Why is it we smoke brisket and ribs but not skirt steak or ribeyes?
The reality is you can smoke any part of the cow you want, but what makes brisket and ribs perfect for smoking? It is the large amount of inter muscular fat, surface fat, and collagen.
When you smoke something you are exposing it to low heat for a long period of time and adding a smoke flavor to it. This can dry out a wonderful cut of meat like a filet or strip steak. But brisket and ribs have tons of fat and collagen which means to even make them edible you have to cook them slow and at low temperatures. Let me explain.
First thing you have to do is melt the collagen.
Collagen takes time to melt, the temperature can be super hot or low, but collagen just takes its sweet time. In fact when you watch the temperature rise on a brisket you can even see what is called the "stall" hit as the the collagen is melting and squeezing moisture out of the brisket.
Cook it too fast and the outside gets completely cooked or charred and you don't give the collagen time to break down. So you end up with chewy brisket. You can even see the collagen fibers if you look at a slice of under cooked brisket. The meat will be plenty done, but rubbery.
Cook it too slowly, and well, actually I don't know if you can cook a brisket too slowly. You can cook it for too long though, in which case everything breaks down and you end up with brisket that is like eating wet newspaper. It just falls apart when you chew or slice it.
Inter Muscular Fat
The fat intermingled within the muscle fibers of the brisket itself will keep the meat moist and tender during these long cooking times. Fat melts at a higher temperature than collagen, so that is why you need to pull the brisket at the right time before you melt all the fat, but after you melt the collagen.
Finally the surface fat helps keep moisture in the brisket and provides its own flavor to the meat. The key here is not having too much but just the right amount. This is the job of the pitmaster to get the trim just right, we do a 1/4 inch at the restaurant.
So what this all means is you can smoke any piece of meat, but you will need to adjust time and temperature accordingly to get ideal results. Here is a handy chart provided by the beef council with all your standard cuts. You can try and smoke cuts with the roast, stew, or braise icons. Anything with a long cooking method listed next to it could be smoked with some positive results, but most of these are missing the fat and so will dry out. So you can always try and mix smoking with braising or stewing or even pot roast. Your best results will still be from brisket.