I love smoking meat and I enjoy sharing tips with beginners.
In the Beginning...
Now, everyone that is a seasoned BBQer or uses a smoker regularly has their own way of doing things. They may be better than the tips below or may not. It's all about trying a few different methods until you get the results that you are looking for. The purpose of this article is to provide some different things that I have used in my experiences smoking meat that helped me in the beginning stages to get to the point where I was happy with the end product. By all means, if you have additional tips, leave them in the comments, as I believe it always helps to have different opinions on things present so people can try the methods for themselves.
The prep of the meat can be the most important part of the cook sometimes, as this is when you are going to infuse a lot of flavour into the meat. Some people tend to prefer complex rubs, while others keep it simple with just some salt and pepper and maybe one or two other items. Different types of meat will call for different seasonings and it's best to try a few different ones out until you get what you like. Like it a bit sweeter? Add a bit of sugar. Like it spicier? Some cayenne pepper and paprika never killed anybody that I'm aware of. Some people tend to like rubbing pork cuts in mustard prior to smoking, which helps add another layer of flavour. You'll find people doing briskets well just keeping it very simple with their rubs. You can rub your meat the day before and leave this on to soak in overnight if you desire as some of the pros will tell you that this helps the salt mix the flavours of your rub deeper into the meat when cooking ribs or large red meat cuts. If you have the time, the longer the better, but there's nothing wrong with doing it while the smoker is coming up to temp either.
You should be aware of the best wood for different types of meats to get the best results from your smoker. This can largely be left up to personal preference but there are general guidelines that can be applied as well.
Hickory is popular among Southern and several Midwestern states, giving strong flavor to the meats. However, be careful while using hickory, as too much smoke can cause meats to taste bitter.
Out of all the oaks and hardwoods, red oak is considered the best, especially for smoking meats. Oak is strong, but it does not tend to overpower the taste and texture of the meat. If you are cooking or smoking beef or lamb, this is the best hardwood to use. Mesquite is not the best choice for hosting long and lazy barbecues.
Apple wood imparts a mild flavor and sweetness to meats. It would be best to only use this wood for BBQ pork, especially ham, and poultry. Cherry wood is ideal for barbecuing pork and beef, and gives a vibrant mahogany color to the meat. You can balance cherry wood by mixing it with hickory, oak, or pecan.
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The pecan tree belongs to the hickory family. This wood is great for long barbecues, as it burns slowly, and gives meats a delicate flavor. Also a wonderful smoking wood, but pecan tends to be pungent and is best used in moderation.
Other woods that are popular to use for BBQ and smoked meats include maple, alder ash, pear, and plum.
Time and Temperature
Now you're going to find that cooking temps do vary depending on what type of meat you are looking to cook. If you are cooking something with a higher fat content like a pork butt or brisket, your cook time is going to be longer and you want to use a slightly lower temperature. If you are cooking something such as a chicken which has bones present and doesn't require as long of a cook time, you will use a slightly higher temp for a consistent cook. You will find with fattier, bigger cuts of meat such as those mentioned above a cook temp of about 225 degrees with a cook time of about 1.5 hours per pound works best. For a chicken, whole or in parts, you are going to cook this at 250 degrees with a total cook time of roughly 4 hours depending on the size of the bird. I have included a handy wheel below from www.mybestsmoker.com which details other types of meat and how the smoke time and temps vary. depending on the level of doneness desired in the meat you will want to cook to different internal temperatures as well. The higher the internal temp on the fatty cuts such as a pork butt or brisket, the easier the meat will fall apart for things such as chopped brisket or pulled pork. For example, if you want to be able to slice a pork butt, an internal temperature of 180 degrees will suffice for the meat being cooked, whereas if you would like to make pulled pork from the same cut, you want the internal temp to reach roughly 205 degrees which will make the meat a little more tender and have the fat rendered to the point that the meat can easily be pulled apart with forks.
More commonly known as bastes or basting sauces, mops are the true sauce of barbecue and smoking. These thin solutions of flavor keep your meat moist so that is doesn't dry out too much during the process, and infuse it with flavor while you are cooking. Mops are added while meats are smoking and are most common used for red meat smoking such as ribs, briskets, butts, shoulders and things of the like. Search around online or in your favourite cookbook for mop recipes or try one of your own. Apply in layers to retain moisture and build layers of flavour over a few hour period, mopping regularly to ensure the meat stays moist. A proper mop works with the barbecue rub to build a crusty surface on meats. An interesting one I've used in the past was simply Dr Pepper soda. You can use different combinations of vinegars, juices and oils along with herbs and spices, simply using a spray bottle or a mopping/ sauce brush to apply to the meat while on the smoker.
Keeping the Meat Moist
You will find sometimes in electric and propane smokers especially that you will get to a certain point and the meat will have a nice smokey crust on the outside but if you leave it on too long it can actually dry out the under layers of the meat by the time you finish smoking. Sometimes the mop just isn't enough to keep the meat moist on the outside layers. This tends to happen to ribs, briskets and shoulders or butts most frequently as they tend to take longer to smoke. you will find info on some forums and web pages that will advise you to wrap the meat in foil at the temperature of roughly 160 degrees and let the remainder of the cook happen with the meat wrapped in the foil. Some prefer to add a bit of liquid into the foil as well in the way of juice or, rum or some sort of other preferred flavour that is entirely up to you. I find that I tend to wrap my spareribs after about 3 1/2 to 4 hours and let them cook for an additional 2-3 hours before serving. This of course will vary depending on cook temp and size of the cut as well. I find that about 3-4 hours of smoke is usually adequate for the flavour and the rest of the time just a low slow heat will get the meat to the point you desire. Happy smoking everyone!