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I love smoking meat — from small Cornish game hens to large roasts like Boston butt — because it’s a special, celebratory presentation of the traditional main course. It shows a commitment to taking things low and slow. It’s a sign of the cook’s TLC for loved ones. Another reason I love smoking meat? The pit master gets to sample the wares before, during, and even after the feast.

One of my favorite parts of smoking meat is the special crusty bark that only comes with hours of roasting, a bath of smoke, and the right amount of seasoning. You just can’t get that with an Instant Pot. For me, the bark is a mandatory feature of proper barbecue. Be sure to include at least a chunk of it in your pulled pork sandwich.

While smoked meat isn’t health food, it is low- to no-carb. Keto-, Paleo-, and South Beach–type diets all permit it. Just be sure to omit sugars from your sauces and rubs to make them diet-friendly—smoking meat adds so many flavors, you won’t miss the sugar.

How Does Smoking Meat Work

Here is how smoking meat works: You cook at a much lower temperature than is required to, say, grill a steak, and allow the smoke to absorb slowly into the meat. This “low and slow” process allows for maximum flavor infusion and also gently breaks down and melts the intramuscular fat, collagen, and tough tissues to create a uniquely tender, succulent, smoky, and savory bite. It’s something you cannot rush. Each roast or cut of meat has a unique internal temperature at which it transforms from tough to tender. For the most part, this smoking temperature can be reached by cooking with an external indirect heat source ranging from 225°F to 250°F and sometimes even 275°F.

An accurate thermometer is always great, but don’t sweat the temporary sways in temp when you add wood chips or fuel.

What Happens When You Smoke Meat

A few things happen when you take it slow. First, the tissues break down to juiciness. Eventually bark develops on the meat’s exterior. The smoke, protein, and seasonings should result in a firm, deep, dark brown color. Not black, but close. The color is the result of a chemical reaction on the surface of the meat.

Ultimately, with plenty of time and smoke, you’ll achieve the tenderizing of the meat fibers. They should gently break apart with a bite and easy chew. This is the kind of tenderness you think of when you marinate meats or bite into filet mignon. The difference is that cuts like filet mignon stay tender at lower (rare) internal temperature of 125°F to 130°F, while traditional low- and slow-smoked meats achieve pull-apart tenderness only when topping internal temperatures over 190°F (something that would be considered an insult to prime steaks). Finding that perfect temp is truly an art.