Top 10 Smoking Meats for Beginners: The Best Cuts to Start With

If you’re new to smoking meat, it’s natural to make some mistakes on your first few attempts. To avoid wasting expensive cuts, start by smoking small and inexpensive cuts of meat that are easier to handle and will help you practice the basics of temperature control, which is crucial for any successful smoking session. As you gain confidence and control over your smoker, you can gradually progress to smoking larger, more challenging cuts like ribs, turkey and brisket.In this article, I’ll list of easy cuts of meat for you to try.

When smoking meat, it’s essential to start with small, inexpensive cuts like chicken wings, pork belly burnt ends, burgers, sausages, whole chickens, turkey breast, chicken drumsticks and thighs. By smoking inexpensive meat, you can practice the basics of smoking without the pressure of wasting expensive cuts. Once you’ve gained mastery over your smoker and have a better understanding of the techniques involved, you can then move on to the “big meats” like brisket, turkey, and ribs. Remember, it will take a few cooks to learn the fundamentals of smoking meat, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you gain experience.

1. Turkey Breast

Cooking time: 2.5 hours

Boneless turkey breasts can be difficult to find at some grocery stores, but they are a great option for smoking because they are easy to handle and have a mild, versatile flavor. When smoking boneless turkey breasts, it’s important to keep the temperature of your smoker low to avoid drying out the meat. The low and slow cooking method allows the turkey breast to absorb the smoke flavor and retain moisture, resulting in a tender and juicy finished product.

One thing to keep in mind when smoking boneless turkey breasts is that they can cook faster than other cuts of meat, so it’s important to keep an eye on the internal temperature to avoid overcooking. A meat thermometer is a handy tool for monitoring the temperature of the turkey breast as it cooks. Once the internal temperature reaches 160-165°F (71-73°C), it’s time to remove the turkey breast from the smoker and let it rest for at least half an hour before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute and makes the meat easier to slice.

How to Smoke Turkey Breast in 10 Steps

1Trim the fat from the breasts and remove the skin.
2Season with salt and pepper, garlic and herbs.
3Fire up your smoker to 280°F (137°C).
4Throw in two or three chunks of apple, cherry, or oak wood.
5Add the turkey breast once your smoker is steady at the target temperature.
6Smoke for 2 hours until a crispy layer forms on the outside.
7Remove breasts from the grill. Wrap the breasts in foil. Spritz the breast with apple cider vinegar or a lump of butter. Fold the foil and return to the grill.
8Cook until the internal temperature hits 160-165°F (71-73°C).
9Remove and rest for half an hour before carving.
10Melt some more butter and pour over the breast.

2. Sausages

Cooking time: 1.25 hours.

Sausages are a great meat to start with when you’re new to smoking because they are quick, easy, and always delicious. Whether you opt for pre-smoked sausages or regular non-smoked ones, adding a touch of smoke flavor will take them to the next level. Here’s how to smoke sausages in a charcoal smoker using the two-zone indirect cooking method:

You can try any sausage including: 

  • Bratwurst
  • Chorizo
  • Weisswurst
  • Boudin Blanc
  • Italian
  • Breakfast

How To Hot Smoke Sausages

Cooking time: 4 hours

1Light the coals and bring your smoker up to 220-230°F (104-110°C).
2Add wood to the fire once you reach the target temperature.
3Place sausages on the grill on the opposite side to the fire for indirect cooking (cold sausages will attract more smoke).
4Cook for 1 hour or until the internal temperature reaches at least 160°F (71°C).
5Pork Belly Burnt Ends

If you want to know more about smoking sausages, check out my Guide to Smoking Sausages. 

3. Pork Belly Burnt Ends

Pork belly burnt ends are a delicious and easy cut of meat to smoke, and they are definitely one of my favorites. These tasty treats are made by cutting pork belly into small cubes and cooking them low and slow for a few hours until they are tender and caramelized.

How to Smoke Pork Belly Burnt Ends

1Slice the pork belly strips into thick cubes.
2Season the cubes with your favorite pork rub. Coat first with olive oil (optional).
3Set up your smoker for an indirect style of cooking with two zones.
4Light your coals and bring the temperature up to 225-250°F (121°C).
5Add two or three chunks of wood that go well with pork (cherry, apple, or pecan).
6Lay the pork belly cubes evenly onto the cooking grate (to make the transfer easy, use another rack and lay it on the grill).
7Smoke for 2 hours at 225-250°F (121°C).
8Remove the pork belly from the grate. The burnt ends should have some color.
9Place the meat into an aluminum pan.
10Combine honey, a few sticks of butter, and brown sugar (or barbecue sauce) and mix into the aluminum pan.
11Cover the pan with aluminum foil and return to the smoker for another 2 hours. The internal temperature should be just over 200°F (93°C).
12Remove the meat from the aluminum pan and drain the sauce from the burnt ends.
13You can apply a pork glaze if you want to take your burnt ends to the next level.

If you want to know more about this recipe, you might be interested in my in-depth article: Pork Belly Burnt Ends.

4. Smoked Chicken Thighs

Cooking time: 2 hours

Chicken thighs are a delicious and flavorful cut of meat to smoke, and they are perfect for those looking for a quick and easy smoking project. The high fat content of the thighs means that they are naturally juicy and flavorful, and the smoke adds an extra layer of depth and complexity to the taste.

How to Smoke Chicken Thighs

1Season the thighs in salt and pepper and a chicken rub (you can also brine or marinade chicken in a zip-lock bag and refrigerate for 2 hours).
2Prior to smoking, place the thighs in an aluminum pan.
3Bring your smoker up to 300°F (148°C) for a crispy skin. Drop the temp if the thighs are skinless.
4Throw on two chunks of cherry or apple wood for best results (mix and match any fruit wood).
5Set your pit up for two-zone indirect cooking. Place the thighs on the cook grate in the zone opposite the fire.
6Cook for 30 minutes.
7At the 30-minute mark, quickly open the lid and drizzle butter on the thighs.
8Cook for another 90 minutes.
9Probe with an instant-read thermometer until you get an internal temperature of 175°F (79°C).

5. Smoked Chicken Breast

Chicken breasts are an affordable and widely available cut of meat that is perfect for beginner meat smokers. However, chicken breasts can tend to dry out when smoked, so it’s important to keep the temperature lower and pay attention to moisture levels. One way to help prevent chicken breasts from drying out is to spritz them with a liquid such as apple cider vinegar or chicken broth during the smoking process. This will help to keep the meat moist and flavorful.

How to Smoke Chicken Breasts

Cooking time: 2 hours

1Season the breasts with salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs (or your favorite chicken rub).
2Light your smoker and bring it up to 280°F (137°C).
3Add some wood to the fire. Cherry and apple blend well with chicken. A chunk of hickory is fine, but be careful.
4When the smoker temperature has stabilized, place the chicken breasts on the grill.
5Smoke the breasts for 1.5 to 2 hours until a crust forms on the outside.
6Remove breasts from the smoker.
7Drizzle butter or spritz with apple cider vinegar or apple juice.
8Wrap the breast in foil and return to the smoker.
9Cook until you reach an internal temperature of 160-165°F (71-73°C).
10Remove the breast and let them rest for 20 minutes before slicing.
11Drizzle with more butter and serve.

6. Smoked Chicken Wings

Cooking time: 1.5 hours

Chicken wings are a delicious, affordable, and easy-to-smoke cut of meat that are perfect for beginner meat smokers. There are many different ways to smoke chicken wings, but here is a simple and straightforward method. If you want to add extra flavor to your wings, you can pre-marinate them and soak them for 3-4 hours in the refrigerator before smoking.

How to Smoke Chicken Wings

1Coat the wings in oil and then add salt, pepper and your rub of choice.
2Light your smoker and get the temperature up to 275°F (135°C).
3Throw two chunks of wood on the fire. Mix and match apple and cherry or a chunk of hickory with a fruit wood.
4Lay your wings on a rack or directly on the grill. For indirect cooking, place wings on the opposite side to the fire.
5Smoke the wings for 1 hour.
6Turn the wings over and apply some more rub.
7Close the lid and cook for another 30 minutes to 1 hour.
8Probe the wings and remove once they reach an internal temperature of 165°F (73°C).

If you want to know how to smoke chicken wings on a kettle grill, check out this article: How To Smoke Wings on a Pellet Grill.

7. Smoked Chicken Drumsticks

Cooking time: 1.5 hours

  1. Chicken drumsticks are simple to smoke, and the method is like cooking other chicken pieces. 
  2. Apply salt, pepper, and a rub suitable for chicken. Before adding the rub, coat the drumsticks with oil so the rub sticks. 
  3. Add salt, pepper, and a barbecue rub. 
  4. Bring your smoker up to 275-300 °F (135-148°C). 
  5. Throw in two chunks of wood. For chicken I always mix and match apple, cherry, pecan or a little hickory. 
  6. Smoke the legs for about an hour. Then flip them over, add some more rub, then return to the smoker. 
  7. Cook the legs for another 30-minutes, then measure the internal temperature with an instant probe thermometer. Chicken needs to be at least 165°F (73°C). 
  8. Allow to cool on a resting rack for 20-minutes before serving. 

8. Smoked Burgers

Smoking burgers is an excellent choice for beginners because they are easy to make and only take about an hour to cook. Whether you make the burgers yourself or purchase them from the butcher, they are sure to be a hit with your family. If you do make your own burgers, consider making them extra large to satisfy your hungry crowd. The first time I tried smoking meat, I made the best burgers I’ve ever tasted. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked!

How to Smoke Burgers

Cooking time: 1.5 hours

1Freeze the burgers for 1-2 hours before cooking. Use wax baking paper to prevent them from sticking.
2Season both sides of the burgers with salt, pepper, garlic powder and your favorite seasoning.
3Set up your smoker to cook the burgers indirectly at a temperature of 275°F (135°C).
4Add two chunks of hickory wood to the hot coals.
5Place the burgers on the grill and smoke for 30 minutes.
6Flip the burgers and smoke for another 30 minutes.
7Baste the burgers with barbecue or steak sauce and smoke for an additional 10 minutes.
8Serve the burgers with caramelized onion, fried bacon, mushrooms, and melted cheese.

9. Smoked Whole Chicken

I wouldn’t recommend smoking a turkey on your first attempt at smoking meat. You are better off building towards a turkey by smoking whole chickens. As with turkey, you can pre-brine or marinade the chicken the day before you cook, but this is optional. Also, you can spatchcock birds for a faster, more even cook. Below is a simple method of smoking whole birds. 

How to Smoke Whole Chicken

Cooking time: 2-3 hours

1Dry the chicken skin with a paper towel and spray the bird with cooking oil.
2Season the chicken with salt, pepper, garlic powder and your favorite barbecue rub.
3Preheat your smoker to 275-300°F (135-148°C).
4Remove the water pan to avoid rubbery skin.
5Add wood chunks or chips to the hot coals.
6Place the chicken on the cooking grate with the breasts facing upwards.
7Close the lid and smoke the chicken for 3 hours.
8Smoke until the thigh reaches an internal temperature of 175°F (79°C).
9Remove the chicken and let it rest for 20-30 minutes before serving.

10. Pork Butt ( Pork Shoulder)

Pork butt, also known as pork shoulder, is a large cut of meat that is perfect for smoking, especially for beginner meat smokers. It is often considered a “beginner-friendly” cut of meat because it contains a lot of fat and connective tissue, which helps to keep it moist and flavorful during the smoking process. Additionally, pork butt is relatively forgiving and it is difficult to mess up, even for inexperienced smokers. Check out “Mastering Pork Butt” for an in-depth guide.

Three Cuts Of Meat Beginners Should Avoid

I’m not saying you shouldn’t attempt any of these meats, but you should have a grasp on the basic before you dive into a brisket. You want to at least know how to manage your smoker, accumulate some barbecue equipment such as thermometers and a charcoal starter. You’re better off making your mistakes on a cheap cut rather than wasting an expensive brisket or rack of ribs.

1. Brisket

Brisket is a large chunk of meat that requires a lot of time and attention. Temperature control is crucial with brisket because it has a lot of connective tissue, so it needs to be cooked at a low heat. If not, it will dry out easily. Don’t attempt brisket on your first smoke, build your way up to one. Once you have a good understanding of your smoker and can control temperature, then attempt a brisket. I have written several articles on brisket, so if you want to learn more, check out my Smoked Brisket Guide For Beginners

2. Ribs

As with brisket, ribs need a long time at low temperatures to give all the gristle and connective tissue time to break down. If you don’t know how to use your smoker, the temperature is going to be constantly fluctuating and ruin your ribs. Also, ribs need to be smoked a specific way using the 3-2-1 technique. Work your way up to ribs by starting with cheaper, less expensive cuts of meat. Once you feel ready to tackle ribs, check out my Guide to Smoking Ribs. 

3. Turkey

Turkey is probably the most difficult meat to smoke for the beginner because there is so much that can go wrong. Turkey is a lean cut of meat, which makes it vulnerable to drying out, so temperature control is critical. Also, knowing how to get a crispy skin can be hard work, especially if you want a moist and tender bird as well. I’ve written a lengthy article on smoking turkey, so if you want to know what’s involved, you can find the article here.

Big Meats

It’s important to have a good understanding of temperature control and the proper techniques for attempting to smoke larger cuts of meat. Once you’ve mastered the basics, check out these articles so you can work your way up to larger, more difficult cuts of meat.

More Articles:

Brisket: Brisket For Beginners: Tips For Smoking The Perfect Brisket

Ribs: 8 Different Cuts of Pork Ribs: The Step-By Step Smoking Guide

Chuck: How to Smoke Chuck Roast for Pulled Beef

Turkey: How To Smoke Turkey in a Smoker – Tips From The Experts

Pork Butt: How To Smoke Pulled Pork on a Smoker (Smoked Pork Butt)

My Favorite Meat Smoking Tools

Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.

Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.

Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.

Wireless Thermometer: The latest thermometers on the market have no wires and can be controlled by wi-fi via your phone. Airprobe 3 is the best of this technology.

Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.

Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.

Meat Thermometers – Your Most Important Tool

The Beginner’s Guide To Meat Thermometers

The Best Meat Thermometers Under $50 (We List the Top 8 Choices)

The Best Thermometers for Smoking Meat

Best Wi-Fi Meat Thermometers (We Review the 5 Top Models)

Best Instant-Read Thermometers for Smoking (Top 6 Picks)

What Are Automatic Barbeque Temperature Controllers? The Complete Buyers Guide

MEATER Wireless Thermometer – Is It Any Good?


Author and founder at Meat Smoking HQ

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