisket time, and make a note of it. Now, you can start your brisket, and when the time reaches the difference between the two meats, add the pork chops. Then, all of your meat will be ready at the same time.
Next, you want your meat to have a good fat content. This is why ribs are such good smoker-fodder. They have a good fat content. So does brisket. This is also why whole chickens and turkeys are better than boneless, skinless chicken breast fillets. Pork has significantly more fat content than beef, and is why many consider pork the ‘King of Smoker Meats‘. When acquiring meat for your smoker, you want to examine it closely, and look for a good proportion of fat deposits, or ‘marbling’. If you use lean meats, you will need to add some kind of fat to them.
As far as selecting the ‘best’ type of meat for smoking, it is a matter of personal taste. If you rate them by smoking properties, then pork would be the clear winner due to the high fat content, and the typical large cuts of meat possible from a swine. But, there are those who have personal objections to consuming pork. So for them, beef would be the front-runner. Goat and lamb might make the top spot from a taste standpoint, but they are so lean, they require extra preparations to keep them from becoming saddle-leather. Likewise with poultry and fish. So the best meats for smoking is really whatever you like cooking and eating the best. We hope you find this information useful, and that you keep visiting our website for the latest information, tips, tricks, recipes, and all things smoking.