You want great tasting meat. And there are quite a few factors that come into play when cooking “low and slow” to ensure that happens. Several of these factors should be taken into consideration before the meat even hits the smoker.
One of the most important things to do first is to make sure you have one of the best cuts of meat to smoke. There are dozens of different cuts of meat, but there are some that just take to smoke and outdoor cooking better.
When you are smoking, you don’t want to end up with a tough, dried out piece of meat. So, overall, you want to focus on cuts that have a higher fat content (marbling throughout the meat) and collagen (connective tissues). Both of these things help tenderize and flavor the meat. Keeping that in mind, generally, for smoking, you want to stay away from thinner, lean cuts of meat.
In this article, we’ll break down some of the best cuts of meat for smoking and help you kick your outdoor cooking game up a notch. Let’s take a look: (In no particular order)
Beef brisket is what many would refer to as the top choice and premier cut of meat for smoking. It is a large cut of meat from the breast or lower chest and has plenty of tough connective fibers, is tender from the top fat layer, and packed with great flavor.
The key to a great smoked brisket is choosing a good quality piece of beef. Look for the most tender piece you can find with a healthy fat layer and good marbling throughout. A way to test the tenderness is to have your butcher lift part of the brisket. The more it bends, the more tender it will be after cooking.
Brisket doesn’t require brining, like some other meats do, and has a great flavor that speaks for itself. Usually, just a little extra rub does the trick. A great option is the “What’s Your Beef?" Rub from Sterling Smith’s Loot & Booty BBQ.
The thing to keep in mind with brisket is patience. A full-sized packer brisket will take up about 10-14 hours to cook.
Chances are when you think of barbecue ribs are usually associated. Both pork and beef ribs are classic favorites for smoking meat. After removing the membrane and seasoning (try rib candies and pepper jellies), ribs are fairly easy to smoke and taste delicious.
When it comes to pork ribs there are two types: baby backs and spares. The difference between the two is their size and where on the hog they are cut from. Baby back ribs come from the loin section and are smaller and usually a little meatier across the top. While spareribs come from the belly of the hog and are larger and arguably more flavorful.
Untrimmed pork spareribs come with a lot of cartilage across the top so they do take longer to cook. By trimming off the top cartilage area and turning the rack into a clean even cut is what turns them into St. Louis style ribs.
Even though when a lot of people think of smoked ribs they think pork, beef ribs can be just as tasty. It may be harder to find beef ribs but it is well worth the effort.
Don’t be confused by the fact that several different cuts are sometimes sold as “beef ribs”. They may be a little harder to find, but what you want to look for are ribs that come from the chuck plate.
Pork butt is another great meat to smoke because it has a great ratio of fat to lean meat. This cut some from the upper portion of the hog, above the shoulder blade and usually weighs between 5 and 10 pounds. Without the need for sauces or rubs, you’ll end up with moist and delicious pulled pork.
Ideally, you want to get a pork butt that is “bone-in” and still has the shoulder bone that runs through it. This bone is a built-in thermometer. When the butt is ready the bone will slide out with a gentle twist. You can, of course, still cook a good butt if the bone has been removed.
Source: Cheshire Pork
Chuck roast is the smaller, favorite cousin to the brisket. This beef cut’s abundance of connective tissue and tough meaty fibers are very similar to that of the brisket. With its great marbling, this is another top choice for slow smoking.
Because it is smaller, it does have the advantage of smoking in far less time compared to a larger brisket. Instead of over 10 hours of cooking time, a good chuck roast can be smoked in just 5 - 6 hours.
This is another cut where you want to make sure you get a good quality beef grade and look for marbling throughout.
A lot of times, when people think of cooking steak their first thought is cooking it on the grill over direct heat. But, certain steak cuts are also great smoked. One of those is tri-tip.
Sometimes confused with sirloin, tri-tip is actually cut from a tri-tip roast which is a small portion of the larger sirloin. Unlike the cuts in the article so far, this is a leaner piece of meat. But just as tender, flavorful and smokes great.
Because it is a leaner cut of meat, you are only going to smoke tri-tip for roughly an hour to flavor it and then finish it by searing it over direct heat. Like beef ribs, tri-tip might be a little harder to find but it is worth the search.
When smoking steaks, you can smoke any steak cut that is at an inch thick or more. Aside from that great smoky flavor, an added benefit of smoking tri-tip and other thick-cut steaks is that you can bring them to the exact internal temperature that you like.
Source: Applestone Meat Company
This is just a sample of some of the best cuts of meat to smoke. There are quite a few other options that provide even more opportunity to have fun learning smoking techniques for different types of meat. Lamb, whole turkey, seafood, and venison are also great options.
To be a great BBQ pitmaster, you can’t just grab any cut of meat, throw it on the smoker, and expect to end up with competition-worthy barbecue every time. Taking the time to learn what type of meat to look for, what cuts to get, the science behind outdoor cooking, and winning techniques will help you take your smoking game to new levels consistently.
Do you have a favorite cut of meat to smoke? Have some stories of epic fails for certain types of meat that you can laugh at now? Leave a comment below and tell us about it. We want to hear from you!
Here at BBQ Champs Academy, we can help you elevate your outdoor cooking game like never before. Join award-winning Pitmasters and Grillmasters in our tell-all online cooking school and learn the best techniques and secrets to competition barbecue. Check out the all-access pass today!