Smoking and meat are two things that go hand in hand. However, get the meat too smoky, and there you have it: bad-tasting smoked meat and a ruined weekend.
Smoke it too less, and there’s no point putting the meat in the smoker or on the grill at all. The meat will be undercooked and flavorless; it’s a no-no in both cases.
So what is the secret to getting that smoke flavor just right?
There’s no need to get hopeless, as there are a lot of tricks you can use to give your meat a delicious smoky flavor, with just the right amount of smokiness to delight your tastebuds. It’s a complex interplay of using the right wood, the right temperature, and the right techniques when smoking your meat.
So let’s jump into it!
Top 8 tips to get the best flavor when smoking
The following are my top eight best tips to get your smoked meat to taste amazing, something any pitmaster would be proud of.
Tip #1 – Be patient
Ah! One of the few pieces of advice that works everywhere, from smoking meat to getting through rough times. Anyways, let’s just keep our focus on smoking alone.
Patience is one of the most important virtues of any smoker, beginners & pros alike.
Smoking is not something you can do quickly, and you need to be prepared to give the process your full attention if you want the best results.
For example, one of the biggest mistakes our fellow weekend BBQ lovers make is opening the lid literally every 10th minute.
Opening the lid too often can lower the temperature, thus prolonging the cooking time and putting the meat at risk of extended heat and smoke exposure.
This results in dryer final results and a bitter taste. As I have mentioned repeatedly, you’ll feel like biting on a burned cardboard with a hideous taste.
The best you can do is let the meat heat up for the recommended time limit and open the vents and lid only when you need to brush the meat with sauces or add wood pellets.
Ideally, this should be done after each hour throughout the process.
Also, be careful to not overcook the meat. The key here is to impart ideal smoke flavor without drying out or overpowering the natural taste of the cut.
First-time smoker? Get it right from the start with my beginner’s guide to smoking meat at home
Tip #2 – Always choose the best cut
You might wonder, what does a good cut of meat has to do with smoky flavors? Well, my friend, here’s the golden rule of smoking!
Half of the flavor of smoked meat depends on the quality of the cut. And talking of quality, there’s nothing better than smoking a goldilocks.
Goldilock meats are those that aren’t too lean nor too fatty. The ideal meat/fat ratio is about 1/4. However, this fat should be scattered throughout the meat instead of hanging off it.
The logic behind this is that it could block the delicious flavors of the smoke from entering the meat, ultimately resulting in an undercooked cut with little to no smoke flavor.
Also read: At what temperature does meat stop absorbing smoke?
Tip #3 – Choose the right wood for the meat
Seasoned pitmasters know what wood goes best with which meat. The wood flavor that might go great with a lamb might not be the ideal fit for beef.
The rule applies to other types of meats or even cuts as well. Some meats require subtle flavors; others might pair best with strong and smoky flavors.
To give you some idea about what I’m talking about, let me elaborate a bit by describing different kinds of woods, and the type of meat that pairs great with them:
Oak has a medium smoky flavor that is stronger than fruitwoods like cherry and apple but less overpowering than ultra smoky woods like hickory and mesquite.
This makes it ideal for meats like pork and poultry. However, you can also use it with beef.
Mesquite has a super smoky flavor that pairs well with meats like beef, pork, seafood, games, fish, and nuts, especially when grilling.
As grilling takes much less time than smoking low and slow, it ensures that enough smoke flavor is passed to the meat without overpowering its natural taste.
Having a primarily smoky flavor with a subtle hint of heartiness, hickory is excellent for smoking cuts like pork shoulder and ribs.
However, be careful to use an optimum amount of wood chunks. Too much wood or smoke could impart a super bitter flavor to the meat.
Compared to the woods mentioned above, cherry has a subtle flavor with a hint of fruitiness, sweetness, and mild smokiness.
Thus, making it ideal for smoking meats like poultry, beef, game birds, and pork low and slow. However, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it for grilling.
Tip #4 – Refrigerate the meat before smoking
Here’s the thing! If you belong to the super smoky league like me, you surely want to add a bit more smoky flavor to the meat than usual.
The best way to do it is to refrigerate the meat after soaking it in the marinade.
The logic behind it is that it will lower the temperature of the meat. Therefore, when you slide it into the smoker, it will take longer to raise the internal temperature.
This will ensure the meat is exposed to the smoke for a little extra time and receives as much smokiness as possible while not getting overcooked.
Tip #5 – Keep the temperature consistent
A temperature between 200 and 225 Degrees F is ideal for smoking meat.
The range between these two ensures that the meat is cooked perfectly with all its moisture intact while having maximum flavor.
Taking this point a bit deep, the type of smoke coming out of the smoker will also affect the overall meat flavor.
At the aforementioned temps, you should see thin blue smoke coming out of the smoker.
This is a sign that everything is in control and the final result you’ll get is just according to your desires.
You could also ramp up the temperature to over 250 F if you are smoking a cut like beef brisket or pulled pork.
Or maybe, trying out a unique recipe. Nevertheless, keep in mind that the internal temperature of the meat shouldn’t exceed 165 degrees.
One of the pro tips to keep the meat from drying out at high temps is placing a pan full of water inside the smoker.
It will keep the internal environment of the smoker moist, keeping the meat from a potential dry out due to overheating.
Tip #6 – Keep the flames away from the meat
Exposing the meat to extreme heat for some quick cooking seems like a great idea… only if you’re the long-lost brother of Joey Tribbiani from Friends.
Because let me tell you, it is utmost stupidity.
The flames will burn the meat’s exterior while giving it a sooty flavor, which are two equally undesirable, or rather despising things.
Thus, keeping the meat away from direct flame is always advisable.
Having a high-quality pellet grill, or any other type of grill with multiple shelves should be good enough for the purpose.
As the shelves in these models are appropriately distanced from the fire, you can keep the meat away from the burning charcoal and wood without any problems.
Tip #7 – Use liquid smoke and smoked spices
Do you love giving an extra punch of smokiness to your meat? If yes, brushing the meat with liquid smoke or adding a few drops of it in the marinade will help.
Like natural woods, liquid smoke comes in various flavors, from ultra smoky ones like hickory, mesquite, and pecan to subtle ones like oak, cherry, and apple.
The best thing is that you could also add it to spice up vegetarian dishes like baked beans.
You can also add some extra smoke flavor to the meat by using smoked salt and smoked spices for seasoning.
Some of the most commonly used herbs to add smoky flavor to the meat include rosemary, cinnamon, thyme, and crushed red pepper.
Have you tried smoking hot peppers? Here’s the best wood to use when smoking jalapeno chillies
Tip #8 – Let the meat rest
When the cooking time is over, and you are sure that the meat has absorbed all the smoky goodness, the next thing to keep in mind is to avoid eating it right off the smoker.
One of the pitmasters’ techniques to infuse maximum flavor into the meat is to let it rest for an hour or so after getting it off the grill.
This ensures that the internal moisture of the meat redistributes and regroups around the proteins.
As a result, this redistribution of the juice carries the delicious wood-fired flavor to every fiber of the meat, ensuring that every bite is filled with maximum smoky goodness.
There are three levels of smokiness; excessive, mild, and delicious. The delicious smoky flavor lies at the sweet spot, which is somewhere between excessive and mild.
But of course, that’s just a popular opinion. For people with peculiar tastes, even excessive smoke can mean delicious.
The tips I have shared will come in handy for everyone, irrespective of how much smokiness anyone prefers.
The rest depends on what recipe you are making, the type of wood chips or chunks you are using, and your experience with the grill and smoker.
Read next, my full guide on when to use wood pellets vs. charcoal vs. wood chips vs. wood chunks