Beginner Guide to Meat Smoking and BBQ

There is nothing better than enjoying a BBQ with close friends on a hot day. If you are just starting out, it can be a daunting task to smoke and BBQ your own meat. Reading about how to do it can make it all sound like a complex chemistry experiment. As a beginner, how can you start meat smoking?

In order to properly begin meat smoking and BBQ, there is a little bit of preparation you must take care of ahead of time. Once you have everything set up, there are a few steps that will get you from raw meat to smokey goodness.

Today we will go over the basic steps on how to prepare yourself and handle the smoking and BBq duties. Don’t worry! They aren’t as tricky as you might think. With this guide, you will have simple steps to carry through for a tasty meal!

Preparation for Your Meat Smoking and BBQ

A good cook is only as good as his or her preparation. Before you get to work on cooking, you must take the time to ensure you have everything you need to make the meal properly. The biggest portion of the equipment is, of course, the smoker or grill, which you should have selected prior to getting started.

Our next steps will not only help you to have the best turnout on your smoking experience but help you build confidence for the day of. If you have everything in order, you will rest easy knowing you are ready! 

Take a Whole Day

When you read recipes, you may see that they list certain hour amounts to accomplish the smoking. Before you limit yourself to only needing those hours, it’s recommended that you take the whole day. While it may only take a few hours to cook the meat, the actual start time may be way earlier.

You have to get your coals and wood ready in order to start the smoking process, which can be difficult for first-timers. Give yourself plenty of time to start the fire and stoke it so that you have a nice warm even heat. Taking the whole day will help you feel more relaxed and help you take the time you need.

Choose Your Meat

At the start of any meat smoking and BBQ, you must choose the meat you are going to work with. The good news is that you can smoke practically anything! From cheese to veg to any kind of meat, it is all fair game when it comes to throwing it on the grill. However, certain kinds of meat lend themselves better to smoking.

What is the Best Meat for Smoking?

While you can choose any sort of meat to smoke and BBQ, some tend to work better. Poultry, for example, is a great bbq choice, but under the prolonged exposure to the smoking process, it can dry out very quickly. Meats with higher fattier consistency, on the other hand, retain juice and tenderness by breaking down the fat within. 

The top meats used in the smoking process are:

  • Beef Brisket
  • Pork Shoulder
  • Ribs

Choosing Your Wood

A point of contention among many meat-smoking enthusiasts is the different types of wood used for smoking. Each has a particular set of wood chunks, chips, or pellets they prefer for a variety of reasons. When you are just starting out, there can be so many choices that it can be overwhelming to try and choose between them.

When just perusing the aisles, you may see a range of wood chips, including: 

  • Alder
  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Grape
  • Hickory
  • Maple
  • Mesquite
  • Mulberry
  • Oak
  • Peach
  • Pecan

How can you, as a beginner, limit the field to ones that you can easily work with the first time? The fact is there are several wood chips that provide quality smoke that you can work with. These old reliables are usually available in the store. Let’s go over each kind of wood, what meats they work with and what flavors they can impart.

Apple

Great for pork, poultry, and fish, applewood is a mild smoking wood. It can, in theory, be used on any meat. However, due to its mild nature, it’s better for lighter meat. This smoke imparts a fruity or sweet profile.

Hickory

Looking to smoke beef or pork? Consider hickory wood for your smoking. Hickory has a natural bacon flavor to the smoke, making it perfect for beef and pork. It is a very popular choice, but it’s recommended that one be cautious as it is more intense. 

Mesquite

Earthy, sweet, yet serious, mesquite is another popular choice after all; who hasn’t seen mesquite BBQ on labels of sauce in the store. Using the wood to smoke can work with beef or pork, providing a bold hit of flavor to your meat. 

Oak

If you are looking for something a little less intense than hickory, oak is a great choice. Earth with a mid-range intensity, oak suits basically anything, including poultry, pork, and beef. Its versatility makes it ideal for beginners. 

Pecan

A great choice for all-around use, pecan wood offers nutty, sweet smoke to poultry, pork, and beef. However, it is less versatile than if you are using oak. 

Pick and Start Your Coals

Pick and Start Your Coals

Of course, you want to choose good-quality coal to help keep your smoke going. Keeping your coals lit is important for keeping your smoker running. You will want a lot of coals and try a chimney starter technique. This way, you can add cold coals into the fire as it continuously burns during the lengthy meat smoking and BBQ process. 

Starting coals alight can be tricky, but one thing you do not want to do is to throw lighter fluid on it. While it might seem like a quick surefire way to start the first and coals, it will cause a flash, but it won’t start it long enough to get the coals hot. Tender love and care are what it will take to get your coals started.

Pick Your Rub & BBQ Sauce

Your rub and your BBQ sauce are a great way to increase the flavor of your meat. Prior to setting up your grill, usually the night before, you can start the rub or any marinade that you may want to add. The BBQ sauce will usually be added at the tail end of the cooking once the meat is ready to serve.

With other meat cooking processes, such as broiling, frying, and more, you may recall that brining is a critical part of the process. However, this is not the case when it comes to meat smoking and BBQ. In fact, brining can actually hinder your smoking results since smoking, in fact, helps the meat become more tender by breaking down fats.

Why Smoke Flow is Key

Smoke is a critical part of smoking, but there needs to be a flow to the smoke itself. When creating your coal fire and wood, you need to ensure that air circulation will travel through the coals to the smoke and carry it around the inside of the grill. It requires a bit of balance, so you do not create a draft where the smoke is not actually enhancing the meat.

What if you leave the dampers closed? Without a flow, the smoke has no way to travel around and cook the meat. This also leaves the heat trapped in the grill or smoker itself. With the heat and smoke building up, it will overcook your meat and leave an ashy or charred taste instead of a light smoky addition to your food.

How to Smoke on the Big Day

Now that you have all the preparation handled, it’s time to get smoking! Making sure all of your prep work is taken care of ahead of time ensures that you can take it easy as you get started with your smoking. As this is your first time, you will want all the time you can have to make sure you’re on the right track. Here is a basic guide for how to smoke meat for the first time. 

Get Your Gear Lined Up

Get Your Gear Lined Up

There are many different tools you will need in order to get through the smoking process. Having all of these in order and close to each other will make moving through the steps way easier on you. 

Gather the following items and have them close by so that you can get started on your meat smoking and BBQ asap:

  • Smoker
  • Apron
  • Tongs
  • Heat Proof Gloves
  • Instant read thermometer
  • Large Knife

Your smoker is going to be the central location for all of your BBQ, so making it your main hub and placing your tools nearby ensures you don’t have to run back and forth between the smoker and the kitchen when the time comes. Smoking is a lot of hurrying and waiting, but you don’t need the added stress of wondering where things are when it’s time to check your meat or pull it off the grill.

It’s also important to remember safety, which is why we added heat-proof gloves, tongs, and an apron to the list. The extreme heat caused by BBQing can be damaging, so protecting yourself from splashes and burns is critical. Remember: Meat smoking and BBQ safety are no joke. Keep yourself safe so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. 

Bring the Heat

Bring the Heat

Start your coals and build the heat. You want a base layer of unlit coals, followed by a basket or chimney full of coals with fire starters on top. Light the fire starters and wait about ten or fifteen minutes to allow heat to build within the smoker. Once the chimney full of coal is hot, you will then pour it on top of the base layer of coals.

Wait until the heat in your smoker is the right temperature before adding the wood chunks. Usually, this is about 225 to 250. Many professionals recommend going for the higher 250 when you open your grill to add chunks and then later to add the meat. You will lose some of that heat, making it the perfect temperature for low and slow, which is the key to smoking and BBQ.

Make sure that every thirty or so minutes, you check and replenish the coals. The briquettes are not an everlasting heat source and can burn down. Without careful observation, you can lose heat and even the entire fire during the process if you aren’t careful. That can be the downfall of a good BBQ experience!

The last trick you need to do is to check the smoking flow. As we stated earlier, it is critical that there is airflow to your smoke so that your meat isn’t overcooked or burned. Open your dampers in opposite directions from each other, allowing the air to travel through the coals and bring the heat to your meat. This creates a vacuum system for your smoking process.

Put the Meat On

About ten minutes after you add the wood chunks, it’s time for your main event. That’s right: We’re going to put the meat in the smoker! Any marinating should have taken place at minimum the night before, but if you have any final touches that must happen before it hits the grill, now is the time.

This can be a rub touchup or any final seasonings that you want to add. Remember, this is not the time for the sauce. Once you think your meat is perfectly seasoned and ready to get smoked, put on your heat-proof gloves and open the lid. Be careful on placement on the grill to make sure that your meat gets optimal smoke but isn’t dead on the heat.

Set Your Timer and Leave It Alone

Once you have set your meat on the grill, set the lid down and don’t touch it. This can be the hardest thing to do for beginners. During any other cooking process, there is a visible or tactile element to cooking. For meat smoking and BBQ, however, the less you touch it while it is smoking, the better. 

What can you do? We recommend setting two timers. One timer will be set for the overall cook time. Most recipes will have a recommended cook time. If you don’t have a recipe you are working from, the average recommended smoking time for most meats to ensure it’s cooked through is two to four hours. Check to see if your meat has a specific smoking time.

The second timer is for every thirty minutes. This will help you remember to check and replenish your coals, which you may have access to from another part of the smoker. Upkeep on coals is critical and will give you something to do while you wait on the meat itself to be ready for you to touch.

Time’s Up!

Has your meat timer gone off? Fantastic! It is time to pull off the lid and check your meat. Before you run to throw open the lid, make sure you put on your heat-proof gloves, grab your tongs, and have your apron on. You want to handle the meat safely and prevent any damage to yourself!

One suitably prepared, take a look to make sure your meat is done! You won’t need your knife quite yet. There are some visual queues that will let you know if your meat is done. If it’s a particularly bony piece of meat, you should see it pulling away from the bone just slightly. If it’s falling apart, you may have overcooked it.

Do not be discouraged if this is the case. Overcooking where it is falling off the bone is not a bad thing for the first time. Note the critical factors, such as temperature and cook time, so that you can adjust for the future. These can affect the breakdown of the collagen, leading to overcooking. 

Bring on the Sauce

Bring on the Sauce

After everything, it is now time to add the sauce. Take a brush, glaze your meat, and set it back on the grill for just a little bit longer. About fifteen to twenty minutes should allow the sauce to coat and bake into your meat, giving it just a little extra punch of flavor on top of the rub and smoke. 

Serve and Enjoy

After the sauce has joined with the meat, take your meat off the grill. There is no settling time like with some baked meats, where you have to wait for the juices to set into the meat. Smoked meat is already at its juiciest and ready to eat! Instead, put on a plate, slice, and tell everyone it’s time to eat! 

Top Beginner Mistakes

There are a few classic rookie moves that can really ruin your smoking and BBQ. Before you get started, keep these beginner mistakes in your back pocket, so you can avoid them at all cost. 

Smoking Cold Meat

You don’t throw frozen steaks into a pan to fry them. Why would you throw frozen meat on a grill to smoke it? Always make sure your meat is thawed enough to cook thoroughly while in the smoker. If you don’t, it can lead to partial cooking or ineffective smoking as the meat is unable to take in the smoke as it thaws in the heat. 

While some meat smoking and BBQ aficionados will argue that the meat should be 100% fresh as it hits the grill, we won’t debate which is better. The meat you have is the meat you have. However, the safety of those eating at your BBQ depends on you ensuring your meat is cooked thoroughly, which frozen meat will more than likely not be.

Checking on Meat While Smoking

For some of us, not being able to poke and prod our food as it’s cooking can be extremely frustrating. Cooking is a hands-on experience, very much like chemistry, that requires small adjustments here and there to get the food perfect. So why is it everyone says not to bother meat while it’s smoking?

The fact is that if you continuously open the lid to check the temperature, stare at your meat, and possibly even adjust the seasoning, you are losing the key elements to actually cooking it: smoke and heat. Every time you open the lid, these elements escape, and you will have to wait for it to build back up to continue the process.

Really, really want to check on your meat as it cooks? Consider a wireless thermometer. These thermometers allow you to leave the probe in the meat and read the temperature as it cooks. This way, you can let the meat smoke unmolested but keep an eye on it at the same time. 

Putting on the Sauce Before The Time is Right

It’s a BBQ. You have BBQ sauce. Why not put it on the meat first? Putting your sauce on your meat as a very last step is actually done for a very good reason. Dry spices are placed on the meat prior to going into the smoker. When activated by heat, spices release their flavor into the meat as they sit on top.

BBQ sauce, on the other hand, can start to do the same thing but is less accepting of heat than dry spices. As with any sauce, heat renders it down, allowing it to caramelize or thicken. For the last fifteen minutes of smoking, this is great! When you put it on at the very start of your smoking, however, it goes from an excellent addition to a meat-destroying travesty.

Because meat smoking can take anywhere from two to four hours, the sauce is continuously cooking with the meat. What starts as a nice caramelized glaze in fifteen minutes of cooking can then crack, char, and burn on top of the meat. No one wants burned meat. Keep your BBQ sauced for the last fifteen minutes. 

Bon Appetit!

Meat smoking and BBQ can be a rewarding and fun experience for beginners looking to add a new cooking technique to their repertoire. Following this beginner’s guide, you can create a delicious BBQ meal for friends and family to enjoy together. Remember, be safe and save your sauce till the end!

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