Brisket Over-Smoked? Here’s Why

If you over-smoke a brisket, it will be hard to salvage your dinner because the meat will taste bitter. Prevention is the best cure for an over-smoked brisket, and there are several things we can do to avoid making the same mistake twice. I did some research into the science of smoke and found out how we can avoid a bitter brisket by following a few basic rules. By having a good understanding of fire management and brisket fundamentals, you should never have to worry about over-smoking your brisket again.

As a general rule, ensure your smoker has adequate ventilation by always leaving the top vent open. Good airflow will prevent the brisket from being over-exposed to smoke and lessen the likelihood of creosote forming on the outer layer of the brisket. Over-smoking can also occur by using too much wood, which will create excessive smoke. Be careful using mesquite and hickory because these woods produce a strong smoke that may turn your meat bitter and overpower other flavors. Burn a nice, clean fire, try to achieve a thin, blue-tinged smoke and never expose your meat to black smoke.

Key Points

  • Ensure your smoker has adequate ventilation by always leaving the top vent open.
  • Be careful using mesquite and hickory because these woods produce a strong smoke that may turn your meat bitter and overpower other flavors.
  • Try to achieve a thin, blue-tinged smoke and never expose your meat to black smoke.
  • Get the flavor balance right. Make sure there is an even balance of flavors, and no one flavor is more dominant than the other.
  • Foil your brisket to shield your meat. Wrapping will keep the meat moist, and protect your meat from getting too much smoke.
  • Create good airflow by opening your vents.
  • Don’t use too much wood when smoking brisket. Two or three chunks of wood are sufficient to get some smoke rolling.
  • Be cautious when using mesquite wood. It is the strongest of all the smoking woods and may overpower the meat.

Get The Flavor Balance Right

The flavors on a perfectly smoked brisket are a combination of smoke, rub, salt, charcoal, etc. We want to make sure there is an even balance of flavors, and no one flavor is more dominant than the other. Some smoking woods are extremely powerful, and the smoke will hijack all the other brisket flavors. Smoke isn’t the only thing you want to taste. You also want to taste the rub, the natural meat flavors, the marinades, etc. Be careful with smoking woods such as mesquite and hickory. Mesquite in particular has a very strong smoke flavor. If you expose your brisket to these smoking woods for too long, then smoke is all you will taste. For more on smoking woods, check out our Wood Guide.

Foiling Your Brisket – Shield Your Meat

Wrapping large roasts such as brisket is normal practice when smoking meat. Not only will wrapping keep the meat moist, it will also protect your meat from getting too much smoke. We usually wrap a brisket after the bark has formed about 5-8 hours into the cook. Some pitmasters avoid wrapping because it softens the bark. However, wrapping is the safest practice until you have mastered brisket fundamentals. For more on wrapping, check out What Should I Use To Wrap Brisket?

Create Good Airflow – Open Your Vents

All smokers will have a vent or smoke stack somewhere at the top. There are various types of vents, but they all act the same way. You should always leave them open at least 1/4 so that the smoke gases and bad smoke can escape. The vent will draw the smoke from the fire, pass over the meat and out through the chimney. If you are using a kettle grill to smoke your meat, rotate the lid so the vents are above the meat opposite the fire. You will get more smoke flavor on your meat if you set your smoker this way.

Don’t Use Too Much Wood

When smoking brisket, be careful not to use too much wood. Brisket is a tough cut and can handle a lot of smoke, but too much wood will turn the meat bitter. If you’re using a charcoal smoker, two or three chunks of wood is sufficient to get some smoke rolling. If you pile on too much wood, then it will cause too much smoke. When smoking a brisket, you want a steady flow of smoke throughout the first part of the cook. Before adding meat, throw a few chunks of wood on the fire and only top it up later if it has burned out. Smoke is only important during the first stage of the cook. After you wrap the brisket in foil, smoke will have no influence. If you want to know more about wood and smoke, you might be interested in an article I have written called When Do I add Wood To My Smoker?

Mesquite – Use With Caution

Another cause of an over-smoked brisket is selecting the wrong wood. Mesquite is a popular wood in Texas but many people don’t like the taste. Mesquite is the strongest of all the smoking woods and will overpower meat with thin flesh. Brisket is a hardy cut of meat, so it can take a lot of smoke. However, if brisket is exposed to mesquite for too long, the smoke flavor will dominate the flavor profile and all you will taste is smoke.

Use Smoking Wood Only

To play it safe, use store-bought wood from your barbeque store rather than scavenging for wood yourself. Different woods will create different smoke, and you need to know the difference. Some woods can be harmful, while others will ruin your meat. You always want to use seasoned wood and avoid damp green wood. Woods such as pine or spruce are not suitable for smoking meat and should be avoided. Some trees produce sap, which will give your meat a terrible taste. Also, never use scrap wood because it may contain chemicals or paint.

Bad Smoke Equals Creosote

If you expose your brisket to bad smoke for too long, a substance called creosote form on the meat. A brisket with an oily coat of creosote will make the brisket taste bitter and leave a disgusting taste in your mouth. Creosote is a black oily substance that is a combination of of meat and smoke.

How To Avoid Creosote

The best way to avoid creosote forming on your brisket is to make sure you have a nice, clean fire with sufficient airflow. If the top vent of your smoker isn’t open enough, smoke will sit on the surface of your meat and creosote will form. When your smoker has poor ventilation, the build-up of bad smoke will get trapped on the brisket bark and ruin your meat. Once you have allowed creosote to form on your meat, there isn’t a lot you can do to save your brisket.

What To Do if Your Brisket Has Creosote?

If you notice creosote forming on your brisket, the first thing you should do is open the top vents and stop adding wood to the fire. Creosote is excess smoke, so if you stop the smoke, you stop the creosote. If you want to learn more about creosote, you might be interested in another article we have written called Bitter Smoked Meat? – Heres Why.

Want Clean Smoke? Clean Your Smoker

A dirty smoker will produce dirty smoke. If you have a dirty smoker and poor ventilation, then your brisket is going to be trapped inside with that bad smoke and your meat will taste disgusting. You should clean your smoker at least every 2-3 cooks, but I always partially clean my pits before every cook. The reason I do this is to ensure I get a nice, clean smoke and to prevent grease fires.

When fat and grease buildup on the grill grates and on the bottom of your smoker, they may catch fire during the cook. This will not only de-stabilize the temperature of your smoker, it can also produce a bad smoke that may give your brisket an unpleasant taste. It is good practice to clean your smoker before every cook to avoid any problems.

Grease build-up can also cause your smoker to catch fire, so it’s always better to play it safe when dealing with fire. Buy a decent grill brush and scrape the grill grates, removing grease and gunk. Sweep the ash from the bottom of your smoker so your fire can burn clean. The cleaner the smoker, the cleaner the smoke. For more information on cleaning your smoker, check out another article I wrote a while back where I go into detail about how to clean specific smokers. How Often Should I Clean My Smoker?

How To Save Your Over-Smoked Brisket

If you believe your brisket has a layer of creosote, then trim the outer layer of the meat. Unfortunately, this will mean you will lose your bark and all the flavor from the rub, but it might at least be edible. When slicing, cut the meat thinly so your dinner guests are only getting small doses of creosote in each mouthful.

Coleslaw – Disguise The Bad Taste

Often brisket is served with coleslaw in a brisket sandwich, and this is a great way to disguise any mistake you have made. If your brisket is too salty or too dry, the coleslaw mixed with the brisket between some fresh bread will hide some of the over-smoked, bitter flavor of the brisket. If your brisket tastes terrible, trim the outer layer where the excessive smoke flavor is most prominent. Cut the brisket in thin slices or shred it without the bark. Serve it in a sandwich with coleslaw, and your guests may not even notice your mistake.

A sweet barbeque sauce or any other neutral-flavored sauce may not get the job done in covering a bitter smoke flavor, so you may need something stronger. Another way to get rid of unwanted flavors is chilli or vinegar. If you have a chilly sauce, it will overpower the smoke flavor. A vinegar-based dipping sauce will also draw attention away from the unwanted smoke flavor. The tang in a vinegar sauce will also help disguise the bitter taste of creosote.

How To Get The Thin Blue Smoke

The thin blue smoke is what most pitmasters aspire to whenever smoking brisket. When your smoker is first ignited, it will put out a lot of thick white smoke. Once this smoke has cleared, that I when you should add the brisket to your smoker. Once the fire is going nicely, a thin, almost transparent blue-tinged smoke should appear. This is your goal as a pitmaster, to reproduce this thin blue smoke every time.

The thin blue smoke is the most desired smoke for brisket. Finding the thin blue smoke takes a little practice to achieve, but once you have smoked a few briskets, you will figure out how to get the perfect smoke more often than not. When starting out, most of what you do is trial and error. Once you have an excellent system, stick to it and do things the same way. Experimentation is important, but only change one thing at a time. Practice the fundamentals, then once you know the rules you can break them.

When To Add Wood – Get The Timing Right

Make sure you don’t put the wood in your smoker too early. If you do, it will burn out and the good smoke will go to waste. When pre-heating your smoker, wait until the temperature has stabilized, then add the wood prior to placing the brisket on the grill. Some pitmasters insist on placing the wood underneath the coals, but the most common way is to place chunks of wood on top of the fire.

Before adding the meat, wait for a nice clean smoke to flow from your smoker. Once you have a nice clean smoke rolling and the temperature of your smoker is right where you want it, then it’s time to place the brisket into your smoker.

What the Experts Say

We reached out to some of the top barbecue experts to get their recommendations on which woods to use when smoking brisket.

Myron Mixon, a well-known pitmaster and author, believes that the best wood for smoking is the one that you have access to and can afford. He suggests using a combination of woods to create the best flavor.

Aaron Franklin, a pitmaster and owner of a barbecue restaurant in Austin, Texas, recommends using hickory for pork, mesquite for beef, and fruit woods like apple or cherry for poultry and fish.

Chris Lilly, another pitmaster and author, suggests using a combination of woods to create a unique flavor. He recommends oak and hickory for beef and pork, and fruit woods like apple and cherry for poultry and fish.

Ray Lampe, a pitmaster and author, suggests using hardwoods like hickory, mesquite, or oak for beef and pork, and fruit woods like apple or cherry for poultry and fish.

Tuffy Stone, a pitmaster and restaurant owner, recommends using hickory for pork, mesquite for beef, and fruit woods like apple or cherry for poultry and fish. He suggests experimenting with different woods to find what works best for you.

Brad Orrison, a pitmaster and restaurant owner, suggests using different woods to change the flavor of the meat. He recommends hickory for beef, mesquite for pork, and fruit woods like apple or cherry for poultry and fish.

Mike Mills, a pitmaster and restaurant owner, recommends using a combination of woods to create a unique flavor. He suggests oak and hickory for beef, and fruit woods like apple and cherry for poultry and fish.

Tim May, a pitmaster and restaurant owner, believes that the key to great barbecue is using the right wood. He suggests using hickory for pork, mesquite for beef, and fruit woods like apple or cherry for poultry and fish.

My Favorite Brisket Tools

Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.

Meat Injector: Injecting meat is a great way to take your barbecue to the next level and help you make competition-style brisket. An injector is the only way you will be able to get flavor and moisture into the middle of the meat. The Beast Injector is a stainless steel injector that is sturdy and affordable. Check the latest price on Amazon here.

Brisket Marinade: The best injection solution on the market is the Butcher BBQ Brisket Injection. This marinade is used in competitions and is made by World Barbecue Champion pitmaster, Dave Bouska. You can find the marinade on Amazon here.

Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.

Brisket Rub: These days I make my own rub when possible, but I always have a few pre-made rubs for when I’m running low. Barbecue guru Malcom Reed produces Killer Hogs, one of the best brisket rubs I’ve found over the years. Another great rub is Slap Yo Daddy, made by brisket master and multiple World Barbecue Champion, Harry Soo.

Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.

Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.

Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.


Author and founder at Meat Smoking HQ

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