I know my way around a pit. Opening a barbecue restaurant in Texas requires a lot of research, testing and documenting. Nailing down not only how to make great smoked meats is one thing but perfecting how to sell it is another story. Once you slice into a whole brisket you only have so long before it becomes a dried up mess. Luckily for you at home, you just have to figure out how to make great smoked meats.
Think of your electric smoker as an oven, just outside. I use mine in the same way and abuse it during the warm summer months when I do not want to use the oven in the house. I have learned that there is not much you can not smoke. Regardless if you are a beginner or not the best meats to smoke in your electric smoker will all depend on your personal preference and how much effort you want to put into the smoke. Some are easier, requiring minimal effort while others require more time, patience, and curiosity.
So what are the best meats to smoke?
All of them! The cooking process adds smoke flavor to your meats, how would this not be a benefit? The fun part of learning to smoke meat is the experience. With some basic food science knowledge, you can make educated decisions that will help you in your journey of becoming the neighborhood pit boss. How tough the cut of beef is before you smoke it, is what determines how much time you need to smoke it. At the bottom of the list, I have items like shanks that I recommend finishing by braising. Cooking entirely in a smoker has a high chance of resulting in a bad experience.
You need to smoke a whole brisket to get the full experience of a great smoked brisket. The flat and point when separated and resold are usually completely cleaned of all the fat which you need for a long cook. Read my post on my smoking process and how to make a great smoked brisket here.
For this, you want to find beef ribs from the short plate. Back Beef Ribs do not have much meat on them as they are trimming from whole ribeyes. They get more money when the meat is on the ribeye than they do when it is on the ribs.
The short plate beef rib is the famous dinosaur bone beef rib that you frequently see. Each short plate gives you 3 usable single bone cuts. It will have 4 bones but one of those hangs out on the end and isn’t always the best one to serve. These are incredibly rich as the intensely marbled meat is full of connective tissues that break down into collagen.
A chuck roast can be smoked just like a brisket although I like turning them into KC-style burnt ends. When using a chuck roast rather than brisket they call it a “poor man’s burnt end” as a chuck roast is significantly less expensive than brisket.
To make the KC style burnt ends, smoke the roast at 225-250º until it reaches 165º internal. Wrap it in butcher paper, not foil, and finish smoking it until the internal registers at 195º. Let it cool enough to handle then dice it into larger pieces and toss them with barbecue sauce and brown sugar. Add them to a foil tray and smoke uncovered for another 2 hours.
You can also wrap the chuck roast in butcher paper, cook it until tender, about 205º, let it rest, and then shred it for tacos. Not a true barbacoa but the chuck roast has enough beefy flavor to make it happen.
Your holidays at home will never be the same again. Smoked prime rib is one of the greatest things ever. Keep the temp lower to maximize the amount of time the whole prime rib has inside the smoker. If you have the time then smoke this prime rib at a low temperature of 185º for about 3 hours. Check on it after 2 hours to see where it is at. You want an internal temperature of 125º for rare, 136º for medium rare to medium. I prefer to smoke my prime rib to 136º. At this temperature, connective tissue breaks down and begins to turn into collagen.
I know this is not a cut of meat but making beef jerky is much simpler than you think. Use a London broil roast and marinate it overnight before smoking it for a few hours. I have a recipe and instructions here.
A smoked burger is a glorious thing. It cooks the burger evenly while slowly melting the fat into the meat. You have a tender burger in a little over an hour when smoked at 225º. Top the burger with smoked gouda and some dry roasted mushrooms and garlic aioli for an earthy, rich, and decadent burger.
Why not? I have a great recipe for a blended mushroom meatloaf here that you can smoke for an extra flavor dimension. If that is not your thing then I strongly suggest using the recipe for meatloaf in the book The Joy of Cooking. This living piece of history is full of classic recipes that will never age.
You will find a few different cuts that are all part of a pork butt. This muscle comes from the front of the animal rather than the rear as the name implies. This whole shoulder is also called a picnic roast. It can be then broken down into the Boston butt and pork shoulder. The Boston butt is where you get blade shoulder roasts from as well.
A great low and slow cooking option for long cooks. Shred it into pulled pork, dice it into carnitas, or cool it down then slice it into steaks and pan-sear them for the best pork steak you ever had.
If you can find a whole bone-in pork rack then you are golden. Prep and smoke the whole rack like it was a prime rib with an internal temperature of 145º. A little whole grain mustard mixed with Worcestershire sauce, fresh garlic, rosemary, and Montreal steak seasoning is my favorite rub for Prime Rib and it works great on pork.
After it is done smoking, let it rest and then cut into single-bone pork chops. You can also cook these down and then through them on the grill to reheat them for a next level grilled pork chop.
If you can not find a whole rack or even pork chops that are thick enough then no worries. Get a pork loin and use a simple dry rub that is not as aggressive as my prime rib rub. Smoke until you get an internal temperature of 140º.
Baby Back Ribs and St. Louis Style Ribs are a breeze to smoke in an electric smoker. If you have the room to hang the rack of ribs in the smoker then even better. Learn to use the bend test to tell when they are done. Check out my recipe on baby back ribs, I talk about testing for doneness.
I love to slow cook pork tenderloins. Whether through sous vide or on the smoker, it makes for a great eating experience. The tenderloin does not have the connective tissue tougher cuts have so it does not need to be cooked for a long time to make it tender. A long smoke on this will result in tough and dry rather than juicy and tender. Smoke this until it hits an internal temperature of 140º and then give it a quick sear to develop a crust. Reverse sear but with so much more flavor. Use my red chile rub for an extra punch of flavor.
For pork belly cut it into 3” wide planks, season, and then smoke. You want an internal temperature of 165º for a more steak like texture. You can cook it as far as 205º if you want more of a shredded pork experience.
Make your own homemade bacon! It is not as hard as it sounds. Make a dry cure using salt, sugar, and spices, you do not need pink salt since you are not cold smoking. Cover the belly for about a week in the salt mixture and then remove it and give it a quick rinse. Let it rest overnight in the refrigerator, uncovered. This uncovered resting period helps it develop an almost sticky coating that the smoke will attach itself to. Smoke at 185º until you reach an internal temperature of 155º. Let it cool and then slice it up any way you like.
Smoked at 250 for a few hours and then finished at 375 for about 30 minutes will give you an amazing smoked chicken. This faux rotisserie-style bird can be smoked whole or butterflied. If you do cut it down make sure to save all the bones to use in making homemade bone broth.
When I say the whole turkey, what I mean is a whole spatchcock turkey. Butterflying the whole bird like this evens the playing field for the whole bird and gives you a more even smoke. When smoking whole birds I always fight moisture accumulation in the cavity. These pools of moisture are not your friend as they cause uneven cooking. Avoid this by spatchcocking your whole birds, it really is the best way to ensure an even cook.
A great way to do some meal prepping is to smoke a bunch of chicken breasts all at once. They only need a short smoke but the payoff is a much more flavorful piece of chicken that can stand alone on a plate of veggies and rice.
Not everyone is a fan of whole turkeys as most prefer just the white meat from the turkey breast. The slow smoking of a whole turkey breast results in a tender, juicy and flavorful piece of meat. Smoke a turkey breast for your next holiday gathering or to slice it into thin slices for sandwiches. This is better than any deli meat you can get at your local grocery store. Turkey breast is probably the easiest meat to smoke on your electric smoker. Give it a quick rub of lemon pepper and smoke until you get an internal temperature of 165º, no more. Pull it off the smoker, wrap it in butcher paper and let it rest.
Smoked chicken wings are one of my favorite things to cook for a group. Toss them with one of your favorite dry rubs and smoke them at 225º for about 3 hours. You can pull them off and let them cool until you are ready for them or finish them now. To finish the wings, get your smoker temperature up to 375º. The wings will take about 10-15 minutes at this temperature to crisp up. The reason for the double cook is that the fat in poultry does not render at lower temperatures. That’s why chicken needs to be finished at a higher temperature to get the flabby skin to go away. I use this same technique when roasting or smoking a whole chicken, just at slightly different times.
Boneless Leg of Lamb and Lamb Shoulder
Think of this as making pulled pork. I love to smoke a leg of lamb and then pull it apart to use for pasta dishes. Smoked lamb with fresh green peas in a light sauce made with chicken stock and whole butter then finished with fresh mint then tossed with egg noodles is a great spring dish.
I have also made a rich tomato based sauce with smoked lamb and some beef jus with some fat pappardelle noodles.
If you can find lamb necks then smoke these and then make a bone broth with them in a pressure cooker. Use the shredded meat with the pasta and the smokey bone broth for ravioli or a quick gravy.
You have two approaches here. The first option, you can do a short quick smoke on a fillet as if you were simply baking the salmon. For this give the salmon filet a quick wet marinade. At one restaurant we did this with a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and rice vinegar before giving it a quick smoke. We would then chill them down again and finish the short smoked salmon on the grill.
The second version is to smoke an entire side with the skin on until it is tender and flaky. Then put this out for your party with some crackers, shaved red onion, and caper mayonnaise.
Smoke for Flavor
Smoke these meats just long enough to take on the smoky flavor and then finish them by braising or in a pressure cooker for best results.
Beef oxtail needs more time to break down and also benefits from braising more than it does from dry heat cooking like smoking. You can also catch more of the incredibly rich collagen that comes from the bones and marrow of the oxtail. This broth will be sticky with all the collagen and makes for a great pho broth. If you are feeling extra motivated then chop down the meat from the oxtail and then reduce the broth until it becomes a super rich and smokey broth. Sear some scallops and serve them with a little bit of broth and top with the oxtail meat. Finish it with some shaved green onions and fresh basil.
One of my favorite fall and winter indulgences is Osso Bucco. This is an Italian dish traditionally made with cross cut veal shanks. I love it with lamb shanks that have been hit with a short smoke and then braised until tender. The smoke gives another layer of complexity to this dish. Served on a bed of super creamy polenta and finished with grated lemon zest this will hit the spot every time.
Play with different types of wood chips and combinations of flavors. The shorter the smoke the more intense wood you can use. For longer smokes, I will change it up. For beef, I stick with stronger woods like mesquite, hickory, and oak. I will blend them in a combination of each other or will add some pecan for a touch of sweetness. It is about finding your favorite combination and that requires changing it up every time you cook.
I save the fruit woods and other hardwoods like maple for pork and poultry. I have never been a fan of cherry though. So I skip this one every time.
The jack daniels barrel wood chips work fantastic on salmon. The sweet smoke compliments the short smoke well.
If you are using a charcoal smoker like the weber smokey joe the same rules apply. You just have a little more work watching the temperature and making sure the charcoal does not go out. All the ideas above will still relate to your smoker.
Pellet smokers have a wider range of wood pellets available to them. I have been using almond and plum wood from Knottywood as my utility pellet. It makes some fantastic teriyaki beef jerky.
Besides that though just make sure you are using wood that does not have filler or bark added to it.