As always, I try to be a good listener and tune in to the questions that folks are asking the most so I can address the issues that folks are needing to know rather than just what I want to talk about..
I have had a ton of questions lately on how much smoke is enough and how and when to add wood to the coals, what type of wood is best, whether to use all wood, all charcoal or both, etc.
In this issue I am going to do my best to clear this up for you and make it as crystal clear as possible..
If this is old news to some of you then I apologize in advance.
I committed a long time ago to helping the new folks just getting started first and foremost and I plan on adhering to that plan.
After all.. they are the ones who really need help the most.
With no further introduction needed let's get right into it.
How Much Smoke is Enough Smoke?
The age old adage, "How long is a string" may apply here since everyone has different like and dislikes and what may not be enough smoke for me may be too much for others.
To answer this question, I will have to just tell you how I do it and how I like it and that should give you at least an idea of what is the norm and you can take it from there.
Many folks starting out do not use a stick burner or an all-wood smoker so they are unsure how and when to add wood once they get the charcoal going.
This also depends on what type of wood you are using since some woods are strong tasting while others are very mild.
I use lots of mesquite but I also like fruit woods like apple, cherry, plum, peach, apricot, etc.
When I am using mesquite with a charcoal fire, I almost always add about 5 or 6 tennis ball sized chunks to the coals right from the git-go and keep the smoke flowing by replacing these as they burn up until the meat reaches about 140-145 degrees.
I have found that this produces a really nice smoky flavor that is not overpowering.
With most fruit woods like apple, cherry, plum, etc. I will keep the smoke going the entire cook time since the wood is much milder in flavor.
Smoke Visibility and Airflow
With wood smoke, you are looking for a smoke that is just barely visible.
It is sometimes referred to as the "thin blue smoke" and is simply that smoke that you have to squint your eyes to see.
I cannot talk about smoke without mentioning airflow.. something that I have talked about many times but because of its' important role it bears repeating again.
Good smoke is smoke that is moving around.
The way to ensure the smoke is moving is to create a good draft by having an inlet for air and an exit for the smoke/air.
This inlet is usually near the firebox area and is sometimes referred to as the intake damper.
The exit or exhaust can be a vent in the lid or a pipe protruding out of the top or side of the smoker sometimes referred to as the chimney or stack.
I recommend the intake to be at least 1/4 open at all times and the exhaust to be at least 1/2 open to ensure proper air flow.
At any rate, although this is somewhat dependent on the individual smoker, NEVER close either one all the way.
You will immediately stop the airflow and the smoke will begin to create creosote on the meat and the inside walls of your smoker.
This will most certainly ruin the food for this smoke and future ones due to the buildup within the smoker.
If this happens, you will need to thoroughly clean the smoker and re-season it just like you did when you bought it new.
Bottom line.. keep the air/smoke moving for great results.
To Soak or Not to Soak.. that is the question
I mentioned tennis ball sized chunks in the previous paragraphs however with some of you using gas/electric smokers you may also have a need to use chips instead.
This brings up the question of whether to soak or not to soak the chips.
I will tell you right up front that I almost never soak my chips.
In my opinion the chips will have to dry out before they produce any good smoke anyway and the soaking in water just slows down that process.
I know what you are thinking.. then how do you keep them from catching fire in the smoker?
As we learned in science class, fire needs air, heat and fuel to burn. The way to limit the chips from catching fire to quickly is to minimize the air to the chips.
I like to wrap the chips tightly in foil and then just poke a few small holes in the top of the of the pouch to let the smoke out.
This eliminates most air to the chips and if done correctly will never catch fire.
Another method if you continue to have trouble is to add a handful of soaked chips and a handful of dry chips to an 18 x 18 piece of heavy duty foil and wrap it tightly into a pouch with a few holes poked in the top.
Lay this right on top of the coals or directly over the heat source.
The dry chips will provide smoke while the wet chips help to stifle any flare-ups.
Charcoal, Wood or Both?
As many of you know.. I heartily recommend lump charcoal instead of briquettes for best flavor as well as performance.
Lump charcoal burns hotter and is free of a lot of the additives that are found in briquettes.
It does have its' downsides like being more expensive and it burns up faster than briquettes.
So, having said that, should you use charcoal, wood, or both in your smoker?
Once again.. this depends on you and your smoker.
I have experimented some using all wood in small to medium sized smokers and I have to say that it is very easy to produce a "too smoky" flavor.
I reserve the all wood scenario for my larger smoker and use charcoal with wood chunks or chips in my smaller smokers.
In medium sized smoker, you may be able to get by with getting a good coal bed started and then adding small splits of wood to the coals for your smoke if you pay close attention to your air flow.
To give you an example of small, medium and large smokers, please see the info below:
Small Smokers include:
WSM (Weber Smoky Mountain)
BGE (Big Green Egg)
Brinkmann vertical smoker (square)
GOSM Charcoal Smoker
Medium smokers include:
- Brinkmann Pitmaster Pro
- smoky Joe
Large smokers include:
- Most Trailer Mounted Units
- BDS (Big Drum Smoker)
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