Which Cuts of Meat Are Best for Smoking?

Ribs on barbecue grill
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Smoking is a low and slow process of cooking that uses smoke to add flavor and tenderize meats. It's an art and a favorite technique for barbecue aficionados, but what are the best types of meat to smoke?

While you may be tempted to toss your best cuts of beef and pork on the smoker, you'll find that the better choices are also the cheapest and less desirable cuts. This is great news, because smoking is fun but also a bit of a challenge.

Since you'll be saving money on the meat, you can enjoy the freedom of experimentation. It's one of the reasons so many people get really excited about smoking and true barbecue.

What Happens During Smoking

Smoking usually lasts for more than 30 minutes a pound, but it can be much longer. There are times when meat can be on the smoker for up to 20 hours. Many good, lean cuts of meat would dry out and become inedible after cooking for this long.

On the flip side, many cuts of meat that we tend to think of as "bad" or low-quality can handle this prolonged heat. In fact, meat that is full of fat and connective tissues (collagen) is best in the smoker. The meat will actually improve and come out tender, flavorful, and downright delicious.

The Best Meats for the Smoker

In reality, true barbecue—not grilling a steak, but low, slow smoking—is based on cheap, bad cuts of meat. This cooking technique is all about low temperatures and super slow cooking times with the exact purpose of improving less than desirable cuts.

If you don't have patience, this is not for you.

We can look to traditional barbecue meals when determining the best cuts for the smoker. The meats of barbecue are generally beef brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs. These are tough, chewy meats and generally so poor in quality that they are not good when cooked using other methods.

Barbecue takes advantage of the high fat and connective tissues in these meats and transforms them into something that's great. During the long cooking times of smoking, the fat melts and the connective tissue breaks down. This sweetens the meat and keeps it moist during smoking.

Smoker Rookies, Start Here

If you are new to smoking it's best to begin with an easy cut of meat. You cannot go wrong with a small pork shoulder roast like a Boston Butt or a picnic. Ask your butcher for these; he'll know what you're talking about.

These cuts are generally forgiving and relatively inexpensive. This makes them perfect for learning your equipment and perfecting your smoking technique. They're also good for experiments in different types of wood, temperature and time, and other factors that you can play around with.

As you learn more and become comfortable with the smoking process, you can move on to larger and more difficult cuts like a brisket or ribs. Before you know it, you'll master the art of true barbecue.

Keep These Cuts Off the Smoker

In general, any cut of meat that we consider "good" should not be smoked. It's unnecessary to spend the time and waste the wood on a meat that is already delicious.

Plus, you won't taste the benefits of your efforts.

Good cuts of meat like pork tenderloin or a good lean roast should be reserved for other cooking methods. For outdoor cooking, grilling any of these meats is a much better option.