Spring and summer are the seasons that people love to cook outdoors on the grill. Grilling and chilling is more than just throwing burgers and hot dogs over an open flame.
There is a process that infuses your choice of meats and seafood with an entirely enhanced flavor. This process is called smoking.
Everything You Need to Know About Smoking Meat
Even if you are King of the Grill, you may not have tried the process of smoking foods. While grilling has few prerequisites – you need your grill and your food of choice – smoking foods does get a little bit more involved.
The main difference in the end is whether you are happy with the grilled taste of your ribs or you prefer a smoky flavor.
The Origins of Smoking Meat
Believe it or not, smoking meat dates back to prehistoric times. After hunting for their food, cavemen would hang the meat up to dry in their caves so they would not be disturbed by insects, pests, or animals.
These caves were dark and smoky, and the hunters quickly learned two things: meat that was subjected to the smoky area stayed fresh longer and it had a distinctly improved flavor.
As time went on, brining entered the picture and when it was added to the smoking process, an effective and tasty way of preserving foods was discovered. When faster forms of transportation evolved, smoking was no longer needed as a preservative.
It was not, however, the end of smoking food as the flavor and tenderness it brought out in cooking meat made it a popular process in food preparation.
What Are The Different Ways of Smoking Foods?
There are different ways to smoke foods but the most popular is hot smoking. Hot smoking is carried out on your grill or on an actual smoker.
If you do use your grill to smoke foods you need to put a pan of water under the food to catch any drippings. It will also keep the food moist by increasing the humidity level.
The other ways of smoking foods include wet smoking, smoke roasting, and cold smoking.
Hot smoking is a cooking process that is best done in an actual smoker, but it can be done on a grill as well. The meat is processed slowly and smoked with the addition of certain types of wood.
The air temperature must also be controlled and actually increased to make sure that the meat reaches the proper temperature to make sure it is completely cooked.
It is the different types of wood that give the food product of your choice a specific flavor. Each type of wood offers a different taste and specific kinds of wood work best with certain foods.
Low and slow make for the most moist foods so you have to make sure you maintain the correct temperature levels when smoking. Many times people will brine their foods in a salty mixture before smoking them to ensure that they will be as moist as possible while still being cooked all the way through.
When hot smoking foods the temperature needs to be between 200 to 220°F. The internal temperature should register from 145 to 165°F depending on if you are cooking meat, fish or poultry.
Wet smoking foods requires a water smoker made specifically for this process. The wet smoker has ventilation on the top and bottom of the grill. The vents on the bottom of the grate let you maintain a lower temperature for longer periods of time.
When the pan filled with water is almost full you will be able to keep the temperature between 225 and 250 °F for a time frame of 4 to 6 hours.
With so many ways of cooking on a grill, it may seem to be confusing as to which technique will work best for your cooking skills.
Smoke roasting is basically a method of cooking bigger and more solid pieces of meat or poultry on your grill or smoker. The food you choose will be prepared using temperatures that are in between low and high – between 200° to 400°F – for several hours.
Some of the foods that are perfect for smoke roasting are: roast beef, whole chickens, chuck roast, and brisket. Chips that are made of hardwood will help to smoke the meat and it is common to use a dry rub of your choice to further flavor the roast.
The components that make up hardwood chips are what give it the flavors and colors that make for a picture-perfect roast.
What is Cold Smoking?
Cold smoking is a process that does not cook food but merely infuses them with a smoky flavor. You can conduct the cold smoking process with or without a smoker.
If you do not have a smoker you just need a few items: a rack that is food safe and a container that is big enough to completely cover the food while it is being smoked.
Many people choose to salt or brine the food they are going to cold smoke so it does not develop bacteria. With cold smoking, you should always keep the foods you are going to smoke as cold as you can because they will be exposed to very low temperatures.
If you are planning on cold smoking foods that you will be moving directly to a grill there won’t be a problem keeping them safe from bacteria.
How Do You Cold Smoke Foods?
Place a clean grate on your grill or smoker. Put about three pieces of charcoal under the grate and about 2 cups of your preferred wood chips on the charcoal once they are lit. The best choices of wood for this process are cherry, apple, alder, and maple.
Make sure you keep the temperature at 110°F or lower. You are not cooking the foods on the grill just giving them that smoky flavor.
It is best to cold smoke foods when the weather is cool but if you chose warmer weather just keep a pan filled with ice under the grill as well to make controlling the temperature easier.
How Long Does it Take to Cold Smoke Foods?
It will take time and plenty of attention when cold smoking foods. The temperature should only be maintained at 68 to 86°F. At this low temperature, it will take around 4 hours to cold smoke bacon or cheese and 6 – 7 hours to cold smoke a medium-sized ham.
If you brine any of the foods ahead of time just make sure to brine them at least overnight in the refrigerator but rinse them thoroughly before putting them on the grill.
Once they are cold smoked you can cook them right on a regular grill and they will maintain their smoky flavor.
What Foods Can You Cold Smoke?
This is the fun part – just about anything! Cheese is one of the easiest foods to start with. The best types include Swiss, cheddar, pepper jack, Gouda, mozzarella, and fontina.
Other choices that make excellent candidates for cold smoking are country hams, sausage, bacon, fruits, vegetables, and salmon.
For more specific instructions on cold smoking each type of food, a simple search on the internet will provide you with all the information you need for each food group – temperature, time frame, and the best wood for each type of food.
What Are The Best Meats to Smoke?
Each cut of meat has a different makeup. Add to that the size of the meat and the way it is cut and you will have a different time for cooking to completion and a unique taste based on the type of wood you are using for each meat used in the smoking process.
Here are some of the best meats to cook and why.
If your mouth is watering just by reading this selection, you have probably already enjoyed smoked ribs. They have a nice amount of fat to make them which makes them juicy and succulent. They can be enjoyed by cooking them at 205°F for just 5 to 6 hours.
Ribs seem to be at their tastiest when they are smoked using pecan or cherry wood.
As one of the most popular cuts of beef prepared in a smoker, beef brisket is somewhat tough but there is enough fat and marbling to make it a great choice. Cook the brisket with oak wood at a temperature of 205°F for 10 to 14 hours.
A chuck roast is not as big as a brisket but it will take a temperature of 205°F about 10 to 12 hours to smoke. Hickory wood is a good choice for smoking a chuck roast.
Can You Smoke Foods Other Than Meat?
You are going to be surprised when you see the different kinds of food you can cook in your smoker. Here are some suggestions:
When chicken is cooked properly in a smoker it will be surprisingly juicy and tender. It only takes about an hour-and-a-half at 180°F with maple wood to enjoy this delicious option.
You don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to try a whole new way to enjoy turkey. With the right choice of wood (apple or maple are suggested), it will only take about 2 hours at 160°F to create a new holiday favorite.
Using the same types of wood as you would to smoke a turkey, duck has a higher fat content and is a good choice for smoking. Cook it at 175°F for just about 2 hours.
Salmon is an oily fish but it is rich in the healthy omega-2 fatty oils making it a good choice for the smoker. Try using cherry wood and it will only take around 2 hours at 160°F to properly smoke it.
The leg of lamb is a little tougher than the shoulder but it does have enough fat content to make it a juicy and tender treat from your smoker. This cut of lamb will take around 8 hours at a temperature of 190°F.
Oak wood is best for either cuts of lamb for the smoker.
This part of the lamb has been found to be much more tender than many cuts of beef. The fat content adds to its tenderness and it can be consumed after about 7 hours at a temperature of 190°F.
Tips for Making the Best Smoked Foods
Here are a few tips you should know about to make sure you achieve the very best results when smoking foods.
- Do not smoke foods that are frozen make sure they are properly thawed out in the refrigerator or even in a microwave.
- Only thaw foods you are going to smoke in the refrigerator. It is best to keep the foods at the highest temperature while thawing to prevent any potential bacteria from forming and growing while at lower temperatures.
- Make sure you set aside a good amount of time when you use your smoker. Most of this type of cooking is done low and slow.
- More is not always better when adding wood to your smoker. Too much will not give you the juicy and tasty results you are looking for. It has been suggested that using half the amount of wood will give you the best results if you only use that amount for the first half of your cooking time. The heat will finish the cooking process so it doesn’t become over-smoked.
- Only open your grill or smoker if you have to. Opening up the smoker brings the temperature down and cuts down on the smoke.
- Keep the vents open and clear at the base of your grill. You want to make sure you keep the air circulating. Aim for white smoke rather than back. If the black smoke persists you need to create more ventilation to balance it out.
- If you are going to marinate your food choice do it in the refrigerator. Take out a small amount if you plan on basting your food in the smoker or after it has been smoked.
Should You Invest in a Smoker?
Using a smoker is not mandatory for smoking foods. You can make delicious smoked foods using a regular gas grill or even an electric grill.
But if you enjoy smoking foods on a regular basis you may find that having a smoker makes the process a little easier and a lot more enjoyable.
When you are using a grill that is specifically for smoking meats and poultry you will have access to options that will free you up from the extra efforts you have to put in using a regular grill.
You won’t have to keep watching to make sure the correct temperature is being maintained. With a smoker, you can look forward to food that is properly cooked, not overdone or underdone.
What Should You Look for When Buying a Smoker?
If you are going to take the time and invest the money in a smoker, there are a few things you should keep in mind when you go shopping.
- Decide which type of smoker you would like to use: charcoal, electric, or gas. Each one has its pros and cons and if you already have a regular grill you will probably want to get the same type of smoker.
- Look for one that has a thermostat that you can set and forget when smoking your foods.
- If the smoker does not have a thermostat that is included, you can easily add on a reliable one. There are features that allow you to actually engage your thermostat from your smartphone.
- Make sure that the smoker you choose is large enough to accommodate the types of meat or poultry you enjoy smoking. It should be wide enough to comfortably fit a slab of ribs and tall enough to fit a turkey.
- Go through the smoker to make sure you will be able to reach the food you are smoking easily. Also, see how easy it will be to add more wood or charcoal as well as if you will be able to reach and refill the water pan.
- It’s better to check to see if the smoker has a warranty and what it covers before you make your purchase. If you can, check the reviews online to see what the people who already bought the smoker you are interested in said about it.
- You don’t have to reinvent the wheel but you may want to choose a smoker that has enough of them on it that it can be moved around with ease and is able to smoothly adjust to other areas.
- If you have kids and pets you should make sure that the smoker you choose will not create any dangerous situations for either of them. A handle that is hot or unlocked wheels that could move even with a child’s touch are a few things to look out for.
- Most companies that truly care about their customers offer a support team that can make their buying experience a positive one. Check out what type of support will be available for any questions or situations may face while using your new smoker.
- Finally, as in most cases, it’s not always the most expensive product that you should buy. Find a company that has a solid reputation for quality and the highest reviews by those who already own the smoker you really want to take home.
What are the Different Types of Smokers?
Upright Drum – These smokers are actually called Ugly Drum Smokers and are made from steel drums. Their capacity is large and can work well with a water pan.
Offset – Most serious outdoor cooks go for this type of smoker. It has a firebox and a chamber for cooking. With this smoker, you can easily maintain the temperature while cooking and adjust the vents.
Propane – On the less expensive side, propane gas cabinets come with a water pan and are good at holding the temperature steady. Even though they don’t cost as much as the more fancy smokers they produce great tasting food.
Kamado – Also known as a ceramic grill/smoker, they are egg-shaped and are better at smoking than grilling. They can work well with high temperatures and because they are insulated they can maintain the temperature level.
Vertical Water – This type of smoker is easy to use and takes up less room. Consists of three compartments – the firebox, water pan, and smoking chamber.
Box Smokers – A box smoker, also referred to as a cabinet smoker, is a large box where the food is cooked directly in the box with the wood. If you are interested in this type of smoker you should look for one that lets you add more wood without having to open the door.
Electric – Electric smokers are easy to use but many grillers don’t feel that the taste stands up to smokers that use charcoal or pellets. If you like your foods truly smoked this wouldn’t be the grill for you.
Pellet – These are some of the newest entries into the field of smokers and they come with a digital thermometer. They work best with pellets that are made from sawdust that has been compressed.
Stovetop – You can actually use this simple device on your stove if you have enough batteries to replace your smoke alarm. You can also use it outdoors on your grill.
Commercial – If you are a serious grilling fanatic and avid smoker, you should consider investing in a commercial smoker. This has all the bells and whistles that professional restaurants use and would be perfect for anyone who enters smoking competitions.
What Do You Need to Know When Smoking Meats?
There are many different kinds of meat and many different types of wood. I’ve matched up some of the best types of wood to go with each type of meat.
You will also find the temperature you should smoke the meat for, how long you will need to cook it, and what the internal temperature should be when it is ready to come off the grill.
The Best Types of Wood for Smoking Meat
|Beef||Type of Wood||Temperature||Time (Hours)||Internal Temp|
|Chuck Roast (3-4 lb)||pecan or hickory||225 -240°F||8-10||145°F|
|Brisket||oak, mesquite, alder||225 -240°F||12-20||145°F|
|Short Ribs||oak, cherry, hickory||225 -240°F||6-8||145°F|
|Back Ribs||hickory, red oak, mequite||225 -240°F||4-5||145°F|
|Country Ribs||hickory, red oak, mesquite||225 -240°F||3-4||145°F|
|Steak||oak, hickory, mequite||225 -240°F||0.75-1||135°F med rare|
|Tri-Tip||oak, cherry, hickory||210 -220°F||2||135°F med rare|
|Prime Rib||oak, hickory, cherry||225 -240°F||4-5||135°F med rare|
|Pork||Type of Wood||Temperature||Time (Hours)||Internal Temp|
|Baby Back Ribs||hickory, oak, mequite||225 -240°F||5||145°F|
|Spare Ribs||hickory, red oak, mesquite||225 -240°F||6||145°F|
|Pork Butt||cherry, pecan, hickory||225 -240°F||12-14||145°F|
|Pork Loin||apple, pecan, sugar maple||225 -240°F||3-5||145°F|
|Tenderloin||apple, pecan, sugar maple||225 -240°F||2||145°F|
|Poultry||Type of Wood||Temperature||Time (Hours)||Internal Temp|
|Chicken (Whole)||pecan, mesquite, cherry||250 -275°F||3-4||165°F|
|Chicken (Thighs/Legs)||apple, pecan, maple||250 -275°F||2||165°F|
|Chicken Quarters||maple, pecan, chery||250 -275°F||2||165°F|
|Chicken Wings||apple, maple, pecan||250 -275°F||1.5-2||165°F|
|Turkey (Whole)||hickory, oak, maple||240°F||5-7||165°F|
|Turkey (Legs)||apple, cherry, maple||240°F||3-4||165°F|
|Turkey (Breast)||mequite, hickory, oak||240°F||4||165°F|
|Cornish Hens||cherry, orange, pecan||240°F||2||165°F|
|Lamb||Type of Wood||Temperature||Time (Hours)||Internal Temp|
|Leg||hickory, apple, oak||250°F||2-3||195°F|
|Shank||hickory, apple, oak||250°F||2-3||195°F|
|Shoulder||hickory, apple, oak||250°F||2-3||195°F|
|Seafood||Type of Wood||Temperature||Time (Hours)||Internal Temp|
|Salmon||cherry, maple, alder||220°F||1||145°F|
|Trout||alder, mequite, hickory||225°F||1||145°F|
|Lobster Tails||hardwood oak, apple||225°F||0.75||145°F|
|Shrimp||alder, hickory, pecan||225°F||0.75-1||145°F|
Where are the Best Places to Buy Wood for Smoking Foods?
When you are shopping for wood for your smoker you can pick up a good supply at any of the major home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowes.
Garden and patio sections of stores like Walmart also sell smoking supplies and you can always order online at Amazon and specialty businesses such as cuttingedgefirewood.com, and fruitawoodchunks.com.
Are There Any Drawbacks to Smoking Foods?
The drawbacks of smoking food are very few. It can cost more to cook your food if you invest in expensive equipment – smokers, wood, pellets, extra add-ons – just to properly smoke meat, poultry, and seafood.
It takes time and attention when cooking and can easily become an all-day process. Most avid grilling and smoking enthusiasts don’t really look at it that way and treat it more of a hobby that they enjoy.
The only serious drawback is there has to be an attention to maintaining the safety of the foods that you are preparing. When cold smoking, for example, because you are not really cooking the food it remains in its original raw state which could make it susceptible to bacteria.
When you are grilling the foods are being cooked at temperatures that ensure they will not become exposed to bacterial conditions. As long as you cook your foods properly and keep them cold until you prepare them you won’t have to worry about food poisoning.
Whether you are grilling or smoking on the grill, there are many things you can do to enhance the flavor of your food selections.
Brining helps to preserve food and gives it a moistness that is only enhanced through cooking rather than letting it dry out.
Dry rubs are another flavor enhancer that you can easily create at home and easily apply to your choice of meat, poultry or seafood.
Barbecue sauce is the major food enhancement used to give foods cooked outdoors their unique flavor. You can buy pre-made sauce or take a little extra time to make your own.
Here are a few recipes for your next outdoor cookout.
Basic Brine for Smoking Foods
Add 4 tablespoons of salt to 4 cups of water. If the food you are preparing is large you can make enough brine to cover the food (double or triple the basic brine recipe of salt and water).
Put the food you are going to smoke in the brine, cover it, and refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours.
Brine for Meat
To 4 cups of water add 1/4 cup of kosher salt and 1/4 cup of brown sugar (packed). Stir or whisk until completely blended then pour over meat. If the meat is not submerged make up additional batches of the brine until it is covered.
Refrigerate for a couple of hours but preferably overnight.
Brine for Chicken
In a large container pour 1 gallon of warm water, add 3/4 cup of kosher salt, 2/3 cup of sugar, 3/4 cup of soy sauce, and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Stir until thoroughly combined; add chicken, cover and put in the refrigerator.
Let skinless chicken stay in the brine for 4 hours, other bone-in pieces of chicken should brine for 4 hours, and a whole chicken should stay in the brine for 4 to 24 hours.
Make sure to remove the chicken from the brine and dry it with a paper towel before cooking in the smoker or on the grill. This mixture is enough for a 6-pound whole chicken or 10 pounds of chicken breasts (boneless, skinless).
Brine for Seafood
Pour 1/2 gallon of water into a large pan. Add 1/4 cup of kosher salt, 1/4 cup of brown sugar, 2 bay leaves, 2 teaspoons of dill (fresh or dried), and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar. Combine all of the above and let simmer for 5 minutes on medium heat.
Let the mixture cool and then add to a zippered plastic bag that contains the seafood. Let the seafood steep for an hour. When you remove it from the brine make sure to rinse the seafood with cold water and dry it with a paper towel before cooking it on the grill.
Basic Dry Rub for Meat, Chicken,and Seafood
- 4 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons of smoked paprika
- 2 tablespoons of coarse salt
- 1 tablespoon of black pepper
- 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons of onion powder
- 1 teaspoon of oregano
Mix together and rub onto the food you are going to grill or smoke. You can store this mixture in a glass jar and it will keep for up to 6 months
Simple Barbecue Sauce
- 2/3 cup of ketchup
- 1/3 cup of apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup of packed brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons of smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon of ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
Combine ingredients in a medium-size saucepan. Let simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Let cool and store in the refrigerator until ready to brush on meats, chicken or pork you are going to smoke or grill.
Ben has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, you can find him at home with wife and two daughters. Outside of family, He loves grilling and barbequing on his Big Green Egg and Blackstone Griddle, as well as working on projects around the house.
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