Top Ten Best Meats to Smoke: Fan Favorites, Perfect For Beginners!

Best Meats to Smoke

If you are looking for ideas on what to put in your smoker this weekend then this list has you covered. All of these meats work great in traditional offset smokers, pellet smokers and even electric smokers!  Some of these cuts are small and lean quick cookers that will be done in a little over an hour while others are huge cuts that can take 10-15 hours to finish.

This list includes the classic cuts for pulled pork, a few takes on ribs, brisket and brisket alternatives as well as my absolute favorite steak to put on the pit. 

Whether you are a beginner looking for some easy to approach meats or a seasoned pro looking for some new ideas this list has something for everyone.

Best Meats to Smoke

Top Ten Best Meats to Smoke

  1. Pork Butts
  2. Pork Steaks
  3. Pork Ribs
  4. Pork Chops
  5. Chuck Roast
  6. Brisket
  7. Beef Ribs
  8. Tri-Tips
  9. Chicken Quarters
  10. Turkey Breasts

Let’s look at each of these cuts in a little more detail!

Smoked Pork Butts are Delicious, Easy and Inexpensive

Smoked Boston Butt

The pork butt comes from the UPPER side of shoulder on a hog and will weigh between five and ten pounds.  Butts are often sold at a discount as a twin back making this is one of the cheapest cuts you will find.

There is a shoulder bone that runs through the butt and if possible you want to get a butt that is “bone in”.  The bone acts as the perfect thermometer that tells you exactly when the butt is ready by sliding out with a gentle twist.  It’s not a big deal if the butt has had the bone removed but it just works better with the bone in.

  • Cook Time: 10 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Hickory, Pecan
  • Target Internal Temperature: 205F

If you want to see just how easy this cut can be then check out this awesome video from Aaron Franklin.

Franklin Pulled Pork

Smoked Pork Picnic Shoulders Are Almost as Good as Butts

Smoked Picnic Shoulder

While a pork butt comes from the UPPER shoulder of a hog and has the shoulder bone, the “picnic shoulder” comes from the LOWER side of the shoulder and has the elbow joint.  The butt and the picnic combine to make a whole pork shoulder but the two cuts cook differently.

You can tell the picnic cut from the butt pretty easy as it is not as squared up as a butt and is often sold with a layer of skin still attached.

While you cook this cut of meat in a similar manner as a butt there are a few things to keep in mind.  I always remove the skin on a picnic shoulder to let the smoke and spices penetrate the meat.  Also, there is not as much fat and connective tissue on this cut as on a butt and so it helps to inject this guy with some salt, sugar and apple juice.

  • Cook Time: 10 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Hickory, Pecan
  • Target Internal Temperature: 205F

Smoked Pork Steaks

A pork steak is simply a pork butt that has been cut into slices.  Since butts are amazing to smoke it makes sense that pork steaks are incredible on the smoker as well.

I like to cook the pork steaks steaks to an internal temperature of 145F.  At this point they are cooked to “Medium” and will be more tender than a pork chop.  Some people like to take the steaks up to a temperature of 203F so they are fall apart tender like pulled pork.

Here is how I smoke pork steaks on my pellet grill.

Smoked Pork Steaks with BBQ Sauce

  • Cook Time: 1.5 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Hickory, Pecan
  • Target Internal Temperature: 145F

Smoked Pork Ribs (Baby Backs or Spares)

Smoked Pork Ribs

Once you figure out the mysteries of smoking pork ribs your life will never be the same.  There is just something magical about dem bones!!

There are two basic types of pork ribs; baby backs and spares.  The baby backs are small, meaty and come from the loin section of the hog.  The spares are larger, more flavorful and come from the belly of the hog.   A whole slab off spare ribs contains a breastbone and a LOT of cartilage which makes cooking them a slow process.

If you are new to smoking ribs then I strongly suggest you stick baby back ribs as they are much easier to cook than spares.

  • Cook Time: 4-6 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Apple, Cherry, Maple
  • Target Internal Temperature: Difficult to measure.  Done when a toothpick slides through the meat.

Smoked Pork Chops are FAST

smoked pork chops

I love smoking pork chops because they are quick and easy!  Unlike butts, shoulders and ribs, pork chops do not have a lot of connective tissue that needs to be broken down.  You can get some great flavor on chops and be ready to eat in just about an hour!

When you smoke a pork chop you need to take it to an internal temperature of 145F.

When you smoke chops you want to use a thick cut chop that is at least an inch thick.  Thinner chops run a greater chance of drying out and getting overcooked.  If your pork chops are thin then stick to Hot and Fast grilling.

  • Cook Time: 1.5 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Apple, Cherry, Maple
  • Target Internal Temperature: 145F

Smoked Chuck Roast is Easier than Brisket

smoked chuck roast

I am hiding this one in the middle because most casual readers will be skimming and miss this next sentence.  A chuck roast might be the best thing you could ever stick on your smoker!

The secret of a smoked chuck roast is that you get the beauty and complexity of a brisket without the 10-12 hour wait time.  There is a lot to be said for the “Smaller is Better” approach of a chuck roast.  The amount of marbling and connective tissue is a chuck roast makes it ideal for slow cooking.  Think of this as a pot roast that has been taken to the next level.

  • Cook Time: 5-6 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Hickory, Pecan
  • Target Internal Temperature: 205F

Another way to really enjoy a chuck roast is to make a big batch of “Poor Man’s Burnt Ends”.  Here is an awesome video by Chef Tom showing how easy it is to make these delicious bites!

Poor Mans Burnt Ends

Smoked Beef Brisket is the Ultimate Goal

smoked brisket

Brisket is the Big Daddy of smoked meat.  Taking a tough 15 pound packer brisket down to a plate of tender flat and succulent burnt ends is the ultimate objective of every true barbecue pitmaster.

A full packer brisket will take you most of the day to cook but it will be time well spent.

Smoked Beef Ribs are Impressive

smoked beef ribs

Beef ribs are hard to find but worth the hunt!  There are several cuts of beef sold as beef ribs but the ones you are looking for are from the chuck plate.  These beauties have the nickname of “Brisket on a Stick”.  Smoking beef ribs is as simple as applying salt and pepper and letting them slow smoke for 5-6 hours.  You can mop or spritz these if you like but I prefer to just let the fire work its magic.

  • Cook Time: 5-6 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Oak, Cherry, Hickory, Pecan
  • Target Internal Temperature: 205F


Smoked Tri Tip is an Amazing Steak

Smoked Tri Tip

I am throwing this in here as a testament to the beauty of all things related to smoked steaks.  The Tri Tip is a portion of the sirloin and, unlike most of the cuts in this list, is a lean and tender piece of meat.  You are only going to smoke a Tri Tip for about an hour and then sear it off over direct heat.  You are only using smoke for flavor on this guy.

Tri Tips can be hard to find but you can smoke any steak that is at least an inch thick.  An additional benefit of smoking thick cut steaks is that it is easy to take it to the exact internal temperature that you like.

  • Cook Time: 1.5 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Oak, Cherry, Hickory, Pecan
  • Target Internal Temperature: 135F

Smoked Chicken Quarters for Pulled Chicken

Smoked Chicken Quarters

Smoked chicken is delicious but will also drive you crazy.  When you commit to smoking a chicken you should accept the fact that the skin is going to turn out like inedible shoe leather.  There are tricks you can pull off to get the skin into the edible region but the skin will never be as good as when fried or grilled.

I like to brine the chicken quarters for a few hours and then smoke them until they just about fall apart in the joint.  A smoked chicken will often have a pink smoke ring on the surface which can make some guests think that the chicken is under cooked.  I avoid that problem by tossing the meat with just enough sauce to provide a light coat of uniform color.

  • Cook Time: 1.5 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Apple, Maple
  • Target Internal Temperature: 180F

Smoked Turkey Breast for Easy Sandwiches

Top Ten Best Meats to Smoke

I prefer smoking turkey breasts over the entire bird.  You can put a little flavored butter under the skin and in about two hours have a lightly smoked and extremely moist piece of meat on your hands compared with the the 4-8 hours it will take to smoke the whole bird. 

Another reason I avoid doing a whole turkey on the pit is out of food safety concerns.  Turkeys larger than 12 pounds will often stay in the food safety danger zone (40F-140F) longer than four hours.  I am not going to take chances on getting my guests ill.

I like using a mild wood such as apple or maple with turkey.  Just like all poultry, the skin on a smoked turkey breast will look pretty but won’t be worth eating.

  • Cook Time: 2 hours
  • Preferred Smoke Wood: Apple, Maple
  • Target Internal Temperature: 160F

FAQs About Meat Smoking

What About Fish?

A lot of people love smoking fish and declare a properly smoked salmon to be a delicacy.  While I am not going to argue with what makes other people happy I simply do not like the taste of salmon as it is way too “fishy” for me.  If you are looking for guidance on how to make a spectacular smoked salmon then check out this article from Hank Shaw.

Every now and then I will smoke some cod.  Smoked cod is easy and delicious (especially in fish tacos) but I find myself avoiding fish more and more as the volatile oils make my smoker have a funky smell until I give it a deep cleaning.

Can You Use A Gas Grill?

Yes and No.  Technically you can use a metal smoke tube filled with wood pellets to add a smokey flavor to food cooked at low temperatures on a gas grill but it simply won’t compare in taste to meat that was smoked over a fire burning wood or charcoal.

There are a lot of articles and videos about adding smoke to a gas grill by using a foil pouch filled with wood chips.  I have found this technique to be ineffective as the wood either smolders or bursts into flames and neither of those actions produce the type of smoke that you want.

How Long Does Smoked Meat Last?

Smoked meat lasts just as long as meats cooked in the oven.  While smoking is sometimes used as part of the preservation process for some food, smoking alone is not enough to preserve meats.

Preserved meats need to be cured with salt, nitrites and nitrates and have the moisture content lowered to a point that does not support microbial growth.  Smoking is often done as a last step to help draw out some moisture, add some flavor and put a protective coating on the surface.

Can You Smoke Lamb?

Smoked lamb can be outstanding.  Lamb shoulder, ribs, chops and shanks can all be cooked on a smoker.  After a lamb passes two years of age it is termed “mutton”.  Smoked mutton is a regional barbecue specialty in regions of Kentucky and folks go crazy over it.

I do not have access to a high quality source of lamb or mutton so I don’t have the experience needed to include them in this list.

How Do I Cold Smoke Meat?

You don’t.

Cold smoking is great for cheese, nuts and salt.  Most people do not have the tools or knowledge required to safely cold smoke meats.  If you get cold smoking wrong then you run the risk of making people seriously ill.  Skip the whole cold smoking route and stick with hot smoking.


  1. Barbara

    Thank you was needing ideas!

    • David

      You are very welcome!

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