Understanding Smoke: the basics
There is no fire without smoke, and there is no good BBQ without it either. Smoke is what brings people together, barbecuing is a pleasure in life! It differentiates “outdoor cooking” from barbecuing. It’s what makes BBQ cooking stand out and it also provides a great experience altogether.
What initially started with logs and open pits became much more sophisticated through the years. Despite all the new technology that we’ve seen evolve throughout the last few decades with charcoal and pellet smokers, understanding the fundamentals of smoke is key to elevate your game while getting the most out of everything you put on your grill.
Smoke is a beautiful, yet complicated thing. While some people will see this as nothing but oxygen and flames, mastering smoke takes time, practice and a little bit of research.
What’s a “good smoke”?
Remember that time you ate a steak and it tasted like camping? Yeah, well that’s what happens when you cook with bad smoke. Good smoke is produced by controlling a few different variables such as wood density, humidity and combustion temperature. In other words, you got to know what you’re doing.
In order to “burn clean”, you should be using freshly chopped, yet dry, hardwood and smoke between 220F and 275F. A good indicator for good smoke is by paying attention to its color. White smoke will often be a sign that your fire is running too low and that it is nearly dead, while thick and dark smoke will indicate that the temperature is ramping up but not yet burning hot enough for the oils on the wood. Dark smoke is known to emanate from creosote and has been proven to be unhealthy.
Any fire running under 200 will generate white smoke that has an excess in wood particles with little to no vapor and will stick to the meat rather than smoke through. White smoke will leave a bitter taste in your mouth and overpower just about anything.
Pro tips: If you’re seeing white or thick dark smoke, you should open your vents and allow more air to circulate. Increasing oxygen will allow your fire to burn brighter and cleaner. If you are smoking with logs or chunks, you should warm your hardwood whenever possible before adding a stick to the firebox in order for it to burn clean faster. Once you’ve reached blue smoke, you should stabilize it for at least 10 minutes before throwing meat on the smoker.
The golden rule: No less than 220F, No more than 275F
BBQ smoke is all about getting the perfect ratio of wood particles and vapor circulating as your fire burns through your hardwood. In order for smoke to go through your meat, it needs a greater vapor ratio, which is said to be optimal between 220F and 275F. Running too hot will result in a loss of smoky flavor as you will be cooking with dry heat and little to no wood particles. Entering the grilling temperature range, around 300F, makes it nearly impossible to generate quality smoke. Ironically enough, you can tell you are burning clean with good smoke when you can barely see it. It’s often referred to as “blue smoke”.
Thin blue smoke will get you that smoky flavor you are looking for in any traditional barbecue meal. That flavor is actually a combination of different aromas, specific to wood combustion, called Guaiacol and Syringol. The blend of these 2 aromas is what makes everything taste like bacon and develop nice crusty barks.
Smoke over 220 and your fire will burn bright enough to burn through creosote without sacrificing these aromas. Burn over 275 and your hardwood will burn too hot to the expense of the vapor it needs to seep through the meat.
Although somewhat contested on the competition scene, you’ll know if you’ve been cooking your meat with quality smoke throughout your process by the “smoke ring” you’ll find once you make your first cut.
The smoke ring is a dark, crimson pink layer on the outskirts of the meat, created by a chemical reaction between Nitric and Carbon Oxides. It’s traditionally associated with low and slow cooks.
The smoke ring does not temper the taste. It’s a simple visual indicator of how stable and consistent you’ve been keeping your temperature throughout your cook. While only aesthetically appealing, be advised that smoke rings can be created using chemicals and without any smoke so do not strive for “the perfect ring” but just use this as additional data for you to evaluate your cooks.
Smoke Ring Hack #1: Thermophoresis is a scientifically proven reaction that allows any cold components to absorb more smoke. Knowing this, you can play with the smokiness of your meat by not letting it come to room temperature before adding it to the smoker.
Smoke Ring Hack #2: Smoke penetration is altered by the surface moisture of your meat. As you build your bark, your meat will gradually stop absorbing smoke if you let it run dry. You can enhance your smoke penetration by spraying or basting on a regular basis. This will yield a darker smoke ring and richer smoke profile.
Smoking a 100$ cut of meat with the wrong type of hardwood can turn your dream into a nightmare. Smoke flavor should amplify and add to the overall flavor, not overpower it.
Wood species all have different flavor profiles. Softwoods are never recommended as they hold a lot of resin, which creates harsh and bitter flavored smoke that will ruin any food it comes in contact with. Hardwoods will offer you a wide range of flavors that, once combined with the right cuts of meat, become any pitmaster playground.
Understanding what type to use in combination with what meat is one of the foundations of smoking.
Alder and Maple will often be seen as entry-level, “all purpose/ go-to” mild wood types to use as they mix well with poultry, pork, veggies, seafood, cheeses, etc.
Fruity woods such as Apple, Cherry, Peach and Oak have a mild and sweeter profile that blends well with pork, poultry, and lamb.
Mesquite, Pecan and Walnut have a corser flavor profile that often is more fitting for beef and wild game.
Through time and experience, you’ll find which is more in line with your personal taste. You can mix types together for a more balanced smoke profile. Maple and cherry are a great example of a sweet, yet flavorful combo.
As you now understand what makes a good smoke, what to look for, what to do and how to get the most out of any smoking sessions, you will soon begin to understand that smoking is a continuous learning process and that it’s a big part in what makes BBQ such a passion for a lot of people around the world. Try, document and fine tune every cookout until you own your craft enough to be able to be consistent with every bite you deliver.