Taming of the Smoke
If the smoke is billowing out of your backyard cooker in great clouds, you’re probably doing barbecue wrong.
That’s according to five-time world champion pitmaster Tuffy Stone, founder of the competition team Cool Smoke and restaurant Q Barbecue in Virginia. Stone cites oversmoking meats as one of the most common mistakes in barbecue, especially for beginners—himself once included.
Now, Stone uses smoke “like salt and pepper.” It’s a seasoning, applied just so, to enhance, rather than define the taste of the food. The meat remains the star.
“My goal when I cook for you is you’re still going to be able to taste that pork, or that beef, or whatever it might be, and then that smoke is a backdrop flavor,” Stone said. “The flavors from the seasonings, the flavors from the sauce, the flavors that are picked up during the cooking process from the fire, they’re all complementary, supporting flavors to those of the meat itself.”
Stone’s obsession with the nuances of smoke began when he was first getting into barbecue, and read a book by barbecue legend John Willingham. “We’re cooking, not smoking meat,” Willingham wrote. “Smoke is dirt.”
The idea stuck. Stone spent years watching fires and studying how they burned, paying close attention to the smoke produced, the many variables that affected it, and how it affected the food in turn.
He learned to carefully control the amount of smoke that makes it onto the meat, tasting along the way and adjusting the fire accordingly, or wrapping the meat with aluminum halfway through cooking. In general, he found that bigger cuts can withstand more smoke—pork butt and brisket can take the most, followed by ribs, then pork chops and chicken.
Stone’s dedication and obsessive precision—perhaps borrowed from his background in classical French cuisine—have earned him the nickname of “The Professor.” In his new cookbook, “Cool Smoke: The Art of Great Barbecue,” he shares his accumulated knowledge—as well as recipes, from rubs, sauces, and brines to all cuts of meats and seafood and sides—from his years of experience and experimentation.
Good smoke starts with a good fire. A good fire should burn cleanly, producing a thin, light-colored smoke that’s often difficult to see at all.
“A lot of times, when you look at my cooker when I’m cooking, there will be hardly any smoke coming out of it because I’m running such a clean fire,” Stone said.
Mastering a clean fire is a bit of a forgotten skill. In the midst of extensive studies and tests, “I felt a little silly,” Stone said, “because [our ancestors] knew hundreds of years ago how to run a clean fire.”
He pointed to the wood-burning ovens of the past, and the mastery required to cook well in them. “I don’t think a cake that had too much smoke on it would be very good,” he mused.
Meanwhile, colonial settlers did their barbecuing with burn barrels, in which they would burn fresh hickory wood down to small, hot coals to be shoveled into pits to roast hogs over. Coals produced this way create a nice, mild smoke.
Centuries later, Stone has narrowed much of the skill down to airflow. A fire that can breathe well creates little, mild smoke; one starved for oxygen emits heavy, white clouds and produces creosotes—oily, burnt-tasting compounds that impart bitter flavors to the food. In his book, Stone shares tips for maximizing air circulation: arranging logs log cabin-style, with big gaps between them; running the smallest fire possible; and using smaller pieces of wood. Fixing heavy smoke is often simply a matter of repositioning the wood to let more air through.
“I think we think about fire and smoke like it is uncontrollable, it’s just going to do its thing,” Stone said. “But we can find through knowledge and information and practice that it’s more predictable than you might’ve thought.”
Stone hopes to arm readers with that knowledge and information; it’s then up to them to practice and hone their intuition themselves. With the help of his book, home cooks can master anything from quickly grilled chicken wings (Stone offers one glazed in a mayo-based white sauce, a tangy, refreshing take made famous in Alabama) to slow-cooked beef brisket (he divulges his winning competition recipe) to even a whole hog.
Of course, “science is part of it, but there’s an art to it,” Stone continued. Brandish a combination of the two, using both acquired knowledge and developed senses, and you’ll learn to harness smoke and let it serve you well.