There are many different opinions on how to properly smoke meat. This is what has worked in my experience, but there are certainly other successful methods. Experiment and have fun.
Working muscles (shoulders, ribs and legs) benefit most from long slow cooking methods like smoking or braising.
The basic issues to control when smoking meat are:
1. Maintain a low cooking temperature
2. Maximize moisture retention in the meat.
Low Cooking Temperature
I keep my cooking temperature around 200°F - 225°F. The goal is to slowly raise the internal temperature of the meat to 180°F and then hold it there for about an hour. “Slow and low” is the mantra. Cooking time will be about 1.5 – 2 hours per pound of meat, but can vary based on thickness and whether or not it’s bone-in or bone-out.
Many recipes will tell you to pull the meat when it reaches an internal temperature of 190°F or even 200°F. That advice works because it takes about an hour for a modest size piece of meat to increase from 180°F to 190°F. I would not recommend going much higher than that for very long because you begin to lose moisture in the form of steam.
Lower cooking temperatures of 180°F - 200°F can be used to great success, but the cooking time will be much longer. Cooking at temperatures above 250°F is not recommended because the meat cooks too quickly causing increased moisture loss and does not allow ample time for the collagen to break down (it makes for dry, tough meat).
Why 180°F internal temperature?
Meat contains muscle fibers and connective tissue (collagen). It is the collagen that makes the working cuts “tough and chewy” when not properly cooked. Collagen does not break down into liquid gelatin until it reaches 180°F. You must break down that collagen by getting the internal temperature to at least 180°F and stay there for about 1 hour. Once you’ve broken down the collagen you will have fork tender meat.
Moisture retention is especially important when smoking wild game meats because they are typically much leaner than other meats.
Brining – Moisture can be added to the meat prior to cooking by brining it. Moisture will still cook out of your meat, but since you’re starting with more moisture the end result will be juicier. A basic brine recipe is 1 cup of table salt per 1 gallon of water. Subtle flavorings can be infused into the meat by including sugar (1/2 cup per 1 gallon of water), garlic cloves, onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, herbs, or just about anything else. However, the primary purpose of brining is to increase the moisture content of the meat prior to cooking. Stir the salt into the water until it dissolves. For large quantities it may be necessary to heat the water to make the salt dissolve. (If you do heat the brine it must be cooled off again prior to adding the meat.) Add the meat and allow it soak for several hours in the refrigerator. For shoulders and legs (2 - 6 lb pieces) soaking overnight is just right. When the soak is finished remove the meat from the brine, briefly rinse it under cold water and then pat dry. Add your rub/spices and you’re ready to cook.
Injecting – Some inject their meat with liquid and spices prior to cooking. Like brining, this increases the moisture content prior to cooking so there will be more moisture left in the meat when it is finished.
Basting – Basting is done by periodically coating the meat with liquid to add moisture and flavor as it cooks. Just about any liquid will do as long as it is low in sugar. Sugar burns quickly so only add glazes and BBQ sauces (which are loaded with sugar) during the last 20 minutes of cooking and only long enough from them to firm up.
Barding – Covering the meat with fatty bacon or other fats while it cooks is another technique. This is typically used on very lean meats that lack sufficient natural fat so the bacon acts as a substitute. This is a great way to add fat and moisture during the cooking process, but I also find that you end up tasting bacon more than the meat.
Wrapping – Once the meat has smoked for a few hours and absorbed a sufficient quantity of smoke flavor the meat can be tightly wrapped in foil. This wrap will reduce moisture evaporation into the open air and keep the juices close to the meat (acting more like a braise than BBQ). It’s also a great way to capture the juices for use in a sauce. If you want a crispy exterior (a “bark”) then don’t use a foil wrap and cook a little longer. If you want some insurance on getting a tender, moist final product then use the wrap.
Smoke and Wood
Wood Choice – Just about any hardwood will do. Oak and hickory are some of the most popular and most commonly available. Mesquite, maple and fruitwoods can add a sweetness to the meat, but don’t overdo it. Herb woods like basil, rosemary and thyme can be used in small quantities to add a deeper flavor profile. Avoid softwoods (evergreen trees) because the high resin levels will give your meat an unpleasant taste.
Smoke Ring – The “smoke ring” is a reddish/pink coloration just under the surface of the meat. It’s formed by a chemical reaction between the nitrogen dioxide in the smoke and the myoglobin in meat (which creates nitric acid and colors the meat). A good smoke ring is prized in BBQ because it usually indicates that the meat was successfully cooked slowly at a low temperature. The smoke ring gradually forms until the meat (just under the surface) reaches 140°F, then the formation stops. The thickness of your smoke ring depends on how long it takes for the meat to reach this temperature. Knowing how a smoke ring forms gives us two practical applications:
1. To maximize your smoke ring take the meat directly from the refrigerator to the cooker. Conventional wisdom instructs you to bring the meat to room temperature before cooking, but starting straight from a cooler temperature will give your meat more time to develop a smoke ring.
2. Since smoke ring formation stops at 140°F you only need to worry about generating smoke for the first 4 hours of cooking (roughly). After that the meat will not be absorbing any more smoke flavor or coloring. After 4 hours, just concentrate on keeping a steady low temperature until the meat is done.
The Oven Option
Not everyone is blessed with the time, space, and/or patience to play with a smoker. Take heart - you can still get good results with an oven.
Heat your oven to 200°F - 225°F. Wrap the meat in foil. Put it in the oven until done as described above. About 1.5 - 2 hours per pound.
If you want smoke flavor use your smoker/BBQ pit for the first 1 - 2 hours to infuse some smoke flavor into the meat. Then finish the cooking in the oven. If you don't have a smoker or don't want to bother with it - skip this step. It will still be good.