Smoking meat should be fun, but if you’re just getting started it can feel like there is way too much you have to learn. This can get stressful when your guests start to arrive just when everything is going wrong. Next thing you know your friends are all “out of town” every time you host a BBQ.

It’s a lot more fun if can get some practice in and watch out for these common mistakes that almost every barbecuer makes. When you’ve smoked some pork butts, chicken and tried your hands at a brisket and everything’s coming together then invite the whole gang over and wow ‘em  with your smoking skills. In the meantime learn from the smoking mistakes of others and share any mistakes you’ve made in the comments below.

 

1) Using the wrong cut of meat.

It can be tempting to just grab the cheapest cut from the meat section in your nearest chain supermarket and start smoking. But if you want to produce delicious pulled pork, ribs or brisket , you MUST start with the best quality you can afford.

The fix:

Your local butcher is your best friend. Tell your butcher exactly what you are looking for. This will very depending on what you plan on smoking. This is a huge topic on it’s own but some important things to look out for are:

  • Ribs – You want to look for good meat coverage over the bone and avoid too much surface fat. If you can avoid buying frozen.
  • Brisket – Try and choose a brisket with nice marbling and white, hard fat about 1/4″ to 1/3″ (0.6cm – 0.8cm) thick over the entire flat portion.
  • Pork Butt – While a bit more forgiving than brisket, for best results look for the large “money muscle” at the opposite end of the bone.

 

“Look at the opposite end of the bone. It’s tube shaped (with striations and stripes). You’ll see the bands of fat evenly spaced along the muscle. When fully cooked that fat should easily melt away and render.” Bill West, Barbecuetricks.com

2) Using lighter fluid to start your charcoal briquettes.

This is one of the most common barbecue mistakes amateurs make. I get it! You’re impatient and want to start cooking RIGHT NOW.

Before you douse your charcoal in lighter fluid understand that this can give off some really awful odors and funky tastes in your smoked meat. Not to mention this going against the whole point of low and slow cooking.

The fix:

A quality chimney starter is one of the best investments you can make. You can pick up a Weber Chimney Starter from Amazon.  All you need is a few bunched up paper towels. Place them on the bottom grate of your grill, fill the chimney with coals then set it down on the grill and light the paper towels. You should see smoke curling up and be able to feel heat.

Make sure you keep a close eye on it and within 20 minutes you should be good to go. If you’re not sold on a chimney starter then check out our guide to the best tools for light charcoal.

 Charcoal barbecue chimney starter

3) Not controlling the temperature inside the grill

Good barbecue requires a steady, low heat over a long period of time. A common mistake is exposing the meat to too high a heat, resulting in dry tough meat.

The fix:

Getting this right can take a few attempts but you want to try and keep the temperature between 225-250°F (107 – 121°C). Your main method of control is opening the vents to increase the temperature, and closing the vents to decrease oxygen flow and lower the internal temperature.

It’s important to get the smoker stabilized before adding your meat. Let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes with a thermometer away from direct heat until the temperature stabilizes and only then add your meat. To keep everything under control you’ll need to get a good thermometer setup with a probe to measure air temperature, and another to measure the temperature of the meat.

Finally it’s important to keep a full water pan in the barbecue chamber to absorb heat and help moderate the temperature. Over a long cook the water can evaporate so keep checking and refilling every 3-4 hours.

4) Over adjusting your grill setup

Your on your first smoke and everything is going well. You used a charcoal chimney to get your coals nice and ashed over and you’ve got your cooking zone and drip pan setup. You start imagining how that succulent pork butts going to taste and then your notice the temperature start to shoot up.

In a panic you lift the lid, open the vents and keep making wild adjustments until the temperature drops. You had the right idea but keep completely overshooting the mark.

The fix:

Avoid trying to adjust too many things at once. Change one thing, see what happens, then change another.

If you are smoking on a Weber kettle or similar setup make sure you avoid completely closing the top and bottom vents. You should also avoid opening the lid too often. The key is to holding a steady temperature is to only make small adjustments.

5) Having a few too many drinks while you barbecue

Spending time outside while downing a few cold ones is one of the best things about smoking. But don’t be surprised if by the 6th beer your constant supervision starts to relax. It doesn’t take long before the heat gets way too high and 10 hours and 5 pounds worth of brisket turn into an inedible hunk of charred meat.

If you’re really unlucky the combination of meat fat, hot fuel and airflow could combine to cause an epic grease fire.

The fix:

Maintaining an internal temperature of 225-250°F (107 – 121°C) can require a lot of close supervision over a long time. Go ahead and enjoy a few beers but especially if this is your first time remember to stay focused and maybe leave the bourbon until after you’ve carved up.

 Beer next to weber grill smoking

Beer and Smoke” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by  Another Pint Please… 

 

6) Too much smoke

Probably the most literal smoking mistake! If a little smoke makes meat taste delicious then a lot of smoke must make it taste freaking amazing, right? Unfortunately this logic can result in some pretty atrocious barbecue.

Adding way too many wood chunks is one of the biggest rookie BBQ mistakes. You can make matters worse by closing the vents to hold more smoke in. This is a sure fire way for your meat to end up straight in the trash.

The fix: 

Smoking is definitely a case of less is more. You want to see thin whips of smoke coming out of the grill.  Only use a few chunks of wood with adequate ventilation.  Always keep the inlets and exhaust dampers at least slightly open and be careful how you close the inlet damper or the fire could smolder and give off some skanky tasting smoke. If the smoke smells bad the meat will taste bad too.

 

7) Not allowing enough time

Not allowing yourself enough time is a big mistake that can cause you to start making lots of other mistakes. When the clock is ticking away and the guests are on their way you might think it’s a good idea to close the vent to hold more smoke in, or start piling more coals on the fire.

Fix it:

Barbecue takes time and patience. You can’t rush, and because every piece of meat is different it’s difficult to accurately estimate the length of cooking time. A good rule of thumb is  1 to 1 1/2 hours per pound (0.5kg) for most meats.

While some people argue that if you start cooking in the smoker you should finish in the smoker, if it’s getting dark and your running out of fuel you can always resort to the “Texas cheat”, a method of cooking where you smoke the meat for a few hours before wrapping it in foil, sometimes with juice, and then finish it in the oven at 325°F (160°C) for a few hours.

 

8) Panicking during the stall

If you’re on the impatient side then waiting around for the meat to hit the perfect temperature for tender barbecue can be frustrating.  If you’ve ever smoked a brisket or pork shoulder chances are you’ve experienced the dreaded “stall”.

When the temperature on the thermometer decides it doesn’t want to change for hours at time. Don’t make the newbie mistake of getting impatient and increasing the heat. Remember that we are aiming for succulent meat, not a pot roast.

Fix it:

There are many theories around the stall, ranging from moisture leaving the meat, slow rendering fat or the protein breaking down. If you want to geek out there are lots of articles explaining the science of the stall but the best advice is not to panic, keep the temperature stable and eventually the temperature of the meat will start to slowly climb. Something this delicious wouldn’t be possible without some challenges!

9) Opening the grill lid to peek too often.

After selecting the right piece of meat, preparing it and then getting your barbecue and coals ready your excitement levels are at an all time high. But by continuing to open the lid you are letting out the heat and the smoker will be below temperature.

Fix it:

The meat’s not going anywhere! Your thermometer should tell you all you need to know to make any adjustments. Open the lid only when necessary to apply a mop or move the meat or tend to the coals. You don’t need to keep checking up on it. The size of this mistake does depend on what you are smoking with, and some peaking should be OK.

Be extra careful about over peeking if you’re smoking on a Weber Kettle though:

 

“The effect of opening the lid on a charcoal grill like the Weber Kettle is greater than on gas or pellets because the heating potential of charcoal is limited. It eventually diminishes and burns out. So you are not only losing cooking time, you are losing cooking time at a higher temp.” – Meathead Goldwyn, Amazingribs.com

 

10) Trusting the thermometer on a dome smoker

The hood thermometer will lie to you. Most BBQ grills and smokers come up a “handy” dial installed on the dome. They are almost always cheap and because they are positioned near the top of the lid it records the temperature of the air space above the food you are cooking.

Fix it: Ignore the inaccurate built in smoker. The best way to monitor the internal temperature is to invest in a temperature probe next to the food and away from the coals. You want a probe that comes can be threaded into the barbecue. A simple trick is to get a ball of aluminum foil and tighten it around the probe cable. This makes it easier to grab and move around.

 

11) Choosing the wrong type of wood.

Obsessing over what type of wood to use for smoking can result in family and friends rolling their eyes.  That said it’s important to get the basics right by using wood chunks instead of chips that will burn up real quick and need to be added to the fire many times.

Fix it: Learning how different types of wood effects your smoking is a good way to take your barbecue to the next level.  Mild woods like Apple or cherry are versatile enough to use for fish or pork, while hickory, maple and oak work well for pork, beef and game meats.

Wood chunks over charcoal

 

 12) Not treating your finished meat with the respect it deserves

After all those hours of work and waiting I understand the desire to start hacking away. But not allowing enough time to rest or slicing with the grain can ruin what would otherwise be a delicious piece of meat.

The fix:

From around the 7:10 mark Aaron Franklin explains how long to let your brisket rest, and some good tips for slicing your brisket. The key is to slice against the grain of the meat, aiming for an optimal thickness for a slice of brisket of a No. 2 pencil.

 

Everyone makes mistakes when learning to barbecue.

Even the most experienced cooks can probably tick off more than one of these mistakes. Hopefully you can learn a few things to avoid but don’t get discouraged if your barbecue isn’t perfect first time.

Do you agree with this list? I’d love it if you could share the biggest smoking mistake you’ve ever made in a comment below. 

 

Top barbecue mistakes

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25 Responses

  1. Gina

    Thank you!!! I really needed a quick, well advised article. I’m trying my smoker for the first time tomorrow and needed a bit of advice on vents.

    Reply
  2. Dennis

    Using macthlite charcoal for my first smoke. Then added more raw macthlite later for more fuel. Then wondered why it tasted like ..well you can imagine. Rookie mistake

    Reply
    • matthew mccarley

      have had good luck with chimney using a single layer of matchlight in bottom of chimney under regular charcoal, eliminated ever having to restart and have never noticed any aftertaste from matchlight

      Reply
  3. Brad

    When your mother stops by just as you put the meat on and you get to talking too much. Good for relationship with your. Bad for BBQ.

    Reply
  4. Esquire Maxwell

    I’ve done the too many drinks and too much smoke,both were on my first smoke. I acted as if it tasted amazing, I couldn’t accept defeat. Six years later and I’ve learned some things.

    Reply
  5. Anthony

    Ahhh, the lighter fluid ribs were my first mistake! Followed by a brisket that tasted like a hickory tree cuz of the INTENSE smoke! Hahaha, live, learn, and smoke on!

    Reply
  6. Harry

    Been there, done that. All of them at one time or another. I BBQ often and trying to get it right I have successfully committed every error listed, some two and three times. I consider myself an accomplished Q’er at this point but every cook is a new adventure and I love it. I am continually trying to perfect my Q’ing and am pretty good these days but I still try different things all the time. Loving every minute of it and my family loves it most of the time lol. Just got my big green egg and right now I’m waiting for Gable to blow the horn because I must be in heaven. I love it.

    Reply
  7. Bill braskey

    I’m pretty sure Myron Mixon uses lighter fluid to start his fires

    Reply
    • HARRY LINTON

      I never use lighter fluid to light my fire. In fact I’ve got a quart of lighter fluid I bought 5 years ago and never used since I started using lighter cubes. They cost under $4.00 for a box of 24 at the big box stores and I use 2 cubes to start my fire. No chimney is required. If you use a chimney you won’t need the cubes since it works very well with paper. I start my fire right in the grill wait about 15 minutes and it’s ready to go. I haven’t used lighter fluid since.

      Reply
  8. Scott

    Smoking a brisket for the first time. I have the temperature right and one hour in I don’t see any more smoke coming out. Only used 3 chunks of wood. The meat is steadily rising in temp. Should I be alarmed that there’s no more smoke or is this normal.

    Reply
    • joseph.clements12@gmail.com

      You should be fine. You don’t want to see thick billowy smoke. The perfect smoke is almost invisible, but should have a thin blue appearance.

      You can always add another chunk or two but it’s much easier to over smoke than under smoke. Check out this post for more info on getting the right type of smoke.

      Reply
  9. Tim Dunn

    Should I add hot coals to replenish the charcoal? I’ve heard that adding unlit coals can add an off flavor to the meat.

    Reply
    • joseph.clements12@gmail.com

      Hey Tim,

      I used to worry about that, but so long as you don’t use those instant light briquets you should be fine adding unlit charcoal. Most ways of setting up for smoking involve a combination of lit and unlit charcoal. That’s how you can smoke for up to 12 hours by following the minion method without replenishing the charcoal.

      That said, if I just need to top up my Weber Smokey Mountain, sometimes I’ll fire up 3/4 of a chimney starter and dump it.

      Reply
  10. Jeffrey Gessner

    Mistake #13 would be expecting BBQ Pitmaster quality BBQ from a cheap off set smoker or a Weber smoker. The pros spend a lot of money on their rigs, train on them, know how to adjust them and can therefore produce top quality barbecue. Also, don’t over smoke your meat by leaving it unprotected and surrounded by smoke and heat for the entire time. Most meats stop absorbing smoke after 140 degrees so anything after can add some unpleasant flavors. Leaving meat on a smoker after the internal temp reached 140 degrees is like going out to get a suntan after you are sunburnt.
    After you play with fire and smoke, catch the bug then and only then go out and do your research for a better smoker. Your decision will be based on how you intend to use it, your personal style, if you believe in offset smokers, vertical smokers, pot smokers or whatever else you find out there. Look for some used equipment out there as there are those who taste good Q, rush out and but the best equipment but then become frustrated.

    Reply
    • joseph.clements12@gmail.com

      Hey Jeffrey, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Agree with you on most points, a cheap off set is never a good idea for a beginner.

      But I disagree that you need to spend a lot of money on your setup to produce top quality barbecue. If you walk around at compeitions you can see lots of folks cooking on Weber smokers. For example the slapyodaddybbq competition team have won grand champions with a Weber Smokey Mountain.

      Good advice about over smoking, but so long as you’re smoker is setup right and you don’t keep adding wood past a certain point there’s no problem keeping your meat unwrapped. It’s more a personal preference thing. I’ve cooked brisket and ribs both wrapped and unwrapped and both can taste amazing.

      Check out this video for a brisket wrap test.

      Reply
  11. Dan Colmerauer

    You don’t need an expensive offset smoker to turn out great ‘que. In 1996 my wife bought me a $200 New Braunfels Hondo and I admit I had problems initially, Eventually, I figured out how to easily make slight modifications to this smoker and then managed to get as much as 12 hours steady 225 degrees in the smoker. A lot has to do with the brand of charcoal (there are huge differences). Anyone interested in the modifications please email me a request and I’ll email the booklet to you.

    Reply
  12. Nick

    Great article………. …….. Or at least my wife will say so!!!!

    My biggest mistake (continually) is too much smoke. I am using a cheap arse gas smoker, but the article really has emphasized the fact that too much smoke and wood chunks create too much white smoke and thus icky flavours….my wifes words.
    Cheers, I’ll keep following….and chase the blue smoke!

    Reply
    • joseph.clements12@gmail.com

      Hey Nice, thanks for your comment. It’s hard to say what your exact problem is caused by, but definitely sounds like it could be over smoking. Try cutting way back on the amount of wood you use, and then you can always gradually increase each time until you find the sweet spot.

      You can also try using the Texas Crutch where you wrap your meat in foil after a few hours. This should stop it taking on any more smoke.

      Keep experimenting, gotta keep the wife happy!

      Reply
  13. Chris N.

    Interesting article. I have been BBQing since as far back as I can remember, but always on a traditional open grill. Last year I got a smoker and have been loving it (and so have my co-workers, relatives, friends and the family dogs, haha).
    While I agree with some of your points, such as charcoal and wood choice, drinking and cooking, over-correcting, etc. There are definitely some points that you say are mistakes, that I do regularly with fantastic results. This does not say I think you are wrong and I am right, or vice-versa. I think the really important thing for people to remember is cooking is an art form. You should always take the advice of others with a grain of salt, pun intended. As you pointed out, don’t be afraid to make adjustments, try tweaking your technique, but most of all don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the journey. And yes it sounds corny but the most important tool in your cooking belt is love.
    Something I would like to add that has worked well for me. If you are having trouble with meat drying out, try putting a baking pan with water directly under the meat. The pan doesn’t have to be very deep but it should cover the entire area directly below the meat. The coals, of course, should be placed off to the sides for indirect heating. That works great for me. it ensures I have super tender meat, even when I let the heat get away from me more than I intended.
    Happy eating!

    Reply
  14. Hugh

    I use a Weber kettle with a slow and sear which can be purchased online. I prefer lump hardwood for fuel over briquettes but that personal choice, I don’t care for taste of briquettes anymore. Smoking I prefer chunks over chips. I don’t soak the wood anymore but don’t use more than a chunk or 2 at most, it can over smoke if not used carefully, plus chunks can spike your grill temp so be observant. Experiment,read up on whatever for ideas and suggestions. Have fun with it and enjoy the fruits of your love of barbecue!!
    And remember low and slow!!

    Reply
  15. Lee dodge

    This is a nice read. After years of smoking meats it is a long but fun learning experience. Different woods, coals and processing bring a lot of different tastes and textures to what is cooking under those lids. It’s a lot of work that is well worth the wait.

    Reply
  16. William

    I remove the membrane, season, let set overnight, set pellet grill to 225, cook two hours, wrap and cook four hours, remove wrap and cook for one hour with sauce. The baby back ribs are tough with a very hard surface. I spray water on them frequently but still come out very tough. What I’m I doing wrong?

    Reply
    • joseph.clements12@gmail.com

      Hey William, sounds like you might be cooking them for too long. Have you tried using the 3-2-1 method? I’ve found that’s the most fool proof way of getting the ribs real tender. I’ve got a post about this coming out soon, in the meantime this video is great!

      Reply

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