When your BBQing, what type of smoke is best and how do you build the right fire to produce it?

Everyone knows that different woods produce different flavor profiles, but the type of smoke that comes off these woods is really what is important.

If you’ve been around BBQ enough, you’re sure to have heard about “Thin Blue Smoke”… and this is what you want to achieve every time you cook BBQ.

What is Thin Blue Smoke?

Thin Blue Smoke is the byproduct of clean-burning wood – at just the right temperature – and it’s packed with pure “smoky” flavors.

Too much wood will produce a thick, white smoke. If you’ve got this smoke, your bed of coals isn’t hot enough for the amount of wood and it chokes out your coals… There is too much carbon in a thick, white smoke and it produces a harsh, bitter taste on your meat.

Coming out of my stacks, I want to see a trace of thin, blue smoke that has a great aroma and isn’t too heavy.

How to get the right smoke

A little smoke goes a long way, especially if you’re using a strong wood like Hickory or Oak. Fruit woods produce a milder, sweet smoke but you still can overpower the fire with too much.

Knowing how to build the fire is the key to producing the right smoke.

First you have to start with a good bed of hot coals. I use a natural charcoal to provide the heat for the cooker. I get these “first layer” coals hot and basically burn them off before I add any wood.

Next, I place on just a few chunks of whatever wood I am cooking with. At a contest, I will almost always use fruit woods… apple and cherry are my favorites at the moment. But you can use whatever wood you prefer.

The wood will immediately start smoking when you place them on the hot coals… as long as you don’t over-load your fire box. When you overload, you’re going to get the thick, white smoke – and that’s not what you’re aiming for.

Some people will soak there wood in water before putting it on the coals to give it a longer burn, and I’ve done that before myself. But I really don’t think it’s necessary if your coal bed is the right temperature.

If you using a stick-burner type smoker, you have to address your fire a little differently. You should always burn your wood down to create the coal bed. Always remember that this is where your cooker is getting its heat. The fresh sticks you add on top are where you’re getting your smoke and smoky flavor… and that should only be added a little at a time.

With any smoker, as your “smoke” wood burns down they become part of your heat source. This is when you replenish with fresh wood to keep the light smoke rolling.

Differentiating between heat source and flavor source is the key… with any type of smoker you are using.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten came from Mike Mills. He preaches that you need to learn how to control your cooking temperature first before you ever worry about producing smoke – regardless of the pit you are using… because that and a little smoke goes a long way.

Malcom Reed
Killer Hogs BBQ Cooking Team
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About the Author

I am Malcom Reed and my brother, Waylon, and I are the Killer Hogs competition bbq team. Here at HowtoBBQright.com, I want to give you my secrets, methods and techniques you need to produce competition-quality BBQ. I want to give enough detail for BBQ novices, but still offer information that is useful for the professional BBQ cooks. I only focus on REAL bbq. And I take it seriously.

4 Comments on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Jim November 11, 2015 at 4:14 pm -

    Malcolm –
    I read your article on fire management – thank you for your insight. I saw your pic of the coal bed and it looks like only a part of the coals were lit and burning allowing the unlit coals to ignite as it goes through the entire bed. If this is true, won’t you get some bad smoke from the additional coals initially lighting until it has a chance to burn off for awhile? Your help is greatly appreciated.


  2. Administrator November 11, 2015 at 4:41 pm -

    No, not if it has sufficient air flow. If you have enough oxygen in the fire box the charcoal will burn properly and you won’t get that bitter, foul smoke taste.

  3. Carlos May 11, 2016 at 4:56 am -

    Hello Malcolm big fan of your rub and YouTube channel. Was wondering if u can possibly make a video on how to achieve thin blue smoke for the rookie bbqer like myself would be much appreciated

    Thank you

  4. Jake May 17, 2016 at 3:33 pm -

    Hey Malcom. First off, I wanna say thank you for consistently uploading awesome videos. Your insight has helped me a lot during the learning process of smoking meats. I’ve been wanting to use a smoker for years and I’ve always gone to your YouTube page for tips and tricks. I’ve started off by using an electric smoker. I know that some folks may say that it’s not the same, but it’s certainly the way that suites my lifestyle. I don’t have a lot of time to tend to fires and constantly monitor temps so the electric smoker is perfect. I plan on upgrading soon but for now, being an amateur, it’ll do just fine. Do you have any good tips on how to get good clean smoke from an electric unit? That’s my biggest concern for the moment since everything else is pretty much easy with this method.

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