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What are the best cuts of beef for smoking?
What are the best cuts of beef for smoking you ask? Well, Smoking your own beef is a massive trend in the barbeque industry as of late. People are fanatics and there is so much knowledge to draw from, almost too much. Whether it be different brines, rubs, wood, coals or even different barbeques and smokers. Everyone has some type of “family secret” or “special ingredient.” It can be difficult to wade your way through the ocean of information in order to fully grasp exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. That being said, what makes smoking your own beef so enjoyable is that it is so versatile.
In truth, you can smoke just about anything, even vegetables. In this instance I will only be covering beef, mainly because it is the perfect vessel for smoking. Due to cattle being such a large animal, it offers a massive variety of flavour and texture.
In this article I will attempt to cover the basics and some information that may not be so well known. The best cuts of beef for smoking, different brines, rubs, as well as types of wood and charcoal. I’ll also make a list of some affordable smokers and even some ones you can make at home. In each topic I will be showcasing some example recipes and methods used by the professionals.
Best Cuts of Beef for Smoking
Cooking beef in a smoker can take a while, usually 8-14 hours depending on the cut and desired result. These cuts of beef must be tough and contain lots of fat in order to stand up to that length of cooking time. The technique of smoking beef can very from cut to cut, but for purposes of simplicity, watch this video for the best guidelines for smoking beef. In this list I’ll outline my top 3 personal favourites.
Coming from the breast of the cow, brisket is the perfect vessel for smoking. It is one of the least tender cuts of beef but when braised or smoked for a long period of time, it is soft and satisfying with incredible flavour. Known as the “king of barbeque,” I highly recommend starting your smoking journey with beef brisket, it’s so delicious it has even become a popular barbeque cooking competition.
For competition-style brisket, most of the external fat is removed for maximum bark creation and flavour retention. Salt and pepper are replaced with layers of complex rubs, flavour and moisture enhancers are injected deep within the meat. Halfway through cooking the whole thing is wrapped in foil to ensure tenderness.
To anyone schooled in the art of true Texas brisket, many things about competition style brisket seems blasphemous. In the Lone Star State, success is the product of simplicity: the brisket is lightly trimmed, seasoned with salt and pepper, then smoked for 12+ hours until ultra-tender.
Here is a great recipe on classic Texas Style Beef Brisket.
While it may not be as mainstream as the brisket, the chuck roast is full of connective tissues and fat marbling that break down nicely over a long period of time in the smoker. By smoking a chuck roast low and slow, you allow that fat to slowly render and the low heat to break down and soften that connective tissue that makes chuck roasts tender. The chuck cut, coming from the shoulder of the cow, pulls apart nicely while staying moist. It differs from brisket in the sense it would be more difficult to get nice slices, but the tender “pulled pork like” mouth feel of the chuck is very desirable.
Follow the link to a fantastic recipe of Smoked Pulled Beef.
The tri-tip is a triangular cut of beef from the bottom sirloin sub primal cut, consisting of the tensor fasciae latae muscle. Untrimmed, the tri-tip weighs around 5 pounds. A good rule of thumb for smoking tri-tip is that it usually takes 30 minutes per pound to have a nice medium rare cook, a two-pound cut would need approximately 1 hour at 225-250F.
This cut of beef is meant for the smoker. For in depth instructions on how to smoke a tri-tip, follow the link for Smoked Tri-Tip.
Brines and Rubs
Now that you know what cut to purchase, lets move on to flavouring that delicious beef.
A simple brine is when you submerge your cut of beef in water that has been seasoned with a percentage of salt. I find 5% salt brines for at least two hours are the most versatile. Keep in mind that the larger your cut, the longer it will need to sit in the brine for, as it takes a while for the salt to permeate the depths of the meat.
Brines are extremely versatile, you can flavour them with different sorts of spices, sugar and even alcohol. They are a great way to add seasoning throughout the meat, and help the meat retain moisture during cooking.
A rub is a mixture of spices and/or herbs that is applied to food for the purpose of adding flavour. There are two different types a dry rub and a wet rub. A dry rub generally consists of spices, where a wet rub would consist of ingredients that are moist. Such as juices, broths, herbs and vegetables, which form a paste that is applied to the food.
When you’re smoking beef, I recommend using both techniques, to brine the day before then rub just before cooking. It lengthens the entire cooking process, but the result is not comparable.
I start with doing my simple 5% salt brine over night, removing my beef the next morning and patting it dry. I then let it sit in my fridge uncovered for 24 hours, to help the outer layer of meat dry out. This helps the beef develop a crust when smoking. The next morning, I coat my meat in a thin layer of olive oil then do my sprinkling of salt and spices. I then begin to smoke all day and have my beef cooked by dinner.
If you are using my method be careful not to add too much salt to your rub. Remember, the meat is already seasoned from the brine. But I do find a little extra flakey sea salt in the crust does wonders.
Here is a video by HowToBBQRight on making Smoked Brisket Pastrami. Pastrami demonstrates my smoking process perfectly.
Another video byallthingsbbq, he goes into great detail about making the brine itself.
Charcoal and Wood
There are two types of charcoal, the classic square shaped briquettes and lump charcoal that looks like burnt wood pieces. The professionals will stay away from the briquettes because when they’re made additional chemicals and bonding materials are added to hold the square shape. These additives have been known to affect the taste in a negative way.
As for the raw charcoal you get a cleaner taste. Charcoal burns hotter than wood chips but at a slower rate, making it more convenient for smoking.
While charcoal is extensively used for both grilling and smoking, wood chips are used exclusively for smoking. They take longer to get smoking, but in exchange for patience you get a rich smoke flavour that is unmatched.
Hickory and mesquite are extremely popular options of wood to use for smoking. Although there are many different types of wood available.
Most barbeque masters use both coals and wood. Coals for consistency of heat and wood for the great smoke they give off.
Here is a video by Whiskey and BBQ, showing a great way to make a “Charcoal Snake.” They use both coals and wood to smoke a Pork Butt. This method is great for slow burn of wood for ample smoke.
Types of Smokers
You may be wondering if you need a crazy expensive smoker to make delicious food. The simple answer is no you don’t. There is a wide variety of smokers available for a good price on amazon, I purchased mine for $80.
If you’re in the market for a barbeque, I recommend purchasing a two-in-one smoker barbeque. They go anywhere from $300-$500 and can be quite large, make sure you have the space for it.
Big Green Egg is considered king in regard to back yard cooking. It can get as hot as 600F and as low as 200F. However, they are awfully expensive with prices around $1000.
You do not need to break the bank buying a smoker, make your own if you want to start a fun project, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. Here is a video by betterbooktv where he makes a smoker out of an old trash can.