1. Some of the links on this forum allow SMF, at no cost to you, to earn a small commission when you click through and make a purchase. Let me know if you have any questions about this.

Understanding Smoke Management - updated 12/08/14

Discussion in 'Info and Practices' started by mr t 59874, Apr 12, 2013.

  1. mr t 59874

    mr t 59874 Master of the Pit SMF Premier Member

    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 tray type smoke generator 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.

    Additional Information:

    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?

    Last edited: Jan 29, 2017
    disco, forluvofsmoke, black and 3 others like this.
  2. disco

    disco Legendary Pitmaster OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Good information, thank you.
  3. kathrynn

    kathrynn Legendary Pitmaster OTBS Member

    Great Information Mr T!  thank you are posting this!

  4. Very good read.
  5. seenred

    seenred Legendary Pitmaster Group Lead OTBS Member

    Enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing it, Mr. T!

  6. forluvofsmoke

    forluvofsmoke Smoking Guru OTBS Member

    Nice read!

    I tend to lean towards being in the second group, though with the understanding that every source of smoke I use will always produce white smoke on start-up, or in the case of the AMNPS or AMNPT (I have both) using pellets, a continuous thin white smoke with wisps of blue, as they are constantly moving the heat towards fresh smoke media. But with conventional/traditional hot smoking media such as wood chips or chunks, white smoke is generally short-lived once the smoke media is heated enough to evaporate the humidity/moisture, which is the point when thin blue smoke begins. How much media, and the surface area of the media determines the amount of smoke form that point, regulated by heat and air getting to the media from that point, until it has burned/charred completely, at which point the smoke will stop.

    I do tend to lay on smoke quite heavily when hot smoking larger cuts of meats, as they seem to get a better reaction with a good dose right up front, then keep it coming slow and steady for X amount of time thereafter. I began using this method in conjunction with a wet-to-dry smoke chamber for hot smoking, and find that I get a great balance of smoke reaction with a humid smoke chamber, then, I can stop smoking when transitioning to a dry smoke chamber, allowing the meat's surface fibers will tighten up and reduce the internal moisture evaporation from the meat. But the heavier smoke when humidity is high will really allow a lot of smoke to accumulate, even if it is thin blue smoke.

    Essentially, from what you wrote, white smoke would provide at least some of the added humidity for a better smoke reaction, where thin blue smoke would not add to the smoke chamber humidity, and another source of humidity would be needed to achieve a higher degree of smoke accumulation on the food, salt, spices, herbs, or whatever it is you are smoking, or, a longer time of exposure to smoke would achieve similar results, in the case of cold smoking...faster smoke with humidity, slower smoke without humidity...and this is what I find is the case with hot smoking of meats.

    Hmm, I just realized that I opened the link you referenced and haven't read it yet...I'll go see if what I wrote coincides with that.

    Great info, Mr T!!!

    ndallmer likes this.
  7. mr t 59874

    mr t 59874 Master of the Pit SMF Premier Member

    Thanks everyone. 

    Eric, Thanks for your detailed response, you hit the nail on the head.

    Happy smokin.

  8. forluvofsmoke

    forluvofsmoke Smoking Guru OTBS Member

    Mr T, it derails from cold smoking a bit to say this, but this morning I realized that in the past several years I occasionally experiment with hot smoking chamber temps to get a deeper smoke ring by starting at slightly reduced temps (below the generally recognized 225* for larger cuts of fresh meats, along with knowing surface pasteurization is a critical issue for the fist hour or so, therefore is not recommended) and I noticed that it did produce a deeper smoke ring in most cases. I recall a cold start-up with pork spare ribs (maybe it was baby backs) in the past year or less where the smoke ring nearly completely consumed the interior meat...something I've done with repeatable results, btw. If I start with a 225*+ smoke chamber, I don't get quite the same results, even with a humid smoke chamber and relatively heavy smoke for the entire cooking process. I can get a decent smoke ring, sure, but with a cold start it is always deeper and at times more pronounced and uniform.

    The mention of certain species of woods producing different particle sizes really got me thinking. If larger particle sizes collect more easily on surfaces by breaking the boundary layer of air surrounding the food more readily than smaller particles, then it would stand to reason that a somewhat "dirtier smoke" (as some might refer to as) would give faster coloring and denser flavoring to the food. Bearing in mind that heavier deposits of creosote and the flavors of certain species may not give the desired resulting flavor. Also, the mention of a rougher surface allowing for even more impingement of smoke particles to stick to the surface, such as that which can be achieved by using a courser particle size for a dry rub, would further enhance the rate of smoke collection. I wish I would have been thinking along those lines over the years as I would have kept better documentation on my smokes for reference, but in my first experiment with a dry smoke chamber with a lean-trimmed pork butt and a charcoal-fired vertical smoker, I achieved what was a beautiful dark mahogany surface coloring...very clean smoke. I wondered how this could be possible with a charcoal-fired vertical smoker when I was frequently tending the fire by adding hot/burning charcoal (even with extreme diligence, there always seems to be some air-borne ash with fire-tending). Here's part of the reason, I suspect: I was simultaneously testing a new mod which allowed me to use the AMNPS under the charcoal fire.

    The referenced article states that pellet smokers are very efficient at burning wood, but could pellet smoke generators also be so efficient that they reduce the "dirty smoke" by utilizing a smaller, hotter burning fire-base? I think there are strong indications to support that. The flip-side to this equation is the dry smoke chamber, which after reading the linked article, would allow less accumulation of larger smoke particles, which would at least to some extent support what the article states. Also, regarding the use of a coarse dry rub...I never made that correlation before, but again, it makes perfect sense. With a dry smoke chamber, the meat's surface tightened up very quickly and reduced the collection of both large and small smoke particle sizes, which would give a cleaner smoke on the surface...ash particles and creosote, being the largest, could not stick once they struck the surface, so they could not collect, allowing only the smaller particles to gather over time, so far less creosote and ash were involved in the end result.

    I have also hot smoked with partially frozen meats (in reference to the frozen beef tenderloin), which is something I tried to avoid due to some folks saying it could possibly cause much less even cooking throughout the cut, and again I noticed very similar results (deep smoke ring) when compared to using common methods (fully thawed meats, high humidity and normal hot smoking temps). Some of the other details in the article you linked are beyond what most of us can achieve in the backyard to push the overall limits with what we commonly have available for hot or cold smoking, but I do understand it and after letting it soak into my thought processes, it all makes perfect sense.

    Oh, and the dreaded stall that most of those new to smoking would shudder at when they see it happen? I didn't realize that water evaporation and it's natural cooling effects which occur during the stall would have a positive impact on collecting smoke on the surface of the meat...that really got me thinking, because I used to force/prolong stalls by dropping chamber temps at a target internal meat temp to (in theory) aid in tenderizing of lesser cuts of meats which would be finished at higher I/T...I never would have thought I was also enhancing the smoke reaction. I remember reading a member stating that he would poke around in the meat to break the muscle membranes and allow the water evaporation to increase when a stall would hit, just to reduce stall times, referring to when time constraints for finishing the meat were an issue. I'm sure this would do just what he said it would do to reduce stall times, but he may not have understood that the stall also improves smoke reaction by keeping the meat cooler for a longer period of time.

    I will definitely use this info to further expand my smoking methods. I inadvertently was already doing some of it with hot smoking while trying to achieve a good balance of smoke and retained natural moisture in the meat, but for cold smoking I did not make the connection with humidity for some strange reason, although I don't cold smoke very much at this point. It will have me looking for ways to make improvements with cold smoking as well as hot smoking. I'm a tinkerer by nature, so this is right up my alley...some may not find the need and roll with whatever happens, but shortly after I joined SMF my profile "interests/hobbies" has read "seek the ever-elusive ultimate smoke" as the first on my list...oh, I can definitely put this info to good use!

    All I can say at this point is WOW!!! Major eye-opener for me! Glad you posted this because it will fall right into much of what I've already been trying to accomplish, only I'll have a little less guess-work and trial and error ahead of me.

    I have some more reading to do on this, as I'm sure I've just touched the surface in this short amount of time. There has been a lot of speculation and theories discussed on the subject of what factors effect smoke reaction the most, but not a lot of details supporting much of it, other than humidity...it's the little things that can add up in the end. Looking back on what I've personally experienced and how I've changed my smoking methods, I can't think of anything that would discredit what the linked article states, or what you wrote, and when I'm primed up on a subject, I'm all about details. All of this info supports and enhances what I already do, but I see strong potential for me to do more...uh-oh, you may have just turned loose the mad scientist in me again!!! LOL!!! Smoke and learn.

    Thanks again for the great post!

  9. lu1847

    lu1847 Smoking Fanatic

    Thanks for posting. Some good info here fellas. Another example of why I love this place. Thanks again.
  10. mr t 59874

    mr t 59874 Master of the Pit SMF Premier Member

    Well it sounds like somebody has awakened from there sleep.  My intention here was to share not only what has been learned over the years, but also some research that has been discovered.  When I first started to try and duplicate those wonderful deli foods, you just had to make do with what you had to work with, you made adjustments until the desired result was accomplished not knowing why.  Now with the world of information at our hands, the changes we make begins to make since as you have obviously discovered. 

    Having tinkered with smokers most of my life, it must be the pleasure of seeing smoke slowly coming from whatever that is so addictive.    With the understanding of how and why, one can forge ahead with experiments with confidence and turn out some great foods.  Sure one can (as we all have) drop some wood chips on a charcoal fire and cook a steak.  Now with the equipment available, it's do I want to cold smoke a steak for a few minutes them pan fry it, or smoke it through the entire cook as in reverse searing, or broil it and give it a quick cold smoke prior to serving.

    I'm just happy you and the others are finding the information helpful.  Let us know what you discover in the future in both hot and cold smoking.
  11. navigator

    navigator Meat Mopper SMF Premier Member

    Great read, thanks for sharing!
  12. Thanks for sharing Tom, some great info here!
  13. sqwib

    sqwib Smoking Guru OTBS Member

    Thanks for sharing... definitely informative.

    I am the less is more type

    I don't even want to see the smoke when using my pit, this is pretty hard to do with using splits but a small hot fire fed often with smallish splits works well

    Thanks Again
  14. mr t 59874

    mr t 59874 Master of the Pit SMF Premier Member

    Thank you and your welcome.  I use your technique when doing dog's, Bockwurst and such.
  15. pakinak

    pakinak Newbie

    I too am a cold smoker. My smoker is a traditional wood box type with adjustable vents to control the smoke. I find the lower the humidity the better the results so I use dry wood. This is especially the case when smoking at temps below freezing . Condensation can be a problem. To reduce the amount of tar particulates on the product I filter the smoke through fiberglass furnace filters. Any black on the product tends to impart a very bitter taste. I like smoke that does not rise too quickly after leaving the house.
  16. mr t 59874

    mr t 59874 Master of the Pit SMF Premier Member

    Thank you for your creative and helpful contribution.  Never have considered a "Green Cold Smoker". With three hams ready for a long (100 + hours) smoke next week, I will have a "smoke scrubber" installed and tested on my 22cf smoker by the end of the day.  Will be looking to see if the filter will allow the beneficial and flavorable creosote to pass on to the product being smoked while blocking the heavier creosote.

     For the test the AMNPS and a Smoke Daddy will be used.  In the past, the smoke is so cold that a draft is almost nonexistent, therefore a fan is needed to push the smoke into the collector until the temperature difference is large enough to cause a slight draft.  I imagine with a filter added, the fan will be needed even more, we'll see.

    Thanks again for your input,

  17. Thank you for taking the time for writing this informative read.
  18. mr t 59874

    mr t 59874 Master of the Pit SMF Premier Member

    MountainHawg,  You are welcome.  Hopefully you found it useful.

  19. smokedaddy123

    smokedaddy123 Fire Starter

    Thank you, Mr T 59874, for your understanding of the smoke management of the various smoke generators. You are right, there is way too much emphasis on thin blue smoke. Thin white smoke is not undesirable. I have been trying to clarify the difference between the smoke volume of the different smoke generators. You have nailed it on the head. There is really not much else that needs to be said. I tell all of my customers to use hardwood lump charcoal to achieve a hot burn. The frequent use of small wood pellets alone is the reason I now include an air baffle with all orders. It helps to achieve a hotter burn by creating more air flow. Anyone who purchased a Smoke Daddy previous to this addition may get an air baffle by calling us at (847) 336-1329 or emailing [email protected]
  20. Tom, THANK YOU. I'm re-reading everything you wrote and your recommended links. This is such helpful material. 

    I sit here in Portugal with my very first ever home-made Cold Smoker ( a kettle BBQ attached to an airtight 55 gal drum (clean) by 2-meters aluminum flexi hose, I'm wondering if I need a fan to push the smoke from kettle fire to smoking drum? I do have it located a couple of feet below the drum.) 

    I plan to smoke the following products at first: garlic, local salt and chilis....later some sardines and mackerel . I guess when I start with fish or meat I'll have adjust my smoking a bit, yes? 

    Thank you again for your sagacious wisdom.