How much smoke should you see during a cook?
Z Grills are very competent smokers, but how much smoke should the chimney be releasing during a long, low temperature cook?
The answer is very little. In fact if you can clearly see lots of smoke continually being released there may actually be an issue, such as lots of wood dust in the pellets.
The huge cloud of smoke released during the first few minutes of startup is NOT what you should ever see during a normal cook. Such a huge smoke cloud occurs during the startup cycle due to the large pile of pellets that is dropped into the fire-pot to establish a good fire.
During low temperature operation (less than 135℃/ 275℉), smoke is released in cycles roughly every 2-3 minutes. The controller manages both the delivery of wood pellets and the fan speed to allow the fire to die down, then more pellets are delivered into the fire-pot which smoulder releasing a nice batch of smoke. This is one of the key reasons that larger temperature swings occur at lower temperature settings as it is required to achieve these smoke cycles. So it is normal to only periodically see smoke, not continually throughout the cook.
Smoke will be visible in cycles up to a temperatures of around 121℃ / 250℉. Beyond this temperature the fire will burn hotter and cleaner with a lot less smoke.
Wood pellets contain some moisture and so some of the “smoke” coming out of the chimney is actually water vapour (steam). This can be clearly seen in the photo above, taken on a cold winter morning. So consider that in cold weather the amount of “smoke” may appear to be much more than during hot, dry weather.
What is the Smoke setting?
The SMOKE setting is not just used to start it the grill. It is a special mode that maximises the smoke that is released by allowing the fire to die right down before delivering more pellets that smoulder (releasing smoke) before coming to flame.
Smoke will be released cycles every 2 to 3 minutes.
What is the Smoke setting temperature?
The Smoke setting dumps pellets periodically to maximum the smoke and isn’t strictly aiming for a temperature like other settings are.
Depending on the weather the actual temperature could average around 75℃ / 167℉ in the winter and closer to 90℃ / 194℉ in the summer.
Australian hardwood pellets have a lot more heat per kg than oak/fruit varieties. Particularly in hot weather, the minimum pellet delivery to maintain a fire may not allow the grill drop below 90℃ / 194℉ on the SMOKE setting. This high temperature is not a problem (still very low), but if you specifically want a lower temperature (averaging closer to 75℃ / 167℉), considering mixing in some oak based pallets that releases less heat.
Because the temperature is so low, the SMOKE setting isn’t suitable for a full cook (the meat won’t get up to temperature), but can be used for the first period of the cook to impart more smoky flavour. An example might be using SMOKE for the first hour before increasing the temperature to 107℃ / 225℉ or 121℃ / 250℉ for the rest of the cook.
How much smoke for good flavour?
A small amount of smoke gently blowing over the food is all you need to get a nice smoky flavour. Too much smoke will overpower the food. If you are not happy with the amount of smoky flavour you are getting, trying using a stronger flavoured wood like Hickory or Mesquite, which you can use pure, or mixed in with your main pellets.
A smoke tube can also be used to further increase the amount of smoke, or add a complementary smoky flavour to the cooking. Click here to learn more about smoke tubes.
Cold meat for maximum smoky flavour
Smoky flavour is mostly taken on by the meat when cold and moist, so in the first hour or two of a low n slow cook. For maximum smoky flavour it is therefore best to put meat in when cold, not after coming up to room temperature.
Spritzing (spraying with liquid) the meat every 30-45 minutes for the first hour or two of the cook will keep it moist, and in doing so may help absorb more smoky flavour too.
Spritz can be just plain water, a mixture of water and apple juice, water and apple cider vinegar or even beer – it is just to keep the meat moist and normally doesn’t impact the flavour too much.
There is much debate about the pros/cons of spritzing, and what liquid to use, so feel free to do your own experimentation and see what you thinks works best!
Wood Pellet Knowledge
To learn all about wood pellets click here.