Getting ready to go down the road of making your own authentic barbecue can be an overwhelming experience for beginners. Which smoker or barbecue to buy. Which wood to use. Learning temperature and smoke control. Choosing the best meats to smoke for beginners. Trimming the meat and adding a dry rub.
There are learning curves to every one of these steps, and bringing them all together to make the perfect barbecue takes time. If you try to jump right in with a $150 slab of brisket and end up having to cook it until 10 pm to reach the magic 203 degrees, or you pull it off right on time, but the meat turned out dry or over smoked, it may turn you off from future cooks.
There are some meats, though, that have a much easier learning curve than others when firing up the smoker the first time. These meats will be forgiving enough that they can handle some temperature variation as you get the hang of your smoker. And they usually won’t cost all that much, so even if the cook does go south, you won’t be on the hook for a $100+ loss.
What to Consider When Choosing Meat to Smoke
These are a few of the factors I consider when looking for the best meat to smoker for beginners.
What type of equipment will you be using for your first smoke. Getting the hang of a wood-burning offset smoker looks a whole lot different than firing up a wifi-connected pellet smoker.
Most beginners to barbecue and smoking meats will start at a lower price point with their first smoker or barbecue. This often means using charcoal grills, cheaper offset smokers, or lower-end pellet smokers.
These are all awesome starting points, and for the record, I exclusively use a lower-end kamado grill for all of my smoking, and it works just fine. But they will have a higher learning curve that you need to get a handle on before tackling the all mighty brisket than a $1000+ pellet smoker with a high-end temperature regulator
Run through a few test fires to get a feel for how the temperature fluctuates, how much smoke the unit produces, charcoal or wood management, etc.
Get a good meat thermometer for these tests from day 1! I can’t stress this point enough as you can use it for every cook in the future, and it can mean the difference between a perfect barbecue and a lump of dried-out meat.
Time on the Smoker
No two pieces of meat are the same. Ever. One day you may cook a 3 pound pork butt at 225 degrees and it is done in 5 hours. The next day the same size cut of meat might take 8 hours to finish.
I’ve personally had cooks with smaller cuts that took over 7 hours and I still had to finish by wrapping in foil and cranking the heat to get it on the table in time for dinner.
By starting with quicker cooking meats you’re giving yourself a little extra cushion to get a handle on the cook times and to make sure you’re actually able to serve dinner before everyone in the house heads off to bed.
Planning an 18 hour cook is certainly a lot of fun but there is also so much possibility for things to go south. And investing that much time in one of your first smokes only for the end result to be meh can be pretty demoralizing.
Some meats, like pork butt, seem to be able to handle almost any temperature you throw at them. 350 degrees, 225 degrees, they don’t really care.
This means that if you’re still getting the hang of your smoker, you won’t risk ruining the meat if it is subjected to some temperature fluctuations during the cook.
If the cook runs long, it also means you have the option of cranking the heat up for a while to finish it off in a reasonable amount of time.
Trust me when I say that things start to get stressful when your meat has been sitting at the stall for hours on end and dinner time is quickly approaching. Being able to force your way past the stall with a little extra heat is a nice option to have in your back pocket.
Time for a truth bomb. The simple act of smoking meat won’t turn a crappy piece of meat into a gem.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have cooked plenty of $.99/lb pork butts over the years, and they have always been good. But until I really started seeking out quality cuts of meat, I never truly knew how good my barbecue could be.
So I am a huge proponent of finding a local butcher, or awesome online retailer, to get quality cuts of meat from day one.
With that said, I wouldn’t recommend dropping $100+ on a prime brisket for your first meat to smoke.
Start small, both in size and cost per pound, for your first few smokes, and you’ll have fewer regrets going forward if a cook or two doesn’t turn out.
The Best Meats to Smoke for Beginners
With all that said here are my favorite choices for the best meats to smoke for beginners. These meats are all often fairly quick to cook, won’t dry out with temperature fluctuations, and, most importantly, are delicious.
The trusty pork butt, or pork shoulder, is always my go-to meat when I want something delicious and easy to cook.
Pork butt is the best meat to smoke for beginners for a few reasons:
- Pork butts can withstand a variety of temperatures. I have cooked them as low as 215 and as high as 325 for the entirety of the cook, and they have always turned out delicious.
- They cook relatively quickly, typically around 90 minutes per pound, so there isn’t as much risk of over smoking as you would find with longer cooking meat like brisket.
- Pork butts are relatively cheap in price. You can often find them for $1-$2/lb, and even the higher quality choices still will only be in the $5/lb range.
- This versatility makes them ideal for cooking on almost any type of barbecue or smoker. Over the years, I have cooked pork butts on gas grills, smokers, and charcoal barbecues—all with solid results.
Pork Butt Smoking Suggestions for Beginners
If this is your first time cooking a pork butt here are some suggestions for how to manage the smoke.
Temperature – I typically aim for temperatures between 225 and 250 degrees when cooking a pork butt. But I have gone as high as 325 for an entire cook when I needed the shoulder done fast.
As mentioned earlier, use a barbecue thermometer during the cook and monitor both the meat and barbecue temperature. You will probably notice that the meat temp will get “stuck” between 150 – 160 degrees, sometimes for hours. This is called the stall and is the result of the meat cooling itself through evaporation faster than the heat from the barbecue can cook it.
You can either let it be as eventually the temperature will start going up again or you can break out the Texas crutch. The Texas crutch is where you wrap the meat TIGHTLY in foil with some apple juice, water, beer, or any other liquid of choice. This will create a braising environment and you will start to see the temperature rising quickly.
I personally don’t like using this method with pork butt unless I’m in a time crunch. It softens the bark and really changes the overall texture of the finished product by not having those crispy bits mixed in.
Wood Type – Pork butts can handle almost any type of wood for smoking. I love a combination of hickory and pecan as I like the sweeter flavors from pecan mixed with the bolder hickory smoke. I have also smoked pork butts with applewood, oak, and even small amounts of mesquite.
Pork butt does really well with sweet rubs, and this is my go-to for store-bought varieties – Lambert’s Sweet Rub O’ Mine. Note that this rub does contain salt, so, as with any rub, be conscious of how much you salt the meat and how much salt you’re adding with the rub as well.
I’ll often make my own rubs as well and use combinations of brown and white sugar, paprika, ginger powder, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, and black and white pepper.
Cook Time – Plan on around 90 minutes per pound at 225 degrees. Every cut of meat has a mind of its own though so I always cook with an extra hour or two of a cushion. As mentioned earlier I have had 2.5-pound pork butts take in excess of 7 hours to cook.
Cooking a whole chicken is a great way to get acquainted with your new grill or smoker and get dinner on the table in under 90 minutes.
There are a number of ways to smoke a whole chicken.
- Spatchcocking is where you remove the backbone, so the chicken lays flat on the grill. This leads to a faster cooking chicken and more surface area exposed to the heat and smoke. The result will be a more flavorful chicken. You can learn more about how to spatchcock a chicken here.
- Beer can chicken is a popular method where the entire chicken is placed on top of a half-full can of beer then placed on the grill. In theory, the evaporation from the beer will flavor the chicken and keep it moist. I like adding some herbs to the beer to add even more flavor to the chicken as it cooks. You can also buy a stand that mimics a beer can to keep the chicken elevated and off the grates. This is my preferred way to smoke a chicken.
Combining the quick cooking time and delicious result makes smoked chicken a great choice of meat to smoke for beginners.
Temperature – When cooking a chicken on the smoker or barbecue, try to keep the temperature above 325 degrees, or you’ll end up with rubbery, soft skin rather than crispy skin. As the fat under the skin melts during cooking, you want enough heat to sizzle on the skin. A few minutes of initial smoking at a lower temperature is fine if you’re using a pellet cooker but try to crank it up to 350 quickly.
Most chickens should take 60 – 75 minutes to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees at these temps.
Wood Type – Fruit woods (applewood is my preferred choice) will be a great choice when cooking poultry. You’ll want the milder flavors produced by these woods as they won’t overpower the chicken’s delicate flavor. Throwing on a mix of pecan or hickory is a great option as well, though to add in some bolder flavors so the chicken isn’t drowned out if you’ll be eating it with other, bolder smoked meats like brisket.
Rub – You have a few options when it comes to adding flavor to chicken before cooking.
The first is brining. This means submerging your chicken in a mixture of salt, seasonings, and water for at least a few hours and up to 24 hours. Brining your chicken draws the flavors and salt from the brine into the meat which leads to more flavorful and moist meat.
I like to use a basic recipe of a half cup of salt per gallon of water and then add herbs (rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves are a solid choice), a few crushed garlic cloves, a quartered onion, and a few tablespoons of whole peppercorns.
Dry rubs are a great way to add flavor to the outside of the chicken.
My favorite rubs for chicken are sweet with just a touch of chile powder. The current go-to for smoked chicken at our house is – Three Little Pigs Touch of Cherry BBQ Rub.
If you’re brining your chicken and adding a rub make sure to watch the salt levels as the salt can quickly add up and lead to an over-salted chicken.
Finally, injecting the chicken with brine or broth is another way to add salt and flavor deep into the meat. You can start with a basic chicken broth at first before advancing to more complex brine recipes.
Cook Time – At 325 degrees a smoked chicken will typically be done in around 60 minutes. Use a high quality barbecue thermometer in the chicken breast to keep an eye on the temp and pull the chicken when it reaches 165 degrees.
Sausage is another great meat to smoke for beginners. Smoking store bought sausage is a great way to add a ton of smoke flavor in a short amount of time on the grill.
We recommend finding a butcher or grocery store that makes their own sausage and pick a few varieties like bratwursts or British-style bangers.
You can also make your own with some ground pork and spices. One of my favorite recipes ever was this cheddar sausage. Note that if you’re making your own sausage, you’ll need a standalone sausage stuffer or one that attaches to a standing mixer.
Temperature – Smoking sausage is typically done at a low temperature of around 225 degrees. You’ll want to cook the sausage at this stage fully, so use a probe thermometer to check the meat’s internal temperature throughout the process. Once the meat reaches 160 degrees, you can pull them.
The sausages can be finished off on a hot grill to add some char and flavor before serving but be careful not to overcook or you’ll burst the casing and lose a ton of moisture from the meat.
Wood Type – Hickory is my go-to choice for smoking sausage. I love the bold barbecue flavor from hickory but don’t have to worry about it overpowering the meat.
Fruitwoods also go really well with sausage, especially milder sausages like basic pork or chicken.
Rub – No rubs are required with sausage as all the flavor is contained inside the casing.
Cook Time – Smoking sausages typically takes between 1 – 2 hours at 225 degrees. Be careful not to overcook the sausage as the casing will eventually start to split and the fat will end up dripping out.
Final Thoughts on the Best Meats to Smoke for Beginners
Welcome to the addictive world of smoking your own meat on the barbecue. We hope this post helped give some inspiration to get started with your first few smokes. Ticking off some early wins will both help get you acquainted with your barbecue or smoker and keep you motivated to try smoking some new meats going forward.