The whole world of barbecue is built around undesirable cuts of meat. The cuts that were too tough or chewy for regular cooking. Not surprisingly, these “cheap” cuts are harder to master and, now that they have gained popularity for the weekend bbq warrior, are also hard on the pocketbook. When it comes to testing out a new smoker, investing in huge slabs of meat can be intimidating and hard on the bottom line. It’s hard to figure out where to start.
You are looking for a good balance when starting out, something substantial to test the waters on that you can’t really mess up too much. Let me just tell you, I have been smoking meat for years and even on my worst run, no one has turned down an extra platter of leftovers. So, where to start? Lean cuts, such as pork tenderloin, can be hard to smoke, as the practice of smoking is low and slow desired for the fattier cuts. As the meat cooks, the fat melts and tough connective tissues break down, producing a tender melt in your mouth bite.
There’s also wood, charcoal, and rubs and more to consider – but all of that really does develop over time. For now, let’s stick to great cuts for smoking meat. The only thing you really need right now is a good thermometer and a piece of meat. Here’s our breakdown of some great proteins for getting to know your smoker and developing your pitmaster skills.
Poultry: Whole Hens. First I start with poultry. Whole hens are readily available fresh at almost every single market and are often so inexpensive or on sale that they are the perfect practice protein for breaking in a new smoker. The whole bird, on sale, will cost under $10 for a nice weight. After you remove the gizzards and neck, all that’s left to do is season and smoke. Whole birds are my go to for smoking because no one ever turns down leftovers, they stay moist while smoking, and I have yet to muck one up. Another great thing about a whole hen is that it isn’t going to require you to be up at 3 AM to get things rolling. Hens are relatively quick on a smoker, given that at most you are looking at around 8 pounds. An afternoon outback is all you are going to need to really work on this project and still feed the family at supper time.
Second Choice: Chicken Quarters. A large portion of dark meat makes chicken quarters great for smoking. Not too small a cut to really lock in some flavor, and yet, not nearly as much work to pick off any leftovers as a whole hen, plus, if you thought whole hens were cheap, wait until you start filling your cart with chicken quarters! Let’s just hope the butcher doesn’t catch on to how great these are for grill season!
Pork: Shoulder or Boston butt. Here is where you get into big cuts that don’t break the bank. The shoulder has a wonderful amount of fat running through it, not to mention that cap of skin over the joint that allows for a long time in the smoker essentially self basting as the fat renders over time. If you aren’t in grill country, look for large shoulders to come in and go on sale at the start of the summer and stock up on a few. Pork is a really forgiving meat.
Second Choice: Ribs
Beef: Brisket. Let’s just step back and honor the king of smoked meats, the brisket. It is by far one of the most coveted cuts, with a beautiful fatty layer and when done, a moist bite and stunning smoke ring. The brisket is by far one of the best meats for smoking. It’s just so darned delicious, but, it isn’t always cheap or easy to find. My local market prices it high and cuts it small, which is ok for trial runs on my smoker for myself. If you are looking to smoke a brisket though, I would say start making friends with your butcher. You are going to want an even cut (the “Flat”) when the time comes and not just the smaller uneven end (the “point” or “deckle”).
Second Choice: Prime Rib. Whoa whoa big spender. Smoked prime rib is about as luxurious as it gets but it will cost a whole lot of cash up front. Until you are comfortable smoking, I would suggest steering clear of this cut, however, when the day comes that you are ready to serve the best of the best, a smoked prime rib is everything you imagined it to be.
Lamb: Shoulder. Believe it or not, lamb is a great meat for smoking. It has a great fat content and really breaks down over time turning that ‘gamey’ meat into a thing of barbecue beauty. In some parts of the US, good quality cuts of lamb are hard to find. If you love this cut, start pricing out or watching for sales at your local butcher or market so that when the time come, you can snag a great cut for your smoker.
Second Choice: Leg, Similar to a shoulder, the leg is going to take to the low and slow well, you just may have to get clever with how you position this uneven cut in your smoker to produce a perfect temp inside without over cooking one end while the other still has time to go. If boneless, consider cutting in half, and only doing one portion at a time or dividing them on your smoker racks to ensure even smoking times.
Seafood: Salmon. Salmon often comes in thick portions and is a fatty fish. Smoked, it has an amazing flavor and makes for a wonderful meal. You can even get creative and bold by attempting cold smoking and other techniques as your smoking prowess evolves. Salmon is readily available and you can ask your local fishmonger for a sustainable option when purchasing.
Bonus: Sausages. Seriously a smoked sausage is about as good as it is ever going to get some days. You can start with a sausage recipe from scratch, or just smoke some fresh sausages from your butcher. Personal favorite, lamb with Moroccan harissa.
Now get outside and start smoking!