How to Smoke Meat in a Smoker (7 Easy Steps)
If you’ve never smoked meat in a smoker before, I envy you:
My first time was a taste explosion that had me hooked ever since.
And when I was starting out, I had to piece together recipes from friends and family to help me figure out what I was doing: But nothing complete. So in this post, I wanted to share with you a complete step-by-step guide for ‘How to Smoke Meat in a Smoker’.
I’ll explain the main reasons that you might want to smoke your meat rather than gas grill it, as well as offering some actionable tips for getting started. I suggest starting with this video before diving into the details.
Then it’ll be straight into the guide, where we’ll go through the full process--from the shelf of your fridge to a smoking hot dinner plate.
Smoking follows a few simple steps, with minor variations depending on the dish:
- Light the smoker, flame, firebox;
- Load your wood chips (soaked in water for charcoal);
- Load up your meat or cooking goodies;
- Regulate airflow until you have a steady, constant temperature;
- Cook at a constant temp for roughly 1-1.5 hours per pound of meat;
- Serve your smokey dish (and leave clean up till tomorrow!).
- Clean up! (important to do this soon after smoking, otherwise it will be difficult to clean)
That’s the basic run-down, but there are a few tips you’ll want to know about along the way. For those, head straight to the step-by-step guide.
Otherwise, let’s find out a little more about smoking and how to do it well.
What is smoking?
Smoking is a type of cooking that lives by the motto of ‘low and slow’. It was originally developed to perfection in the Southern States of America, in BBQ specialist lands like Louisiana.
The process is simple enough. Instead of cooking your meat (or fish or vegetable or anything!) over the direct heat from a flame, or on a hot grill--you’ll be cooking it with the emanating heat of smoke.
For this reason, most smokers separate the flame (or firebox) from the actually cooking. Most typically, you’ll see smokers with a firebox for generating the flame, heat and smoke, with a separate section for loading your food and goodies.
This way, you can also manage the flame without letting out all that good smoke. Any good smoker will tell you that the key to a good smoke is controlling the flame. When you can do that well, you’ll be able to manage temperature, the quality of smoke and ultimately the richness of your final product’s taste.
How long does it take to smoke meat in a smoker?
A great rule for this that I follow is:
1-1.5 hours per pound of meat being cooked.
Of course, this will vary with the temperature and the meat that you’re cooking, but it’s a good rough guide.
Say you were cooking 4 pounds of turkey, the 4-6 hour guide is a pretty good estimate.
Then again, for some cuts of meat and dishes you’ll want a lower temperature that cooks for many hours. Briskets can take 12+ hours to produce that soft, sweet result, and chicken tends to cook a little quicker and at a higher temperature.
Here are a few recipes for different types of meats:
What are the best types of wood to smoke with?
There is serious variety once you start getting into smoking.
Pecan. Hickory. Peachwood.
In fact, as one veteran smoker from HomeTechLAB put it, “Any good hardwood that bears a fruit, you can smoke on.”
You’ll also want to focus on using cuts of wood that are roughly 6 months old. This will mean that they’re not so fresh and will burn with more consistency, while also giving off a better smoke.
And some woods will go better with different meats. A couple of examples...
Hickory is great for beef. Fish will do better with a milder flavor, like an apple of pecan wood.
Milder woods also let you cook for a longer period of time, which is the best way to cook when you’re relying on just wood. So keep that in mind:
If you want to do a real low and slow cook, then milder woods will serve you well.
How is smoking different from grilling or oven-cooking?
Smoking is all about cooking it low and slow. It’s about imparting that smokey taste on the meat, and this takes time, practice and a little bit of experimenting.
The main thing you’ll want to become comfortable with is regulating the temperature. You do this most easily by managing the air flow of your smoker. If you want more heat, you’ll need to open things up and let more air in.
If you want to cool down a little, open up the exhaust and release some of the built up heat.
You can seriously smoke any kind of meat, too: from salmon to beef shoulder--even a hamburger patty if you felt like it.
What temperature should you smoke at?
Typical smoking BBQs rely on that slow and low motto, remember.
But how low?
Generally speaking, you should be smoking in the 200-275 degree range.
Pulled pork at 195 goes from stiff to immediately falling apart.
If you want to cook a brisket for 12 hours, then you’ll need to stay at the lower end of this.
Chicken, on the other hand, will do better up at 275 because the skin gets nice and crunchy under higher temperatures.
Ribs and brisket are great for a low and slow temperature, but remember that there’s no real single rule for this.
Try it out for yourself as you get familiar with regulating airflow. The key is to keep a consistent temperature throughout the cook.
What are the best BBQ Rubs for smoking?
When it comes to seasoning your meats, you can typically choose between a wet marinade or a dry rub.
Most BBQ restaurants will use a dry rub. And nowadays there are some seriously great dry rubs on the market.
If you’re into the spicy stuff, experiment with peppers: cayan, red pepper.
If you want to add some color, you can add interest with a bright spice like paprika.
And if you like it salty, don’t be afraid to go all out. Your basic BBQ rub will include a good balance of sugar, salt and maybe a dash of color. But the basics are just sugar and salt, so don’t hold back on the salting.
Yes, sugar. For meats like pork, you’ll want to make sure you add a good amount of sugar to your seasoning. That will bring out a wonderful sweetness in the meat as you smoke it.
Again though, the best way to get the results you like personally is to experiment with different combinations.
How to Smoke Meat in a Smoker: Step by Step Guide
Before getting into the details of using your smoker, take a few minutes to learn about the different parts of your smoker, here.
- Light the smoker.
Just as you would any normal grill, light with either the ignition flame or manually in the firebox.
- Add your wood chips:
Add your choice of wood chips to the cooking surface in a pan of water. You’ll want them soaked in water so that they produce a better, clean smoke that will last longer through the cooking process.
For charcoal smokers, you can even add the wood chips directly to the charcoal. Be sure to keep a pan of water separate, though. A good place for this will be directly beneath the meat you are smoking to catch run-offs and save on clean-up time later.
3. Add your meat to the smoker.
Open up the cooking space and load up your meats. If you have a water pan beneath, line up the meat so that the pan can catch any run-offs or drippings.
4. Set your temperature.
Remember, 200-275 degrees works best for most large cuts of meat. To get the desired temperature with your firebox, regulate airflow and temperature with the dampers.
Lower dampers will allow more air to enter (producing more heat). While the top exhaust will let air escape (cooling things down).
For electric smokers, this process is as simple as setting the temperature on an electric display.
And for propane-fueled smokers, you should get a pretty consistent temperature once things are set up.
5. Let it sit
Typically speaking, you’ll want to shoot for about 1-1.5 hours per pound of meat.
So, if you’re cooking 5 pounds of beef, anywhere between 5-7.5 hours will be about right.
While the meat is cooking, try to refrain from checking on it too often. For charcoal smokers, you’ll need to replace the coals every 4-5 hours.
And when it comes to wood chips, you may need to get in and change them every hour or so.
You’ll also want to keep an eye on the temperature--even with an electric or propane smoker, you should be checking the internal temperature every hour.
6. Serve it up
If you’ve followed all of the steps up to this point, you should be producing one fine smokey dish.
Now, all that’s left to do is serve it up.
We really recommend taking some extra caution with this step. While smoking is a ‘low and slow’ process, the meat and grill can still get mighty hot.
I personally prefer wearing a pair of thermal-protective gloves, but this isn’t necessary. You just need to be careful.
7. Cleaning up
Whether you do this before or after eating the fruits of your labor, you’ll need to clean the grate before next use.
Some simple cleaning products and a scrubber will be enough to get the job done, and if you’ve placed the water pan beneath your meat you won’t have to scrub off any solidified drippings. Here is a detail post on cleaning your smoker.
Can you have too much smoke in a smoker?
Generally speaking, it will be hard to get too much of the good smoke in a smoker. So, if you think that you are seeing too much smoke, you need to ask: what kind of smoke is it? Is it a thick white, cloudy smoke? If so, you can definitely have too much of this and it means that the wood isn’t combusting well.
When you start to see that thin blue smoke (TBS), then you’ll be in good shape and there’s really no such thing as too much TBS.
Do you flip meat when smoking?
As good practice, it won’t hurt to flip or rotate your meat. Some smokers with a side firebox will produce much more heat on one side--when you flip or rotate your meat, you’ll make sure that you are getting an even balanced cook. So yes, it’s a good idea.
What’s the best meat to smoke in a smoker?
This depends on personal preference! I will say that you can smoke just about any kind of meat, from pork to turkey, from salmon to a hamburger patty.
How to smoke in an electric smoker
Smoking in an electric smoker will follow all the steps above, except you should be able to keep a much more regulated temperature throughout the smoke.
Smoking is an incredibly simple and rewarding process. If you’re still new to it, don’t be intimidated:
Experiment, try out new meats and rubs, test out different temperatures and find what works best for you.
If you want to know more about which smokers are best for beginners, you’ll really benefit from reading our 5 best smokers for beginner’s reviews and Buyer’s Guide. You can find that here.