Do you cook meat before you smoke it? It depends

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 11, 2022

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Smoking meat is a popular way to cook it on indirect heat, but some people are unsure whether or not they need to cook the meat before smoking it.

Since smoking is not like grilling on direct heat, people are curious if smoking meat is possible with raw meat directly.

It depends where you are hot or cold smoking meat.

Do You Cook Meat Before You Smoke It?

The general rule is that you can’t cold smoke raw meat because it won’t reach the required cooking temperature and it’s unsafe to eat. On the other hand, you don’t need to cook meat before you hot smoke it because this process cooks the food while it infuses it with a smoky flavor. Thus, if you’re hot smoking you can use both raw or pre-cooked food.

Generally, if you want to add a smoky flavor to your food using wood chips or wood chunks, you don’t need to cook the meat before you put it in the smoker unless you’re cold smoking.

To smoke meat, you usually just need to add some dry or wet rub and let it cook inside the smoker.

But there’s a reason why you can or cannot cook food before smoking and I’m going to explain the details.

Do you have to cook the meat before you can smoke it?

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How to buy a bbq smoker video

Keep in mind that smoking meat and cooking meat are two separate processes and it all comes down to having the right internal temperature.

To be safe to eat, smoked meats and other smoked foods need to reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is regardless of whether you’re smoking the food on a gas, electric, charcoal, or pellet smoker.

You’ll need a special meat thermometer to check the food’s temperature and ensure it will cook evenly.

So, if you’re curious if you need to cook meat before smoking, there are two different answers here: yes and no and I’ll share why.

It has to do with two different smoking processes: hot smoking and cold smoking.

There’s also a third factor to consider and that’s the recipe and specific food you’re smoking.

Hot smoking vs cold smoking

To understand the answer, you need to know how each smoking process works.

Hot smoking is when you cook the food and infuse it with smoke flavor at the same time. The smoker is set to a temperature between 225-275 degrees Fahrenheit.

This method can be used for both raw and pre-cooked food. But, if you’re using raw meat, it needs to be cooked all the way through to be safe to eat.

Cold smoking is when you infuse food with smoke flavor without cooking it. The temperature in the smoker is below 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because the food isn’t exposed to high heat, raw meat can’t safely be cold smoked.

Both of these cooking methods are known as “low and slow” because it takes a long time to smoke meat at low temperatures.

Thus both these smoking methods will take longer than grilling.

The process of hot smoking is faster than cold smoking because the food is exposed to higher temperatures.

Hot smoking: you can smoke raw or cooked food

When hot smoking, no, you don’t have to cook meat before you smoke it unless the recipe you’re using specifically calls for it.

That’s because hot smoking implies cooking the meat until it reaches the, desired level of doneness.

If you’re hot smoking, you can smoke both raw and pre-cooked foods, as the temperature is higher.

You don’t need to cook meat before you hot smoke it because this process cooks the food while it infuses it with a smoky flavor.

The hot smoking cooking process is the most common way to prepare smoked meat.

This low and slow method is the preferred choice for pitmasters to prepare popular meats like pork butt, ribs, ribeye, and more!

Cold smoking: can only smoke pre-cooked food

On the other hand, cold smoking does not cook meat. Cold smoking only flavors the meat and adds a smokey taste.

This smokey flavor comes from wood chunks and wood chips but the heat from these wood chips isn’t as high as that from hot coals while grilling.

Because it doesn’t cook the meat, you need to cook it before you eat it.

If you’re cold smoking, then you are simply adding a smoky flavor to the meat rather than cooking it. Therefore, for health and safety, yes, the meat has to be cooked or cured first.

Thus, the bottom line is this: cold smoking necessitates pre-cooking the food because the flavor-infusing process of cold smoking necessitates using extremely low temperatures, which do not allow for complete cooking of the food.

Recipe & food

It also depends on the recipe you’re making. If you’re smoking ham, for example, you’ll need to cook the ham first and then smoke.

However, if you’re smoking salmon, you can start smoking the raw fish directly and end up with a delightful wood-smoked aroma.

So it really varies depending on what you’re smoking.

Some recipes call for cooked meat, while others call for raw meat.

In general, if you want to add a smoky flavor to your food, you don’t need to cook the meat before you put it in the smoker unless you’re cold smoking.

Can I smoke pre-cooked meats?

Yes, pre-cooked foods such as sausage, ham, bacon, and jerky can be smoked as well.

Pre-cooked smoked meat such as ham can taste amazing after low and slow smoking.

In fact, many times smoking pre-cooked meats is the best way to go since they have already been cooked and only need to be reheated.

This also allows for more time to infuse the smoke flavor into the meat.

Thus, the only reason you want to smoke pre-cooked food is to give it more smokiness from the flavored wood chips.

Since the food is already cooked, you don’t have to concern yourself about the cooking temperature too much and your overall cooking time will be shorter than smoking raw food.

Here’s something to be aware of: if your pre-cooked meat is very aromatic or already smoked, there is no need to smoke it again.

You can potentially add too much flavor and ruin the food’s taste. Too much smoke flavor can make your meat taste bitter.

The overall consensus is that there’s not much point to cooking meat before hot smoking it unless it’s something like sausage, ham, bacon, or jerky that’s already been cooked.

For smoked foods like fish, brisket, and ribs, the smoking process will not add any additional flavor to pre-cooked meats.

It will only make the meat hotter and could potentially dry it out.

Do you smoke food before or after cooking?

There’s no general rule on whether you should first before or after cooking your food. But this is a debated topic and the opinions are split.

Most pitmasters notice a very small difference in flavor if you smoke first. The strong smoky flavors can get a bit more diluted.

However, some insist that if you want to smoke cooked food, not raw food, you should cook it first and smoke it second.

The point of smoking meat is to give it a tasteable smoky flavor. Therefore it’s best to cook it first if you want and then smoke it.

If you smoke first and cook second, you’ll remove some of that delicious smoky aroma. That’s because the cooking process creates a lot of moisture which dilutes that tasty smokiness.

For example, if you cook pork shoulder on a gas or charcoal grill first, it can already become a bit dry. Exposing it to more smoke from the smoker might make the pork shoulder “overcooked”.

If you were to simply add only seasoning to the raw pork shoulder and then low and slow smoke it, it could turn out very juicy and smoky.

Adding wood chips or wood chunks already adds the flavors the smoked meat needs.

How to cook food before smoking it

If you do want to cook your food before smoking it, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

You should cook the food until it’s nearly done but not quite all the way. This is because the food will continue to cook even after you take it out of the smoker.

If you cook it all the way before smoking, it will likely overcook by the time you’re ready to eat.

It’s best to cook your food to about 80-85% of the way done and then finish it off in the smoker.

This will ensure that your food is cooked all the way through but still has that lovely smoky flavor.

There are several ways to pre-cook the food before it goes into the smoker:

Grilling

This is the most obvious cooking method before smoking. You can grill your food to get a nice sear on the outside and then finish it off in the smoker.

For example, you can grill some beef ribs until they have a nice char and then smoke them to give them that extra smoky flavor.

The smoking process will “finish off” the ribs and cook them to perfection. It’s sure to take your BBQ to a whole new level.

Boiling

Boil your food in water until it’s about 80% cooked and then finish it off in the smoker.

Some foods you can boil before smoking include ribs, chicken, and beef.

Baking

You can also bake your food in the oven until it’s about 80% done and then finish it off in the smoker. This is a good method for cooking fish or poultry.

However, some pitmasters say this makes the meat too dry and chewy. I don’t necessarily recommend this method unless you have a very precise recipe you already like.

Searing

Searing is a popular method for pre-cooking meat before smoking it.

To sear, you’ll need to heat up a pan on the stove until it’s very hot and then cook the meat for a minute or two on each side.

This will help to lock in the juices and give the meat a nice crust.

Searing is a good method for all types of meat including poultry, beef, and pork.

Braising

This is a good method for tough cuts of meat like brisket.

Braise the meat in a flavorful liquid until it’s almost cooked through and then finish it off in the smoker.

One problem with this method though is that the meat can end up a bit too dry. So be sure to keep an eye on it and add more liquid if necessary.

Steaming

This is a good method for fish and other delicate foods. Cook the food in a steamer until it’s about 85% done and then finish it off in the smoker.

This will help to keep the food moist and prevent it from drying out.

Sous vide

You might be wondering “what is sous vide smoking?”

Sous vide is a method of cooking food in a sealed pouch or plastic bag submerged in water.

The food is cooked slowly at a very precise temperature, often lower than you could achieve with other methods like boiling or grilling.

This results in food that’s evenly cooked all the way through and extremely tender. Sous vide smoking is a great way to infuse smoked flavors into your food without overcooking it.

To sous vide smoke, you’ll need a smoker and a sous vide machine. First, you’ll need to set up your smoker and get it going.

Once the smoker is ready, put your food in the sealed pouch or plastic bag and lower it into the water.

Cook the food sous vide style for the desired amount of time.

Afterwards, remove the pouch or bag from the water and finish cooking it in the smoker. This will give your food a nice smoky flavor without overcooking it.

There isn’t much of a difference in the final results regardless if you do sous vide cooking first and then smoke or vice versa.

For your food safety, sous vide first and then smoking second is the best method. Aside from that, the stall point is not present when you are smoking.

One of my favorite sous vide methods is to cook it in the microwave for a short period of time, then cool it in the refrigerator overnight before smoking it.

Smoke and sous vide are the preferred methods you can use for curing meats and fish.

Cold smoking the meat for a few hours and then cooking it sous vide is a safe way to cook at lower temperatures.

Pre-cooking is not necessary for smoking meat, but it can be helpful if you want to ensure that your meat is cooked all the way through.

It can also add extra flavor if you sear or bake the meat before smoking it.

No matter which method you choose, be sure to cook the food until it’s just about done before smoking it.

This will ensure that the food is cooked all the way through but still has that lovely smoky flavor.

What is the advantage of smoking pre-cooked foods?

In general, smoking pre-cooked foods is a great way to infuse smoked flavors into your food without overcooking it.

But still, there’s a risk that you can over smoke and add a bit too much flavor for your liking.

So be sure to keep an eye on the food and stop smoking it when it’s reached the desired level of smokiness.

But there’s another advantage: it can save you time.

Smoking pre-cooked meat means the smoking time is shorter and you no longer have to be around the smoker for up to 16 hours.

Instead, you can get some of the smoking done in a couple of hours, depending on the type of food.

Regardless if you pre-cook meat, your meat will still have a tasty smoked flavor. So, the cooking process is totally optional before hot smoking meats.

Some people also argue that you can get a more delicious flavor if you pre-cook the food first.

For example, you can use a special spice rub when searing your pork butt but then add other spices and a wet brine before smoking for even more flavor.

What pre-cooked foods can’t be smoked?

Pre-cooked foods that can’t be smoked are those that have been cooked in a way that prevents the smoke from penetrating the food.

It also just doesn’t make sense to smoke some foods like boiled vegetables. I’d rather prepare smoked meat than mushy cooked veggies.

So, if you want to smoke meat that has already been cooked, go for meats like pork butt which can take on smoky flavors from wood chips or wood pellets.

Can you use aluminum foil for sous vide smoking?

Yes, you can use aluminum foil for sous vide smoking.

However, it’s important to make sure that the foil doesn’t touch the food. If the foil touches the food, it will conduct heat and cook the food too quickly.

It’s also important to use heavy-duty foil so that it doesn’t tear easily. To make sure the foil doesn’t touch the food, you can create a makeshift rack out of foil.

To do this, crumple up a sheet of foil into a ball and then flatten it out. Place the flattened ball of foil in the bottom of the container and then place the food on top.

The foil will act as a barrier between the food and the hot water, preventing the food from cooking too quickly.

Therefore, you now know how to use foil before meat smoking to prep your food.

Takeaway

So the general rule is that it depends on whether you are hot smoking or cold smoking.

You can’t use raw meat for cold smoking because it won’t reach the temperature it needs to cook.

You can smoke both raw and pre-cooked foods if you’re hot smoking because it’s done at a higher temperature.

It really depends on how you like to serve your food. If you want to sear your meat before smoking it, go ahead.

Or if you’d prefer to braise it, that’s an option too. Just be sure to keep an eye on the temperature and don’t overcook your food.

Smoking meats gives more flavor to pre-cooked foods or it can infuse raw meats with the smokiness you just can’t get from your charcoal grill.

Next, find out the unknown secret to the best Pellet Smoker Beef Jerky Recipe

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.