Dizzy Tips: Using Smoke as a Spice

It is hard to describe my excitement when I got my first smoker, a Big Green Egg, 20 years ago.

A big step up from my old gas grill, I couldn’t wait to get to smoking good American barbecue. Ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. Yeah!

And, man, did I smoke it.

Everybody seemed to like what I was doing, but my wife always had the same comment. “Can’t you make it less smokey, Honey?” My response… “it’s a “smoker” and it is supposed to taste smokey!

It didn’t take long to figure it out… once I started attending events, competing, and judging barbecue… that my wife was right. I was putting way too much strong smoke on my food. Over the last couple decades I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to the smoking of meats. And my takeaway is:

Enhance your food with smoke — don’t hit your guests over the head with it.

Bam-Bam hitting with club

Getting the Right Smoke

After all, the ultimate goal is to create a flavor journey for whomever has the honor of eating what you cook. A competition cook, especially, really needs to think about how the flavors develop in the mouth. Like a certain spice can dominate if overused, smoke can overwhelm other flavors… the ones you worked so hard for!

What I have learned:

  • Smoke from wood and charcoal is a rich earthy flavor that remains in the mouth until after you are done chewing and swallowing.
  • Strong smoke will immediately put an overwhelming flavor on your meat.
  • Later in the cook when the fat and juices from the meat are sizzling in the drip pan or dripping on the charcoal there is a totally different kind of smoke. I call this smoke “grill” flavor and it is just as important to the flavor of your food as the wood smoke. The flavor is sharper rather than earthy, and you taste this first — right as you put the food in your mouth.
  • Whatever flavor of smoke is coming out of your cooker at any time is getting laid down on the food, and it is not going away.
  • Balancing the smoke flavor is critical to your flavor experience. If you taste strong earthy wood smoke right up front, it will cover up other flavors and spoil the journey. Remember, you will always taste the wood smoke last.

What you can do:

  • Skip the soaking. Use only dry wood. It will not burn cleanly until it is totally dry. We previously wrote about it in Dizzy Tips: Should I Soak My Wood Chips.
  • Once you add wood to the fire, wait as long as necessary for wood to start burning cleanly. Generally the smoke will start off as a brown, tan or gray color, and as it dries the smoke will tend toward a blue color. Clean burning wood doesn’t always produce visible smoke, so you don’t need to see the smoke to taste it. When you smell the smoke, if it burns your eyes and smells strong, then wait. Sometimes this will take a while, especially if you are bringing your fire up slowly for a low/slow cook. There are many factors that affect how your fire is burning, so be patient.
  • Use milder woods like fruit woods on milder meats. You can use stronger woods like oak and hickory on beef and pork. Poultry and seafood are especially easy to over smoke, and we’ve found that using only the smoke from your charcoal often provides the best flavor. If you’re within striking distance to our Dizzy Pig Flavor Store store, we carry many varieties of wood chips and chunks to add another dimension of flavor your food.
  • Find the amount of wood that works best for you and your cooker. I use 3-5 tennis ball sized chunks for barbecue and 1-2 small chunks for grilling. If more smoke is desired, scatter some dry wood chips throughout your charcoal.
  • Pay close attention to how your smoke smells throughout your cook. If the smoke smells bad for any reason at anytime, remove the food from the cooker. Seriously.
  • The nose knows! Trust your senses here. You know what smells good, so believe what your nose is telling you.

Happy smoking and have a great flavor journey!
Dizzy Pig pitmaster Chris Capell

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