Can you over smoke meat? A common mistake, here’s how to avoid it

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  February 18, 2022

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Knowing when you have over-smoked the meat is quite easy and you can usually tell by the meat’s dark color and the bitter smoke flavor.

If the moment you take a bite of the meat that you have worked so diligently on tastes bitter, or the taste of smoke overpowers the taste of the actual meat, then there’s a good chance that you have over-smoked the meat.

Can you over smoke meat? A common mistake, here's how to avoid it

It is possible to over smoke meat if you smoke at an incorrect temperature and if you use too much smoke wood. When smoking the meat, you want all the flavors of wood smoke but you don’t want it overpowering the natural flavors of the meat. Once you taste bitter flavors, you know that it’s been over smoked.

Smoking is a lengthy process – not a short one at all. Well-cooked meat depends on the whole process of its preparation.

When your product tastes good there are two important things; temperature and time. If you don’t have the right temperature either the meat won’t cook properly or it’ll char and burn.

Next, we smokers know patience is a virtue we strive to achieve and it is a virtue that can only be achieved through practice. Be careful during the cooking process and avoid white smoke.

The low and slow cooking process is what you need to practice.

How to buy a bbq smoker video
How to buy a bbq smoker video

I’ll share my tips for not over smoking meat and how to fix it in case it happens. So, before you start smoking, give it a read-through.

What does over smoked meat taste like?

Over smoked meat tastes a lot like over cooked meat: bitter. Basically, if you have too much smoke in your smoker your meat is going to have a heavy, bitter taste that is untasty.

Smoked meat becomes bitter as a result of the creation of creosote, a thick, oily coating that forms when smoke is left on meat for too long.

Creosote not only makes smoked meat taste bitter but also gives it an unpleasant aftertaste that can induce tingling in the mouth.

Over smoked meat explained

The term ‘over smoked’ just refers to the fact that the meat has too much smoke flavor and it goes from a nice dark smoky color to a black creosote-like appearance.

Smoke is attracted to cold surfaces and so the meat absorbs much of it. Too much smoke can penetrate the meat.

There is a theory that when meat develops a bark of smoke the smoke just doesn’t go out. So, trapped smoke in the bark obviously makes the meat taste very smoky.

It’s possible that your delicious pork butt actually looks nice and smoked and the only way you know it’s over smoked is that it has a pretty awful bitter smoke flavor.

Of course, there are many reasons why your meat tastes bitter and it could be due to creosote buildup, but too much smoke is another common issue.

The point of smoking meat is to give it a classic BBQ smoky flavor.

The difference between smoking meat and grilling it is that the smoking process actually adds this distinct wood smoke aroma.

Grilling, on its own, just cooks the meat.

This information is quite obvious, but what people don’t understand is that you need to smoke in moderation. You don’t need immense quantities of wood chips or wood chunks to create smoke.

The type of wood you use is very important because it determines the flavor of the smoke and can make the meat taste good or bad.

Also, no wood that is either green or moist should be used for smoking food – this can cause illness but is definitely extremely foul and bitter!

If you use too much smoke, food loses that tasty smoke flavor and turns bitter.

So, the bottom line is that if you create too much smoke, you end up with over-smoked meat and if you use too little smoke, you don’t get a lot of flavors and the meat might be bland.

What are the reasons for over smoked meat?

Over smoked meat is a very common issue when smoking, especially for beginners. Your food can taste bitter and this definitely ruins a good smoke.

So, you’re probably wondering why does my meat have an overabundance of smoke flavor?

Over-smoked meat is caused by several smoking mistakes.

In the case of over smoked meat, using the wrong wood, using too much wood, or not wrapping the meat in foil are probably the reasons why your food isn’t tasty.

Unsuitable smoking wood

There are certain smoking woods that are really intense.

Hickory and mesquite smoke can overpower delicate meats like fish and poultry, but even larger, more powerful steaks like brisket can be spoiled if exposed to the smoke for too long.

So, when you start smoking, you must consider the type of wood you use and it should have a pleasant flavor that complements your meat.

Don’t use strong mesquite for delicate chicken breast or fish, for example. A fruitwood, like apple, is better for the task!

Too much fuel/wood

Excessive firewood is probably one of the most common rookie BBQ mistakes of all time. The right amount of wood depends very much on the style of grill you’re using.

A standard guideline should give about two ounces of wood. Keep inlet and exhaust dampers close at least slightly and close the inlet dampers or the fire may molter and release terrible smells.

If smoke tastes bad the meat has a bad taste too.

When it comes to wood smoke, less is more. You want to see thin blades of blue smoke and nothing more.

Using too much-flavored smoke wood is another way to over-smoke meat.

In the initial half of the cook, only two or three chunks are required or a full tray of wood chips. You might have to refill the wood chip tray for longer smokes.

Even a small quantity of wood chips can deliver intense smoky aromas. You don’t need large quantities because you want the smokiness to be tasteable but not overwhelming.

Learn all about how to properly use wood chips in your smoker here

Not wrapping food in foil

Although wrapping meat in foil is not necessary for many foods, some, like brisket will stay moist and won’t get over smoked if wrapped in the smoker.

When you wrap your meat in foil it prevents it from absorbing too much wood smoke, especially if you’re using heavier wood.

Did you know you can also use flavor infusing wraps when grilling? Here’s how

How to avoid over smoking meat

There are ways to avoid over smoking and all it takes is knowing how your smoker works and which woods are good for smoking meat.

I’ll share how you can avoid too much smoke flavor. Therefore, when you’re smoking brisket you won’t need to worry about bitter meat.

Checking the smoke

Having the right kind of smoke can make or break your flavor.

It’s important to check how much smoke is coming out from your smoker. To operate, all smokers must exhale some amount of smoke.

You need thin blue smoke for smoking meat. There is a problem with the smoker if smoke is coming out of the sides and seals.

If you use too much smoke, the meal will lose its tender, smoky flavor.

Once you see white smoke coming out of your smoker, you’re in trouble.

This thick rolling white smoke gives the meat a bad flavor and contributes to over smoking because it means you don’t have a consistent temperature in the smoker.

If the smoke smells bad, chances are it’s ruined your meat and this can also be due to a dirty smoker but maybe you added too much wood.

You should smoke on low heat so you don’t need a very high internal temperature in the smoker.

Don’t get the temperature too low though, because then you might enter the smoking danger zone

Use mild woods for smoking meats

If you keep using strong smoke woods such as hickory and mesquite and keep encountering this problem of over smoked meat, you can try using milder wood.

For example, you can use fruit woods such as apple, cherry, peach, or pear which gives the meat a sweet and fruity smoke flavor.

This results in perfectly cooked meat with a delicious sweet and slightly smoky flavor.

But, if you love the taste of intense earthy flavors like hickory, you can smoke your meat with a blend of strong wood with a mild alder, or a fruit wood.

Blending smoking woods mellows the flavors and decreases the chances of over smoked meat.

Use a wireless or external meat thermometer

Don’t trust the built-in dome thermometer. The temperature sensor is not located beside the meat, it is stacked above the smoker.

Therefore, the temperature fluctuates between the cooking chamber and the internal temperature of the meat

Take out another temperature probe. You can use a digital wireless or Bluetooth smoker thermometer or even an analog one.

Place this thermometer’s probe in the meat or beside the meat – this ensures an accurate temperature reading.

Here’s where to put the thermometer probe when smoking turkey

Foil protects meat from smoke

Meat doesn’t have to smoke for 24 hours to get the incredible flavor you want.

Wrap the meat in aluminum foil or butcher’s paper for the final part of the smoking process – this can prevent over smoking and that dark bitter charred crust.

It is important to wrap the meat, especially fine cuts, baby back ribs, and large cuts like brisket to prevent moisture evaporation and for protection against over smoking.

Wrapping the meat in foil for part of cooking is a key method of cooking.

It helps the meat in maintaining its moisture, prevents it from drying out, and prevents the meat from getting a great deal of smoke.

How to fix over smoked meat

People always ask “can you really fix over smoked meat? Isn’t it too bitter to fix?”

Smoking meats isn’t a very easy task and many people make a mistake which results in food with a very bad taste.

Ok, if you really burn the meat because you smoke it for too long, you might end up with dry meat that is just too dry to enjoy.

But, if the flavor isn’t amazing but the meat isn’t overly burned, then you can try to fix it so your smoking session doesn’t go to waste.

Cut off burnt parts

Let’s say you smoked pork shoulder for too long – luckily you can try to trim and cut off the black burnt ends using your BBQ smoker knife.

In case you’ve over smoked meat, and now it has a bitter and burnt flavor, you can cut off as much of the over smoked part as you can.

Sure, it won’t be the same as perfectly smoked meat with an amazing savory smoke taste, but it won’t be a total fail.

Add seasoning

The second option, although not really as efficient is to use a spice blend to season the meat so that it masks the unpleasant flavor of over smoked meat.

It won’t make smoked meats taste as they should but if the over-smoking isn’t too serious, a bit of spice seasoning can mask the overly-smoked flavor.

What meats are the hardest to smoke?

The king of hard to smoke meats is no doubt the beloved beef brisket.

Most pitmasters and competitive BBQ cooks agree on one thing: brisket is very hard to smoke right and overs smoking is definitely a major problem.

Beef brisket can go from tender to hard and chewy very quickly so you need to master the correct cooking time and temperature plus use great flavored woods for smoking brisket such as hickory, oak, maple, or cherry.

Other hard meats to smoke include all the fatty cuts like pork shoulder or ribs. Fatty meats have a lot of greasy drippings which can cause creosote and a bit of pungent, bitter smoke flavor.

Turkey is probably the hardest bird to smoke because it’s larger and it doesn’t take a long time to smoke but it’s easy to over smoke. A steady temperature is a key to perfectly smoked turkey meat.

FAQs

There are still some unanswered questions related to smoking and how they get that perfect smokey flavor without going overboard.

How come my meat isn’t smoked properly?

Smoking meat can take anywhere from less than 2 hours to 8 to 14 hours.

Trying to rush the process by adding a little more heat or opening the lid once or twice will lead to uncooked meat or it’s overcooked and lacking in flavor.

Smoking requires patience constant planning and commitment for successful outcomes.

The most common smoke mishaps that can easily and systematically be avoided include everything from the use of the wrong meat and woods to simply not being patient enough to let the smoker try to work its magic.

Always keep control of the temperature of your smoking equipment.

Does low smoker temperature lead to oversmoking?

Yes, if your smoker’s temperature is too low and you panic, you can increase the heat too much which in turn, leads to over smoking.

Slow cooking is a process you master over time but for the delicious smokey flavor, you don’t need to freak out and provoke huge temperature fluctuations.

If you have smoked anything like brisket or pork you’d probably feel an immediate reaction when the thermometer tells you it wants less or nothing.

Do not make the newbie mistake when you get too frustrated and increase the heat. Remember – we’re looking for succulent food, not stewed meat.

There are many theories regarding stalling water left on the ground, slow fat production, or protein breaking down.

The best advice is not to panic, keep the temperature stable and eventually the temperature will start to slowly rise.

Does using lighter fluid lead to over smoking?

Yes, if you use lighter fluid to start the smoker or grill, you can end up with too much smoke and thus over smoked food.

These are common misconceptions for those just starting to smoke meat. Fuel will also leave an extremely foul flavor in smokers that will affect many cookouts to come.

The wood will burn faster and after the flame has died out that much more smoke will also happen.

With the wood burning faster it will need to be replaced more frequently which means that too much smoke could ruin your smoked meat.

Can you over smoke meat with electric smoker?

Electric smokers work nicely and can save lots of hassle when cooking the food inside. It’s harder to over smoke with an electric smoker, although not impossible.

Usually, when you set up the electric smoker, you set the temperature and the time digitally or via analog mode.

But, once the timer runs out, the machine stops cooking meat and smoking. Therefore, there’s less of a chance that you’ll have oversmoked the food.

If you set the smoker for 9 hours and only want to smoke a few halibut fillets, then yes, you’ll over smoke. But generally, electric smokers are great for amateurs because they’re easy to use and the whole smoking process is simple.

Good luck obtaining the same kinds of bark on the electric that you can achieve on the offset smokers – the bark just won’t be the same.

Takeaway

Unfortunately, over smoking the meat in your smoker is more common than you’d think and this ruins the delicious flavors of the food.

Every piece of meat will come out tasting different depending on the techniques you use.

But, to avoid the bitter taste of over smoked meat, you should always use flavored wood chips sparingly, don’t overcook the meat, and use a wood with a smoke flavor profile that complements your food.

Smoking meat can be very difficult and you have to take your time.

But remember that half the fun is the cooking and by paying attention to the smoking temperature and wood smoke intensity you are closer to the perfect smoked meat.

For help with your smoking adventures these 7 Best BBQ Smoker recipe cookbooks are a good place to start

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.