Smoked Meat

Beginners Guide to Smoking Meat (Techniques & Pictures)


Apple & Grape Wood Smoked ‘Wild’ Pastrami

As a beginner, once you get your head around the basics of smoking food it just gets easier and easier. Rather than dealing with each different smoke technique, this is a beginner guide to go over all the approaches you can do at home that I have learned over the years.

Whether you want to smoke in the kitchen, use the your gas grill, kettle grill or a BBQ smoker. I wanted to help people with the simplest and easiest ways to get started. Because BBQ smoking has got so popular, I feel sometimes people have overcomplicated it.

Here is how I breakdown all the techniques I have learned.

Different Ways to Smoke Meats

  • Fast Hot Smoking
    • Portable Smokers
    • Wok/Pot Smoking with Wood or Tea
  • Slow Hot Smoking
    • Using existing Gas Grill
    • Low & Slow Smoking / Dedicated Smokers
  • Cold Smoking
Cold or Hot Smoking nuts is easy and simple for a starter project!

The basics of smoking meat are the same regardless of the technique. Now, most of what I will write is on hot smoking, which is cooking meat with smoke flavor at the same time, pretty simple. The significant differences are what type of fuel system, direct/indirect heat and temperature.

Will also briefly mention the easiest meat to smoke and the straightforward smokers styles to use. Which I have written in detail about in other posts, I seem to get asked these questions a lot.

Many resources seem to focus on indirect heat charcoal low & slow smoking, this is definitely a popular method, and I do this myself too. You get a certain smoke flavor from charcoal and wood.

However, for some people, it just isn’t realistic to sit near a smoker for 8-12 hours and manage airflow and heat for a big chunk of meat.

So, that’s why I wrote this, to hopefully help you start the journey of smoking your own delicious treats.

Basics of Smoking Meat

Hot Smoked Salmon on Charcoal Smoker
Apple & Feijoa – Hot Smoked Salmon – Snake Method – Charcoal Smoker

Doesn’t matter which style further on you are using, these are the main aspects of smoking food.

  • Meat Quality & Meat Story
  • Quality of Smoke & Clean Combustion
  • Air Flow
  • Temperature Control
  • Under Smoking better than Over Smoking
  • Salt Brining or Dry Rubbing
  • Meat Thermometers

Meat Quality & Meat Story

It goes without saying if you are going to go to all the effort, you want to make sure you have great meat and that a great story.

Sometimes when I am lucky enough to head to the wild and get my own meat. I can tell the whole story!

Quality of Smoke & Clean Combustion

When you get the right clean combustion going, regardless of the method, you have a transparent ‘thin’ smoke happening. Sometimes, this is referred to as the ‘thin blue smoke’. It happens in other colors too, I have had yellow thin smoke.

The only method I have used which doesn’t get this is the tea smoking below. The mixture creates a very different flavor and doesn’t resemble wood smoke flavor.

Air Flow

More important for longer smoking sessions, for fast smoking, it is short intense smoking. So the airflow is not as relevant, especially using a portable smoker.

Temperature Control

With all these methods, you will generally turn the heat down (or restrict air flow with charcoal), to slow cooking the meat. This allows the maximum time for the meat to take on the smoke flavor.

Under Smoking better than Over Smoking

When I started smoking meat, I use to pile in strong wood and wonder why my trout came out bitter. Under smoking is definitely the way to go, that’s why I have talked more about universal sweet light flavored woods. These will be easier to manage for beginners.

Salt Brining or Dry Rubbing

I’m a big fan of salt brining, either with bought, farm or wild game this helps in a few ways. Firstly, when immersed in salt, the salt helps retain the moisture of the meat whilst cooking. Very important for leaner meats like fish, venison

Meat Thermometers

Hot Smoked Loin Bacon – Smoked on a Gas Grill

When you start off this is definitely not an essential tool, for fast hot smoking it will be used minimally.

However, for most consistent outcomes, even getting a basic probe thermometer can give you some guidance about what you are doing. I started off using one cheap wireless thermometer, it was designed to show the internal temperature of the meat, so you know exactly when it is cooked.

I found out that it actually gives me a reading up to 450°F so I would use it inside my smoker or gas grill to guide me through it. Which helped me learn more about how my smoke chamber was working.

BBQ Grilling vs. BBQ Smoking

Grilling is direct heat cooking that is the traditional way of BBQing meats and foods. BBQ Smoking is generally considered indirect heat (from various sources cooking and smoking wood so the food cooks and gets flavored by smoke at the same time.

Most Useful Smoking Wood for Beginner’s

Buying smoking wood will make it really simple since they aren’t going to sell wood that isn’t mean to be used with food. But, if you are harvesting your own wood a few easy rules to use are:

  • Only use untreated, pesticide-free wood
  • Dry the wood out properly (I have chipped then dried or dried and chipped, haven’t seen much difference)

Type of Wood for Smoking Food

Hardwood is the way to go, anything that has resin or sap is not suitable and can lead to uneatable food.

Just about every fruit wood can be used for any smoking projects. Apple, cherry, peach and grape wood are some of my favorites.

“Deciduous” hardwood seems the best options. Deciduous means trees which lose there leaves every year.

So basically evergreen trees are the ones to stay away from for smoking food.

If you want more information on some of the more universal smoking woods, I wrote a full post here.

I have used a range of woods, and have read a lot of opinions of types of wood and there flavor. Some of the specific flavors of the wood, I just don’t seem to taste.

The idea of breaking the wood down into the more subtle light flavors and the stronger heavy darker wood flavors is how I look at smoking wood.

Soaking Wood

Through the learning curves of trying to soak the wood, it’s just not worth it. It seems even overnight soaking of woodchips will barely make any difference to the moisture content. You just end up slightly delaying the combustion and smoke creation.

You don’t end up getting longer smoking from the wood. That’s my opinion of course. Try it out for yourself.

Different Methods of Smoking

Below I will go through the fast and slow smoking methods so you can get a feel for what could work best for you.

Difference Between Fast & Slow Smoking

Fast Hot Smoking = Direct Heat, small smoking chamber & higher temperatures

Slow Hot Smoking = Indirect Heat, can be a large area & lowest possible safe cooking/smoking temperatures.

Just wanted to do an overview of each method, if you want further details. I will link to some more in-depth posts about these different methods.

Fast Hot Smoking – Direct Heat

Process:

  1. Prepare food – meat with brine
  2. Add smoke mixture (wood or tea – see below) inside smoker, wok or pot
  3. Heat on high until smoke starts
  4. Place meat or food in the smoker
  5. Close the lid and turn down the heat
  6. Smoke for 5-10 minutes on a lower even temperature

This is where it all started for me many years ago. I still use the portable smoker for fish fillets and even chorizo sausages regularly. Fast smoking is great for small sizes of meat and food. Other stuff I have tried like corn, mushrooms, and many types of sea fish have all come out great.

Portable Smokers – Fast Hot Smoking

Portable Smoker Thin Blue Smoke
My Portable Smoker Thin Blue Smoke

It’s compact which is super useful. My brother bought one for my mum who lives in an apartment. She sometimes smokes on her gas grill sitting on the porch.

It uses direct heat from underneath for combust the wood inside the box, the small metal grill creates a bit of space between the smoking wood and the meat or food.

I read in one book that this was called a ‘pressure’ smoker in Scandinavia, but I can’t see how any pressure builds up in these.

The cheaper models don’t have very good seals, I like the 2 piece variety, which is a box with a sliding lid.

You can also find collapsible portable smokers which can excellent for camping and fishing trips. However, if you are using denatured alcohol as a heat source, it can affect the flavor. Since the burning alcohol will seep through the smoke chamber

I use my portable smoker either directly on a camp propane burner (a bit too direct narrow the heat), outdoor stand propane burner or side burner on the gas grill.

If you want a rundown on a few decent portable smokers, I wrote in detail about them here.

Temperature I will generally use in a portable smoker is 230-280°F/110-140°C

Fish like salmon and trout can cook/smoke in 7-20 minutes in a portable smoker

Sausages 5-10 minutes

Fast Smoking – Hot Smoked

Wok/Pot Tea or Wood Smoking – Fast Smoking

The really great thing about this technique is if you want you can do it indoors in the kitchen. As long as you have some form of stovetop heat, you can do this just about anywhere.

You can use the same types of wood as any other smoking project.

The traditional Chinese Wok Smoking is:

Sugar, white rice & tea leaves

Then, sometimes certain aromatics are added, like citrus peel, cinnamon, star anise or cloves.

But you can definitely use wood sawdust or wood chips either just straight wood or mix it with some of the wok smoking ingredients.

As mentioned this tea smoking produces a very different aromatic style of smoking. It is great fun playing around with various blends also.

Here is a picture of the setup. Same as the portable smoker above, you are using direct heat to produce some smoke and then either sitting the meat or food on the tin foil or on a cooling rack above the smoke mixture.

Really simple and can be used indoors with some caution.

It may create a fair bit of smoke inside, so have your kitchen extractor fans on maximum.

If you have sensitive smoke alarms, it’s best to disconnect these may also.

If you want more detail on this style of smoking, please find a full post here.

Slow Hot Smoking

Gas Grill Smoking = add smoke whilst cooking, indirect heat (if you have a hood/lid)

Low & Slow Hot Smoking = dedicated smoker, many Fuel Types, basic (thermostat controlled) & advanced (charcoal fuel)

For any of these gas grill BBQ methods, one thing I have learned on my BBQ and also my friends is that the temperature gauges that are build in can often be inaccurate. It has explained a lot of reasons why the outcomes have sometimes not been what I have expected.

The easiest way to deal with this is to get a temperature probe, here are is a couple I can suggest reviewed.

Different Methods on a Gas Grill BBQ:

  • Foil Pouch
  • Metal Smoking Box
  • Pellet Tube Smoker / Maze Smoker
  • Smoke Generator

Foil Pouch / Metal Box Smoker

An easy trick to get some smoking going on your gas grill BBQ, wrap a little bit of chip woodchip or sawdust in a foil pouch and poke one hole in it.

It can add some light smoke flavor to what ever you have on the grill.

If the foil pouch has nice tight folds on the corners you get a better outcome.

You can also play around with indirect heat. So if you have a 3 burner BBQ, run 1 or 2 burners and keep the food you want to smoke on the unlit burner.

Metal box smoker is the same as the foil pouch, except you have a solid metal box with holes in it. I had a super heavy metal cast iron type, it took ages to heat up. What I wish is that it had a hinge, it’s a bit fiddly trying to take the lid off.

Certain designs make adding wood a lot easier, here is a hinged one I am talking about on Amazon (click here).

Pellet Tube / Maze Smoker

I actually recommend this style a lot, since it is cheap and effective.

You light the pellet tube at one end and just let it smoke through to the other end, depending on the size I get about 5 hours from a full tube. On a cool night, I just leave it overnight for cold smoked bacon.

You have the smoke, then all you need is the heat for hot smoking. The method I use is directly from your gas grill – which can be used for indirect hot smoking on the grill or to just add some smoke flavor.

I prefer the 3 or 4 sided tubes because they don’t roll around too much.

Sawdust or pellet can be used for these wee devices, so it gives you a bit more choice about what type of wood size.

For both these methods, you can also use them for cold smoking. If you want some recommendations about pellet tube or maze smokers, here are a few to check out here.

Having a decent propane blow torch style lighter is really important to get these gadgets going easy. A normal lighter can take a very long time, especially if its windy!

Smoker Generator

Now here is a toy that really can be used in many different scenarios. The big difference this has over the above other devices, it that you can control the air flow, therefore you can adjust how much smoke.

It works on the venturi effect I am told, so the smoke inside the tube gets ‘pulled’ into the chamber.

Now since this has a small tube externally, it generates cold smoke. Just like the pellet tube, you need to add the heat if you want to hot smoke.

When I first started to use a smoker generator, I made a hole in my charcoal kettle grill, this meant I could add smoke whilst charcoal grilling or use the kettle grill for cold smoking.

When I started playing around with cold smoking, I just waited for a cool day below 70°F/20°C when I could cold smoke some cheese or fish (For more on cold smoking check out this post).

beginners guide to smoking pork chops
Smoker Generator with Hot Plate below it – Smoking some pork chops

Lastly, the smoker generator got attached to the side of my 5 burner gas grill. The first time I used it, I didn’t put the hot plate below the incoming smoke, so it got pushed out of the grill easily. But the next time, I learned and moved the plates around so the smoke filled the hooded chamber.

Now, these smoke generators can really pump out a decent amount of smoke. So they do come recommended, if you want some thoughts and tips, check out what I wrote here.

Low & Slow BBQ Smoking

Beginners Guide to Smoking Meat - Low & Slow
Low & Slow Beef Ribs

A mega topic that has a huge following, I want to help the beginner get there head around the different equipment and whether it is something you would want to get into.

Will also cover off on the easiest way to start this culinary journey as well.

In essence, it’s low-temperature indirect cooking at 200-250°F/95-120°C with smoke for an angle of flavor.

Different Equipment & Styles 

Will list the set & forget first and then the more involved smokers at the end.

  • Pellet Grill Smoke
  • Electric & Gas Smoker
  • Kettle BBQ Charcoal Smoker
  • Pit Barrel Smoker (Drum Smoker)
  • Gravity Fed Smoker & Offset Charcoal Smoker

I have mentioned above what is considered the main smoking devices, there are of course a bunch of customized and one-off categories out there also.

Pellets Grill Smoker

Apart from the need for a bit of power to feed the pellets into the burner.

This is the easiest smoker to use. They come with inbuilt thermostat control, which just means you set it and forget it! Well, I wouldn’t forget about it, but the hoppers that hold the pellets are generally quite large. So you won’t have to worry about filling them for 3-5 hours.

Now the Pitmaster purists that enjoy the fire, wood and airflow management of offset smoker aren’t too keen on this style. In some States where Pitmaster competition occurs, pellet smokers are prohibited.

This is all about beginners or folks that want an easy option.

You can smoke anything in a pellet grill and many of the decent models come with built-in jacks for temperature probes. So you can have a meat probe constantly measuring the internal temperature of your meat.

Another big plus of a pellet grill is that you can slide a plate open and have direct heat. So the pellet grill is dual purpose and also works as a regular gas grill for cooking/searing steaks.

Pellets do cost more than other forms of wood, but when you buy a 20lb bag, generally it isn’t significantly more than other forms of wood fuel.

Electric & Gas Smokers

Thermostat controlled propane gas smoker – super convenient

One of the most popular kinds of low and slow smoking that people have.

The other would be the kettle charcoal smoker, which has been around for decades I think (Although low & slow seems to have developed over that time into its own category).

Supposedly early settlers combined the low-temperature techniques of Native American Indians, whilst the Germany early settlers added the vinegar acidity angle that is popular in Texas for instance.

Thermostat controlled models are very popular. Some aren’t thermostat controlled, I haven’t used any of those. For me, these types of smokers are all about letting the tool do the smoking, so I can enjoy the company of friends and family. It also means you can do over-night cooking (certain safety precaution should be used.

They are also surprisingly light, so you can take them away on holiday depending on the fuel type.

Easy Electric Smoker, Thermostat controlled
Easy Smoking a Leg of Lamb

They have a feeding tube which you can access externally, this makes adding some woodchips really useful.

Some comments you get are that it doesn’t have the Southern “BBQ” flavor, but if you want you can either add small chunks of charcoal or even charcoal pellets so produce the same flavor.

I have down some reviews of a few electric smokers here, and what also a few propane smokers here.

Kettle BBQ Charcoal Smoker

Kettle Smoker Snake Method
Kettle Smoker Snake Method

An absolute classic, the Weber kettle is known far and wide in the BBQ community.

It is an incredibly simple design, the key to it working really well is the insulation which helps a lot with heat management. Secondly, the air flow control in and out of the chamber. This means when you actually adjust it, charcoal will get more or less oxygen and therefore will change the heat.

Charcoal is an involved process, there are simple ways of making it less time-consuming. Like using a wireless probe so you can just keep an eye on it from a distance.

With charcoal its kinda old school and the obvious thing is you become the thermostat control!

The ‘snake method’ is a great starter option for low & slow. I did this the other day with a pork butt. You line up connecting charcoal pieces in a domino setup, the burn only 2-3 charcoal lumps at a time. So it just slowly goes through the line up you have created. Than, all you do it sprinkle woodchips or pellets over the top. Wood chunks with some more decent size are also good to use.

I have some fruit wood branches, so they got placed on to of the ‘snake’ the other day (above pic).

There is an incredibly popular weber which is modular also if you want more info I did a full review here. It has some really useful design aspects and I have a bunch of friends who love them.

Grill or Smoke

The nice think about a kettle grill is that you can just have it searing as well. So if you want a direct heat, it’s ready to go.

It’s just the time it takes to burn down the charcoal until it is nice and hot white ready for the steak. This is why I only mainly sear my weekday dinners on the gas grill. Click it on and you are away.

Drum Smokers

Barrel or Drum Smoker

You can DIY build your own or pick these up at a reasonable price. Remembering it’s a drum with a grill in it, so technically the design is quite straightforward.

It more of a hanging method, but a grill can be used too. Many people completely swear by these too. The idea being the flavor dripping down and vaporizing which then flavors the meat more.

Gravity Fed Smoker & Offset Charcoal Smoker

Now I just wanted to touch on this type of smoker, however, it’s not really for the beginner, since it takes a lot of attention – but if you want to get seriously hands-on, go for it!

It really in hands-on and you end up having to adjust airflow to get a consistent temperature. These are types of smokers that are used in competition smoking events.

Easy Smoking Meat Projects for Beginners

For Fast Smoking

Smoked Sausages

This is probably the easiest project today. You can smoke sausages with a portable smoker or a gas grill really easily. You don’t need to brine or salt cure the sausages they will just take on some of the smoke flavors in a portable smoker really easily.

On a gas grill, you have many ways to and the smoke. You can use a pellet tube, maze smoker or even just had a chunk of wood on top of the burner.

Fish Fillets

Hot Smoked Fish
Hot Smoked Fish

I love to do my fish fillets in a portable smoke, I am generally talking about fish fillets that are less than half an inch thick. When it comes to salmon fillets which are thicker, I generally will use a low & slow style.

Just 2 to 4 hours in a simple 5% salt brine, then drying the fish out to create the pellicle. I generally dry out the fish for 30 minutes to 60 minutes and then it’s straight into the smoker.

For Slow Smoking

Temperature will always need to be 200-275°F.

The most important thing is to hit the internal temperatures so that you know when the meat is cooked.

Water Pans

For any type of low and slow smoking using a water pan is an excellent idea. I think just about every smoker I have seen all, could have some form of water pan (slow smoking not fasting smoking though).

Having the added moisture inside the smoke chamber really helps keep the moist smoke curling around the meat.

Beef or pork ribs are pretty small and size compared to beef brisket or pork shoulder. So this can be a good first-time project for low and slow smoking. It could take 3 to 4 hours to complete. Generally, you just use a dry rub and possibly some basting.

Cold Smoking

For the beginner, I would stick to non-meat cold smoking. It’s really straightforward and just a process to follow.

When I was growing up, I came across a lot of cold smokers that people had made themselves. The main design that I saw was in the area where the wood would burn and smoke, and another area attached with a hose of pipe where the meat hung or was on racks.

Even though I have been cold smoking for many years, I learned something in a book I read recently. It introduced the idea of humidity, and how much this affects the cold smoking process.

The other great technique when cold smoking is done is weighing to check the cold smoked meat is dried enough. 20-30% is a good guide. Depends on the meat, fish, of course, is already full of water, but loses a lot of weight as soon as it is removed from the water, so around 20% is about right.

The U.K and Europe seem much better regulated when it comes to cold smoking and dry curing meats. Many countries have extensive selections of cold smoked which have been around for hundreds of years, meats in Germany, Eastern Europe and across Scandinavia to name a few.

Whilst, in the U.S, there are many people touting the dangers and that you could have serious health issues. Maybe this is related to the litigation that could occur if someones got sick from making there own cold smoked good with bought cold smoked equipment, didn’t handle or cure meat properly (keep it refrigerated) or got crap advice?

Anyway, I have never had issues. But I guess, buying a book or two about cold smoking and making sure you really do know the process is super important.

  • Quality meat is used
  • It is handled safely in regards to temperature and hygiene basics
  • It’s fully cured properly
  • Finally cold smoked in the right conditions.

From what I have learned about dry curing to preserve. You are basically achieving the same level of weight loss with cold smoking so that bacteria doesn’t have moisture or an environment that allows the growth of adverse bacteria. Smoke is antibacterial and antifungal.

You don’t need to salt cure or salt brine non-meat – so for cheese, dairy or vegetables not needed.

The really important key is to keep the smoking area temperature low, generally below 30°C, when doing diary produces like butter, cheese or cream.

For vegetables, you can go up to about 86°F/30°C, so if you want smoked beetroot, corn or tomatoes it’s super easy (my best outcomes have been beetroot & eggplant)

All you need is a smoking chamber, I use the gas grill BBQ sometimes when there isn’t any direct heat from the sun.

I attach my smoke generator or get the pellet tube going. It’s got good airflow and I get 4 hours or longer with these methods. Leaving it overnight on a cool moist night works really well.

I’ve also got a hole for attaching my smoker generator to the kettle BBQ, so I can pump cold smoke straight into that, it gets used for cured fish and bacon/pancetta regularly. Sometimes I go ghetto, and wrap foil around the bottom, letting the pellet tube smoke come up through the airflow holes at the bottom of the kettle grill.

So when it comes to cold smoking, there really are a lot of options. You just have to give it a go, it’s much simpler than you think. Probably when just starting out you can very cheaply acquire a pellet tube or maze smoker.

If you want a guide I wrote all about cold smoking, check out out here.

For cold smoking you can user:

  • Pellet tube
  • Maze Smoker
  • Smoke Generator
  • Electric smoker, accessory attachment
  • Smokehouse / DIY Smoke box.

Related Questions

How Long Does Smoked Meat Last?

If the meat has been hot smoked or smoked and cooked at the same time the meat is not from preserved and will last seven days. If the meat has been fully cured and cold smoked probably the meat can last many months in a temperate or cool environment.

What Type of Food can you Smoke?

The main type of food that is smoked is poultry, seafood and red meat. However many dairy and vegetables can also be smoked. Certain types of foods are more suited to either hot smoking all cold smoking.

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