Why does my smoked meat taste bitter? (and how to prevent it)

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  February 6, 2022

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Preparing delicious smoked meat like pulled pork shoulder takes many hours. It starts with the wet or dry rub and then adding flavored woods to give the meat smoky aromas.

Instead of beautiful thin blue smoke, your smoker starts emitting thick white smoke.

That’s the moment when everything goes wrong. Imagine sitting down with your family only to discover the meat has a bitter taste and an unappetizing black color.

This occurrence can be enough to put you off from smoking your own meat at home.

Why does my smoked meat taste bitter? (and how to prevent it)

There are three main reasons why your meat tastes bitter. First, if there’s too much heavy smoke, the meat gets covered in a sooty substance called creosote which makes it black and bitter. The second reason is that you over-smoke the meat. Adding too much wood spoils the food’s flavor. Third, your smoker might be dirty, crusty, and full of creosote buildup.

In this guide, I’m sharing the reasons why your smoked meat tastes bitter as well as the top tips on how to avoid this unpleasant flavor.

What is creosote?

When your BBQ tastes bitter with an oily taste similar to turpentine, it signals the presence of creosote.

You can see creosote with the naked eye because it’s a black, flaky, and shiny coating on the meat or inside the smoker.

Creosote is a thick black oily substance created by too much smoke penetrating the meat. This black substance leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Creosote’s unpleasant flavor is one of the worst things to happen to your grilled or smoked meat. Ingesting too much creosote causes an odd tingly sensation on your tongue and can even make you ill.

So, how does creosote form? When smoke penetrates cold meat, all the vapors quickly condense on the meat’s surface. Wood creosote refers to the condensation from unburned smoke.

Basically, a chemical reaction takes place and there are 3 main chemicals that are released. These are phenol, cresol, and guaiacol.

Is creosote bad for you?

Creosote is basically the result of insufficient and incorrect combustion of the wood you’ve used. This happens only when charcoal and wood are lit at high temperatures.

It causes a very bitter smoke taste on meat which you get when smoking.

Consuming too much creosote induces all kinds of gastric discomfort, stomach pain, and even kidney and liver damage.

You want to avoid eating meat that’s turned black.

These chemicals are unhealthy and may cause discomfort and a tingling sensation in the mouth as well as stomach pains.

Why does smoked meat taste bitter?

There are three main reasons why your meat turns out bitter. Let’s take a look at why:

Reason #1: Too much smoke

Too little smoke and too much smoke make cooked meat bitter and unusable.

Smoke is needed in the preparation for smoking meat but it must be balanced by heat and time in order to produce well-done barbeques.

Too much smoke causes meat to taste bitter and leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Smoke has to be perfectly balanced to create smoked culinary delights.

You have to learn to control the smoke in order to smoke in optimal conditions. To create that perfect bark on your meat you need to smoke with thin blue smoke, never thick heavy smoke.

Unfortunately, you can’t fix over smoked meat so that’s why you need to smoke according to tried and tested methods.

Don’t over smoke meat with too much wood or by leaving the meat in the smoker for longer than needed.

Reason #2: You used too much wood

Beginners always ask “Can you use too much wood when smoking meat?”

Using too much wood in the smoking process is often an issue that happens in some charcoal smokers. Contrary to offsets, charcoal smokers use wood as flavor instead as the main heat source.

When smoking with charcoal, it requires no special wood except the wood chips you use for flavor.

It is commonly recommended to use three-4 fist-sized pieces of wood when smoking meat if you want to smoke with seasoned wood.

If you use a pellet smoker, offset smoker, or electric smoker then you don’t have to waste too much wood.

Not all wood chip trays are the same size but they’re pretty similar. You don’t need to add more wood chips or chunks than you can fit in the tray at once.

In some cases, you might not need to refill the wood chip tray more than a couple of times per smoking session.

For short smokes like fish or vegetables, you might only have to add one batch of wood chips and you’ll get enough smoky flavor.

Burning too much wood and charcoal creates a thick blue or blackish smoke which gives the food that nasty taste nobody likes.

Here’s how wood chips compare to charcoal, pellets and chunks in your smoker

The smoke flavor is too strong

A potential problem with smoking woods that are used for flavoring the food is that you can combine the meat with the wrong wood.

Some woods are better for smoking light white meat like chicken, while some are used for dark meats like beef or game.

The first step is to choose the kind of wood you want to use. The choice is between mild wood such as apple, cherry, and other fruit woods and strong-flavored woods like hickory.

If you’re not experienced smoking, choose wood chips with mild to medium tastes such as maple, oak, and cherry. Don’t put too many wood chips while smoking because it will lead to over smoking.

Woods, like mesquite, impart greater flavors into dark meat. Mesquite isn’t suitable for smoking fish though because it’s too intense and overpowers the natural flavors of the fish.

There are certain tried and true combos like hickory for sausages but you need to check which woods pair with what meat or else you risk foul-tasting meat.

If the meat tastes good but the smell of smoke is strong then it is likely the smoking wood you’re using is simply too strong.

Select a safe smoking wood that is suitable for you milder meats and fish than the one you used in the past.

Consult my complete wood for smoking guide to always get your flavor combinations right

Reason #3: Creosote build-up up in the smoker

Start with a clean smoker and aim for a good thin blue smoke.

Did you know that a dirty smoker directly affects the taste of your smoked food?

Unclean smokers can be one of the causes of creosote accumulation. Make sure you start smoking uncontaminated.

Check the inside walls of the smoker box and cooking chamber to ensure it’s clean and free of thick black sooty materials.

It’s a well-known fact among pitmasters that a clogged-up smoker can make the meat taste bitter. In fact, creosote build-up in the smoker is the leading cause of bad-flavored smoked food.

You’ll know the smoker is at fault because the smoker turns food black and makes it taste bitter.

Here’s how to clean your electric smoker the easy way

How do I avoid creosote when smoking meat?

Smoking without creosote is not hard but you need to keep it clean and create a thin blue smoke.

You have to start with a clean translucent smoke then try to achieve thin blue smoke. You could smoke this by beginning a fire with 2-3 wood chunks.

But, the thing is that you need to learn to use the vents and dampers of your smoker properly.

The key to everything is controlling the smoke through the vents, fuel source, and smoke wood.

Many smokers have too much trouble closing the vents in order to keep the levels of smoke down.

A choked flame does not enable the fire to absorb sufficient oxygen. A large, dark smoke billowing from behind is a sign of incomplete combustion.

A clean fire should produce a thin blue smoke that may sometimes be termed TBS but may easily be visible.

The simple fix is to open your fireplace and allow for enough oxygen. Learn how to control your BBQ smoker for a better taste.

These are the best, fool-proof BBQ smokers for beginners

Manage the airflow of smokers

You need to monitor the airflow going in and coming out of the smoker.

You should keep the vent in the smoker open for the proper flow of air.

But, once your smoker reaches the ideal smoking temperature, you need to close the dampers and then open them according to the smoking conditions.

The ideal temperature for smoking is about 200-400 degrees Fahrenheit.

If your smoker does not have a temperature sensor use a meat thermometer to determine the temperature of the inside.

Don’t add too much fuel

If you’re using a charcoal smoker, you can combine charcoal briquettes with seasoned wood as your fuel.

Using charcoal only is recommended and perfectly fine for long smokes, as long as you replenish them when needed.

If you want to use wood, keep in mind that new wood should only be added when the older ones turn into ashes. Add wood pieces gradually until you are getting thin blue smoke.

When you use too much wood you’ll have white or thick smoke. But ultimately you’ll actually find creosote building up in your smoker.

Always keep your smoker clean

Using a clean smoker is the best way to ensure you avoid creosote. The bitter flavor is best avoided by keeping your smoker clean.

Thick, heavy, and dirty smoke fills the cooker and the food with lots of shiny black soot.

To remove it, you have to use a special smoker and barbecue cleaning solution and then wipe it away with a damp cloth.

You can also season the interior smoker with some cooking oil or lard.

How to remove the creosote from smoked food

You’re probably wondering if you can remove creosote from smoked meat and other foods.

The answer is yes and no.

The outside of smoked meat is pretty much completely damaged once the creosote chemical reaction occurs.

Once the bitter taste penetrates your food you can’t really remove it. But, you can try to remove some of the unpleasant taste by cutting off all charred edges of larger meat cuts like chops, pork butt, and shoulder. This is nearly impossible to achieve with ribs, but it is achievable with brisket and hog roasts.

Then you can try to enjoy the inside of the smoked meats.

The trimming of the burned parts is the easy way to keep this dish healthy.

Remember that sometimes the meat can get severely charred beyond fixing.

Trimming of creosote-covered meat might help you save a considerable amount of meat which was hard to come by and ultimately you will have good and tasty meat.

Remember to identify and cut off the severely charred over-smoked region of meat first and remove it.

Takeaway

Grill masters know that the secret to tasty food is to use good smoke and ensure complete combustion.

Since modern smokers have all kinds of intake vents and dampers, you can control the fire and create the desired temperature inside the smoker to avoid creosote formation.

You know once you’re getting thick white smoke, the creosote is already forming so aim for a thin blue smoke always.

Now that you know have bad creosote is, you can avoid this nasty bitter taste and smoke meat the right way.

Next, learn How to Smoke Meat in Cold Weather like a pro

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.