How to get thin blue smoke from your smoker

Thin blue smoke is what you want from your smoker, lets clear the air on what it means and how to get it. Take a look for our thoughts...

Fast blue smoke. Thin blue smoke. Dirty smoke. Clean smoke. Thick white smoke.

What’s with all the smoke?

Is thin blue smoke better than thick white smoke?

Is dirty smoke as bad as it sounds?

Is clean smoke as good as it sounds?

If you’ve been smoking meat for a while, all of the above is likely familiar to you, and you know what type of smoke is good and what type is bad.

If you’re new to smoking meat, the types of smoke are probably confusing.

So we’re going to clear the air (pun intended) on the smoke.

Let’s talk about the volume and the color of the smoke that is coming out of your smoker, as these two things will have a huge impact on the taste of what’s cooking inside.

Pellet smoker, smoking
Early cooking here; not quite hot enough. I’ll wait for the temperature to raise and the smoke to move a bit faster before putting any meat on

Color of smoke from your smoker chimney

Spoiler alert, you want your smoke to be light blue in color, almost to the point where it’s hard to see. In fact, it’s been shown (and Aaron Franklin says it, so it’s gospel) that “clear smoke” has all the smoky goodness you need to smoke your meat.

But let’s get back to thin blue smoke. Light, thin blue smoke indicates that your smoker’s temperature is good, and the airflow through your smoker is also good.

If the airflow through your smoker isn’t right, the smoke will turn darker in color, which we consider stale or dirty smoke. You’ll also see dirty smoke when you are first starting your fire or when you’ve first lit coals. Dark smoke, gray smoke…dirty smoke…is bad and should be outlawed. You don’t want to smoke your food in dirty smoke. It’ll leave your food unnaturally darkened and bitter tasting.

So what you are looking for coming out of your smoker chimney is fast-moving, light, thin, blue smoke.

The volume of smoke from your smoker’s chimney

In addition to the color of the smoke, you want to note how much smoke is coming out or, actually, how much smoke is being generated. The best place to see this is your smoker’s chimney. How much smoke is coming out of it and how fast it moves will tell you volumes about how good everything will taste.

We want a good amount of smoke and it moving fast.

We don’t want slow-moving smoke billowing out of the vents and the cracks around the smoker door. We want fast-moving smoke shooting up and out of the chimney.

When I first started smoking meat, I’d look at my smoker, with slow smoke coming out all of its pores, and think, “yeah baby, now that’s a smoker!”.

I was wrong.

I mean, not that it wasn’t a smoker – I was right about that.

I was wrong in thinking that kind of smoke is the smoke you want to smoke your meat in. It’s not.

Color and Volume of smoke coming from your smoker

What you want is fast-moving, thin blue smoke coming out of your smoker’s chimney. Get that, maintain that for the 14-hour brisket cook, and you’re in good shape.

You’ll see it referred to as “thin blue smoke,” “TBS,” and “clean smoke.” For some unknown reason, I always default to “fast-moving blue smoke.” Whatever you want to call it, you should hear the sounds of angels’ harps when you say it.

Here’s an example of what you want to see:

Fast blue smoke is exactly what you want to see. “Thin blue smoke,” “clean smoke,” call it what you will, it’s key to tasty smoked goodness!

What does dirty smoke look like?

Too much smoke, it’s dirty smoke; it’s billowing rather than flowing quickly through the smoker. You don’t want this smoke to touch your meat.

What can you do to ensure you have the best smoke?

Glad you asked. We are sharing a few things to consider below:

  • Temperature
    • The temperature of the fire or coals greatly affects the color of the smoke coming out of your smoker’s chimney. Lower temperatures will result in lighter smoke, sometimes appearing while. Higher temperatures result in darker smoker
  • Airflow
    • The airflow to the fire affects the combustion process and will impact the smoke color. The smoke exits your smoker’s chimney when there is an imbalance between oxygen intake into the firebox and exhaust out through the chimney stack; too much air entering the firebox can lead to large billows of white steam-like smoke exiting through your BBQ chimney, while too little air will cause dense black or grey smoke to be emitted instead.
  • Type of fuel
    • The type of wood used for fuel can affect the color of the smoke coming out of your BBQ chimney, with hardwoods like hickory and mesquite creating more smoke and a darker color than softer woods such as cherry wood or applewood. These denser types of wood also tend to burn hotter, creating thicker and darker smoke.
    • If you are smoking with charcoal or (gasp!!) propane, you should expect to see less smoke than if you are using “stick” wood.
    • If you follow our lead and use wood chips in a tube smoker, you’ll want to ensure they are well-lit before adding the tube smoker to the grill. Great way to get extra smoke!
  • The moisture content of the fuel
    • You want to use aged dry wood to get the best smoke. Cutting down that tree and then using the wood to smoke your lobster or turkey is not a great idea unless the wood has aged a good amount of time (6 months at least, 1-2 years even better). Smoking green wood will result in a lot of unsavory smoke and adversely affect the meat’s flavor.
  • Quality of fuel
    • Old wood, decayed wood, pellets, or charcoal left out in the rain, etc., are bad fuels and should not be used. Save it for the fire pit and beers, but don’t cook your food on it.
  • Amount of fuel
    • If you have too much or too little wood, you can end up creating too much or too little smoke. You want to size your fire (or coal bed) to the cooking area you are working with.
  • Environmental factors
    • Humidity, wind, and altitude can all impact the color of the smoke by affecting the combustion process.

An ode to thin blue smoke

Lovely thin blue smoke, it’s a sight to behold

A promise of something delicious yet untold

For when we unwrap those briskets and ribs

We’ll find tender meat with flavors like no other nibs.

— SmokeOps

The science of smoking meat (geek time!)

Much of the underlying science of smoking meat relates to the Maillard Reaction. Geeky stuff that helps us attain that heavenly brisket (thanks, Louis!)

The Maillard Reaction was first identified in 1912 by French chemist Louis Camille Maillard and has since been studied extensively by scientists. The reaction involves the breakdown of sugar molecules into reactive small molecules called free radicals, which react with amino acids to form products such as melanoidins, furans, and other aromatic compounds. These products are responsible for the unique flavor characteristics associated with the Maillard Reaction.

The Maillard Reaction, also known as non-enzymatic browning, is a complex chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that creates a wide variety of flavors and aromas. It is an extremely important reaction in the culinary world, as it enhances the flavor of food items such as bread, meats, and even roasted coffee beans. This reaction occurs when two components combine under certain conditions and result in a new product with unique properties.

We should thank Louis for our great-tasting ribs. He didn’t cook them, but he helps us to understand how they get cooked.

Fast moving thin blue smoke for the win

Ok, so you should have gotten the signal by now. We want the right kind of smoke coming out of our smoker’s chimneys. The wrong type of smoke will result in your cooked food not tasting as good as it could have.

Keep your fuel dry, give your fire plenty of air, and keep an eye on that smoke. Make adjustments when needed.

Happy smoking!

Leave a Comment