Timothy Woods
Published by Timothy Woods
Last Updated On: April 24, 2022

We've all been disappointed when the first bite of smoked brisket turns out to be a tad bitter. Could it be the cut of meat, or was it the smoking process? Let's take a look at what meat smoking experts say causes bitterness and, more importantly, what we can do to avoid it.

Quick Summary

  • Incorrect smoking methods are the leading cause of bitter-tasting smoked meats.
  • Creosote is another culprit that causes smoked meats to taste bitter.
  • Meat that has expired can also impact the taste of smoked meat.

Incorrect Smoking Methods Can Make Meat Taste Bitter

Close up image of meats inside smoker

In an interview with Aaron Franklin, one of America's favorite pitmasters and a two-time winner of the James Beard Award, Franklin said a common mistake many people make is trying to rush the process.

We need to prepare for smoking meat; this means making sure you have enough time for the cut you want to cook. Additionally, wood and how you burn it will ultimately impact the taste of your meat [1,2].

"We're relying on wood in barbecue for heat and flavor, so picking the right piece of wood is important.

Wood is also important because you could burn really dirty fires, an incomplete combustion, you could choke off the air, you could get bad chemicals out of the stuff." [3]

Of course, you'll want to know what wood is the best for smoking. According to the Masterclass and Aaron, there are six types of wood that you can explore to find the flavor and heat you need:

  • Alder for fish or poultry
  • Maple for chicken or vegetables
  • Pecan for ribs, fish, or poultry
  • Fruit (cherry wood etc.) for pork, fish, or poultry
  • Oak for red meats that require long cooking times, brisket, etc.
  • Hickory is your second option for red meats

Using a quick-burning wood like pecan to smoke tougher red meats can be another reason your meat has a bitter taste. Make sure you use the correct fuel for the dish you want to prepare [4,5].

Creosote Gives Smoked Meat A Bitter Taste

Creosote inside a smoker pipe

One of the chemicals Aaron referred to above is most probably creosote. When there isn't enough ventilation during the smoking process, the smoke settles on the meat's surface, creating a chemical reaction that results in creosote formation.

Smoking with wet or unseasoned wood is another risk factor for creosote build-up [6].

Another form of creosote you should be aware of is the manufactured oil used – amongst other things – to preserve the wood.

For this reason, you shouldn't use wood from unknown sources for cooking or as a heat source; you might not be aware that it was previously treated with chemicals. Burning chemically treated wood can be harmful to your health [7,8].

Smoked Meat Can Taste Bitter If It Has Gone Bad

Top view close up image of smoked meat

Most of the time, it is pretty easy to tell when the meat has passed its expiry date.

You usually spot a package of spoiled steak pretty quickly – and if you didn't, the smell alone would be enough to make your stomach turn.

However, there are many times when uncertainty will drive you nuts. It might look fresh, but there is just a hint of a smell that makes you think twice before putting the brisket in the smoker. Or the meat seems a little pale but has no funky smell. So, how do we know for sure?

Some meats can have a slight odor, which is normal especially matured steak, but if the smell is sulfuric, that is not what you want. Generally, the color and texture of the meat should indicate if it is fresh or not. Livestrong says to avoid meats with green or gray undertones [9].

 According to Healthline, two types of bacteria cause the meat to go bad:

  • Spoilage bacteria
  • Pathogenic bacteria

"Spoilage bacteria are generally not harmful but cause food to lose quality and develop a bad odor and taste. On the other hand, pathogenic bacteria are dangerous, as they can lead to food poisoning. Furthermore, spoilage makes it more likely for them to be present in your food." [10]

Tips To Avoid Bitter Smoked Meat

Meat covered in aluminum foil

Now that we understand the three main aspects that impact the taste of smoked meat, we want to make sure to avoid these mistakes at all costs. We'll leave you with the top tips from the pitmasters to create a beautifully flavored dish every time.

  • To avoid creosote accumulation on the meat, wrap it in aluminum foil – this is also helpful to keep tough cuts like brisket moist and not over smoke the meat.
  • Charcoal for smoking is an alternative; however, you'll need between two and three wood pieces to get that smokey goodness.
  • When you're cooking with thick white smoke, you're probably going to have a bitter dinner. The smoke should be thin and blue; this means that you're smoking clean.
  • Don't put too much wood (or coals) in the firebox. Make sure there is enough space for good airflow. The smoke should pass over the meat and out the smokestack or vent.
  • Remember to use the correct wood for the meat you want to cook. Experiment with the different options; you'll find what works best for your setup.
  • Make sure you use fresh good quality meat and make time to prepare the cut properly (trimming, spices, etc.)
  • Use a thermometer to make sure food is cooked correctly according to food safety guidelines [11].

Conclusion

The best way to prevent bitter-tasting meat is to make sure you follow the correct procedures when smoking. Not only will this eliminate the bitter taste, but it will also enhance the flavor and produce a succulent piece of meat that melts in your mouth.

If your smoking method is on point (including using the correct woodcuts) and creosote is not the culprit, it might be that the meat you smoked had gone off. Remember to check the expiry date on all pre-packed products before leaving the store.

Check our review of ButcherBox, a meat delivery service company that always makes sure that you get the best quality fresh.


References: 

  1. https://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/americas-most-influential-bbq-pitmasters-and-personalities
  2. https://www.jamesbeard.org/awards/search?categories%5BRestaurant+%26+Chef%5D=1&ranks%5BWinner%5D=1&year=&keyword=AARON
  3. https://andrewzimmern.com/5-questions-aaron-franklin/
  4. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-select-smoking-woods#how-to-source-smoking-woods
  5. https://youtu.be/ucUy1k86GdA
  6. https://extension.missouri.edu/publications/g1731
  7. http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Creosote_oil_(coal_tar)#:~:text=Creosote%20has%20also%20been%20used,%2C%20marine%20pilings%2C%20and%20shingles
  8. https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/creosote
  9. https://www.livestrong.com/article/550357-what-happens-if-you-cook-meat-after-it-has-gone-bad/
  10. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ways-to-tell-if-ground-beef-is-bad
  11. https://www.health.state.mn.us/people/foodsafety/cook/cooktemp.html#:~:text=Note%3A%20There%20are%20three%20important,a%20thermometer%20to%20check%20temperatures.

Was this article helpful?

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.