Do you know the difference between good smoke and bad smoke?
Posted by: Jack Calhoun
I remember my routine when I first started smoking meat on my ceramic cooker. I would usually opt for a pork butt (which is really a shoulder); I’d slather it up with yellow mustard, which makes a nice glue for your rub, and then rub it down good with Bad Byron’s Butt Rub or Dizzy Pig Dizzy Dust. Meanwhile I would be soaking chunks of hickory wood in water in a plastic box next to my egg. Just before I put the meat on, I would toss those wet chunks of wood on the coals and – voila! – a heavy, dense white smoke would instantly appear, sure to impart amazing flavor to my pork butt.
Only it didn’t. At all. The first few butts that came off my smoker had tasty meat but the crunchy, dark exterior (known as the bark) always had a strong, acrid flavor to it. And the smoke flavor was so heavy that I half wondered if smoke was literally billowing out of my mouth as I ate the bits of bark. Since the bark is my favorite part of pulled pork barbecue, I found this dismaying.
I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I was smoking meat, so the more smoke the better, right?
A little research quickly enlightened me on the very important difference between “good” smoke and “bad” smoke. While there are many hundreds of thousands of words devoted to this topic on a multitude of online barbecue forums, it can all be distilled down the following:
White smoke bad. Blue smoke good.
“Wait,” I hear you say. “Blue smoke?”
Yes, there is such a thing as blue smoke, although it’s frequently closer to an opaque haze. All that really matters here is that you understand the contrast between this oh-so-desirable wood smoke compared to the “we’ve-just-elected-a-new-pope” heavy white smoke that I was soaking my poor pork butts in when I first got started with this obsession hobby.
The process of getting from white smoke to blue smoke is really a journey. When you first put wood chunks on a new fire, the initial combustion phase releases a dense, white smoke that contains lots of unpleasant flavor compounds, as seen here:
These compounds cling to the exterior of your meat, giving it an acrid, bitter taste. But as the fire gets hotter and the wood burns down, the smoke enters a new, blue phase. Here’s the same fire after allowing an hour for the smoke to turn from white to blue:
This is the type of smoke that imparts the desirable flavor compounds we associate with delicious smoked meat. (There is a lot of science behind this, and if you’re inclined to delve into it the folks at https://amazingribs.com do a fabulous job of explaining the science of smoke.)
Here are three tips for making sure you get the blue smoke for your longer cooks:
Don’t soak the wood. If you’ve ever tossed a green log on a fire in your fireplace, you know all that gets you is a lot of hissing and a thick, white smoke as the water leaches out of the wood. The same thing happens when you toss wet wood chunks on your charcoal fire in your smoker. That is the surest way to create a ton of bad smoke, plus it will take longer for the wood to dry out and get to the blue smoke phase you want.
Let your fire come up to your desired temp before adding the wood chunks. A hotter fire will burn the wood chunks down faster and transition you from white smoke to blue smoke more quickly.
- Once you put your wood chunks on the fire, wait an hour before you put your meat on the smoker. While you may not be entirely to the blue smoke phase after an hour, most of the heavy white smoke will have burned off by that time and you should be good to go.
One final, smoke-related thought: a little wood goes a long way. Even if you are doing a long cook of 12-18 hours with thick, primal cuts of meat (pork butts, beef briskets, etc.), just three or chunks of wood will give plenty of smoke without overpowering the meat. And if you are cooking poultry, just one or two chunks will be plenty.