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Getting Started with Smoke

Posted by Chef Perry P. Perkins on

Getting Started with Smoke

~Chef Perry Perkins~

Smoking meat is as old as, well...smoke and meat.

Some of the best meats to slow smoke are those that aren't much good for any other cooking method.

Two of the kings of BBQ, pork shoulder and beef brisket, are real jaw-wreckers if not cooked low and slow, mature poultry is another great choice. There are plenty of meats that are great to smoke, but for starters, let's just look at the bog three...


One of the best meats to make your bones on (so to speak), is a good, fresh pork shoulder. These lovely hunks of pig are usually inexpensive, and very forgiving to the smoke learning curve, and experimentation. You'll want to smoke, using hickory or pecan, at around 215-225°F, for 90 minutes per pound.


In many parts of the country, beef brisket IS BBQ. Indelibly tough and bland when cooked with conventional methods, brisket magically transforms, after a long bath in smoke, into a melt-in- your mouth, sweet, savory, smoky treat. Sliced thin (Texas-style) or chopped for tacos are my two favorite ways to use brisket.

One of the great things about brisket is that it's crazy-simple, with very little prep or advanced techniques required. Bring to room temp, season simply with salt, pepper, and garlic, and smoke with oak for 90 minutes per pound, at 225°F. (See "Using the Crutch", below.)


Chicken, while still pretty easy, requires a little more forethought than shoulders or brisket.

First of all, whenever possible, find a plump, fresh, 3-5-pound bird free-range bird. Not only do you not have to worry about what chemicals are floating around in your hen, but the taste and texture is vastly better, than some shriveled, frozen bird from the supermarket.

Like any BBQ, the secret to perfect chicken is, you guessed it...low and slow smoking! Around 235°F, for 60 minutes per pound, is what you’re looking for.

For chicken, with its more delicate flavor, I like a lighter tasting wood-smoke, like apple or cherry.

Pull the chickens out of the smoke when the meat is still slightly undercooked, around 150°F, move it over the direct heat of a hot grill top, and crisp the skin on all sides.

Some folks skip this step if they're planning to shred the chicken, but I think that the crispy bits of skin really kick up the flavor of a pulled chicken sandwich, so it’s worth a little extra work!

Chef's note: If you don't have enough heat left in your coals, when the chicken is done smoking, you can do this step under the broiler, as well.

4 More Tips for Mastering the Curve:

  1. Bring to Temp

    Never put cold meat in your smoker.

    Meat needs to rest until it reaches room temperature. Cook at cold temps shocks the meat, causing it to seize up (i.e: stay tough).

    Another benefit of room temp meat is that the pores open up, allowing better absorption of smoke, and getting the flavor deep.

    You want to smoke all the way through the meat, not just the surface, or what’s the point?

  2. Less is More

    Another key to smoking is to not over-smoke. Real BBQ isn’t about how much smoke is billowing out of your Caja, but that your meat is getting just the right amount to maximize the flavor without getting that bad, bitter taste that comes with over-smoking.

    As far as methods of smoking in your La Caja China, I'm not going to delve into those here, as we've covered them in detail in previous posts (do a quick search of the Latin Touch Blog, to get the details.)

  3. Use the Crutch

    Wrapping large cuts of meat, like shoulders and brisket, is step used by the pros, in competition, by wrapping meat in a double layer of heavy foil, halfway through the cooking process.

    This helps tenderize and break down your BBQ, without drying out the outside portions, or over-smoking before it’s finished. This is especially effective with ribs. (Just be sure to finish them quickly, over hot coals, before serving.)

  4. Smoke to Temp

    I’ve said it before, and I’m going to keep saying it…the #1 best thing you do to create better BBQ is to get a high-quality meat thermometer. When you cook by minutes and hours, there are too many variables that can (and do) effect the finished product, and there’s a lot of luck involved. Cook by temperature, and your cooking with science, which increases you likelihood of success exponentially. Everything will be perfect.

Rule of thumb for Low & Slow:

  • Chicken: 165°F
  • Pork: 200°F
  • Ribs: 195°F
  • Brisket: 205°F

Make your own luck…get a thermometer.

The most important thing to remember, if you want to smoke great meat, is to smoke! Smoke a lot, try different recipes, different techniques, different cuts…and try them often!

~Chef Perry

As a third-generation chef, Perry P. Perkins focuses his love of cooking on barbeque, traditional southern fare, and fresh Northwest cuisine.

Perry runs the non-profit organization, MY KITCHEN Outreach Program, which teaches nutrition, shopping, and hands on cooking classes for at risk youth.

His cookbooks include La Caja China Cooking, La Caja China World, La Caja China Party, and the NEW “La Caja China Grill.”

You can follow the rest of Chef Perry’s cooking adventures at

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