Section 14
Problems while barbecuing--What went wrong?

  1. Problems while barbecuing--What went wrong?

    • [I tried to smoke a 3 lb. sirloin tip roast yesterday. Held 220F as best I could (you know how that is). Had rubbed it with pepper and garlic after oiling the outside, hit it with oil once more and sprayed it with water every hour or so. Was on for nearly 6 hours and the internal temperature never exceeded 138F It was rather dry inside.]

      Ed Pawlowski--
      My guess is that while you were waiting for the temperature to go up, the roast was just drying out. I've done sirloin tip, but for less time and it was good. Could be that it was just a dry tough piece of meat anyway.

    • [I'm new at barbecuing. I finally broke down and bought me a New Braunfels smoker. The problem is the meat turned very black and was bitter (especially the briskets). I expected some blackening of the meat due to the smoke but the briskets were so bitter my dogs laughed at me. Any help would be appreciated.]

      Ed Pawlowski--
      The bitter and dark smoke you encountered was from having too big a fire dampered down too low. You want a small amount of fuel burning to make the temperature you need. Smoldering will produce heavy smoke and give the meat a bitter taste. Open the dampers and control the temperature by the amount of fuel. If it gets too hot, instead of closing the damper, open the door to release the heat. Most of all, practice. You will get better each time.

      Tom Kelly--
      First piece of advice from a Q-newbie like me would be ignore the NB instructions to use the exhaust damper. The group says, and I follow their advice, to leave the exhaust damper wide open. Otherwise, you can get incomplete combustion and the bitter creosote flavor.

      Rule 1----small fire, open inlet damper
      Rule 2----big fire--- you get burned, bad-tasting meat
      Rule 3----small fire, six pack, good meat, ten hours slow cooking

      Rodney Leist--
      Probably one of the biggest hazards to great tasting barbecue is stale smoke. The reason for including a few words about this subject here is because bad wood is often blamed for bitter tasting barbecue. More often than not, the real culprit is smoke that has been trapped in the meat chamber and allowed to cool and condense on the meat. ALWAYS leave the exhaust vent completely open to prevent smoke from becoming trapped and cooled in the meat chamber. Use the inlet vent to control the fire. Trapped smoke picks up bitter flavors from creosote buildup in the chamber, cools, and deposits them on the meat, just like a rain cloud. Stale smoke can also be caused by the fire cooling too much due to lack of attention or attempting to add too much cold wood into the fire chamber. No matter what the cause of stale smoke, the meat comes out the loser.

      The ideal situation in a wood-burning smoker is for the fire to have all the oxygen (air) it needs for complete combustion of the wood. This gives the cleanest-burning fire and the cleanest, best tasting smoke. So keep that fire no bigger than necessary and that inlet air damper mostly open.

    • [I purchased a Brinkmann charcoal water smoker last year. I'm having some problems with temperature control. The temperature drops as the hours go by even though I have the same size fire. Any ideas on this?]

      Scott Mark--
      When you light a big pot of charcoal, with the smoker top portion off, there's plenty of oxygen available. All the coals get burning; all the coals get hot; all the coals give off a lot of heat. (Editor--the same applies when you start a fire in a bullet water smoker where the fire pan section cannot be removed from the smoker section.)

      When the smoker top gets put in place (or the fire door closed), the air flow gets cut back quite a bit. The coals slow their burning rate, and they don't generate as much heat. The overall amount of heat being transferred into the smoke chamber is less. As the charcoal burns, ash accumulates, further reducing airflow. The only solution I've found that works well is to lift the entire smoker off of the firepit (my smoker is actually three parts: fire pit, cylinder, and dome top) and then use a shovel to dump the burning charcoal on top of a grate (getting rid of ash, which is also removed from the firepit) and then reloading the firepit with the burning charcoal and more that is already burning. Because of the lack of airflow, adding non-burning charcoal to the pit doesn't do much good.

      Editor--See Section 7.2.1 for modifying this type of smoker. In most bullet water smokers you cannot remove the smoking chamber from the firepit chamber--they are fastened together. So the only way to remove the built-up ash is through the fire door. Until you make the changes that allow the smoking chamber to lift off the firepit, use a poker to get the ashes out of the firepit pan. Be careful if you have the smoker on a wooden deck as the hot ashes and bits of burning charcoal may set the deck on fire.

    • [I smoked a brisket. It tasted great but had the texture of old tires. It was still juicy but was very gristly and sinewy. Did I overcook it?]

      Rick Thead--
      It was undercooked. Brisket is just about the nastiest piece of meat out there. It really has to be cooked past the point of 'doneness' to be edible. But, IMHO, when cooked properly, it's the best BBQ there is.

      If you are having trouble keeping the temperature on the smoker up, then smoke it as long as you can for flavor, then wrap it in heavy duty foil and finish it in a 250 to 275F oven. I'm not recommending this as a preferred method, but in some cases, it's the only way to go.

      Here's how to tell if a brisket is ready: check it by feel. I happen to use one of those small instant-read thermometers to track how the meat is doing. I found that I can tell by the feel when I insert it in the meat if the meat is 'done.' You could also use a carving fork, but try not to poke any more holes in the meat than necessary. When you can feel that the thermometer glides in without any resistance, it's done. If you feel any resistance (it feels like it's hitting gristly meat), it's not ready yet. If you've ever cooked corned beef (usually brisket) the principle's the same. Anyway, if you check the meat periodically, you'll be able to detect the shrinkage of the tough part. Shoot for about 160F internal temperature.

    • [Is it possible to over-smoke something? The last time we smoked some meat, it had a very harsh, acrid taste that was not appealing. Simply put, it was sour!]

      Larry Willrath--
      Sounds like you might have gotten hold of some green wood or your smoker is very dirty. I would check the type and age of the wood and the condition of your smoker. I use some green wood but try to limit it to a 1-hour burn or not to exceed 15% of the total smoke cycle.

      Frank Boyer--
      I once cooked a large quantity of ribs and left 10 to 20 slabs sitting in the cooker after I served. The slabs pulled out when they were done were good, but the ones that sat in the cooker after I stopped putting wood in had a very bitter taste. What I am guessing happened is that after the fire died down the smoldering wood imparted the bitter taste on the slabs. So what might have made the difference on your parent's "over-smoked meat" was that the fire died down, started smoldering and caused the bitter taste. I have cooked brisket up to 16 hours and whole hog for 25 hours and never had a bitter taste problem. Some people say preburning the wood will eliminate the bitter taste.

      Editor--If you are going to leave barbecue in the smoker to keep warm after you have finished smoking it, wrap it in foil to prevent what happened to Frank's ribs.

      Mike Cain--
      I've run into situations of using green or wet wood--beware of molds or other natural fungi that can grow on the bark of these pieces. There are some pretty scary-looking and smelly grungies that can accumulate on certain pieces of wood which could affect the flavor of the smoke, especially at lower temperatures. Pre-burning will eliminate most of these problems.

    • [I recently purchased NBBD smoker. I keep running into the same problem when I try to smoke briskets and ribs. There is too much smoke. The ribs have a smoke ring all the way through them, and the brisket is way too smoky. When I cook the ribs, I use a lot of regular charcoal, and only one 12" piece of hickory. What do you suggest?]

      Stephen J. O'Connor--
      I had the same problem with my OK Joe of a similar design. I was burning straight wood, though. The problem with these units is the temptation to build a fire big enough that you don't need to tend it so much. I kept having to choke my fire down after getting it going. I made the mistake of trying to control my fire with the exhaust vent, rather than the intake. This resulted in stagnant smoke and a sooty flavor. Be moderate with your fire, even though it will mean more tending. Regulate from the intake rather than the exhaust, even though it is slower to respond. Lastly, give up charcoal briquettes and get lump charcoal--it gives a much cleaner flavor.

      Frank Boyer--
      Try using 2-3" chunks of flavor wood. Hickory is one of the strongest woods; pecan is mellower. Make sure that you have a good air flow through the pit. Don't control the outlet airflow (exhaust). If the smoke smells nasty the meat will taste nasty.

    • [My first attempt at smoking a brisket in my NBBD was nothing to write home about. I started with lump charcoal and then moved to wood for a total of about 14 hours at 200-220F as best I could hold it. I took the brisket straight out of the pit and into the freezer. Pulled it out today and popped it into a 250F oven, foiled, for about 3 hours. It is smoky, no doubt about it. The Mr. Brown is a bit bitter so I cut most of that off. The meat is VERY tender but a little dry. It tasted much like a mild pot roast with little flavor other than smoke. I did marinade it overnight in a concoction of beer, Dr. Pepper, and various spices. It was 8 pounds. Any help?]

      Danny Gaulden--
      Here's why your brisket was not up to expectations:

      1. You should have kept your smoking temperature between 225-250F. You smoked at too low a temperature.

      2. Total time shouldn't have been over 10 hours for an 8 pound brisket.

      3. One reason it was too smoky is because you smoked it too long and too slow. With a little hotter fire, your smoke density would have been considerably less and your smoking time shortened. Using lump is a good way to decrease the smoke also, as well as preburning your wood.

      4. The reason your brisket was "very tender but a little dry" is this: You overcooked it. A brisket is suppose to be "tender and moist", not "very tender and dry". If you smoke it to the point of being "very tender", there is a good chance it is overcooked and will also be dry.

      5. The pot roast flavor came from warming your brisket in foil in the oven from the frozen state. You should have let it thaw in the refrigerator, then just warmed it up in foil to serving temperature in the oven. And I mean just warm--no more cooking.

      6. Forget the marinade. Use a good rub, mop with a good mop every hour, and turn the brisket over every hour or so while barbecuing it in your pit. Guarantee you will see a big difference in your end product.

      7. I don't have to turn my meat over in the pit at the D. Q., for it is a rotisserie. Cooking on a stationary pit without a good baffle system, or convection tube, is another ball game. You must mop and turn the meat every two hours or so. If you don't, it will dry out on the bottom side from constant heat pounding.

    • [I did some ribs yesterday and although they were quite edible I would have thought that they would be more tender. --snip-- According to Danny Gaulden, the ribs should not take nearly as long as the roast but they came very close. Should I have wrapped the ribs earlier in the barbecue process or what?]

      Rock McNelly--
      Well, as far as your ribs not being as tender as you had expected, my guess is that they were cooked too long, at too high a temperature. Those bones really do help to cook the meat from the inside out, so it just doesn't take that long. By my calculations, your ribs cooked for 9 1/2 hours! That's way too long. Even wrapped, they boil off their moisture at that rate.

      Most ribs can be cooked to perfection at 220F in 4 1/2 hours. Every once in a while you'll get an ornery pig that's a bit more tough than the average pig, and may go as long as 5 hours. But it's rare. Anything after 5 hours is just asking for rubber.

      My advice would be to drop the temperature in your smoker back down to 225F when you're cooking both butts and ribs, 220F if just one or the other. If you can do it, place the ribs on a rack under the butts so that the juices from the butts will baste your ribs--keeps them moist.

    • [I tried my second all-wood run in my NBBD and the finished ribs were very bitter. There was a lot of dense white smoke at various points during the 4 hours smoking time. I kept small pieces of wood set on the firebox warming plate and I set other pieces inside the firebox, along the walls, to ignite when they got ready. Once or twice, I had faint white smoke but it was only for an hour or so total time. To clear the stack, I had to crank open the inlet damper and the temperature went way high (250F+). When I'd close it back down to get a decent temperature, the fire would smolder and produce the thick white smoke. Can somebody help?]

      Scott in Carolina--
      How dry was your wood? Thick white smoke sometimes comes from wood that's not well-seasoned. I believe Ed P. gave an accurate description of how to tell if the wood is green or not. He says to rap two pieces together--"clink" = dry, "thud" = wet.

    • [I think some was well-seasoned hickory and some was fairly green oak. I used both, but I did put it in the firebox until it caught on fire by itself after warming it up on the lid.]

      Vince Vielhaber--
      I use wood pieces with maximum length of 10-12 inches. I split each 2-3-inch diameter piece in quarters. Like you, I keep the ones next to be burned atop the warming plate of the NBBD. The only time I have a problem is when I get distracted and leave the pit unattended for a time, otherwise I can keep it within a 10 or 20F temperature range. Also, unless a fire gets too big, the inlet and outlet dampers should be wide open. As has been said here before, regulate the temperature with fuel, not air.

    • [I guess my next question would be, how often do you tend the fire? I was hoping this would be like building fire in my fireplace for a cold winter day, occasionally tossing on a log or two, but that doesn't seem to be the case with the NBBD. I was out there either watching or stoking it every 30 minutes or so and still I had problems.]

      I usually tend the pit about once an hour. I did try something very different today. Every couple of hours or so, I put a bunch of small pieces of lump charcoal in the firebox to keep a good bed of coals going. Then as usual, I kept the split logs on top of the warming plate on the top of the firebox and added a piece of wood when necessary--about every hour. The piece of wood caught fire and was in flames almost immediately. Temperature control was a lot better this time, except when I got busy and forgot for to check on it for over an hour.

    • [When I opened the firebox lid on my NBBD while I was doing ribs, I had flames shooting up past the top! Was my fire too big?]

      Rick Otto--
      You had MUCH too large a fire--too much fuel or too much air from the vent. I hardly ever open the firebox 'lid' as heat rises--I don't want to disrupt the temperature in the smoking chamber. I load fuel from the end.

      The techniques of fire and temperature control in a wood-burning pit are the most difficult for the beginner to master in the art of barbecuing.

      A summary of what to do when you are starting out with your first wood-burning offset-firebox pit:

      1. Try using lump charcoal until you get comfortable with your pit, or a combination of lump charcoal and wood.

      2. Use only seasoned wood. Green wood = bad smoke = bad-tasting meat.

      3. Make the fire only big enough for the job--this comes from experience. You want a small flame.

      4. Keep the exhaust damper wide open.

      5. Pre-warm the wood on or in the firebox or, better still, pre-burn the lump charcoal or wood and add burning pieces to the firebox.

      6. If you add cold wood to the fire in the firebox, it can cool the fire and produce thick smoke, which will lead to bitter meat.

      7. Learn to control your fire with fuel not the inlet damper.

      8. Open the smoking chamber door to let out some heat if the fire gets too high and the smoking chamber gets too hot.

      9. Add small pieces of wood to keep the fire going, about 1-1 1/2-inches in diameter by 10-12-inches long.

      10. Generally, leave the inlet damper at least 1/2-3/4 open.

      11. Make small changes to the air inlet damper.

      12. If you're only using a smoker occasionally, it's hard to develop the techniques for good fire-control. The more you practice, the better you'll get.

      13. Be prepared to check up on the pit every 30 minutes or so until you gain experience. If you want to watch the big football game, bringing the set out to where the pit's located is a lot more practical than bringing the pit into your TV room.

      If you are a newcomer to barbecue and have not yet purchased a smoker and think the problems associated with tending a wood-burning pit are not worth the hassle, then you may be a candidate for Lazy-Q. That's smoking on a gas or electric fueled pit. Many BBQ List members do just that, so you won't be alone. You can make some mighty fine barbecue the Lazy-Q way. However, you will miss out on one of the real pleasures that come from barbecuing--tending the wood-burning pit. There's just something special about building and tending a fire.

    • [I'm going to be barbecuing in a competition at high altitudes. Any help on doing that?]

      John Ross--
      Plan on arriving a day early and do a test run with a slab of ribs at the target altitude.

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BBQ FAQ Rev 1.0 ©1997 William W. Wight. All rights reserved.