Why Does My Smoked Meat Taste Bitter?

We’ve all had that disappointing time when the first bite of your glorious smoked creation tastes bitter and unpleasant. It’s important to identify what went wrong so you can learn from it. Let’s look at what causes this bitterness, and more importantly, how we prevent it. The key is to control the smoke using the vents, fuel source, and wood and develop the best bark and flavor on the meat.

What Causes Smoked Meat To Taste Bitter?

Heat, smoke, and time. The three fundamentals that create delicious barbecue. If things go wrong at any stage during these steps, the overall smoke and taste of the meat suffers. Not controlling these processes can quickly lead to over smoking, and build up of a bitter substance called creosote.

Smoked Pork Butt Shoulder

Over Smoking

The process of over smoking comes from the thickness and amount of smoke, as well as the compounds and combustion byproducts within it. One of biggest contributors to bitterness in smoked meat is a carbon residue called creosote which is formed with incomplete combustion. This thick residue travels within the smoke and imparts onto the outside of the meat leaving that distinctly unpleasant over-smoked smell and taste. 

An important lesson to learn as a beginner is to avoid thick white smoke, even though it looks like it’s going great it’s doing much more harm than good. It’s a clear sign something is wrong with the combustion. You want a very thin, almost blue smoke, a sign of clean smoke and proper controlled combustion.

Common mistakes that lead to more creosote build up and over smoking are:

  • The coal isn’t hot enough, or is burning inconsistently.
  • The airflow is too restricted not allowing complete combustion.
  • Using too much charcoal or wood.
  • The coal or wood is burning too hot.

Wood

Don’t be tempted to use just any wood lying around, and always avoid softwoods for smoking with. Softwoods naturally contain much more sap which is very pungent and adds unpleasant flavors in the smoke. All natural hardwood will burn much more cleanly and evenly. 

If your smoked meat tastes bitter often it may be that the wood you are using is providing too heavy of a smoke for the meat. This is seen more often when using strong smoking woods like mesquite or hickory. Although great at providing a stronger smokiness in a shorter amount of time, which makes them great woods for smoking chicken wings or smoking ribs, they can overpower a brisket or pork butt over longer smokes.

Charcoal

Avoid using any charcoals with additives as these can contribute to the unpleasant flavor of the meat. If possible, it’s best to use high quality and all natural lump charcoal for smoking, as it heats more effectively and over longer periods of time compared to briquettes. 

Make sure your charcoal pieces are more-or-less the same size, and don’t add all the dust that you find at the bottom of the bag. This ensures an even combustion to help control temperature.

When charcoal combusts, it releases heat and compound byproducts which contribute to the smoke and flavor of the meat. One of the key benefits to smoking with charcoal as a fuel source, is that it helps provide the traditional barbecue flavor, burns consistently and over long periods of time.

How To Fix The Problem

Salvaging The Remains

If you’ve already got yourselves some over smoked meat the best thing to do is salvage it the best you can. Smoke doesn’t usually penetrate all the way to the centre. Depending on how over smoked the meat is, if you’re lucky the bitter flavor won’t be all throughout.  Simply start slicing off the exterior and keep as much of the good meat as you can.

Prevent It From Happening Again

The best way to fix over smoked meats is to learn from it and prevent it from happening again. Identify what caused it and make changes for next time. 

The most common cause of bitterness comes from thick white smoke. You need to get a very thin blue smoke, a clear indicator of cleanliness and consistency. Avoid overloading the firebox, and ensure you even size coals and wood. Control the temperature using the vents and slowly bring it up to temperature and start smoking when you have an even blue smoke.

If you suspect it’s the wood or charcoal you’re using that’s causing the over smoking, try changing it next time to test it out. If you’re using a strong smoking wood like mesquite or hickory, try using a more mild smoking wood, like apple, peach, or maple, depending on what you’re smoking. Be sure your charcoal is dry and in reasonably even sized pieces.

If it’s simply that the meat was in the smoker too long simply take note and set alarms or check more regularly on your smoker.

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