Cooking meat right will always be worth it. Meat that’s cooked to the pinnacle of its powers will be juicy, tender, succulent and will have a flavor that makes the care you take worthwhile.
Smoking’s a whole other box of tricks. Whether you hot smoke or cold smoke, what you do when you add smoke to meat changes not only the flavour and texture of the meat, but the whole profile of the meat.
If cooking the meat right changes its tone and the notes it brings to your palate, smoking it changes the key entirely, so you’re dealing with a whole other tune on your taste buds.
The Power Of Smoke
The best meat to smoke is ultimately the meat you have. Honestly, the right smoke can enhance the flavor of any meat you have to hand, but often the ‘best’ meat to smoke will depend more on geography than cookery.
In America, the most readily smokable meats include pork, beef and chicken – and so various cuts of those three meats are the most familiar items on any barbecue or cook-out.
But around the world, other people have been smoking other meats for centuries – smoked lamb has been a tradition in countries with a large sheep population like Australia and some Middle Eastern areas, but is becoming more popular in the States.
Smoked duck is a staple in any Chinatown you care to visit around the world. Smoked salmon of course is the choice of the upper crust in society around the world, including the States.
You can even, if you’re just a little wild and crazy and have the skills of a smoking sorcerer, effectively add smoky notes to delicate flavors, like scallops.
Bringing An Elephant To A Dog Fight
If your meat has a delicate or particularly finely balanced flavor profile, it doesn’t mean it can’t be smoked. But it does make it enormously more difficult to do, for arguably fewer rewards in terms of additional flavor.
That stands to reason, really – the bigger and bolder the flavor, the more it can stand up to the potent power of smoke. If the meat has a delicate flavor to start with, and you add smoke, you’re bringing an elephant to a dog fight.
It can work, but only if you do a little magic so that the odds are evened up.
That’s why, for instance, the likes of beef and more especially pork have taken the majority of the smoking glory in the US. They’re robust flavors that do interesting things when various smokes are applied to them.
Let’s get good and greasy, and explore which cuts of which meats have given smokers the best results.
More or less the king of smoked meats, brisket is a Cinderella story. Left on its own or cooked any other way, it tends to be tough and chewy.
It’s cut from the breast of the cow, and as such, it’s not the most attractive of cuts. To make brisket into anything to look forward to, it’s usually given a special spice rub (and there are barbecuers who will tell you that their secret special spice rub is more than your life’s worth), and smoked before being cooked long, low and slow.
Do that, and what you get is little short of a ‘You shall go to the ball’ moment.
The smoke will penetrate the flesh and start to get in among the fibers. When you cook it, the sinew and fat will begin to melt and gelatinize, carrying the smoky flavor throughout the meat as it basically turns from tough, chewy, impenetrable waste-flesh into the kind of succulent, smoky meat feast the cleverer kings would kill for.
It’s the combination of the robustness of the meat that lets it take the smoke in without damaging the meat’s flavor, and the long, slow cooking process that turns that smoke into a wisp of wonder that changes every fiber that makes brisket such a barbecue must-have, and one of the best meats to smoke.
It’s also worth remembering that with a brisket usually comes smoked burnt ends – those pieces of the brisket which get more or less deliberately charred during the cooking process.
The smoke gets into those ends just as it does to the main body of the meat, and gives you a second smoky treat from the single cut.
Let’s talk pig-flesh for a second. Heck, we could talk pig-flesh for days on end when it comes to smoking cuts.
While beef brisket may take the technical crown as the best meat to smoke, the pig has a much wider range of smoking weapons in its arsenal.
Smoky bacon? Yes please – adding a little savory kick to the flesh’s natural sweetness for more balance in your BLT.
Try an SBLT and tell us you want to go back, go ahead.
Smoked ham – all day, any day, again adding that savory note to the sweetness of the meat and bringing a serious, delicious quality to what can otherwise be a slightly indigestible meat.
And then there’s pork butt.
Pork butt of course isn’t pork butt, because that would be too simple. It’s actually pork shoulder that you want here, and of course, pork shoulder is one of the toughest, most hardworking muscles in the beast.
As with beef brisket, the discovery of what happens when you smoke pork butt seems to have sprung from the otherwise-toughness of the meat, and also probably from a preserving process (smoke is a good deterrent for flying critters).
What happens when you rub pork butt, and then smoke it reasonably hard with an aromatic woodsmoke, and then cook it long and slow just like a brisket, is that the pig opens up its ultimate flavor secrets to you.
You get more of an essence of pork once you’ve smoked a pork butt than you do from straightforward cuts of pork.
The smoke enhances that flavor, while the cooking method turns the hard-working shoulder muscle into succulent, juicy, almost cut-with-a-spoon meat.
Ribs – whether pork or beef – are another great favorite for smoking, and the same pattern emerges. In themselves, they’re not that appealing.
They’re tough meat, attached to bones. Smoking them, then cooking them long and slow, turns them from throwaway cuts into the best things you could ever wish to taste. The smoke penetrates the meat, becoming a fundamental element of its flavor profile.
Then the cooking process loosens the fibres, melts the connective tissue into gelatine, which makes for a softer mouthfeel, renders any pockets or ribbons of fat in the flesh, and uses that liquified fat to spread the smoky flavor throughout the meat.
Perfectly cooked ribs should be good eats for Grandpa, even on days when he’s forgotten to bring his teeth to the table.
All The Rest Of The Meats
There are of course hundreds of other smoking options – we touched on some of them at the start. Smoked chicken and turkey are popular all year round in the US, but particularly in winter, when the smoked flavour keys in to festive memories of fires and warmth in a cold world.
Smoked salmon graces every boardroom in the land when big deals are struck. You can smoke venison too, for storage through a lean season as much as to improve the flavor. Venison, like many gamey meats, has the strength of flavor to stand up to and embrace the smoking process.
Overall though, the two kings of meat for smoking are pork and beef. Pork offers a whole myriad of ways to take on new flavors and textures with smoke.
Beef leads with its tougher cuts, the more tender meat being usually better when exposed to simpler cooking and preparation methods.
Best Meats to Smoke Takeaways
So what have we learned about the best meats for smoking?
- You can smoke any meat you have to hand, but the more delicate its native flavor, the cleverer you have to be in the smoking process to enhance, rather than to overpower, that flavor.
- The best meat for smoking is frequently meat that otherwise would be more difficult or less palatable to eat. Smoking – and then the slower cooking process – turns these harder cuts into tender flavor bombs
- Stronger flavored meats withstand the rigors of the smoking process better than delicate ones.
Ultimately, as the saying is, smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em – with a little skill and the right wood chips, there’s not a meat that can’t be enhanced with a smoky flavor.
But if you’re looking for the kings of the smoked meat world, then brisket, pork butt, and ribs have got you covered with lip-smacking, nose-twitching pleasure.