“The more smoke the better, I always say!”
If I only had a dollar for every time I heard that while standing around your smoker with family and friends. It is a commonly held belief that to get a distinctive smoky flavor into your meat, your cooker needs to be producing billows of smoke.
I can assure you that when it comes to smoke, less is definitely more.
Think of smoke as a seasoning. Too much leads to an overpowering smokey flavor and a bitter aftertaste.
Getting the right amount of smoke can be tricky. Especially if you’re new to smoking meat and just dialing in the right temperature is a challenge. The key here is getting our smokers to produce that beautiful thin blue smoke that’s almost invisible.
Let’s look at 6 tips to guarantee you get the smoke level just right, and produce fantastic results every time.
The importance of fire management
If you see thin, blue smoke coming out of your smoker, that indicates a clean burning fire. This is what you want to aim for every time you fire up the smoker. A clean burning fire also means no creosote.
Creosote, a thick, black, carbon rich residues, is the result of incomplete combustion of wood, and is what makes your smoked meat go from tasting “smokey” to “bitter”.
It also makes a mess of your cooker. No doubt a real pain to clean up if you let it build up over time.
You can control the amount of smoke your barbecue produces by having the right combination of airflow and fuel. This balanced combination results in more efficient combustion.
The most common causes of incomplete combustion are:
- Too much fuel in your smoker.
- Your coals are not hot enough.
- Not enough airflow for complete combustion.
- A raging hot fire that moves too fast to fully burn the fuel in your cooker.
If your smoker has plumes of white smoke billowing out of it, this is a sure indication of incomplete combustion. And contrary to common belief, this is not the sort of smoke that you need to get that smoky flavor into your meat.
Let’s delve into the 6 ways to ensure that you get the thin blue smoke which produces the results you are after.
1) Remember, a little smoke goes a long way
You don’t actually need much smoke to impart top-notch flavor. In fact, you can run the risk of overpowering the taste of the meat if you aim for too much smokiness.
While you want your meat to have a nice smoky character, woods that impart stronger flavor characteristics, such as Hickory or Oak, can easily overpower the flavor of the meat.
When you monitor the smoke coming out of the stack of your smoker, the harder you have to look to spot it, the better. There should only be a trace of smoke coming out of the stack, and while it need not be “blue” exactly, it should most definitely not be thick, white and fluffy. The smell of the smoke produced should be notable, but subtle.
When you monitor the smoke coming out of the stack of your smoker, the harder you have to look to spot it, the better.
Remember the aim is to supplement the flavour of the meat, not to overpower it – this is not a case of the more the merrier.
2) Build your fire for success
It is important to remember if you’re cooking on a charcoal smoker, the charcoal is the heat source and the wood is to produce smoke. So don’t be tempted to add too much wood.
If you’re cooking on a horizontal offset smoker, then the wood is also used to build up a bed of coals and produce both heat and smoke. But even you should still use charcoal to start the fire,
Let’s break down the principles of building a fire that will ensure complete combustion. We will discuss the how to deal with specific smokers in more detail later.
- Start with coals, and get them very hot (preferably using a charcoal chimney starter) The coals are your heat source.
- Introduce the wood you will be using for smoke once there is adequate heat – remember, the wood is to produce the smoke, not the heat. Two to three chunks should be plenty to start with.
- If you have added too much wood, the smoke will be thick and white, and will not thin out. This means you are smothering the coals. Some white smoke initially is nothing to panic about.
- Only when the wood has become part of the coal bed should you replace it with a fresh piece.
This video is a nice short guide to fire management and controlling pit temperature.
3) Use the right type of wood
There are a few hard rules on which woods you should never use.
- Never smoke with wood that has been treated in any way like plywood, particle board or treated lumber.
- Don’t use wood with a lot of resin. Pine, cedar, evergreens etc are all no go.
But when it comes to what type of wood to use, and the idea of pairing different types of wood with different types of meat, things start to get controversial.
Some feel that the idea different types of wood give different flavors is ridiculous.
On the other hand, there is the school of thought that the wood you use will directly affect the flavor of the meat. Many say that Mesquite, for instance, has a strong, distinctive flavor. Hickory is said to come after Mesquite in terms of robust flavor.
Some temper the strength of the Mesquite by using a 20/80 mix of Mesquite and Hickory.
Pitmasters who are after a subtle, sweeter flavor, claim that woods derived from fruit and nut trees are a good choice. These woods also have a lower sap content which makes them a good wood for smoking in general.
In my experience Apple wood chunks are a versatile and reliable wood choice to fall back on.
Clearly, the jury is out as to how much of an effect the specific wood you use will have on the flavor of your meat. You will no doubt decide what camp you are in after some experimentation.
Soaking your wood
There is another question to consider regarding the wood you use: To soak or not to soak?
It is often said that you should soak your wood in water for a good 12 hours before you plan to use it. This is not only unnecessary, but could also affect the quality of your smoke.
As we have discussed, a hot fire that achieves full combustion produces thin, blue smoke. Throwing wet wood on hot coals will affect the consistency of your fire’s temperature. Remember, controlling the temperature of your barbecue is a key ingredient for success.
Often, the reasoning behind soaking your wood is to make it burn longer. If you are planning a long cook, simply use larger chunks of wood.
4) Manage your air flow
Airflow is a vital ingredient in the combustion process. So, not only is the right amount of airflow key to controlling the temperature of your fire, it is also crucial to ensuring the fire is burning efficiently.
This does not mean that more air is better. It is a matter of knowing your cooker, and monitoring the smoke it is producing.
Let’s have a look at a couple of basic principles regarding air flow.
- You want enough air available to ensure complete combustion. However, if you let too much air in, the fire will burn too quickly. This results in parts of your wood not burning completely, which in turn creates the dreaded white smoke.
- In most cases, the best way to accomplish the correct amount of air flow is to keep your exhaust open, and then control the heat with your intake vents. Monitor the color and amount of smoke being produced, and adjust the vents accordingly.
5) Work with your smoker
We have covered some general principles regarding building a fire that will produce good smoke, but each smoker is different. Here are a few general tips for producing the right type of smoke on some common smoker types.
When smoking on a Smokey Mountain expect to see some white smoke while you are getting the smoker up to temperature. It should take no longer than 30-45 minutes for the white smoke to stop though.
- When cooking low and slow using the minion or a similar method, you will need to use about ½ to ¾ of a chimney of lit coals to get started. Place these coals in the centre of the fire.
- Position your unlit coals and wood around the edges of the fire.
- Open up the top vent completely.
- Adjust the bottom vents to the position required to achieve the temperature you want throughoutthe cook, and leave them there. Some pitmasters recommend leaving just one bottom vent half open, while others prefer leaving all bottom vents ¼ open. You may need to do a little experimenting beforehand to learn what your preferred vent position.
- Don’t smother the fire with too much wood, monitor the smoke.
In this Q&A T-ROY COOKS runs through some more ways to get that thin blue smoke on a
Malcom Reed of How To BBQ Right sums it up best, “You should always burn your wood down to create the coal bed. Always remember that this is where your cooker is getting its heat. The fresh sticks you add on top are where you’re getting your smoke and smoky flavor… and that should only be added a little at a time.”
Get more tips on how to start your offset smoker and manage the fire here.
To get thin blue smoke with a Kamado cooker:
Here are two helpful suggestions for getting the right type of smoke on a Kamado style cooker:
- Limit the amount of wood in the fire until it is up to the desired temperature.
- Place your charcoal at the bottom of the fire box, add your wood, then add another layer of charcoal on top of the wood. Remove a couple of charcoal lumps in the center to make a ditch to light the fire.
- Sandwiching the wood between the coals helps it start burning at a higher temperature from the outset.
6) Keep your smoker clean
The bad news is this: You have to clean your smoker from time to time.
We have talked about creosote, the byproduct of incomplete combustion that gives meat a bitter flavour. Creosote can also build up in your smoker, along with ash, grease and soot. The buildup of grease from your old cooks will create black smoke as it burns off.
Cleaning your barbecue also gives you a good opportunity to keep an eye out for rust, something that will unnecessarily shorten the life of your smoker.
Wrapping it up
Have you have found our list of 6 ways to guarantee you get perfect thin blue smoke helpful?
Achieving that distinctive, smoked flavor is indeed something to be proud of. It can be a challenge when there are some myths floating around as to how to accomplish it. But creating the much coveted thin, blue smoke need not be out of your reach. Now you are armed with some facts and helpful hints, have a bit of a practice.
Have you got any tips or questions? Be sure to let us know in the comments below. And if you found this article helpful, be sure to share it!
Feature CC Image courtesy of Bryan Adams on Flickr