Smoking is a low and slow process of cooking that uses smoke to add flavor and tenderize meats. It's an art and a favorite technique for barbecue aficionados, but that doesn't mean that this style of barbecue is out of reach for the backyard enthusiast.
While you may be tempted to toss your best cuts of beef and pork on the smoker, you'll find that the better choices are, in fact, the cheapest and less desirable cuts. This is great news because while smoking is fun, it can also a bit of a challenge. So, since you'll be saving money on the meat, you can enjoy the freedom of experimentation. It's one of the reasons so many people get really excited about smoking foods and true barbecue.
In reality, true barbecue—not hot dogs and hamburgers, but low, slow smoking—is based on cheap, unappealing cuts of meat. Smoking improves these less than desirable cuts with the low temperatures and super slow cooking times. (Warning: if you don't have a lot of patience when it comes to cooking, smoking is not for you.)
The Smoking Process
Smoking is a method of cooking that is low (in temperature) and slow (in time). The cooking process usually lasts for more than 30 minutes a pound, but it can be much longer—there are times when the meat can be in the smoker for up to 20 hours. Many good, lean cuts of meat would dry out and become inedible after cooking for this long; however, tougher cuts need this length of time to tenderize and become enjoyable to eat.
Cuts of meat that we tend to think of as "bad" or low-quality can handle this prolonged heat. In fact, meat that is full of fat and connective tissues (collagen) is best in the smoker. The meat will actually improve and come out tender, flavorful, and downright delicious. This is because as the collagen slowly breaks down, it turns into sugars which sweeten the meat and keep it moist during smoking; additionally, the smoke has time to infuse the meat with the signature smokey taste.
The Best Meats for the Smoker
We can look to traditional barbecue meals when determining the best cuts for the smoker. The classic meats of barbecue are generally beef brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs. These cuts are tough, chewy meats and generally so poor in quality that they are not good when cooked using other cooking methods.
If you are new to smoking foods, it's best to begin with an easy cut of meat. You cannot go wrong with a small pork shoulder roast like a Boston butt or a picnic roast. (If you don't see these cuts in the meat section of your grocery store, ask your butcher.) These cuts are generally forgiving and relatively inexpensive. This makes them perfect for learning your equipment and perfecting your smoking technique. They're also good for experimenting with different types of wood, the temperature and time, as well as other factors like seasoning rubs that you can play around with.
As you learn more and become comfortable with the smoking process, you can move on to larger and more difficult cuts like brisket or ribs. You may also want to try a whole chicken or turkey, or leg of lamb and prime rib once you feel you've got the hang of it. Before you know it, you'll master the art of true barbecue.
Keep These Cuts Off the Smoker
In general, any cut of meat that we consider "good"—like pork tenderloin or a good lean roast—should not be smoked. And when it comes to steaks, grilling is a much better option. It is unnecessary to spend the time and waste the wood and money on a meat that is delicious when cooked simply, quickly, and often over high heat. Plus, you won't taste the benefits of your smoking efforts if you smoke a good cut because the meat will be so dried out it will be inedible.