So you’ve finally acquired your first smoker and now it’s time to fire it up.
After all of the excitement of getting something new, it’s easy to forget that now you have to decide which meats you’re going to smoke.
Honestly though, this is the fun part. There are multiple best meats to smoke, so by choosing one that doesn’t mean you won’t ever get to try another. You’ll just get to it later!
If you’re looking for a good place to get started though, you’re in the right spot. We thought it would be helpful to create a little guide of the best meats to smoke.
In the rest of this article, we’ll go over the best meats to smoke, give some tips for cooking each type of meat and also give a few examples of foods that are probably better suited for grilling.
Best Meats to Smoke – Overview
Before we dive into which meats are the best for smoking, I wanted to point out a couple of things that might sound obvious but are important.
Smoking is a process where meats are cooked low and slow, with smoke being used to add flavor and help to tenderize your meat. It’s equal parts art and science – there are certainly guidelines and best practices to follow when smoking. But pit masters all around add their own flair and flavor to how they choose to smoke their meats.
When it comes to which foods are the best meats to smoke, you’ll find that the best choices are often the cheaper, less desirable cuts. Sounds counterintuitive but remember, the smoking process tenderizes and vastly improves these cuts over a long cooking process, so starting out with a tough cut isn’t a concern.
That’s also good news from a practical standpoint. Smoking takes time and patience to learn how to be good at it. It’s a little more palatable to mess up during the learning process when you’re working with cheap ingredients – so you can experiment without the worry that you’ll break the bank.
The last piece of high level advice is to look for meats with higher proportions of fat content. As your meat cooks, the fat will actually melts and adds flavor, also helping to break down tough parts of the meat. Higher fat content equals tastier and more tender results.
With that in mind, let’s dive into our top picks for the best meats to smoke!
What Are the Best Meats to Smoke?
I’ll admit, I’m listing beef brisket first on this best meats to smoke list because it’s my personal favorite. To me, nothing beats a properly smoked, juicy and tender beef brisket.
If you were to cook beef brisket in an oven or grill, it would almost certainly come out tough and chewy. Cooking brisket in the smoker is without a doubt the way to do it. Do it the right way, and you’ll finish with a glorious seasoned bark on the outside with tender gloriousness on the inside.
Brisket is also quite easy to smoke relative to other meats. All you have to do is season the outside (in Texas we just use Kosher salt and fresh pepper), inject it if that’s your style, then put it on the smoker for low and slow cooking.
Be sure to finish the job off properly and slice only using the best knives for brisket slicing.
Wood Recommendations For Brisket: Hickory, Oak, Mesquite
Pork ribs are also extremely popular and one of the best meats to smoke. Ever heard of baby back ribs? Yeah, those are a type of pork ribs that come from the “loin” section of the animal.
Ribs contain a considerable amount of fat, which makes them a great candidate for the smoker. Over the smoking process, a nice rack of ribs will turn out perfectly moist and tender.
On a practical level, ribs are one of the most cost effective meats to smoke. On a per pound basis, they’re cheap compared to other meats – and they’re available at pretty much every grocery store or butcher shop.
The downside (and I say that very lightly) with pork ribs is that they require a little extra prep work. With a paring knife, you’ll have to insert under the membrane that covers the back of the rack. From there, you loosen and peel off the membrane completely. On top of that, the seasoning/brining of pork ribs is a little extra work.
Check out our favorite pork ribs recipe here.
Wood Recommendations For Pork Ribs: Hickory, Mesquite, Pecan
*Note* We’ve written a complete guide to the best woods for smoking ribs here, with a detailed breakdown on which woods will impart which flavors on your ribs.
Pork shoulder also goes by a couple of other names – most notably pork butt or Boston butt. All of these names refer to a cut that comes from the entire front leg and shoulder of a hog.
If you’ve ever had pulled pork before, it most likely came from the pork shoulder. It’s by far the best cut for pulled pork, and is a perfect candidate for low and slow cooking on a smoker. The smoking process breaks down tough connective tissue in the shoulder and infuses delicious smoky flavor.
Pork shoulder also typically features high amounts of fat marbling and potentially a bone, which both help to keep things juicy and tender. It also requires the least amount of seasoning compared to the other best meats for smoking.
On top of all of that, pulled pork is delicious left over! All you have to do is reheat pulled pork to continue enjoying delicious recipes.
Wood Recommendations For Pork Shoulder: Hickory, Apple, Cherry
Fresh ham is another personal favorite. Unlike your typical grocery store pre-cured ham, a fresh ham is more akin in appearance to a pork roast with a pale pink appearance. The resulting flavor of smoked fresh ham is similar to a traditional BBQ roast.
The idea with smoked fresh ham is to have a tender inside with a crisped outside, kind of similar to brisket. It’s not uncommon for fresh ham to utilize an injection recipe to help keep the insides tender and moist.
Fresh ham is a great year round food, but it’s particularly a crowd pleaser during the Thanksgiving and Holiday seasons.
Wood Recommendations For Fresh Ham: Hickory, Apple, Cherry
I’m guilty of being lazy sometimes. When I’m at the grocery, I feel like one of the easiest things to scoop into my cart is the rotisserie chicken. After all, it’s fairly cheep and tasty enough right?
Maybe, but I can tell you that smoking whole chicken at home is far superior to any store bought rotisserie. The meat turns out smoky, juicy, and full of flavor. You can also customize with whichever kind of rub and seasoning you prefer.
The whole chicken is extremely versatile too. The breasts, wings and thighs of the chicken can all get put to good use. Leftovers are great to use on pizza, in tacos or enchiladas, the list goes on.
If you don’t want to deal with a whole chicken, you can start a little smaller with smoked chicken thighs too.
Wood Recommendations For Whole Chicken: Hickory, Apple, Oak, Pecan, Maple
For all of my hunters out there, you’ll probably be excited for this one. Venison (deer) is by nature a very gamey and tough meat.
That makes it a perfect candidate for smoking. Cooking venison low and slow on the smoker leads to fairly tender results with robust flavoring. Do it right, and you’ll get a flavor that’s similar to a roast beef.
The venison roast, tenderloin, and shoulder section typically produce the best deer meat for smoking.
Wood Recommendations For Venison: Oak, Maple, Pecan, Cherry
Wait, didn’t we talk about ribs already as being one of the best meats to smoke?
We did, but it turns out there’s a difference between pork and beef ribs. Although in terms of cooking technique, pork and beef ribs are almost identical.
Back beef ribs in particular are what you’re looking for. They look like baby back ribs, just a lot bigger. Taste wise expect big, bold, beefy flavor that remains delightfully tender and moist.
The reason they aren’t closer to the top of this best meats to smoke list is that they can be a little tough to find. If you come across a full rack at your grocer or local butcher, do yourself a favor and grab it. Beef ribs are simply delicious, and aesthetically impressive.
Wood Recommendations For Beef Ribs: Hickory, Mesquite, Pecan
*Note* You can also reference our guide to the best woods for smoking ribs here for a more complete breakdown.
We’re moving away from animals of the land and air to move to the sea for this one. Salmon is one of the most widely available types of fish and just so happens to taste delicious when smoked.
Smoked salmon, or any fish for that matter, takes a little bit of extra work on the front end. You have to brine and dry out your salmon before smoking, a process that takes a few hours.
The good news is, salmon spends less time actually on the smoker compared to a lot of other meats. The resulting flavor is spectacular, and well worth the time you invested into the preparation process.
Wood Recommendations For Salmon: Alder, Apple, Cherry, Oak
Wild Boar is an underrated meat for smoking in my opinion. It’s got a uniquely delicious flavor profile, and is high enough in fat content to deliver tender and juicy results off of the smoker.
In particular the ribs, shoulder, and loin are all fantastic sections of the boar to smoke.
Just like the other meats on this list, expect to spend time preparing, brining, and seasoning your wild boar. Wild Boar especially takes a long time to smoke compared to other meats, with 1.5 to 2 hours spent on the smoker per pound of boar being commonplace.
Wood Recommendations For Boar: Oak, Mesquite, Maple, Apple
Lamb, when smoked properly, is one of my absolute favorites. While there are multiple parts of the lamb that you can smoke (like the shank, or leg), I personally find the shoulder superior.
Lamb doesn’t get near the amount of respect as more commonplace smoked meats like brisket or ribs, but it’s very delicious in it’s own right.
Because of a thick layer of fat on lamb shoulder, it’s perfect for the smoker. Taste wise, expect a slightly gamey but robust and unique flavor.
Lamb cooks a little bit hotter on the smoker than some other meats, to help the fat render and the outside crisp and caramelize. Expect to set your smoker at 250°F or potentially hotter for smoked lamb.
Wood Recommendations For Lamb: Apple, Cherry, or other fruitwoods
I’d be a bad American if I didn’t put turkey on my list of the best meats to smoke. This Thanksgiving classic becomes especially popular towards the holiday season.
You could also bake, roast, or fry your turkey – but smoking it unlocks the sort of flavors that will have your friends and family gushing about how good your turkey is.
Compared to cooking in the oven, expect a little more moisture and robust smokey flavor that compliments the turkey quite well.
Preparation wise, you’ll need to brine your turkey to make sure it doesn’t dry out while on the smoker. The extra effort is worth the incredible results though!
Wood Recommendations For Turkey: Hickory, Oak, Pecan, Mesquite (full article here)
We mentioned earlier that most of the meats that are best suited for smoking are cheap, inexpensive, and normally undesirable cuts.
Prime rib is the opposite and an exception to that rule. Not to be confused with ribeye, prime rib is a delectable hunk of meat that comes from the primal rib section of a cow. It also typically includes a large piece of bone.
A proper cut of prime rib has long, thin lines of marbling fat that melt perfectly and evenly during cooking. Flavor wise, expect a smoked prime rib to taste not too different from a delicious steak.
Since prime rib is more expensive, we recommend smoking it only after you have experience smoking some of these other meats successfully. If you don’t have the experience and mess up, it will sting a little bit more with the price point for prime rib.
Wood Recommendations For Prime Rib: Hickory, Oak, Pecan
Alright, just saying “sausage” is kind of cheating, as it’s a little bit of a catch all. Sausage can technically be made out of just about any meat.
I include sausage as it’s own suggestion of the best meats to smoke because I feel like it often gets overlooked as a candidate for smoking.
It’s incredibly easy, doesn’t take as much time as the other meats on this list, and can be totally enhanced with a little time on the smoker. Any store bought sausage (even pre cooked ones) can be taken to the next level on the smoker.
Bratwurst falls under this category too! Check out our complete smoked bratwurst guide if you’re interested in learning about this traditional German sausage.
Wood Recommendations For Sausage: Oak, Apple, Cherry – or other depending on which meat comprises the sausage.
Beef Chuck Roast
Smoked chuck roast is another fantastic choice. If you’ve ever had pulled or shredded beef before, odds are it’s from a smoked chuck roast.
The great thing is that cooking one of these is pretty simple, and the cut itself is typically only about 4 pounds. So it’s a pretty easy type of meat to work with, and it’s sure to deliver some delicious BBQ.
Meats Probably Better Suited for Grilling
Remember, smoking is different than grilling. Smoking is a low heat cook that lasts a long time. Grilling typically means more heat, and less time on the grates.
Foods like steak, burgers, or hot dogs are typically better suited just for grilling. Anything that needs a sear should be done on a grill, not a smoker.
Some of the best meats for smoking can also be cooked on a grill. Namely, chicken wings, salmon, and sausage are all suited for both styles of cooking.
Do I Have to Use Your Wood Suggestions?
Definitely not! I just made wood suggestions based on what I have done successfully in the past. Half of the fun with smoking though is experimenting with which wood to use for which meat. Don’t feel like there is any one or two woods that you absolutely have to use for a certain meat.
What Makes a Good Smoker?
Smokers are designed to heat up a primary cooking chamber with indirect heat. Most smokers are designed in one of two ways.
An offset smoker has a main cooking chamber, then a separate firebox attachment where the fire burns and your flame is managed. The design of an offset smoker funnels smoke and heat into the cooking chamber, which cooks and flavors your food.
Some smokers are designed where the flame and cooking racks are in the same chamber, a heat deflector of diffuser blocks the heat from directly cooking your food. Examples of smokers that utilize this design are drum smokers, kamado grills, pellet grills, and electric smokers.
Basically, your smoker should have a mechanism for indirect heating and also one that funnels smoke into your main cooking chamber. That’s how your food will get its flavor!
Best Meats to Smoke – Things to Keep In Mind
For those new to the world of smoking, having the right mindset makes a big difference.
If you’re used to instant gratification, try to approach smoking with patience. A little bit of patience will go a long way.
Think about it, smoking meats can take anywhere from 4 to 12 hours from start to completion. That’s a really long time, and if you mess something up it can be really frustrating. I’ve seen people get discouraged by an early botch and completely give up on smoking because they were so worked up.
Don’t let that be you! Mistakes are going to happen. Even if you have the best meats to smoke, odds are something will go kind of wrong on your first couple of tries. That’s normal. Learn your lesson, plow through it, and get better next time.
With a little bit of patience and resilience, you’ll be smoking restaurant grade food in no time.
Best Meats to Smoke – Wrap Up
I hope you take this list of the best meats to smoke as a jumping off point to a great relationship with your smoker! It’s possible to wow yourself, family, and friends with any of the meats on this list. With some effort, and tender love and care, there’s an endless world of possibility with your smoker.
Which meat did you end up trying out first? Are there any foods that you think are the best meats to smoke that you feel like we left off of this list? Let us know in the comments section below.