This article will help you learn how to make thin blue smoke, and understand why it’s the best smoke for smoking meat.
Speaking as a guy who was once young, my most fervent desire — one shared by all my guy friends — was to be a chick magnet, an irresistible source of attraction for the ladies. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out so well, and I spent a lot of time with other dudes and playing Nintendo.
What I was, however, without question, was a smoke magnet.
Get a campfire roaring for cooking or just some ambiance, and the smoke would always find its way right into my face, leaving me coughing and rubbing my watering eyes. Want to avoid sitting in a cloud of smoke? Look for me at the fire and sit on the opposite side.
While that came easy to me, coaxing thin blue smoke out of wood in a smoker is more of a challenge. But, now that I understand the process, I’m going to share it with you so you, too, can be a smoke magnet.
We’ll look at some of the science of combustion and smoke, explore the different types of smoke and what causes them, clearly define why we want thin blue smoke, and, ultimately, leave you with the tools you need to make your own.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 What is Smoke?
- 2 Four Stages of Burning Wood — We Want to be at Stage 3
- 3 What is Thin Blue Smoke?
- 4 Dirty Smoke — Why We Avoid White, Gray, and Black
- 5 How to Get Thin Blue Smoke
- 6 How to Get Thin Blue Using Different Smokers
- 7 Finally, Practice, Practice, Practice
- 8 Final Thoughts
What is Smoke?
That’s a great question! We all know it when we see it, but what the heck is smoke, anyway?
The answer is: it’s a bunch of stuff! As wood burns, it releases chemical compounds trapped within, and new ones are created as the extreme heat changes the properties of what’s inside.
Breaking it down, smoke consists of anywhere from about 40 to 100 different components, including some trace metals like nickel, copper, and zinc. Mostly, though, it’s CO, CO2, NO, water vapor, and fine particles of ash, char, and creosote.
Oh, and an essential ingredient called syringol.
Syringol sounds like a character from Lord of the Rings, but it’s actually an aromatic oil. Meathead Goldwyn at Amazing Ribs hipped me to syringol, and it turns out it’s primarily responsible for the intoxicating smell of wood smoke. In fact, syringol is a key ingredient in synthetic smoke flavorings.
When smoking food, remember to use clean, dry wood that’s free of any artificial additives like glue, paint, and resin, as well as mold. You’ll end up with potentially dangerous toxins in your smoke and, consequently, in your food. Kiln-dried hardwoods are ideal, free of excess moisture, mold, bacteria, insects, etc.
Four Stages of Burning Wood — We Want to be at Stage 3
When you burn wood — whether for heat, cooking, or a good ol’ campfire for ambiance — it goes through four stages, progressing from a solid log, stick, or chunk to a pile of ash. For smoking food and barbecue, we want to be at stage 3.
These stages are as follows:
Stage 1 — Evaporation
This is the sometimes irritating part when you try to spark up your wood with a lighter or matches (or already lit charcoal).
All that’s happening here is any moisture in the wood turns to steam and drifts away. No fire, not much heat — yet.
Stage 2 — Pyrolysis
Oooh, fancy word! You might recognize the first bit, “pyro,” from such words as pyrotechnics, and (for you Def Leppard fans) pyromania.
As you might have guessed, it means “fire.”
Ironically, there’s still no visible flame, but the wood is technically burning and starts to break down chemically, releasing carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, water vapor, and other gases.
When the wood is at this stage, it produces thick white clouds of smoke as water vapor, gases and compounds are released, but aren’t ignited and burned.
Commonly, when we see thick clouds of white smoke from our BBQ smoking wood, it’s because the fire isn’t hot enough, and the wood is stuck in this second stage of Pyrolysis.
Stage 3 — Ignition & Combustion
With all the gases present, once the temperature crosses the minimum required (about 540 °F, but it varies widely depending on the type of wood, how dry it is, and more), the vapors ignite, and we have made fire.
Nitric oxide joins our vapor mix, an essential compound for the smoke ring that so many of us strive for.
This is the stage for the lovely thin blue smoke that we want permeating our meat, infusing it with flavor. We want to keep our wood burning at this stage for the best smoke and flavor.
Stage 4 — Charcoal Formation & Burning, A.K.A. Char Burning
Eventually, every component of the wood burns away until the only thing remaining is carbon, also known as charcoal.
Charcoal burns, obviously, and does so at very high temperatures of 900 °F+. What it doesn’t do is produce much smoke. That’s why we add wood to charcoal fires when we smoke meat.
Smoking Wood 101 – How smoke adds flavor, the science of smoke, wood chunk and tree identification, and more.
What is Thin Blue Smoke?
You probably already know smoke comes in a range of colors. The one we want for smoking food is faintly blue and virtually invisible.
What we call “color” is the reflection of a component of light bouncing off an object and reaching our eyes. The tiny particles that make up smoke are barely detectable. However, they’re just large enough to reflect the narrow wavelengths of blue light. You may have to look twice to see that your fire is producing thin blue smoke.
Why do we prefer thin blue smoke for long cooks? Because it contains just enough aromatic compounds to add smoky flavor to our food gradually, without overwhelming it.
We smoke meat for hours to tenderize it; if we let it cook in an intensely smoky environment that whole time, it would be inedible — no one likes that much smoke taste! (Not even me, and my wife tells me my Scotch and my meat sticks taste like an ashtray. How does she even know what an ashtray tastes like?)
Dirty Smoke — Why We Avoid White, Gray, and Black
Unfortunately, the colors we most commonly associate with smoke (and we won’t get into the whole “black and white aren’t colors” argument here) are the least desirable.
Remember what I just said about the microscopic particles of thin blue smoke being barely large enough to show up blue? You can probably guess, then, that white, gray, and black smoke contain much larger particles — white reflects all colors equally, black reflects none, and gray is somewhere in the middle.
White smoke is usually what we see first as the wood starts to combust. A lot of it is water vapor from the moisture in the wood evaporating. There’s a goodly amount of the aromatics we like in white smoke, so it’s just fine for a quick blast of smoke flavor in a short cooking session. But, it’s not what we want for an extended low and slow cook.
Incomplete combustion can also cause lots of white smoke. According to the wise folks at Smoked BBQ Source, common causes of incomplete combustion are too much wood, coals that aren’t hot enough, a lack of airflow, or a fire that’s too hot.
Gray and black smoke mean either your wood is low quality, and releasing a lot of particulates, or there’s not enough oxygen to fuel your fire. This smoke leaves a bitter, acrid taste on your meat. Unless you like the taste of soot, don’t let your meat sit in dark smoke.
How to Get Thin Blue Smoke
Now you know what thin blue smoke is and why you want it. So, how do you produce it?
Part of it comes down to experience; keep practicing, and soon you’ll know your smoker so well, it’ll become second nature. To get you started, though, here are some tips and tricks for making thin blue smoke.
Clean Your Pits!
No, not your armpits, though we do advocate for good personal hygiene when you’re making food!
I’m talking about the fire pit in your grill or smoker. Burning wood and charcoal (and even gas) creates soot and creosote from the chemical compounds released from the fuel, and from bits of food and grease that fall through the grate.
All that old crud burning makes DIRTY smoke that tastes and smells awful! We want clean, pure wood smoke only, not smoke from burning the residue from previous cooks.
So keep that cooker clean between uses for the best smoking environment possible.
Wood Smoke Only
For as much as charcoal users love to tell anyone who’ll listen (and anyone who won’t) that charcoal is the “real” way to barbecue, it’s not the critical ingredient for smoking. Wood is for smoke. Charcoal is for heat.
If there’s smoke from your charcoal, it’s either just been lit, or it’s starved of oxygen and creating ‘dirty’ smoke.
Don’t put your meat on the grate until the charcoal is ashed over and no longer spewing smoke, and you’ve added your wood chips or chunks.
Use the Right Wood — Type and Size
Any wood will make smoke. But only the correct species and sizes will get you to the coveted thin blue smoke.
First off, only use hardwood. There are many varieties to choose from, with some of the most popular being oak, maple, hickory, apple, and pecan.
Softwoods, such as cedar and spruce, are typically full of sap and moisture and emit acrid smoke that destroys the taste of your food. In some cases, softwood smoke may even be harmful to your health.
Secondly, never use any wood that has been treated in any way. Avoid pallet wood, treated lumber, or any chemically treated or painted wood whatsoever. The added chemicals will taint your food, and possibly be toxic and bad for your health.
If using a charcoal smoker, and you want a good, sustained smoke, choose golf ball to baseball-sized chunks of wood (if you aren’t familiar with either sport, think beer pong ball to fist-sized) to get enough smoke to last awhile.
For electric or gas smokers, you can use chips and dust. And for offset smokers, large logs and splits.
Dry Wood — Do Not Soak It!
There’s an endless, ongoing debate about wet vs. dry wood for smoking, and I totally don’t get it.
Wet wood smolders, has to be dried out before it can ignite, takes longer to get to the stage 3 we want, and puts out white smoke for a lot longer than dry wood.
So stop the insanity — use dry wood every time for the best results.
Not Too Much Wood!
You only need a small amount of smoke to impart a great smoky taste to your food, without overpowering it and making your food taste like an ashtray. This means, you don’t need much wood!
A single, fist sized chunk of wood combusting at any one time is enough to provide good smoke for anything between 45 and 60 minutes.
So if using a charcoal smoker — such as a kamado or a Weber Smokey Mountain — spacing out just 3 or 4 decent sized chunks, so they burn at different times, is plenty.
You Want a Small, Hot Fire
Open the vents, let the oxygen pour in, and get that fire burning! But…not too much!
A concentrated, hot fire (650 °F to 750 °F) gives you the cleanest smoke, so let’s see some flame in that firebox.
If your fire is starved of oxygen, and your smoking wood doesn’t reach stage 3 ‘ignition and combustion’ (see above), then it will create thick white and gray smoke. Not good.
Of course, you don’t want a huge roaring fire either, else your cooking temp will rise above what you want for a low and slow smoking session.
So start your fire small with just a few burning coals, and try to keep it small, with your smoking wood right in the flames.
A small, concentrated, hot burning fire is what you are after. If spread out too wide (too many coals lit), you will need to choke down the vents to slow combustion, in order to keep your pit temperature low. But this results in a fire that’s not hot enough to combust the wood at an appropriately high enough temperature, to get good, clean smoke.
The heat generated from a small, good burning fire can be equal to a large, spread out, barely burning fire. You need the former.
With most smokers, the way to achieve this is to light your fire in only one place. Keep the top vent open, and control the flames with the bottom vent. Be patient and allow some time for the small fire to pre-warm your grill up to cooking temp, without letting the fire get large. Do not rush things.
This is where experience of your smoker comes in, getting a small concentrated fire going and maintaining it without causing too high temps. Only practice can make perfect here, I’m afraid.
Preheat Your Pit Before Cooking
Never add your meat before getting the internal temperature in the smoker or grill where you want it. The walls and grate should be warm, and the smoke should be flowing.
Master Fire Control
A lot is going on when you’re smoking meat. Especially at first, you’ll spend a lot of time tweaking your vents to control the flow of oxygen, sniffing the smoke to be sure it’s clean, adding more wood as needed, and keeping tabs on your thermometer to ensure you’re holding your target temperature.
There’s no smoke without fire, the saying goes. Learn to not only build the right fire for the job, but also how to maintain it. This comes with experience, and changes with different types of smoker.
See below for general guidelines with different types of smokers.
How to Get Thin Blue Using Different Smokers
The advice above holds true for all smokers, but is somewhat generic. So here are some extra tips on specific types of smokers, that should help you achieve thin blue smoke no matter what equipment you’re using.
How to Get Thin Blue Smoke With a Kamado Smoker
This is the type of smoker that I use the most, (I own three of them!) and I’ve gotten good at creating the smoke we want. However, it’s not going to be ‘thin and blue’, more a thin wispy white. But this is fine.
The problem with Kamado smokers is that they are somewhat TOO efficient! They hold heat so well, and are so airtight and airflow restricted, that it’s hard to get a fire big and hot enough to combust your smoking wood at a high enough temperature to create clean smoke. Therefore, thick white smoke is somewhat of an inherent issue with Kamado smokers! But thin blue smoke can be done, and here’s how:
Firstly, make sure your kamado is clean. Most of us (and I am guilty!) do not use a drip tray, and allow drippings to fall onto and collect on our deflector plates. This grease sits there ready to create thick white smoke the next time we fire up, sometimes for well over an hour. So use a drip tray, or clean those deflector plates.
Secondly, smoke at a slightly higher temperature of 250 to 275 °F. I know 225 °F is always recommended, but the higher temperature will allow a slightly hotter, more flaming fire, which gives more possibility to create a cleaner, blue smoke. Of course, tenderizing in a smoker is a function of both time and temp, so if you want to slow down your cook, go higher at 275 °F for the first 3 or 4 hours, then drop the temp to 225 °F once you have finished the smoking stage.
Thirdly, for long, low and slow smoking, bury your smoking wood in the base of the firebox, and place your charcoal around and over the top of the wood. This puts the wood closer to the fire grate for unrestricted oxygen, and passes generated smoke and gases from the burning wood up through the burning charcoal that’s around and above the wood, where it’s more fully combusted.
Finally, if smoking for short periods, perhaps when reverse searing a steak, for example, make sure you have a nice, tight group of burning, ashed over coals, that the grill is up to cooking temp, and only then place the wood right on top of the burning spot. Allow the wood to catch and burn, during which white smoke will be created, and as soon as the white smoke dies down, only then add your food.
For vent control, close the lower vent to about a finger width, and leave your top vent daisy wheel open. You want to create a good draw, a good air flow through the kamado, with exhaust fumes leaving easily out the top. So leave the top open, and tweak the lower vent to dial in your temps.
This video from ‘Smoking Dad’ on getting thin blue smoke in a kamado smoker contains some great advice that I agree with, and is well worth a watch.
How to Get Thin Blue Smoke With a Weber Smokey Mountain
Similar to kamados, you aren’t going to get a true, thin blue smoke in a Weber Smokey Mountain, but you will get a very light and wispy white, which is close enough.
The best way to get the desired smoke in a Weber Smokey Mountain, is to use the minion method (linked below.) There’s a reason so many competition teams use this method with water smokers such as the Smokey Mountain, and that’s because it just plain works!
What you need to do is:
- Set up the minion with a doughnut shape of coals around the outside of the firebox, with 3 or 4 wood chunks mixed in.
- Have your top vent completely open, and all three lower vents closed down to between 1/8th to 1/3rd open, depending on climate, type of charcoal used, etc. (You need to experiment to find your sweet spot.)
- Light about a half chimney full of coals, and when completely ashed over, pour them into the middle of the minion.
- Put on your lid, and wait for your smoker to come up to temp (225 °F being the goal.) Leave the top vent open, and tweak the lower vents to dial things in. As the smoker warms through, you will see thick white smoke from the wood, but it will die down after about half an hour.
- Once the white smoke has finished, and the smoker is up to temp, you’re ready to add your food.
It really is that easy! For more details on this process, please do check out our guide to the Minion method.
How to Get Thin Blue Smoke With an Offset Smoker
Ah, stick burners and offset smokers. These are the pits where you get true, thin blue smoke.
In an offset stick burner, you create a relatively large, flaming bed of wood burned down to coals, or use a bed of burning charcoal for heat, with fresh logs placed on top to produce smoke.
The fire is so large, so hot, and there’s so much draw and airflow, that combustion of the wood is complete, and thin blue smoke is quite easy to achieve — at least compared to kamados and Weber Smokey mountains.
However, it’s confession time!
Although I now have more than a decade of experience with BBQ and smoking, I have rarely ever used a large offset smoker. Therefore, I freely admit that I’m no expert.
With this in mind, I will refer you to two resources on the topic of creating thin blue smoke with an offset smoker.
First, check out this fantastic introduction from SmokedBBQSource.com on how to use an offset smoker.
Secondly, watch this video from ‘MadScientistBBQ’. It’s a long one, but it’s chock-full of great info on starting and maintaining fires for you offset smoker owners:
How to Get Thin Blue Smoke With a Pellet Smoker
Pellet smokers are the ultimate in set-and-forget smoking for the backyard pitmaster. They are push-button easy to use, and highly effective, including producing thin blue smoke!
I’ve not got a lot to write on producing thin blue smoke with a pellet smoker, because it really is so easy. But here goes:
- Turn on your smoker.
- Set it to your smoking temperature.
- Wait for it to come up to temperature. During this time, it will produce white smoke.
- Once up to cooking temp, and the white smoke dies down, you are done. Add your food and cook.
If you do get white or gray smoke while cooking, it’s likely because grease and drippings are burning. So keep your pit clean!
However, if you are getting white smoke at 225 °F, simply dial your pit up to between 250 and 275 °F and cook at that temperature. The white smoke will down as the wood combusts more fully.
And that’s it.
In fact, pellet grills combust their wood so effectively that many people — particularly those coming from charcoal smokers — complain that the smoke flavor from a pellet grill isn’t strong and pronounced enough. This has made manufacturers create ‘high smoke’ settings on their grills.
In this setting, generally speaking, what happens is more pellets are pushed into the fire pot, while the temperature is held lower, to allow more smoldering of the pellets instead of complete combustion.
This creates some thicker white smoke, adding more flavor. It’s a period where the smoke is not thin and blue, but this is OK for 45 minutes or less, and in some cases, it is perhaps desirable to add some extra flavor.
How to Get Thin Blue Smoke With Electric and Gas Smokers
There’s not a lot you can do with electric and gas smokers — or even do wrong. Here is all you need to know:
- Follow the manufacturers’ instructions.
- DO NOT soak your wood chips.
- … That is all.
Electric and gas smokers have a little tray or smoker box, that holds wood chips over the heating element or burner, which causes the chips to smolder slowly.
The smoke will be white. It will not be thick, billowy white, it will be light and wispy white. However, it will not be thin and blue. There’s simply not enough combustion going on.
So with electric and gas smokers, follow the instructions of the manufacturer. Do not soak your wood chips. And accept ‘it is what it is.’
You can limit how white the smoke is by smoking at a slightly higher temperature, but that is all.
But hey, don’t be discouraged! I have used many such smokers, and the food from them is delicious. So crack on! ?
Finally, Practice, Practice, Practice
Unless you’re very lucky, you probably won’t nail the thin blue smoke your first time. And, even if you do, you may not be able to replicate it next time!
Don’t give up; like all good things, it’s worth putting in the effort to get it right. As you get to know your smoker, you’ll find it becomes easier to make thin blue smoke.
You might want to try a few practice runs — get your smoker up and running, but don’t add any meat. Wood is a lot cheaper than, say, a 10-pound brisket. Would you rather burn through a few logs or spoil delicious meat?
Truly mastering the art of smoking takes more than a weekend. The best smoked meat you’ve eaten was probably prepared by a professional pitmaster, or at least a serious enthusiast who’s put a lot of time and effort into learning the craft.
Don’t give up! This isn’t like grilling hamburgers, and it will take a lot of trial and error.
I say none of this to scare you off. I just want you to understand the reality of smoking with wood. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, though, and the reward — delicious smoked meat and the praises of your guests — make it all worthwhile. And I promise, once you get the hang of conjuring up thin blue smoke, you are well on your way to smoked meat glory.
As I always do, I thank you for reading, and I wish you nothing but the best with your backyard cooking journey. Hit us up through the contact form or social media with any questions or comments.