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Note: If you're looking for a digital meat thermometer, my guide called “6 best digital meat thermometers” will help you decide which one is best for you.
Like anything else, there are different types and grades of meat and while you may be tempted to purchase that half price brisket or pork shoulder it is best to make sure it passes the test before deciding to take it home.
Here's a few tips:
- Make your meat selections last when you are in the supermarket to ensure that it stays cold until you get home.
- Select cuts of beef that are bright red for best flavor with no splotches of gray or brown.
- Make sure the packages are tightly wrapped with no tears or punctures in the package.
- Meat should be firm to the touch.. not soft and cushy.
- Meat should not have an unpleasant odor (worth noting here even if you can't necessarily detect this in the store)
You also need to know that beef is graded according to quality as USDA Prime, USDA Choice and USDA Select respectively.
The prime grade is mostly sold to restaurants but can be found in supermarkets and other meat counters at a premium price.. the most widely sold grade to consumers is USDA Choice.
USDA Choice is not a bad option as long as you look it over and get the one that has the most fat marbling, best color and looks the freshest.
Pork and chicken are not graded like beef.
Pork in the United States comes from pigs that are bred to produce uniform and tender meat and is simply graded on how “wholesome” it is.
Chicken is graded as A, B or C and most of what hits the stores is A grade so not much to look at regarding grading.
Many look for the labels such as organic but alas, most of that is marketing and does not mean the chicken is any better.
Look for antibiotic free and air-chilled.. those are good things to look for when purchasing chicken if you want the best flavor.
There is so much more that could be said about this but I will leave it here for now.
Below are some of the more common meats that are purchased for cooking in the smoker and some pointers on each one:
Briskets are pretty straight forward but there are a few things that I want to share to help you insure that it turns out the best that it possibly can.
To begin, briskets can be purchased as an untrimmed packer cut or as a flat. Your best bet when smoking a brisket is to buy the packer cut which should have plenty of fat on top and is the flat and point together, unmodified by the butcher.
You should also try to purchase a brisket that is at or below ten pounds. I have used briskets larger than this and had them turn out good but I have found that the best bet for flavor and tenderness is one in the lower weight range.
To end up with the most tender brisket you need to try to start out with the most tender brisket.. this is relative since briskets are NEVER really tender when you buy them.
To get a general idea of how tender it is, simply lay the briskets flat across the side of your wrist and lower arm so that it can bend on both sides, you will notice that some of them have more bend than others. The one with the most bend is your best bet for ending up with a tender piece of meat.
This is not a fool proof method but it is about the only indicator you will have so it is better than nothing. Obviously, if the brisket is packaged on a Styrofoam plate (not common) then this will not be possible.
Go for a brisket that has at least a 1/4 inch fat cap for best results.
The pork shoulder is usually separated at the store into two halves. The best half in my opinion is the butt, sometimes called the “Boston butt”. The other half is the picnic and is somewhat inferior in tenderness and flavor to the butt in my opinion.
It is very difficult to go wrong with the Boston butt.. they have lots of fat marbling throughout the meat and will weight between six and nine pounds in most cases.
The picnic cut has a thick skin on one side which needs to be removed. Like the butt, it has lots of marbling and will work fine for pulled pork if you cannot find a butt.
When we say pork ribs we are referring to either spare ribs or baby back ribs. The spares are the meatier ones which come from down around the front of the rib cage. This cut is my favorite as far as flavor goes and are quite a bit larger than baby backs and tend to have more fat as well.
The spares in my neck of the woods usually weigh in at around five pounds and are best when there is lots of marbling of fat between the bones.
The baby backs are a favorite of many due to the lower fat content and slightly shorter cook time. This cut originates closer to the back bone and is usually less meaty than the spares and have considerably less fat. This is not a bad thing but as with most things smoked, fat is a wonderful thing during the cooking process for keeping the meat moist.
Look for baby backs with marbling of fat in the meat between the bones for best results. Also try to find baby backs that are NOT labeled as “extra meaty” as this denotes the presence of extra loin meat that has been left attached.
While this may seem like a good thing, loin meat is very lean and will end up mostly dry.
Both spares and baby backs will have a thick membrane or skin on the bone side which should be removed prior to smoking them.
I will mention pork country style ribs as well just because everyone calls them “ribs” however, delicious as they may be, they are actually not ribs at all. They are simply long strips cut from the pork butt or the pork loin and may or may or may not contain a bone.
Chicken is a great cut for a beginner simply because it can actually handle a wider range of temperatures and if you mess one up, you are out much less money than you would be with most other cuts of meat.
I like to use chickens that are around three to four pounds but it is not uncommon to see chickens weighing in at five pounds or more. The smaller ones tend to be best for flavor and tenderness but the larger ones will work fine if that is all that is available.
Look for chickens that are labeled “MINIMALLY PROCESSED” if possible but, if not, find the ones that have the least amount of solution added during processing.
I also recommend looking for the label that says the chicken is free of antibiotics and is air-chilled. This is a much cleaner way of cooling down the chickens once they are slaughtered.
Turkey is pretty straightforward and sometimes you don't have a lot to pick from other than fresh or frozen. You also cannot see the birds as they are generally wrapped in a white plastic wrapper. They are almost always injected with solutions of salt, water and other tenderizing ingredients which is frustrating at times for those of us who would like to purchase a natural bird.
Look for the label “MINIMALLY PROCESSED” and if you find one buy it. Otherwise, look for ones with the least amount of solution added during processing.
I try to purchase turkeys that have never been frozen if possible but unless it is within a few days of Thanksgiving or Christmas, it is not likely that you will find such a gift.
Purchase birds that are 12-14 pounds or less for safest cooking practices. Birds larger than this will stay in the danger zone of 40-140°F for longer than what is considered safe and may put you and your family at risk of food borne illness.
For this reason, it is better to smoke two smaller birds rather than one large one when you need more than 12-14 lbs of turkey.
If you do have a bird that is larger than 12-14 lbs, you can cook it safely by turning up the heat to 260-275 and/or by cutting along both sides of the backbone with kitchen shears to lay it open (known as spatchcocking).
This configuration allows the bird to cook faster and more evenly.
We have done some amazing things with turkey over the years and you can see the instructions and recipes for all of these here.