The Best Meats to Smoke: From Beginner to Expert

Jason Webster
Written by
Last update:

19 of our favorite cuts of meat to smoke (in no particular order)

This is your typical pork shoulder on steroids! To prepare this cut of meat, you wash off the layer of fat just beneath the surface, add spices to a few inches up the side of the roast. Smoke overnight with a low temperature and you will be ready to enjoy your delicious pork roast come morning.

Beef brisket and pork ribs

I can smoke brisket for a week to get it done just right. It is shredded or sliced meat at its absolute best! Ribs, once you get the hang of getting that sticky sweet salt and spice rub into those cracks and crevices will make you wonder why you never tried this before!

Spare ribs. Look for St. Louis style ribs, baby back ribs

It’s no secret that ribs are great smoked. Be warned that these can be a little more of a challenge to cook correctly. To make a great rack of ribs takes time, technique, and the gift of patience!

Pork backribs

These are the other side of the ribs from the spare. Back Ribs are the larger rib that gives us the delicious babyback rib. Back ribs are probably the easiest to prepare because they can be smoked exactly like spare ribs.

Chicken breast.

Beef Brisket

Beef brisket is the classic American smoked meat. With the right cut, it can be delicious, and it can also be tough, dry and fatty. Good brisket is so tender you can cut it with a fork.

It includes fat interspersed among the meat. In some cases, the brisket is heavily marbled with fat. Brisket fat can make for a delicious barbecue or bbq if the cut is cooked properly.

Generally, the longer the brisket is cooked, the more tender it is. Smoking brisket for a long time is called barbecue. If smoked long enough, the fat will melt out of the brisket and it can be replaced with barbecue sauce.

If cooked properly, the fat that melts out of the smoked brisket can be used to make some of the best barbecue sauce you’ll ever taste.

But if you are not up to the task of smoking a brisket for hours on end, there are a wide variety of pre-cooked briskets in the meat section of the grocery store. Some of them are smoked for hours so try out a few brands and see what you like.

Pork Butt

Let’s start with the first cut of pork you should smoke: Pork butt. This is known as the shoulder muscle and is also called Boston butt.

The only difference between pork butt and shoulder is that the pork butt is usually boned and rolled. Pork shoulder is the whole, less processed piece of meat. This is one of the most popular cuts of meat for smoking among the BBQ master cooks because of the low amount of fat it has.

It is not challenging to cook this cut of meat but you should keep in mind that if you over cook it, it is going to be hard as a rock.

Pork Shoulder

A pork shoulder is a good, ideal piece to start learning how to smoke meat. There are many ways to smoke a pork shoulder. Most go for the traditional method which involves the usage of the methods: Grill, Pit and Smoke.

You can do the pork shoulder with Grill, Pit and Smoke as you can make the pork shoulder with a smoker. Either way, the pork shoulder is one of the ideal meat that you can practice the art of smoking meat.

To start, we will discuss the methods of smoking meat using the grill, pit, and smoke. The roast will have a good smoky flavor to it after smoking it.

Smoking with the Grill: Prepare the grill for indirect heat. It can also be called the smoldering method or the smoky method of smoking meat.

Smoke a pork shoulder by wrapping it in aluminum foil and placing it under the meat on the grill. Put a drip pan below the meat to collect the juices that the meat will release.

Place a few chopped hardwood lump charcoal around the edges of the grill. Use a smoker box to add smoke into the meat.

Smoke the meat until it has attained about 160 degrees. Resting will follow before slicing of the meat.

Smoking a pork shoulder with the Pit: Smoke a pork shoulder with pit method is almost similar to the grill method.

Baby Back Ribs

The meat on the back of a pig is known as baby back ribs. They get their name because the meat the comes from the baby pig. The loin of the pig is where the baby back ribs come from and because they are the most tender part of the pig, you will also find them on your plate in many restaurants.

To make baby back ribs, you must remove the loin or back ribs. The loin is the piece that usually has a nice round bone in it. If the rib is cut so that it is about 2 inches to 4 inches from the spareribs, it is called a St. Louis sparerib. St. Louis style spareribs are just smaller cuts from the same section of the boar. St. Louis style spareribs are most often used for pulled pork sandwiches.

After you remove the back ribs, you can cut the rack into St. Louis spareribs and then into individual ribs and then remove the membrane from the back of the ribs. This step is optional because you won’t be able to eat the ribs, and the meat from the ribs will be tough. Many people, however, do this because it is easier cooking and serving undercooked ribs.

Spare Ribs

Your slow cooker or smoker should be preheated at 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

The instructions differ among places, but most of them will tell you to place your ribs bone down.

You need to watch your smoker closely and baste your ribs occasionally. This is to keep them moist so they don’t dry out.

The pit should be opened up and ribs should be basted every couple of hours. Depending on the pit and the temperature you set, this smoking process normally takes around 4 to 6 hours.

As a newbie, go for baby backs. The meat from the baby back ribs is more tender than from the larger spare ribs. They are the best option when it comes to easing into smoking meats.

Beef Ribs

Beef ribs are delicious and best served with BBQ sauce.

These cuts are best served with BBQ sauce.

Lamb Shoulder

Smoked lamb shoulder is an ultimate beginner/intermediate level project. It’s something that everyone can achieve with moderate success the first time.

It was my first ever smoked meat and it was a very good introduction into the world of smoking.

As a bonus, it happens to be the meat I smoke most often. It’s a wonderful example of how adding just a few simple steps to your standard smoking process can improve an already delicious smoked meat recipe.

Lamb Leg

It is better to work with a leg quarter because you get more meat product in one piece and because the leg itself is so versatile it is probably the most popular cut for smoking.

The leg quarter is a fairly large piece which will require some sort of special smoker to smoke. If you find a store that cuts lamb leg quarters into smaller pieces for you, you can easily prepare those in your home smoker.

Cooking time: 2-3 hours per pound for smoke roasted or around the smoke roasted time, or 2 hours for char-roasted. I would love to be able to tell you what internal temperature you should cook to, but lamb is an unpredictable meat. It is a young sheep and can turn very rapidly from a perfect pink color to an over-cooked gray color. Not pleasant.

So, follow the above time guidelines and use a thermometer if you want to be safe. You will NOT get a reliable temperature from your smoker's meat probe.

Smoke roasted is similar to a barbecued flavor, but not as strong. The char-roasted is going to have a more of a charcoal flavor and will tend to be a bit drier. When you smoke roast, it takes a LOT less time to get the cooked lamb to the same temperature 🙂

Spatchcock Whole Turkey

This is a great first way to smoke and can be done in a smoker of any size. This turkey needs minimum attention during the smoking process. No flipping or rotating the bird, just smoke it till it is done!

On a large scale, smoking a whole turkey can understandably have its challenges. It can be difficult to smoke a 15 pound bird on your first go.

On a smaller scale, you may not have space to smoke a whole turkey on a full sized kettle.

Luckily, there is a solution to both of these challenges!

You can smoke a whole turkey on a standard size grill using a vertical roaster. Vertical roasters raise the turkey up higher so that your bird has room to cook in the center of your smoker. It also gives your meat more room to cook and smoke!

In addition, if you’re a homebrewer, you can add a special ingredient to your spatchcock turkey and pull smokey roasted after taste of your seasonal beer.

Spatchcock Chicken

No, we’re not talking about a chicken with a speech impediment! A spatchcock chicken is a chicken that is split open, flat-out, breast-side down. Flat-out means it’s a chicken that’s been spatchcocked and butterflied. In other words, it’s been split through the spine and opened up flat.

Spatchcocking a chicken allows even an amateur smoker to achieve some pretty amazing results. A spatchcocked chicken has a habit of cooking faster than a traditionally roasted chicken which is perfect for when you’re running short on time. It also often makes for some really crispy skin around the legs and thighs because they cook directly on the grate or in a cast iron skillet.

But the real beauty of spatchcocking a chicken is that the bird cooks much more evenly. There is no more concern about cross-contamination of your chicken because you can spread the legs wide open, open up the breast and massage about two ounces of a salt paste right into the bird.

Beef Cheek

While beef cheek may be for more advanced smokers, this cut yields a fantastic product in the hands of an experienced pit master.

Beef cheeks are nothing but lip meat (the meat that’s attached to the jawbone of a cow) and the cheek bone.

The beef cheeks are the front leg of the cow, and hence there is a lot of movement in the muscles.

They are best cooked low and slow over oak wood to add to the flavor.

Beef cheeks have a great meaty texture and an amazing depth of flavor.

If you’ve never tasted it before, it’s actually a really great cut of meat.

The beef cheeks should be sticky and with a bit of a pull.

It should taste like slow-cooked heaven.

Chuck Roast

The chuck roast is a very hearty cut of meat that is quite forgiving.

It has a moderate level of fat so it is especially suitable for slow smoking. Being a popular favorite with budget-conscious home smokers, a well-prepared chuck roast is very tender and easily pulled apart.

The fat content of chuck roast can be quite high but it is neither too strong nor too oily.

For some best-practice tips on how to prepare best-quality chuck roast, visit my page on How to Make the Best, Tenderest, and Juiciest Smoked Chuck Roast.

Chicken Breast

Smoked chicken breasts are a simple and delicious meal that you don’t want to miss on your next smoking adventure. They’re juicy and tender, but best of all, are super simple to prepare. You can serve smoked chicken breasts as a main course, as an appetizer, or use them in a salad.

If you want easy, delicious, and moist chicken, this is the way to go. The meat will absorb all the smoky and spicy flavors in the rub and in the cooking process, while it remains juicy and delicious.

A home smoker is perfect for this recipe, but you can use any smoker or barbecue that you have available. The chicken breasts should be rubbed with a good mixture of spices and herbs, soaked in olive oil to help keep the meat juicy and moist, and then smoked in the oven or in your smoker.

Chicken Thigh

They are easy to smoke and they require minimal preparation. This part can be done in a variety of ways so you will have to search online for the best way to prepare them depending on what cut and style of chicken thighs you are going for.

Chicken thighs are perfect for beginners or anybody that wants to try smoking. They are quick to cook but produces juicy tender meat that yields to the touch and is perfect for barbeque or frying.

Since chicken thighs can come in a variety of cuts and are significantly less expensive than other meats, I would recommend them to anybody that wants to try smoking.

Turkey Breast

The turkey breast can be smoked the same way as a chicken and is an excellent choice for beginners. It is economical and has a mild flavor, which makes it easy to season. Turkey breast is also ideal for smoking because it is very lean and requires little preparation.

In fact, you can just season it, put it in the smoker, and enjoy a delicious meal. The breast can easily be smoked at 225o, since it only takes an hour and a half to two hours to cook. You can use the same rub you used for chicken to season the turkey breast.

Smoke it at 225o for about an hour and a half to two hours. You can make the meat moist by putting it in a foil paper bag. The turkey breast is delicious when served as sandwich, platter, or salad.

Beef Prime Rib

A beef prime rib is a prime cut that we all have experienced on a holiday. When we get to have meat with a butt roast or a chuck roast, it is all fatty. When it comes to a prime rib, we hate the bones and the meat around the bones.

That's the reason why we love to just eat the bone-in prime rib and nothing else. The marbled meat is the very reason why prime rib makes you want to eat more.

That prime rib meat is just so flavorful and tasty. Some people would even ask if there is a way we could make a prime rib without the bones!

Sausage

The Best Meats to Smoke: From Beginner to Expert

Smokers have been around for millenniums and they’ve tipped the scale of hunger in favor of our tribe of early man. It’s unlikely a family would have survived a month of hunting without a side of smoked venison.

“Of all the methods of preservation,” wrote Hugh Johnson, author of The Complete Book of Cheese, “smoking provides the most interesting variety and the best flavor.”

Everybody loves smoked meat. It can be smoked or grilled to perfection on a hot summer day or warm and cozy during a cold winter night. Meat flavored with smoke is so tender it melts in your mouth like an ice cream sundae. It also contains many more smoky flavor compounds called aldehydes than plain grilled or broiled meat does. The fat and protein that are carried through the smoke are the key to juicy, tender smoked meat.

Smoked meat tastes richer, crisper, and richer than grilled or broiled meat. Smoke imparts a flavor otherwise not possible. That doesn’t mean you will have great smoked meat every time though. The outcome depends on the quality, the type of meat, and smoker employed.

Pork Belly (Burnt Ends)

Pork belly is one of the most versatile meats when it comes to smoking. You can pretty much smoke any cut of pork belly, but the most popular one is the cut that I call burnt ends, either straight cut or point cut.

This delicious cut is rightly named because it resembles the burnt ends that you get in barbeque. It is generally best to purchase an un-trimmed piece of pork belly and trim it yourself.

I prefer to purchase only the skin and fat, so I only use the center cut out of this piece of meat. Trimming the meat yourself, you get to control the thickness of the layers, which makes a huge difference when it comes to cooking. Different thicknesses are great for different types of preparation.

In some cases, you can separate the fat and skin along the sea-saws of the belly, so it’s much easier to trim. While some people leave the skin on, I like to remove it because it makes the meat much easier to prepare and cooks much better.

The belly can be cooked whole or even cut into small pieces. It can also be used as a component of a full on mouth watering dish like Cuban Style Slow Cooked Pork with Ropa Vieja.

Tri-Tip

For those who don’t know already, a tri-tip is the top sirloin of the cow but positioned around the buttocks.

A lot of manly love has gone into making and keeping this cut the way it is. It could be the distinct flavor of the meat.

Or maybe it’s the versatility of the cut. Because a tri-tip is relatively unnoticeable on the final roast, professional butchers and butchery-savvy home cooks go to great lengths to make sure it’s not trimmed away. This special meat is easily become a victim of trimming.

Interestingly, the melting point of tri-tip is higher than that of NY strip or rib eye, which makes it a great choice for smoking. It tends to retain tenderness rather than become tough.

Each major cut of meat has its own pros and cons. For example, NY strip is definitely more expensive, but it’s also one of those cuts that you can find less fat and much more meat on it when compared to other cuts.

In fact, that’s the reason why you should choose tri-tip, but only if you want to have more meat. Otherwise, if you want something with less fat and more marbling, NY strip is your guy.

Don’t waste these cuts on the smoker

Most people only know about meats that can be smoked such as beef brisket and pork butt.

However, other meats should also be considered as great sources of meat since it’s cheaper and you don’t have to deal with the brisket and the butt. They are:

Bacon/Pork belly.

Bacon is a great meat to experiment with since it’s cheap and versatile. You can marinate, brine, cure or do whatever to it since it’s preserved naturally. It will also be easy to smoke/jerk to the desired level because it’s fatty.

Jerky.

Jerky is great to use because it’s quite cheap and it’s easy to dry and smoke. It can be used immediately or it can even be stored for a long time for a more consistent supply of jerky and meat in the winter.

Ribs.

It’s hard not to like ribs. Ribs can be cooked to a variety of level of firmness and it’s fun to eat. It’s affordable and flavorful. A lot of people have already tried ribs. You can make it even better by smoking it.

Wrapping it up

All right, we covered a lot of ground in this chapter. We set up your little smoker on the patio, did some shopping, gathered the materials, and checked out some of our favorite recipes.

At this point, you know the rules and how to navigate them. You know how to set up your smoker, which meats you love most. And, you have a few recipes that look and sound pretty good.

However, I’m not done yet with this journey into the world of meat smoking. Now that you have all this great know-how, it’s time to take a little journey back in time.

History recounts that primitive man smoked meat just like you smoke meat today. It’s evident that man’s desire to smoke meat predates the practice of cooking with fire. You heard me right.

The question is: how did man come to this realization? For that, we need to make a little trip backwards in time.

ThermoPro TP-17 Review

Smoking is an ancient method of preserving meat, especially in cultures that had no way to refrigerate it. Smoking is also a process of cooking by using smoke, heat, and often, the burning of wood or another type of plant matter.

Smoking meat can be done in two ways. It can be done by drying, via cold smoking, or using heat, via hot smoking. Good quality smoking can add a lot of flavor to the meat and transform it into a delicious treat, perfect for enjoying in the backyard or in the company of friends.

Cold smoked meat is usually partially dried before cooking. Hot smoking meat, on the other hand, is normally cooked from start to finish.

Still, you can start with cold smoking and then create a heat source to cook the cold smoked meat for a hot smoked product.

Smoking is usually done outside in a smoking circulator. It is a barbecue pit or a similar kind of device built for the purpose of smoking.

If you are looking for a smoking chamber you can build in your backyard then you can check out our guide on the best ones on the market.

Today, there are several types of smokers available in the market, all of them designed for a single purpose. So, for a beginner, determining what smoker to buy can be tricky.

So, when buying a smoker, ask yourself these important questions: