Smoking meat seems pretty simple – just throw it on the smoker at a low temperature and wait, right? That’s actually fairly accurate, but when you’re a beginner, there’s all sorts of little details you’ll have questions about, and it doesn’t help that there’s so much conflicting information floating around. In this post I’ll be answering some of the most common questions about smoking meats. On contentious topics I’ve really tried to attack the issue from both sides rather than just siding with one camp. So without further ado, let’s get started:
Unfortunately there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. From what I’ve seen, electric smokers are a very common choice for beginners. Typically they don’t take up a lot of space, and many electric models allow for easy temperature control by simply setting the temp that you want.
Pellet smokers are another option that will make life easy by controlling the temperature. Another benefit of pellet smokers is that they can get quite hot, so you can also use one for traditional grilling – they are designed to be “all-in-one” devices. I personally use a Camp Chef pellet smoker and love it.
If I had to recommend a single best smoker for beginners, it would be Weber’s Smokey Mountain. It uses charcoal and wood chunks, so it really delivers big smokey flavor. It’s also extremely popular among BBQ enthusiasts, so there are lots of resources for it online. You do have to control the temperature with air vents, but it’s pretty simple once you get the hang of it.
And if you’re not sure you want to buy a dedicated smoker, there is always the option of setting up a traditional charcoal grill for indirect heat smoking.
What kind of wood should I use?
Almost any, so long as it’s not a wood full of resin and oil, like pine, cedar, spruce, sycamore, redwood, or fir. Also avoid any wood that has been treated with chemicals.
Cherry, pecan, and oak are a few versatile options that work nicely with a variety of meats. Also note that you can combine wood types to your heart’s content, and blends of different types of woods are available to buy.
The important thing is to not worry too much about wood/meat compatibility charts you find online. These are guidelines – don’t let the fact that you have apple on hand instead of cherry stop you from making ribs.
Should I soak my wood chips or chunks?
A hotly debated topic! The website Amazing Ribs, which has arguably the best informational BBQ content online, wrote this article on soaking wood. Because water doesn’t effectively penetrate wood, even after several hours, they conclude it’s not really necessary to soak. However, as you can see in the comment section of that post, a lot of folks disagree with this notion.
This is definitely something you should experiment with on your own. Soak your wood for one smoke, and then leave it dry the next time. Either way it’s not going to make or break your meal, but you might discover you have a preference. I will say that soaking chips seems to make more sense than chunks, since they have a tendency to burn up much quicker.
What's the deal with the black gloves I see everywhere?
If you’ve watched instructional smoking videos on YouTube or been to BBQ events, you’ve probably seen a lot of pitmasters wearing black gloves. These are simply powder-free nitrile gloves. They are sometimes worn with cotton gloves underneath to insulate from heat.
These gloves are popular because they allow for more control than thicker alternatives (you know – the ones that look like big rubber oven mitts). Why black? Probably because the other common color, light blue, is used by medical professionals.
Should I wrap my brisket? In foil or butcher paper?
Wrapping is another matter of personal preference. The main argument for wrapping is that halfway through a 12-hour cook, your brisket will already have a ton of smoke on it. Since you should have a nice bark at that point, you might as well wrap to avoid losing moisture.
However, some people really prefer an extra-crispy and smokey exterior. If that’s you, you can leave your brisket uncovered for the duration of the cook.
When it comes to choosing between foil and butcher paper, just know that foil will create a very tight seal, while butcher paper will give the brisket a little space to breathe. Some say foil can create a more juicy brisket, but it may come at the expense of your bark.
BBQ with Franklin did a great wrap test comparing foil and butcher paper to a naked brisket. Check it out here:
Should I add sauce? When?
There’s nothing wrong with adding sauce to your barbecue, even though some regions are known for serving their meat without it. However, you will want to make sure you don’t add sauce too early. Usually that means waiting until your meat is about 15-30 minutes from being done. This will allow the sauce to stiffen up just a bit and stick nicely to the meat without getting too hard and smokey.
What kind of meat should I try smoking first?
I think ribs are a great first choice. At about six hours it’s not a terribly long cook, and if you use something the like the 3-2-1 method, it’s hard to go wrong. Additionally, ribs are relatively small and inexpensive, so you can cook for yourself and a few others before smoking something larger for a crowd.
With that being said, don’t let me stop you from smoking whatever you’ve been dreaming of (by the way, pastrami is my personal favorite thing to make). Even if you can’t maintain the temperature you need or run into some major malfunction with your smoker, you can always finish your meat in the oven. So if brisket is what inspired you to get a smoker, then by all means, smoke a brisket first!
How often should I check my meat?
Not at all, unless you need to do something to the meat (wrap, add sauce, etc). Ideally your smoker will indicate the cooking temperature somewhere on the outside, and you can run a probe into your meat if you’re aiming for a certain temperature.
What you have to understand when smoking is that you’re not really in any danger of burning your meat when cooking at 200-something degrees. It’s not like a 400 degree oven, which it makes sense to check on periodically. Every time you open your smoker it loses a ton of heat, so resist the urge!
What's the different between hot and cold smoking?
“Hot smoking” is probably what you think about when you imagine simply “smoking meat.” It’s a method that both cooks the meat and gives it a smokey flavor, while cold smoking is only meant to flavor the meat with smoke. Cold smoking can be dangerous since bacteria reproduce at a rapid rate in the 40-130 degree range. Hot smoking, on the other hand, is typically done at a minimum temperature of 200 degrees, which means you don’t have to worry about botulism – yay!
As you can probably tell from my answers, there’s a whole lot of opinions out there when it comes to BBQ techniques. Usually there’s not a clear right or wrong answer, so experiment on your own and figure out what you like. Then when you’ve mastered something, be sure to tell everyone how much better your technique is – just kidding!
If you have any opinions of your own – or if I missed a question you want answered – let me know in the comments below!