Selecting and Preparing Meat for Your Smoker

When it comes to smoking meat, the quality of the meat you choose to smoke will help determine its flavor after cooking. If you start with an inferior cut of meat, no amount of rub, marinade, injection, or sauce will help.

Beef Cuts Diagram    Pork Cuts Diagram

Whether you’re competing in a BBQ competition or just cooking for your family reunion, here are some professional tips for selecting and prepping the right cuts for smoking success.

Pork Butts/ Shoulders

Raw Pork Butt    Pork Butts in Smoker

Selecting Pork Butts

Choose whole shoulders weighing 16-17 lbs. or pork butts alone weighing about 8 lbs. It can be difficult to see the quality of the meat or fat content with pork butts that are packaged in Cryovac, but most warehouse stores sell high-quality meat. You can also ask your local butcher to help you choose the correct pork shoulder for you.

Pork butts are generally sold bone-in, but boneless butts are becoming more common. Which one you choose comes down to personal preference. Boneless butts are sometimes tied with twine or covered with a net to help with handling.

Regardless of whether you choose bone-in or boneless, make sure your pork butt contains a smooth, firm, white fat cap at one end and fat marbling throughout. The meat should have a coarse grain and a red-pink color.

All experts agree that enhanced meat should be avoided. Enhanced meat adds weight and cost to your pork butt without adding any additional meat.

Prepping for the Smoker

With a very sharp knife, remove the fat cap and any large sections of fat from the pork butt. They will only add to your cook time, and since there should be a generous amount of fat marbling within the butt itself, removing the outside fat should not dry out the meat.

After removing the fat, some pros recommend coating the entire pork butt in mustard or olive oil, then applying a dry rub all over. Other pros just go straight for the dry rub. Whichever method you use, the key is to make sure that the whole surface is covered with the dry rub. Don’t be stingy!

Find other tips for pork butt prep here, here, and here.


Ribs Being Prepped    Finished Sliced Ribs

Selecting Ribs

Before you start shopping for ribs, it’s important to know the differences between the 2 types of ribs:  spareribs and loin back.

The belly of the hog, near the bacon, supplies the spareribs. They are larger, meatier, and usually considerably less tender than loin back ribs. They also have more fat and flavor.

Loin back ribs, also sometimes called baby back ribs, are near the pork chops, in the loin. They are more tender, but less meaty and fatty. They’ll cook faster than spareribs, but they’re among the most expensive cuts of pork.

If you choose spareribs, there are 2 more subdivisions: whole slab or St. Louis style. Whole slabs include part of the sternum, rib cartilage, and a flap of meat (known as the shirt) attached to the bone side. St Louis style spareribs do not include the sternum, rib cartilage, or skirt, so they look more like loin back ribs.

Regardless of the rib type or style you choose, you’ll be looking for the same traits in regard to meat quality. You’ll need good meat coverage with no large areas of fat on the surface of the ribs. Also, try to avoid ribs that are frozen or have been frozen. Stay away from slabs where the bone is exposed; the exposed bones may fall out during cooking.

All pros agree that smokers should avoid enhanced ribs.

Prepping for the Smoker

For a detailed description of trimming whole slab spareribs to St. Louis style, click here.

For all types of ribs, you will need to remove the membrane before cooking. Slide a metal spoon handle under the membrane at one end of the rack to detach a corner. Then remove the membrane from the rest of the rack. It should come off fairly easily, in one pull.

Apply a dry rub or your favorite marinade to the ribs and allow them to rest for a couple of hours. This will allow the rub or marinade time to penetrate into the ribs.

You can find more details on cooking ribs here, here, and here.

Beef Brisket

Raw Whole Brisket      Finished Sliced Brisket

Selecting Briskets

When buying brisket for the smoker, you’ll want a USDA Choice grade brisket, if one is available. USDA Choice will have a bit more marbling than USDA Select grade.

Many markets separate the flat from the point on briskets meant for braising. Make sure you get a whole. untrimmed brisket still packaged in Cryovac. This is also known as a “packer cut”. Trimmed briskets can be difficult to smoke, since the lack of fat can dry out the meat.

You’ll want a whole brisket weighing between 8 and 10 pounds. Pros agree that briskets covered in 1/4″ to 1/3″ of hard, white fat are preferable to briskets covered in yellowish fat.

Look for briskets with even thickness, and try to avoid any that taper off to a thin edge. This helps ensure even cooking.

Prepping for the Smoker

With a very sharp knife, trim away the thickest areas of fat on the brisket and trim the fat cap to 1/8″ to 1/4″. This will leave enough fat to keep the brisket from drying out during smoking.

After trimming the excess fat, you are ready to apply your rub. As with a pork butt, you can apply a layer of mustard or olive oil and follow with dry rub or apply the dry rub directly to the brisket. Either way, make sure you cover it completely before putting it on the smoker.

If you prefer to make your own dry rub, you can find a tasty recipe here.

Other pro tips for cooking a brisket can be found here, here, and here.

Offset Smoker    Offset Smoker

Share your smoking tips with us in the comments!