Understanding Smoke Management
Recently, on several meat smoking and BBQ forums, including this one, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of threads pertaining to the color of the smoke being produced, specifically Thin Blue Smoke (TBS) vs. Thick White Smoke (TWS). Various posts on the threads express opinions in a manner ranging from discussions, debates, and in some cases, light hearted arguments.
In reading the posts I have noticed that, in general, there’s a group that sings the praises of TBS and decries TWS as the spawn of Satan. A second group finds value in both TBS and TWS depending on the item you’re smoking, the fuel source, the length of time of the smoke, and the desired final result you’re looking to achieve. And, as in all things, there’s a group that’s ambivalent to the subject and isn’t concerned about it at all. It’s fair to say that I fall into the second group in that, after nearly 60 years of smoking meat and many other food products, with a lot of mistakes along the way, I find virtue in both TBS and TWS.
With a focus on TWS, virtually all solid materials emit white smoke when first heated and undergoing primary combustion (smoldering, not burning). This is moisture being released. As far back as the 15th Century Leonardo Da Vinci commented at length on the difficulty of assessing the characteristics of smoke and distinguished between black smoke (carbonized particles) and white 'smoke' which he concluded was not a smoke at all but merely a suspension of harmless water droplets. As the materials start to dry out the smoke changes colors.
As a general rule, I look to the following as a guide on to how to use the different colors and densities of smoke to my advantage when smoking foods to achieve a desired result without getting the bitter or over smoked taste. Once one learns the basics and understands the complexities of smoking foods, time, effort and expense are minimized regardless of the color or density of the smoke.
Smoke can be used as a seasoning, a preservative or both. Just like a seasoning, there are many different kinds. Using what is available, smoke for the length of time to meet your individual taste.
At one time before refrigeration foods were smoked to help preserve it for later use. Today it is used mostly for flavoring. Smoke includes as many as 100 compounds in the form of microscopic solids as well as combustion gases. Most of the flavor comes from the gases, not the smoke particles, according to Dr. Greg Blonder, and the composition of the gases depends on the amount of oxygen and the temperature. For more on Dr. Blonder’s research you may find it by doing the following web search (foggy ideas about smoke). http://www.genuineideas.com/ArticlesIndex/srasmokeparticles.html
There are three necessities needed to produce smoke; fire/heat, combustible fuel, and oxygen. When all three meet certain requirements secondary combustion occurs and a flame is produced. In order to make smoke, the heat, oxygen or both can be adjusted so the fuel smolders rather than burns producing a visible smoke. This is the method used with both hot and cold smoking.
Stick burners, charcoal and pellet cookers all produce smoke, either visible or invisible while cooking foods at high temperatures. Whether using a grill, grill/smoker combination, a smoker/oven or a smoker alone, each will produce a different end product. There are many different types and makes of smokers. Each one has its own characteristics that are best learned through experience by using it and keeping good notes as they will help you understand the significance of smoke management.
Things to keep notes of include the product itself, was it brined or marinated, ambient temperature, external humidity, internal smoker humidity, whether or not a water pan is used, will the product be rubbed, basted or spritzed with a juice or water and when it was applied. Will oil or butter be applied, the air flow through the smoker and of course the temperature of both the smoker and product along with the time, type and amount of wood by weight. They will all determine how the smoke lays on your product.
You also want to monitor the color and density of the smoke along with the time the smoke was applied whether it be 2 minutes, 2, 20 or 200 hours. TWS smoke particles are heavier and will stick to the product easier than TBS will. Keep in mind that the thicker the smoke the less forgiving it is and the less time it will take to get to a desired taste.
Things to consider when choosing the wood for your product should include, species (hickory, cherry, apple, etc.), type (log, chunk, chip, pellet, dust or powder). Although hickory is one of the most popular woods it, and walnut, can be bitter and should be used sparingly or with other woods. The time of year that a wood is collected can determine the final taste. A wood that was collected when the sap was up can result in a slightly bitter taste also. Some products will lose their heavy or bitter taste after a short rest period prior to consumption, cheese being one.
I would estimate that at least 75% of the foods I smoke are cold smoked, rather than hot. By using the cold smoke method, a layer of smoke is applied without cooking, unlike hot smoking. Traditionally, cold smoking is defined as smoking at a temperature of 90⁰ or less, although many products should be smoked below 90⁰ such as cheese, raw fish and vegetables.
Items that can be cold smoked include meats, braising liquids, breads, broth, butter, hard and soft cheeses, chips, chocolates, crackers, drinks, fish, herbs, nuts, oysters, pastry, poultry, raw seafood, shrimp, snacks, soups, spices, stock, sushi, raw and cooked vegetables.
Practice, Practice, Practice:
Practice and you'll gain invaluable knowledge that will improve individual recipes and help you understand why a recipe can go wrong.
To determine how your smoke will taste, try smoking crackers, chips or a few slices of cured bacon. This will help you determine the final smoke flavor without a great amount of expense. If the product has too strong of a smoke flavor or is bitter, it was over smoked and adjustments need to be made, most notably with fuel source (type/amount of wood, oxygen flow, and/or the smoker temperature). Over smoking is a common error for the beginner. It is best to start with a little wood and build up to your desired taste. The ideal colors of cooking smoke range from white to blue. Learn your smoker and make the needed adjustments to your liking. You will soon learn to take with a grain of salt a recipe that calls for smoking such and such at 225⁰ for two hours.
Three auxiliary smoke generators:
Pictured left to right, Smoking Gun, AMNPS and a Smoke Daddy being used and all fueled with the same type of Hickory pellets.
The Smoking Gun, opens a whole new world to smoking. If it can be consumed, it can be smoked using this unit. Although it cannot duplicate the deep penetration that a long cold smoke would produce, it can apply a layer of smoke to most anything by using such fuels as woods, spices, herbs or teas. This unit produces no discernible heat and can produce a color of smoke from blue to white depending on the type of fuel being used chips, pellets, dust or any dried material. This could also be an affordable device to use in areas where open grills or smokers are not allowed such as apartments or condos as it can be used indoors.
The AMNPS will produce a wispy plume of smoke for a relatively long period of time depending on the fuel being used, pellet, saw dust or powder. It can be used for adding additional smoke to a grill or when a long slow smoke is desired. One or both ends can be lit if more smoke is desired. It does produce heat so if using it to cold smoke, modifications may or may not be needed to the smoke collector or the way the smoke is delivered.
The Smoke Daddy, is able to apply a large or small amount of smoke in a short time. It can be used for large walk in smokers or the smaller ones by adjusting the variable speed air pump. By using chips chunks or pellets alone or in combination, once a draft is started, the air pump can be turned off. Like the AMNPS the Smoke Daddy can produce a little heat when cold smoking so modifications may be needed.
My Cold Smoking Options
The following is an excerpt taken from a post from another SMF member in response to a thread which seemed to be appropriate here.
The full post is here.http://www.smokingmeatforums.com/t/141104/help-chicken-had-bad-smoke-taste
My experiences have led me to believe that smoke color or concentration is not much of a factor when dealing with bitterness, tingling or numbness in the mouth after eating smoked food, etc. Stale smoke is what will kill your meal. I've had instances where I had heavy mesquite smoke flavor on brisket, and it never turned bitter...it was such a heavy smoke flavor that I almost could not eat it, but bitterness was not a part of that equation. It was good smoke, just way too much for my liking at that time.
Most of us here on the forums have been preaching thin blue smoke like it's gospel. The color and density of your smoke is not the issue, and different smoke can be used for different applications. If you're new to smoking, yes, thin blue smoke is probably what you want to achieve UNTIL YOU decide it's time to step it up a bit more. If you're on a long smoke with pork shoulder or beef brisket and you don't want a heavy smoke flavor, here again, thin blue smoke is probably your best approach, but if you get periods of heavy smoke, or thick white smoke during this brisket or butt smoke, you won't ruin your prize dinner...you'll just get a bit more smoke than you would have if you kept it thin and blue.
I've laid on some pretty hard-core smoke to birds recently (I mean white, and long running) and didn't find any issues with the pulled meat...smoke was not bitter or harsh, and the skin had a superb color. What you do want to avoid is burning meat drippings giving off a grey/black smoke (gives a grilled taste instead of smoked), or black smoke from flare-ups of wood or fuel.
I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what proper smoke is, and what it is not, in the world of BBQ and smoked meats. Thick white smoke plays just as important of a role in certain applications as thin blue smoke does...there are differences in what is in each type of smoke, and each has beneficial characteristics regarding the flavors from resins produced by certain species of wood and smoke color/density. Finding that prime smoke (wood species and smoke color.density) for a certain cut of meat is the fun part.
There is a lot more to smoke than most of us would care to want to know, but for those of us who really want to grab the bull by the horns, jump on and take the full 8-second ride, here's some info which explains it better than I ever could hope to in this reply, so I'll just let you take it from here:
This piece gives a little more explanation of thick white smoke vs thin white/blue smoke, and what it can do for long-term cold smoking...different application than hot-smoking for BBQ, but I think you'll see similarities in the overall process:
This really hits on the topic of creosote, how it forms and condenses, and touches a bit on controlling where it condenses (cooler areas in specific)...creosote, BTW, is what gives you that numbing/tingling effect, as well as the bitter taste, when eating improperly smoked meats:
Hope that helps to clear up the smoke dilemma a bit. Sure, there's a ton of science behind smoking meats, but for the beginners, the basic understanding that the smoke needs to keep moving in the smoke chamber with proper temps for cooking, and that a heavier smoke will produce a stronger flavor earlier, will take you far....knowledge is power...power will allow you to build your skill level and confidence. The only real limitation is your own level of ambition...how far are you willing to ride through the smoke?
Edited by Mr T 59874 - 12/8/14 at 1:32pm