You CAN smoke whatever you like, that’s part of the enjoyment of barbecue. But, if you’re wanting to learn the fundamental skills it’s best to start with the easiest meat to smoke, and gradually work through them that way.
After contributing to and collecting thoughts from forums & other enthusiasts, I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 best meats to smoke for beginners. At each level there are various new techniques to try and each different meat will help you learn more about the overall smoking process.
The process of smoking meat, or low & slow cooking, works so well as it has the time and gradual heat to break down connective tissue, or collagen, and the surrounding fats leading to an incredibly tender and succulent piece of meat.
As the collagen breaks down it turns into gelatin. As the fat breaks down it turns to flavor. So the key to what makes a cut of meat good for smoking is having a good amount of connective tissue, collagen, and rich in fat. These factors, with the addition of the natural smoky flavor of the wood, are why barbecue is just so deliciously addicting.
What Meats Are The Best To Smoke?
The primal cuts of meat with the best balance of connective tissues and quantity of fat will naturally smoke better than those much leaner cuts of meat that have very little connective tissue and fat.
The “fattier” cuts, such as the belly, shoulder, or leg, tend to be the more successful pieces to smoke. For example, beef brisket comes from the lower breast, pulled pork traditionally from pork shoulder, and ribs from the belly and chest.
These fattier cuts do not turn out well when cooked hot & fast, or searing, as they don’t have adequate time to break down the connective tissue. Believe me, it’s tough and chewy!
Top 5 Best & Easiest Meats To Smoke For Beginners
The below are the best meats to smoke for beginners. I would recommend trying all of these at least once in your early stages as you can build the fundamental skills that will help you with all of your future smoking sessions. Your family and friends will love you. These cuts are not only forgiving, but they are good opportunities to begin learning how your smoker actually works.
Both spare ribs & baby back ribs are one of the most forgiving cuts to cook for beginners. There is plenty of fat, flavor, and tenderness to go around. Although there are various different techniques you can use to smoke your pork ribs the easiest and most straightforward way is the 3-2-1 method.
Before beginning, remove the membrane from the underside of the ribs, generously coat in your favorite sweet rub, and get your smoker up to 225F°.
3 - Smoking Phase
For the first phase, you want as much smokey flavor to be added to the ribs as they begin the low & slow cooking process. Place them in meat side up and leave them smoking at 225°F for 3 hours, with an optional spritz every hour to keep them moist.
2 - Wrapping It Up
Take two sheets of aluminum foil and lay the ribs meat down onto them. Curl the aluminum foil to form the “boat”. Add ½ cup of apple juice, 4-5 lumps of butter, and a good sprinkling of brown sugar. Wrap the ribs up in two layers of foil to stop any leakage, and place back in the smoker at 225°F for 2 hours.
By wrapping the ribs you are doing three key things. Firstly, you are stopping the smoke from imparting on the meat further, which is fine as most of the smoky flavor is imparting in the first 25-50% of the cooking process.
Secondly, you are keeping the meat moist, preventing the juices from escaping, and allowing the meat to absorb the liquid in the boat.
Lastly, the meat absorbs your apple juice mix. This is building layers of flavor, which is what barbecue is all about.
1 - Caramelizing & Finishing
Carefully unwrap the aluminum foil to take a look at the ribs in all their glory. If you can see a quarter to half-inch pull back onto the bone then they are done. Place the ribs carefully back onto the smoker meat side up and generously lather with your favorite barbecue sauce. Leave the ribs in for one last hour, allowing the sauce to thicken and help form a beautiful bark, and add a critical layer of flavor.
Serve up or scoff them down yourself!
Note: If you are dealing with a smaller rack of ribs then it’s perfectly suitable to do 2-2-1, depending on how “fall-off-the-bone” you like them!
Pulled pork is another one of those fail-safe options to get your journey going. Although pulled pork can be made from a few cuts of pork, the pinnacle is a bone-in pork butt. Pork butt is the upper shoulder and tends to break down more easily become much more tender and flavorsome. The lower shoulder works brilliantly too. Bone-in helps the meat stay moist and it adds a richer flavor, so it’s always preferred, but not essential.
Start with lathering up the pork with a binding agent such as mustard or ketchup. This helps the rub to the meat and begins and adds an additional flavor profile. Generously coat your meat on all sides and in all nooks and crannies of the cut with your favorite sweet and spicy (optional) rub.
Once the smoker is up to 225°F place the pork in, fat side up. Now you’re in for the long haul here, with a pork shoulder taking anywhere between 8-14 hours until its fall-apart tender and maximum deliciousness has been achieved.
For the first half of the cook, 4-6 hours, do not open the smoker at all as keeping the temperature consistent is vital. This gives the pork time to develop a decent bark and for the smoke to fully impart over all of the meat.
After roughly 5 hours, you can start spritzing the pork with apple juice, or diluted apple cider every hour until around the 8-hour mark and the shoulder is hitting around 160°F. If you are happy with the look of the bark you are ready to wrap!
Place the pork into an aluminum tray, poor 2 cups apple juice, and cover with foil making it airtight. After a further 4-5 hours being covered, and when your pork hits an internal temperature of 200°F in the middle, it’s time to pull it off the smoker, and rest it in the juices for a further 1-2 hours (or longer) depending on your patience.
I like to pull it apart in the same roasting tray with its juices, and add at least a cup of bbq sauce and mix it well. Delicious.
The beauty of the smoked chicken is something else. The smoke really elevates it from a typical roast into a masterpiece. All you need to worry about when smoking is not to overcook or undercook the chicken! It’s imperative you have a trusty probe or instant-read thermometer to nail the temperature.
Begin by preparing the chicken. It IS optional, but I would recommend brining the chicken overnight in a simple mix of ½ cup of salt + ½ cup of sugar + 1 gallon of water. Submerge the whole chicken in the brine for 12-24 hours in the refrigerator.
Remove the chicken from the brine and pat it dry before adding your favorite rub. Stuff an orange or a large lemon up the chicken, or stand it up with an opened, half-full beer can inside it. This can be difficult sometimes but you can use a beer can chicken holder.
Fire up the smoker until it’s steady at 225°F, depending on the size of the chook, it may take between 2.5 – 4 hours. Continue smoking the chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F in the deepest and thickest part of the breast and thighs.
This teaches the process of brining, and nailing internal temperatures.
Pork Belly Burnt Ends/Bites
Pork belly burnt ends, or pork belly bites, are the definition of delicious. These are bite-sized, melt in your mouth, crispy, chewy, sticky, saucy… I could go on.
The key here is to find yourself a nice meaty pork belly. It’s essential to remove the skin! People who left the skin on learned the hard way – as it’s just too chewy and prevents all the fat from rendering and melting properly.
After carefully removing the skin from the meat, roughly chop into 2 x 2 inch squares. Generously coat with your favorite sweet dry rub getting all sides, and place them separated onto a grill rack.
Get the smoker up to 275°F and place the rack on. Smoke for three hours, spritzing after every hour with apple juice to keep them moist! After roughly 3 hours, and when they are looking delectable and probe to an internal temperature of about 190°F. Transfer them to an aluminum tray, add a good dollop of honey, barbecue sauce, brown sugar, and a little spicy rub if you’re adventurous.
Place them back into the smoker for an hour or until they have fully caramelized and you can’t wait any longer. No need to rest, but let them cool down a bit before diving in!
After you’ve had some practice at controlling the temperature of your smoker, wrapping, maintaining the moisture, and building a good bark we are now ready to tackle one of the more moderate meats, beef ribs.
Beef ribs are all about the contrast of textures, with a rich, dark, and crunchy bark, and an immensely tender and juicy meat. You may not get it right the first time, honestly, it took me more than a couple of goes to really nail it.
In order to build a solid bark, start with an even layer of mustard as a binder followed by a strong dark rub — like BLACK from hardcore carnivore — which is readily available and most barbecue stores or online.
Crank up the temperature to 275°F, as beef ribs have a higher fat content they can definitely take the heat and absorb more smokiness. For beef ribs, you really just want to smoke until you reach your desired temperature of 210°F, and it’s probing like butter. Like seriously, you can keep them going longer and they will just become more tender so don’t pull them off too hastily! Be sure to spritz every hour (but quickly – don’t let the smoke and heat escape). You can spritz with water, vinegar and water mix, or even a bit of hot sauce and water for that extra layer of flavor that builds into the bark.
Unlike pork ribs, it’s essential to rest your beef ribs. Simply cover in butcher’s paper or aluminum foil, place in a cooler for 1-2 hours, or until you run out of patience. Cut between the bones so you get big chunks of meat and hoe down!
Your Next Smoke
By following the above, you will have learned, and had experience with almost all the processes of real traditional barbecue. From prep, to the smoke, temperature management, bark formation, flavor, spritzing, wrapping, resting, and everything in between. This isn’t an all-or-nothing guide though, and you can pick and choose what you want when you want.
Believe me though, when you go back and try these cuts of meat a second or third time you will be amazed at how much you’ve improved, and you will feel much more confident when trying your first brisket, or if your experimenting with some of the other fantastically amazing smoked meats like lamb shoulder, bratwurst, or even reverse searing your steaks.
Although each type of smoker works differently, whether you’ve got an electric smoker, charcoal smoker, or pellet smoker these meats are the best for beginners to try and hone their skills with and get a true taste for barbecue.