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barbecue smoke

I have a general question about the smokiness of good barbecue. When I go to barbecue restaurants, the food is good but not nearly as smokey as my homemade - it ranges from no perceptible smoke to just mildly smokey. Sometimes I have to concentrate to taste any. My homemade barbecue has pretty assertive smokey flavor, it's right there in the first bite.

So my questions are:

Are these restaurants toning down the smoke because that's how their customers like it, similarly to how budweiser sells a billion mildly-flavored beers? Or is that the way barbecue should be?

How smokey is "competition" level barbecue?

What do others think about smoke level and the right amount for optimal flavor (taking into account individual preference)?

Thanks in advance.

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  1. which restaurants are u referring too?

    and smokiness depends on the wood used...
    if its done right there should be a obvious pink ring under the outer layer.... the smoke ring...

    6 Replies
    1. re: srsone

      Most of the places I've been to in New Jersey and New York.

      1. re: chuck98

        I was gonna say - you're obviously NOT in Texas.

        BBQ has been a very regional thing until lately. Here in Chicago, we have had two kinds of local BBQ. One style consiting of non smoked meat slathered with sauce, and another style, that is made in what is called an "aquarium smoker" that is actually smoked meat - usually spare ribs, rib tips, and sausages (no brisket, no pork shoulder.) Recently, we've been getting Texas and Carolina style bbq spots popping up, and these are probably the places you should try to seek out. If there aren't any in NY / NJ lately, I'd bet they are coming soon. I'd also bet that if there aren't any yet, and you wanted to throw your hat in the ring, you'd probably do pretty well. If you ever get a chance to go down to Texas, OMG. I can't even explain the world of difference in BBQ joints. Their worst chain bbq joint would make a mint in most other parts of the U.S.

        1. re: chuck98

          are they doing barbeque correctly?
          seasoning rub with low and slow cooking? then maybe a sauce after?
          when your talking bbq u bring up a whole load of types, styles,rubs,sauces and meats....cooking method,woods used..mesquite,apple,peach,oak,hickory...
          thats what u should be tasting..
          oh and love too :-)

          so if they are just throwing a slab of ribs under a heat lamp ...

          1. re: srsone

            No, it seems to be done correctly, not just boiled for an hour and bombed with sauce. The meat tastes really good and has good texture, I'm just curious why it's not very smokey. I figured in the same way that "competition" barbecue has a certain texture that's preferred, there might be a smoke level that pitmasters and connoisseurs consider optimal.

            I've been down to Austin and it is pretty good, I had Salt Lick (good) and Johnny T's Round Rock (better).

            1. re: chuck98

              are they using any wood when they cook it?
              or are they using liquid smoke in the sauce?
              u should be able to at least taste the hickory or mesquite unless they arent using enough...

              1. re: srsone

                For my main place, I'm guessing wood. They seem to take it seriously.

      2. Air pollution / filtering systems, restrictions?

        1. No good restaurant, IMO, would use prepared (canned, bottled, packaged mixes, etc.) foods in their menu items. That said, the use of liquid smoke is perhaps one exception. Liquid smoke is, after all, simply smoke captured in water. So unless the restaurant actually uses a smoker to smoke its own meat on premises it may be using that ingredient; typically added early in the cooking process to take advantage of the time to penetrate deeper into the meat fibers.
          The amount of liquid smoke used in any formula would therefore determine how "smokey" the flavor of the finished product is. Using a standard formula for rubs etc. using liquid smoke make it easier to be consistent from one roasting session to the next than most other methods.
          Smokiness is a matter of personal preference. Some people like a lot of smoke (I believe that too much smoke in the meat overpowers everything else and consequently ruins the dish) while others prefer a hint of smokiness. It's not easy to satisfy every customer's preference.

          1 Reply
          1. re: todao

            sorry, liquid smoke is cheating.chemically it may be equivalent, but sorry, no.''it is entirely possible they've derived what the mass of customers prefer, but then I prb. wouldn't stray far off a parking lot smoker for BBQ in most cities, much less NJ/NYC

          2. It seems that the most difficult trick for the home barbecuer to master is not to oversmoke. On the other hand, most barbecue restaurants in New Jersey fail to provide enough smoke flavor. Good barbecue, like any good cooking, requires balance (and more smoke than many restaurants are able or willing to provide).

            The undersmoking appears to be the result of either not cooking with wood at all – the meat is basically roasted with steam, slathered with sauce and finished over gas burners. Not cooking with wood long enough – the meat is smoked for a short period then moved to an oven allowing greater temperature control. Another problem is wrapping the meat in foil too early in the process so as to minimize the amount of smoke absorbed on the assumption that the average palate prefers it this way. Or, finally reheating the meat in such a way that much of the smoke flavor washes away – this tends to happen when a place does its barbecuing a few days in advance and leaves the meat to reheat with too much steam for too long.

            To respond to your other question – competition barbecue, as well as that you’ll find in Texas and NC, is smokier - the flavor is prevalent but not overwhelming. Another feature often missing from improperly prepared ‘cue is the bark – the dark, slightly burned, crispy elements that one should find mixed into pulled pork.

            The barbecue I’ve had in NY/NJ reminds me of listening to a cover band play a favorite song. At worst it’s worth walking out on, at best it’s good enough to tap your feet to, but it’s never quite quite the same.

            BTW - The Budweiser analogy is a good one.

            3 Replies
            1. re: MGZ

              Thanks, this is helpful. I guess what I should do is to find a barbecue competition and hit 3 or 4 places.

              To extend your analogy, sometimes the wedding band rocks, sometimes they drive you to the bar.

              1. re: chuck98

                If it's Jersey and NY, I bet you're getting reheated barbecue. The smoke flavor should be unmistakable; to get back to the beer analogy, smoke is to barbecue as hops is to beer. It's one of the foundation flavors of the cuisine.

                1. re: chuck98

                  Good call. Most comp bbq is not aggressively smoked, but then again most competition bbq tends toward the sweet and unassuming so as to offend the least number of judges.

              2. follow the aroma,look for the woodpile. If there isn't one, keep searching. They could be using combination gas r electric pellet or wood smokers and could be compensating for local tastes.
                A combination of oak and hickory is used a lot in KC. Smoke penetration varies by place.

                Does you list include RUB in NYC? Just interested in ypur thoughts.

                1 Reply
                1. re: bbqboy

                  No, my main place is the GRUB Hut in Manville NJ. I've been to Hill Country in NYC, and it was great. The moist brisket was out of control, the best bbq I've ever had, including the Austin places.

                  Big Ed's and Famous Dave's are adequate, better than not getting barbecue at all. Sort of the barbecue version of TGI Friday's.

                2. Here's my observation: In most major urban areas, the modern health depts won't let you run all-wood smokers that you find in Austin Hill Country and and down south in rural areas. Well, you could, but you would have to store tons of wood in high rent districts, and run expensive whatchamacallits (electrostatic scrubbers??) to negate the smoke as it comes out of the stack. What they use instead are the commercial smokers (Southern Pride, Ole Hickory, Cookshack, others) that are gas or electric ovens with a wood chamber for smoking a couple logs for flavor. There are, by the way, several serious BBQ places in NYC (Hill Country, Daisy May's, Dinosaur, Fette Sau are my favorites), but I think they all use gas/wood. I think the intensity of smoke is lesser for these when compared to pure wood pits in TX and the south.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: woodburner

                    no such restrictions in KC, thank goodness.

                    1. re: woodburner

                      One of the biggest problems (literally) with barbecuing in urban areas is due to requirements that smoke exhaust be released above surrounding buildings: Very tall chimneys are necessary. I recall the story of one place, Blue Smoke I believe it was, that was forced to build one 30 feet tall.

                    2. Lets face it, if a restaurant in the NE were to use a real smoker, they'd be facing charges of air polution filed by State and local EPA vegans.