The following is a thread I wrote for another forum but thought it would be appropriate here.
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/Ar...asmokeparticles.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.