Picture this: You have spent hours tending to the smoker, carefully controlling the temperature, and monitoring your meat. Then, you spent tantalizing minutes waiting as the meat rests. Finally, you get to take the first slice – and it's bitter. Not just a little bitter, so bitter you can barely swallow it.
The temptation to scoop up the platter and pitch the entire thing in the trash comes over you. Hopefully, we are in time to save your bacon (or beef, or chicken, or whatever you are cooking). Follow along as we share the secrets to fixing over-smoked meat that has a bitter taste.
What Happens if You Over-Smoke Meat
The meat-smoking process involves balancing ambient and internal temperature, smoke, and time. If any one of these three factors is off, your smoked meat won't come out right. Temperature and time are fairly easy to understand since you can measure them, but how do you know when too much smoke is simply too much? This is where experience comes into play. Fortunately, we have some tips that have helped novice pitmasters get over the learning curve.
What Causes Bitter-Tasting Food?
The bitter taste that overcooked meat gets is from a compound called creosote that is created by the burning of lignin in hardwood. Creosote is created during incomplete combustion of wood and becomes a vapor at temperatures below 540 degrees. When the vapor enters the smoking chamber, it cools and condenses. This happens at temperatures below 250 degrees, right in the range we typically want for smoking meat.
Charcoal smokers are affected the most since they use a combination of lump charcoal and hardwood to create heat and flavor. Pellet grills also release creosote from wet or improperly burning pellets, but the amount is significantly lower than a charcoal smoker.
Using Your Senses – Sight, Smell, and Taste
You don't need a fancy contraption or the latest gadget to find out how much smoke is too much smoke. You simply need to pay attention to the color, smell, and volume of smoke that you are producing.
- Black or Grey Smoke: Dark smoke is most common when wood or charcoal is first ignited. This smoke is full of harmful chemicals and leaves bad flavors on the meat. We always recommend lighting charcoal in a chimney starter before adding it to the smoker to prevent black or grey smoke from contaminating the food. It is even possible to contaminate your entire smoker by running black or grey smoke due to the buildup of soot and ash that can continue to cause off flavors until you clean your dirty smoker. If this is happening in your smoker, the most likely reason is that the fire does not have enough air at the bottom vent and is smothering itself.
- Billowing, White Smoke: It might be tempting to see that column of white smoke flying out the vent of your smoker and think that it is ideal for flavoring meat since you can see so much smoke. But you do not want to cook meat in white smoke because the smoke will cause the flavor to be too strong. White smoke is a sign that wood chips are beginning to combust and can also happen when using wood that is soaked in water. Either way, it isn't good. Don't use wet wood chips to avoid white smoke. Waiting a few minutes is typically all that needs to be done to allow the wood to get past the white smoke stage.
- Thin blue smoke: After the white smoke begins to fade, you will notice that the color becomes blue and pale. This is an ideal condition for adding smoke flavor to the meat. Smoking meat with thin blue smoke will give you a nuanced and delicate smoke flavor. If you want just a touch of smoke flavor, only expose the meat to thin blue smoke for about half of the smoke time. Stronger flavors happen when the meat is exposed for longer periods of time.
- Invisible Smoke: Invisible smoke is ideal for cooking meat. At this point, the fire is burning very hot and the air is moving through the smoker very quickly. Rather than depositing tons of flavor, invisible smoke evenly and thoroughly cooks your meat. You will want clear smoke when you are cooking meat for long periods of time and when you want subtle smoke flavor.
Fast Smoke vs Slow Smoke
One of the ways to know that you are getting the right amount of smoke flavor when smoking meat is to pay attention to the speed the smoke comes out of the chimney. Slow, billowing smoke is allowing particulate in the air to settle on the meat which can cause too much smoke flavor and a bitter taste.
What you want to see is fast-moving air and smoke. Faster air carries particulate out of the smoker better and gives your meat a better smoky flavor without the unpleasant taste of over-smoked meat.
Smell the Smoke
Occasionally waft the smoke so that you get a good whiff. The smoke should smell sweet or slightly spicy depending on the type of wood. Milder wood chips produce a lighter-smelling smoke, while stronger flavored wood gives a more pronounced smoky taste.
If the smoke smells bitter, something is wrong. Your best bet is to figure out why the smoke smells bad and correct it as quickly as you can. But don't panic too much – a short burst of acrid smoke is unlikely to cause a big change in the flavor.
Over-Smoked Meat vs Badly Smoked Meat
Sometimes, you choose a wood that is just too strong. Mesquite and hickory can overpower delicate meats, leaving you with nothing but smoky flavor. Over-smoked meat typically has been exposed to too much smoke for too long. Over-smoked meat isn't usually bitter but has a strong, pungent smoke flavor that is unpleasant.
Badly smoked meat has a bitter taste. It might even make the tip of your tongue tingle from the creosote. Fixing badly smoked meat is a little more difficult.
How Do You Save Over Smoked Meat?
What is done, is done, but there are a few tricks you can use to minimize the bitter flavor from bitter-tasting meat. None of these solutions will give you perfectly smoked meat but can help cut down the bitter-smoke flavor. Here are some solutions we have used to fix over-smoked meat.
Tip #1: Remove the Smoke Ring
This trick is a real bummer, but it will work to fix over-smoked meat. Creosote is unable to penetrate into the meat and is mostly in the bark. Using a very sharp knife like this one from Victorinox, carefully scrape or cut the bark from the meat. Cut only as deep as you have to so you are not wasting food or flavor. Excess smoke flavor can simply be cut off, but you will lose your seasonings and crisp bark.
Tip #2: Use a Sauce, Butter, or Something Sweet
BBQ sauce can do wonders to fix over-smoked meat, particularly when the cause is too strong of flavor from the wood. The sweetness and spiciness of BBQ sauce help to offset the unpleasant flavor.
Butter and other fats also work wonders for neutralizing the bitter flavor of smoked meat. Use a good slab, let it melt, then drip dry.
A sweet glaze can even be a good way to cover up that meat tastes bitter. Sweetness is the natural counter to bitterness. Orange glazes on pork shoulder work well.
Tip #3: Change the Menu
This tip is another one that is best for meat that has too much smoke flavor, but it can also help with bitterness. Rather than serving smoked brisket, dice the meat up, chop up a good salsa, and serve tacos. Mixing other flavors in can help offset the smoke flavors and make for an excellent meal.
Tip #4:Give it a Soak
This is a last-resort tip. Place the meat in a pan of water or other liquid for about ten minutes and a significant amount of the bitter taste will come off. You also lose the bark this way and the meat can get a mushy, soft texture. It works okay to fix over-smoked meat, but the results are often less appealing than other methods.
How to Make Smoked Meat Taste Less Smoky
Some people are very particular about the flavors of smoking meats. Even well-cooked meat might not be a pleasant flavor for some people. Some of the ways to get these folks on board include using milder wood like fruitwood. Our favorite fruit wood is apple with cherry being a close second. Nut woods also offer milder flavors and may impart a slight nuttiness to your meat.
Avoid Over-Smoking Your Meat
It might be necessary to change your whole smoking process to get the results that you want. This means using less wood or even using a smoking wood chip tray that will produce less smoke flavor.
Wrapping your meat is another easy way to limit the smokiness. Once the meat is wrapped, little to no smoke flavor will penetrate the meat, so it won't get smoky. We like to use pink butcher paper as it lets the meat breathe a little, but many people swear by heavy-duty aluminum foil to prevent over-smoked meat.
A tip we know is that after about three hours, the meat will not absorb much smoke flavor. Use a meat thermometer to determine when the meat is about two-thirds of the way cooked and wrap it. Then, finish it in the smoker or in the oven to prevent over-smoking.
Preventing Bitter Taste
It is a good idea to always monitor the smoke from your smoker. While Bluetooth thermometers have made it easy to walk away from the smoker, you should still keep an eye on the color and volume of smoke.
Using a charcoal chimney starter is the best way to reduce the chance of making meat bitter with creosote. Pre-burning rids the charcoal and wood of creosote. If you are using wood chunks or chips in your charcoal smoker, it is vital that you keep an eye on the smoke color. If it is grey, black, or white, remove the wood from the fire chamber and ignite it in a chimney before placing it back in the smoker.
One of the biggest reasons smoked meat tastes bitter is from a dirty smoker. Over time, soot and creosote build up on the surfaces that make smoked meat taste bitter. Cleaning your smoker periodically is a good step toward food safety and good-tasting food.
It's All About Balance
It can take a bit of practice and patience to perfect the art of slow-cooking meats like pork butt or pork shoulder which can get too much flavor. Learning to balance the amount of smoke with the desired results gets easier every time you try.
Our recommendation is to start with minimal smoke flavor, then gradually increase until you get the proper flavor. Avoid the temptation to use too much wood since this can cause incomplete combustion which makes meat taste bitter.
If all else fails, trim off as much of the burnt flavor as possible, slather the meat in Bearded Butchers Barbecue Sauce, and chalk it up to a learning experience.