Despite the fact it’s been done for thousands of years, smoking meat can seem mysterious, difficult, and an unobtainable skill. A quick Google search can lead to hours lost in a rabbit hole of methods, tools, timings, and wood. So, what is meat smoking, and how can someone learn to do it?
After getting completely lost down the rabbit hole, Natalie Mayfield, Harmons marketing communications specialist, decided to ask for guidance and turned to two of our talented chefs, Executive Chef Aaron Ballard and Media and Special Events Chef Lesli Sommerdorf. Needless to say, they came through. Along with videos, they have given us some detailed information that will give you the know-how to do it yourself. Below are the answers given to us by Chef Aaron and Chef Lesli. Hunger trigger warning! You will want to smoke some meat after this. (Note: Make sure you read all the way to bottom of this post to see Chef Aaron’s DIY video on making your own cold-smoker.)
Meat Smoking Q&A with Chef Aaron and Chef Lesli
Q: First of all, while researching this I learned pretty quickly that meat smoking is extremely complicated. There are different methods, and ways to do it, and along with that there are many different kinds of smokers. So, to simplify it, let’s start off with how you do it. Can you explain the steps you would take to smoke a piece of meat? What tool (propane smoker, charcoal smoker, propane barbecue, charcoal barbecue, electric smoker) do you prefer?
Chef Aaron: I prefer an offset wood-fired smoker for classic flavor and to challenge myself. This type of smoking is art—understanding how wood burns, how to control a fire, and the manipulation of oxygen, liquid, meat, and heat. Charcoal is my next favorite for quick applications and heat. I’ll use propane if I have stuff to do and don’t want to think about it. I will use electric for specific applications like lower temperature and cold smoking.
Chef Lesli: I would buy a high-quality chunk of meat and make a sick rub and slather it and let it hang for a bit while I prepped my smoker. Then I’d throw some pellets in my sassy smoker and heat it to 225°. Then I’d clean and oil my grill grate and plop my meat down and begin the process of smoking it. I’d make myself a nice cocktail while checking on it occasionally, while it cooks to a perfect internal temperature, which I would check with an instant-read probe thermometer. I would remove it from the heat a few degrees prior to it reaching the perfect doneness (due to carryover cooking) and increase my heat to 500°. Then I would sear that puppy until it was crisp all over. I’d let it rest at least 10 minutes, loosely tented with foil, while I finished prepping the remainder of my meal. Lastly, I would cut it thinly with a sharp knife and schnick on prime morsels while I plated it.
Q: One thing I learned is that you can mimic the indirect low and slow heat of a traditional smoker in a propane grill. Can you explain how this would be done?
Chef Aaron: Yes, you turn on either the front or back burner and either wrap up your chips in foil or use a smoking box. You lay whatever you are cooking away from the burner and allow the ambient heat of the cooking chamber and smoke to slow cook your item. This is fairly inefficient as most barbecue grills are not well insulated and will have hot and cold spots. But in the heat of summer nothing beats cooking outside to keep the house cool.
Chef Lesli: You can use a vented smoker box filled with wood chips and herb sprigs placed on a heat element. Or, create a box out of aluminum foil, poke some holes in it, and do the same thing. If you’re smoking something for quite a while, remember to refill the smoker box on occasion or replace the aluminum box.
Q: My understanding is most people are doing “hot smoking.” It appears that the meat is cooked low and slow for an hour or so, and then the heat is turned up to get a sear or crust. Can you explain more about that?
Chef Aaron: The type of meat you are smoking really dictates how long it will take to cook “slow and low.” Some cuts require long cooking times; a lean beef or pork roast should be cooked to medium rare (135°) and then quickly seared. A cut like brisket or pork shoulder should be cooked at 250° to 275° for 10 to 14 hours or until they reach an internal temp of 200°. Long cooking times don’t require searing because bark will form on the outside as the proteins denature and break down into flavor compounds and amino acids—this is called the Maillard reaction.
Searing meats imitates this for short cooking times like for steaks. The process you describe is called reversed searing. I prefer searing at the beginning instead of the end, but that is a matter of preference.
Chef Lesli: You want the smoker/grill heat to be at a minimum of 225° so any cut of meat will cook evenly and retain its juices. This is considered a reverse-sear method. At the very end of cooking, you crank the heat to get a gorgeous, charry crust.
Q: In your opinion, what is the best cut of meat to smoke?
Chef Aaron: I really like pork shoulder, tri-tip, and brisket. My personal favorite is to get a 3” to 4” tomahawk steak and sear it. Slow smoke it with two beef-marrow bones placed on top of the steak to allow the marrow and fat to slowly render down into the steak while it smokes. This is a great one- to two-hour cut to smoke and the flavor is amazing.
Chef Lesli: Any cut of meat that could be rendered into shreddable juiciness—think pork butt, tri-tip, brisket. These cuts of meat have connective tissue that needs to be broken down low and slow. Ribs, ribs, ribs. There’s nothing like sinking your teeth into those sweet, juicy, fall-off-the-bone ribs.
Q: Are there any cuts of meat you would not smoke?
Chef Aaron: Lean cuts of meat and butcher cuts like flap steak, flank, and skirt are not recommended. They need a sear and fast-cook method. Really you are looking for fatty cuts that can hold up to long cooking times. Thick roasts are great for smoking.
Chef Lesli: You can practically smoke anything. That said, would I take the time to smoke them? Maybe not. I would be more likely to marinate cuts of meat such as beef tenderloin, ribeye, New York, chicken breasts, and seafood.
Q: Can you explain the purpose of brining your meat, and do you do this as part of your process?
Chef Aaron: I generally do not brine my meat, however, it can add flavor and tenderness. Brining introduces more liquid to the meat and can “waterlog” the flavor of the meat. If you are looking to introduce a specific flavor profile like apple or lemon grass then a salty brine with your specific flavor can be helpful. I have had many brined meats that just taste bland because they are loaded with water.
Chef Lesli: Brining, in this case wet brining, will add even more flavor to your finished product. In addition to the woody notes smoking imparts, you’ll get tastes of whatever you brine your protein in.
If you invest in a giant brine injector, you can brine a hunk of meat on the inside as well as the outside prior to smoking. Think pulled pork butt, flavored with an apple cider vinegar-sugar brine or whole turkey or chicken that’s been brined in a juniper berry-thyme-garlic brine prior to smoking.
Q: Do you like to put a rub on your meat, or does it depend on the cut?
Chef Aaron: It really depends of the cut. Most beef cuts I will simply use salt and pepper. Pork will sometimes get a rub to help balance the flavor. I will usually always use a rub or seasoning with chicken and season it the day before. I allow it to sit in the seasoning in the fridge, open to the air, to evaporate some of the liquid in the bird. This both intensifies the flavor and makes for great crispy skin.
Chef Lesli: It definitely depends on the cut. Some cuts, such as pork butt, tri-tip, and ribs, need a rub to enhance the other qualities of the meat (tenderness, juiciness, smokiness).
Q: I read that some people say using charcoal briquettes is the only way to smoke meat, while others claim it depends entirely on the wood you use, and that a propane smoker can be used just as easily as an electric one. Do you have an opinion on this?
Chef Aaron: If you want to be a purist and really challenge yourself to the art, then even briquettes are cheating. Building a fire with wood and developing wood coals and combustion of wood at the same time is smoking in its most artisanal, primal, and skillful expression. Smokers like pellet-fed propane, electric, and briquette bowls are meant to remove the learning curve and produce quality and consistency while making it easy on the cook. People who like driving sports cars don’t buy a Toyota Camry to race around the track. It’s the same with smoking—artisans have a whole different set up than most home cooks. That said, the quality of items coming off of electric and pellet-fed smokers are amazing, and consistently “blue-ribbon” quality. Most home cooks will be best served by these options.
Chef Lesli: I own a Weber kettle grill. I haven’t used briquettes for years (and I wouldn’t go near anything with lighter fluid if you paid me $1,000). My main fuel choice is mesquite hardwood. I know it burns hotter and faster, but I like the flavor it imparts, and I mainly use an indirect method of grilling so it’s a win-win.
Q: Do you believe the flavor is influenced by the wood that is used to smoke it?
Chef Aaron: Absolutely! And not just the type of wood but the shape of the wood and its seasoning or dryness. Matching wood flavor to your type of protein is critical. For most smoking applications I like the oak or pecan. If I can’t get those woods I will gravitate to apple and hickory. I will almost always avoid mesquite as it has an acrid creosote flavor.
Chef Lesli: Absolutely. Sweet woods, such as apple and cherry, are great for smoking poultry and seafood. I would use harder woods, such as hickory, mesquite, or oak, to season beef, pork, and some poultry. I would also use herbs such as rosemary and thyme (beef, lamb, pork) and sage (pork, poultry).
Q: If so, what is your favorite wood?
Chef Aaron: Pecan.
Chef Lesli: I use mesquite hardwood. I’m also a fan of hickory, which lends a bit of nuttiness to proteins.
Q: Can you smoke anything besides meat?
Chef Aaron: Corn, cheese, oysters, tomatoes, potatoes, cornbread, pudding…. I can keep on going for days.
Chef Lesli: I’ve smoked fruit like pineapple and stone fruit. Virtually any vegetable can be smoked. Asparagus, cauliflower, and tomatoes come to mind immediately.
Q: Is there anything else about the process you would like to share?
Chef Aaron: Smoking is a rabbit hole that most people start down with a hardware-store purchase of a simple grill. You can drop thousands of dollars on meat and equipment chasing after the perfect processes and experience. However, smoking has been done for ages with the simplest of tools—fire and a way to get meat in front of smoke. I think the most enduring memories I have of smoking have come from the most simple of set-ups; a piece of meat cooking over a well-managed camp fire on a grill made out of green twigs.
Chef Lesli: Smoking meats was once a labor of love in many ways – time, energy, and money. Now with the advent of myriad smokers of varying price points on the market, those same results can be had for a fraction of the hassle. If I had lots of disposable income, I’d invest in a smoker.
In this video, Chef Aaron Ballard makes a cold smoker. When asked about it, he said this:
“I have made several types of smokers over the years. I made the cold smoker in this video using a soldering iron and a cardboard box. This is a great and economical way to introduce smoke flavor to delicate items like cheese, raw oysters, and vegetables—items that would dry out and spoil under a long hot-smoking application. I will also employ this method in a professional kitchen with a strong hood, as it doesn’t require a lot of specialized equipment to set up and it imparts great smoked flavor. One of my favorite things to do with this type of smoker is Roma tomatoes. I will half them and smoke them for an hour. I chill them and dice them up and add them to risotto or polenta—it is fantastic.”