One question I often hear from barbecue newcomers is, “Will smoking dry out my meat?” To those more season pitmasters among us, this may seem like a silly question. Of course, we know that, when done well, smoked meat can be some of the most succulent and moist meat you’ll ever put in your mouth. But, if you’re less experienced, I understand the concern.
In general, smoking meat will not dry it out. On the contrary, if smoked correctly, and certain crucial mistakes (such as overcooking) are avoided, you can expect delicious, succulent meat every time.
To avoid drying out your meat, it helps to understand what smoking is, as well as a few common mistakes I’ve often observed smokers make over the years. If you follow along with the advice in this post, you’ll be smoking succulent meat in no time!
What is Smoking and What Does it Do to Your Meat?
Cooking meat over an open flame is the oldest cooking method in the world. What we know today as “barbecue” is a modern term for how humans have been preparing meat since we lived in caves. These days, however, the process has become a little easier to manage.
While some pitmasters still do cook their meat by more old-school means (on a spit over an open flame) modern “smokers” have become the more conventional methods. For many years, barbecue was relegated to the outsiders– those with the know-how, equipment, and commitment to smoke meat for long hours (often all night long). But these days, with the increasing availability of consumer-model smokers, it seems like everyone is suddenly a part-time pitmaster. Though only a few still understand what smoking entails.
In its simplest terms, smoking is the cooking of protein over a fire. In addition to cooking, the smoke produced during smoking imparts certain flavors into the protein. This flavor varies depending on what type of fuel is used in the smoker. Wood and wood-based fuels impart the most authentic “smokey flavors,” lending a richness and depth to the meat. For this reason, wood is often the go-to fuel choice for many pitmasters.
But smoke not only adds flavor to your meat; it also makes the meat more tender. When meat is smoked for a long time, the smoke begins to break down collagen (the protein in meat responsible for toughness), resulting in more tender meat. This gives smoking a distinct advantage over more conventional methods of cooking meat, such as grilling.
So, you may be wondering then, why doesn’t everyone smoke their meat instead of grilling it?
Well, smoking isn’t as easy as it may sound. Most serious pitmasters spend decades, even lifetimes, refining their smoking techniques, putting thousands of hours into adjusting temperatures, cook times, meat preparations, fuel preparation, and so, so much more. Often, the best barbecue is a result of generations of pitmasters passing down their techniques and recipes through the years, with each successive generation further perfecting and honing them.
But that doesn’t mean your first smoked brisket or pork shoulder has to be awful. On the contrary, it’s possible to make good, moist barbecue right now by only following a few simple guidelines. Most beginner smokers go in blind, thinking that they’ll figure it as they go. More often than not, what they end up with is a tough, dry, and flavorless chunk of meat. Knowing what to look for is of the utmost importance when it comes to smoking, and you don’t have to be a seasoned pro to understand it.
How to Smoke Your Meat
While I could easily fill a book with the finer points of how to achieve the most from every type and cut of meat, there are some more general rules that, if followed, will help you to produce the moistest meat no matter what.
In the smoking world, “low and slow” is a phrase you will often encounter. This refers to the tried and true method of smoking your meat for as long as possible at as low a temperature as possible until the desired internal temperature of your meat is reached.
This is because, if you cook your meat too fast, it will be tough. If you cook your meat at too high a temperature, it will easily overcook and dry out.
On average, the temperature you’re aiming for is around 225 degrees Fahrenheit. The more consistently you can get your smoker to maintain this temperature, the more evenly cooked your meat will be.
If you’re in a crunch, depending on the meat, you can crank the temperature. For instance, chicken or fish are softer meats, so toughness is less of a concern. But tougher meats, like brisket or pork shoulder, will not compromise so easily. Therefore, when it comes to red meat, it’s best to stick with 225.
Overcooking is the most sure-fire way to end up with dry, tasteless meat. But undercooking meat can make you sick. To avoid both of these less-than-ideal scenarios, pull your meat from the smoker as soon as it reaches its ideal internal temperature. But be aware, one internal temperature does not apply to all meats. The following is a list of the most common types of meat you will smoke along with their ideal internal temperatures as recommended by the FDA:
- Beef and Pork: 145 Fahrenheit.
- Poultry: 165 Fahrenheit.
- Fish: 150 Fahrenheit
If you’re ever unsure about what internal temperature your meat should be, don’t just guess. Do your research and ensure that your information is coming from a credible source. While we all want moist meat, food poison is not worth the gamble!
It won’t matter how moist your meat is if you can’t chew it. This is why smoking your meat for a long time is important. The longer you cook meat, the more the tough protein fibers in the meat break down, resulting in tender meat that will practically melt in your mouth.
Patience is key here. While I understand the impulse to crank the temperature and speed your meat along, you must resist! Remember, “low and slow.” Once you bite into that first succulent, slow-cooked rib, believe me, it will have been worth the wait.
What Fuels to Use
While your first instinct might be to reach for the wood logs, consider that even seasoned pitmasters still have trouble getting even cooks from logs. If you’re a new or professional smoker looking to reduce the odds of drying out your meat, I recommend a more consistent and predictable fuel source. The following are a few:
- Charcoal: Engineered for consistency and evenness, charcoal is a great choice for any smoker. If you don’t want to miss out on the wood flavor, you can even add wood chips to your charcoal. That way, you won’t have to rely on wood for your heat source, while still getting that authentic smokey flavor.
- Natural Gas / Propane: While you won’t get any actual smoke from natural gas or propane, using these gases as a fuel source is a great way to guarantee consistency when slow-cooking your meat.
- Wood Chips: While wood chips are a tried and true fuel source for imparting those deep smokey flavors into meat, they can also be challenging to cook with. Differences in size and density from one chip to the other make for inconsistent smoke points and unpredictable fluctuations in temperature. Most smokers won’t hear of any other smoking fuel, but for first-timers, I recommend a fuel that is a little easier to handle. However, if you’re set on using natural wood, chips are a little easier to cook with than whole logs.
- Electric: When using an electric smoker, it’s best to think of it as less of a smoker and more of an oven. While that may sound like a criticism, it’s anything but! While it’s true that electric smokers won’t give you that smokey flavor, they are the best way to ensure a consistent temperature. Simple set the temperature and let the smoker take care of the rest. Getting moist meat doesn’t get any easier!
- Hardwood Charcoal Lumps: Similar to charcoal, but with more natural wood characteristics, hardwood charcoal lumps are a great compromise between charcoal and wood. They provide the consistency of charcoal with the flavor of hardwoods, meaning you get that more of that traditional barbecue taste without all the unpredictability of wood. However, hardwood charcoal lumps can burn a little hot, potentially cooking your meat faster than you want.
- Wood Pellets: This is my top recommendation for any smoker, amateur, or pro. Wood pellets are a consistent and predictable heat source that is made of wood and therefore doesn’t compromise on flavor. Once you’ve determined the right amount of pellets for your smoke, you can rest assured that you’ll get the same quality of barbecue with every smoke from that point onward. If you decide to go with wood pellets, you’ll need to purchase a pellet smoker.
Tools of the Trade
If you want to keep your meat from getting too dry, you’ll need the right tools. These tools will help you monitor the temperature of your meat, as well as the temperature of your smoker, so you’ll be able to accurately gauge how long to smoke your meat.
- Digital Meat Thermometer: While a manual meat thermometer is fine for displaying the general internal temperature of your meat, a digital thermometer will give you the most accurate readings. When it comes to gauging your cook time, the more specific the information, the better.
- Digital Smoking Thermometer: Again, the same rules apply to the thermometer you use to gauge the temperature of the inside of your smoker: the more accurate the reading, the more confidently you can adjust your smoking temperature, ensuring the moistest meat possible. Many smokers come with manual thermometers built-in, but I recommend going the extra mile and purchasing a high-quality digital thermometer.
How do You Keep Meat Moist When Smoking?
To further ensure that your meat stays moist when smoking, there are several techniques you can employ. I’ve compiled my top 12 tips for keeping meat moist while smoking in another post. But I’ll include a few here also.
1. Choose a Good Cut of Meat
If you take only one piece of my advice on keeping your meat moist, make it this one. If you start with a bad cut of meat, nothing will improve your meat’s moisture. When choosing your meat, don’t be cheap. An 80 to 20, lean to fat ratio is what you should aim for to ensure your meat stays moist and tender. Whichever meat you plan to smoke, do some research and make sure you’re getting a top-quality cut.
2. Season You Meat with Salt
Certain spices will bring out hidden and unexpected flavors in your meat. That’s why so many pitmasters season their meat with a dry rub. In addition to flavor, the right seasoning mix can also help your meat stay moist. Make sure your dry rub contains salt. Due to a process called “denaturing,” salt allows enables meat to retain moisture. So, whether you’re purchasing your dry rub or mixing your own at home, make sure salt is included.
3. Wrap You Meat in Foil
Wrapping your meat in aluminum foil prevents the moisture in your meat from escaping during cooking. When you wrap your meat, make sure that there are no gaps in the foil through which steam could escape. Also, to make sure you get some of that good smoke flavor in your meat, don’t wrap it in foil right away. Instead, let it smoke for a while, then wrap it.
4. Baste or Spray Your Meat
Basting or spraying your meat throughout your smoke will not only add flavor but will also add moisture to your meat.
5. Place a Bowl of Water in Your Smoker
Before putting on your meat, place a bowl of water on the bottom rack of your smoker. As the smoker heats up, the water will begin to evaporate and create steam which will not only add moisture to your meat but will also steam it, sealing in its juices.