How to Arrange Meat in a Smoker

It takes a lot of meat to make a good cookout. Here’s how to arrange it in your smoker.

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Smoking meat can open up a world of flavors you can’t unlock via conventional grilling. However, cooking in this fashion takes time and patience.

Matters are complicated further when you’re cooking multiple pieces of meat, and you need to arrange them in a way that they cook evenly and don’t drip all over each other unless that’s what you want to.

Below, we’ll show you how to organize your meat in a smoker to get the best results.

The Position for Meats

For a nation bound by unity, the debate about where certain meats belong in a smoker has divided Americans writ large.

And yet most agree that poultry—whether chicken, turkey, duck, or game birds—should be placed near the bottom (or at least not on top of other meats) of the cooking chamber.

There are also different styles of meat smokers, such as barrel smokers, bullet smokers, and cabinet smokers. Each warrants a specific placement of the meat for best results.

With a barrel smoker, the firebox is separate from the cooking chamber, so the hottest side of the chamber is the one that’s close to the firebox. With bullet and cabinet smokers, the meat is directly above the coals, though separated by a water pan.

You can even smoke meat in your charcoal kettle, which can present more of a challenge. Because one side of the grate has direct heat and the other indirect heat, you may need to rotate the meat for even cooking.

The concern with horizontal smokers—barrel smokers and kettles—is that the meat closest to the heat source can cook and dry out faster.

On the flip side, the concern with vertical smokers—bullet smokers and cabinet smokers—is that one piece of meat can drip on the other.

And with seafood, such as salmon, red snapper, oysters, and the likes, many smokers cook it either first or last, separate from the other meats so the other meats don’t inherit a fishy flavor.

In addition to that, grouping like-seasoned meats of the same type together or on top of each other can prevent different juices and seasonings from mixing with each other in undesired ways.

With that being said, influencing isn’t always bad, especially when you have like pieces of meat with similar seasoning.

For example, one meat smoker with a Cladera Tallboy says he places ribs on the top two racks, pork butts on the next rack, then his briskets on the bottom two racks.

He says the pork drippings from the pork butts and ribs only enhance the briskets’ flavor.

Another meat smoker set up his cooking chamber with four racks of ribs, two briskets, three butts, and 12 chicken thighs. 

The main theme with smoker setups always had chicken at the bottom, but it’s just a matter of personal taste as far as the other meats are concerned.

Now that we’ve answered that question let’s learn more about cooking multiple pieces of meat in your smoker.

Cooking Multiple Pieces of Meat in A Smoker

You need to focus on several things when cooking multiple pieces of meat in a smoker.

The first thing is controlling your smoker’s temperature, then understanding the desired internal temperature of each piece of meat, and finally, how long you should allow each piece to cook.

Controlling Temperatures

Controlling your cooking temperatures in a smoker is vital to the success of your cook.

Depending on the make and model of the smoker you are using, you may need to adjust your intake and exhaust dampers. Once you’ve mastered using your dampers, you’ll achieve the desired “blue smoke” stream that pitmasters strive to achieve.

Thankfully, controlling temps isn’t challenging to learn. It just takes a bit of patience and practice.

But, if you’re using one of those high-tech smokers with blu-tooth and all of the bells and whistles, you don’t have to watch your smoker as closely.

However, it’s never a good idea for more traditional smokers to measure their smoker’s temperature by your hood thermometer alone, as it can mislead you.

It’s best to have one probe for measuring the internal air temperature in your smoker and another for measuring the internal temperature of your meat.

Internal Meat Temperatures

While smoking, reaching the ideal internal temperature via a slow, low, and steady cooking process is your ultimate goal.

That’s not to say that cook times don’t matter, but if you guide your cooks based solely on cook time, you will likely end up with under or overcooked meat. 

Another big mistake a lot of people make is putting their meat in their smoker cold. You should always have your meat at room temperature before smoking. That also goes for grilling. 

Understandably, looking up cook times, meat types, and internal temperatures can be a bit of a hassle.

When it comes to the internal temperature, there’s the threshold at which the meat is safe to eat—and the threshold at which it gets tender and juicy when the collagen melts into gelatin.

Whereas beef, pork, lamb, and venison should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) for food safety, the tougher cuts of these red meats warrant a higher internal temp for tenderness.

Most meats are pulled from the smoker at 160-180°F (71-82°C) to 180-200°F (82-93°C), sometimes higher, depending on the cut and the recipe.

The reason behind that is simple: collagen, the connective tissue that makes meat tough, doesn’t break down into gelatin—which is what gives smoked meat its juiciness—till at least 160°F (71°C).

There are also quite a few other variables, such as the type of smoker you’re using, humidity, outside temperature, wind, etc.

These factors can impact how long your meat will need to cook.

That’s why your goal should always be to hit your target internal temperature by placing your meat probe at the center of the thickest part of the meat to determine best when it’s finished cooking.

This way, it’s always good to have several thermometers or multiple probes when cooking several pieces of meat. You don’t end up poking a bunch of holes in your meat, letting all those delicious juices escape. 

Also, don’t try to worry about having all your pieces finish cooking at the same time.

When a piece is done, it’s done.

Take it out of your smoker, store it using aluminum foil or butcher paper, and wrap it in paper towels. You can store the finished meats in a cooler until the rest are finished cooking.

Timing is another component when you’re cooking several pieces of meat together. It’s possible to have most of your meats finish cooking at around the same time as long as you understand how to work your grill effectively. 

Conclusion

When it comes to arranging your meat in a smoker, it largely depends on the types of meats you’re smoking and the type of smoker you’re using.

However, a good rule of thumb is to keep your chicken at the bottom and consider smoking fish separate from other meats.

And, of course, you want to have several meat thermometers set to record the internal temperature of the different meats so you can tell what needs to come out and what needs to stay in your smoker.

With a little practice and a lot of patience, your meats will come out juicy with plenty of that rich, smoky flavor we all love.

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