We explore the question "is creosote" bad for your BBQ food?

We explore the question “is creosote” bad for your BBQ food?

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There are lots of stories out there in the BBQ world about creosote!  Most have the same tone: creosote is not something you want when you cook with wood.

Unfortunately, that can never happen as creosote is always present in wood.

So, why has creosote become the monster of BBQ cooking?

Likely because there is confusion with another type of creosote: coal-tar creosote, commonly used to preserve such things as railroad ties, telephone poles, bridges, etc.  You know when material has been exposed to coal-tar by the black, charred appearance.

The Advantages of Wood-Tar Creosote

One of the primary advantages to having creosote in hardwood is its ability to act as a preservative.  Long before equipment was designed for cooking, people would dig holes in the ground to produce a smokehouse for preserving game meats they hunted.  It was the only method of ensuring safe consumption when refrigeration wasn’t readily available.

Wood-tar creosote is colorless to yellowish and presents as a grease or oil consistency.  It is a combination of natural phenols which are the natural compounds that produce the flavors of BBQ when the wood is combusted or burned.  In addition to the distinct flavor, phenols are also responsible for the aroma and color of BBQ foods.

Guaiacol is a compound derived from methyl ether and is responsible for BBQ’s smoky taste while the dimethyl ether syringol is the chemical responsible for BBQ’s smoky aroma.

Risks of Wood-Tar Creosote

Now that you know not all of creosote’s chemical composition is bad, what are the risks to a wood-tar creosote?

The biggest risk is in burning wood that is not at an ideal combustion rate.  I’m sure you’ve had experience with campfires that produce an acrid aroma and literally cause a foul “taste” in the air from poor combustion rate (too slow burning).  That is the challenge and risk when using wood products with food for hot smoking.  Remember, hot smoking requires temperatures that are lower – generally below 275°F.  To achieve a consistent low temperature, you must control air intake and damper or exhaust.  If you don’t achieve a good balance, the result will be a sooty, bitter tasting and smelling food outcome.

How do you know if your crossing into risky and poor outcome territory?

By the color of the smoke.  A poorly balanced combustion of wood will produce a black smoke.  Repeat these conditions and you’ll stimulate creosote deposits within your equipment which can reduce the draft needed to ensure the fire gets enough air to optimally combust.  Remember, creosote on its own is highly combustible which is why there are many wood stove house fires occurring due to poor maintenance/clean out of these units.

Not All Hardwoods Are Equal In Compound Percentages

Now that your aware that phenolic compounds, specifically guaiacol and syringol are key to tasty, flavorful BBQ foods, let’s talk about these compounds in specific hardwoods.

Interestingly, Beech wood is highly prized and used in Europe for smoking particularly in meat processing facilities.  This is no surprise to me since Beechwood has one of the highest percentages of guaiacol when at a high heat level (distilling).  Know that the phenolic compounds present in all wood distill at variant percentage levels and usually require a combustion temperature of nearly 400°F to peak.   This is just another reason why you want to keep a balance to your fire so combustion is optimal and the resulting flavors and aromas are pleasant.

More Related reading on this subject

More Related reading on this subject

Related reading:

-JUST BECAUSE YOUR SMOKING (FOOD THAT IS!) DOESN’T MAKE IT ALL BAD!

-THE TOP 8 MISTAKES TO AVOID WHEN COOKING & GRILLING WITH WOOD

-SMOKING FOODS IN FOIL: PROS & CONS

Purchase products:

Wood Chips- Minuto® and Piccolo®

Wood Chips- Grande Sapore®

Wood Chunks- Double and Single Filet

Dr Smoke- "We as chefs need to always monitor how much creosote is good for our BBQ by balancing the time of each cook versus the taste of our results."

Dr Smoke- “We as chefs need to always monitor how much creosote is good for our BBQ by balancing the time of each cook versus the taste of our results.”

We discuss the pros and cons for foiling or NOT- your foods, in particular your BBQ and how it can affect the food.

We discuss the pros and cons for foiling or NOT- your foods, in particular your BBQ and how it can affect the food.

Listen

“Does cooking something in foil still allow the wood flavor to penetrate?”

 It is a common question heard when it comes to hot smoking.  In fact, there is even a technique called the Texas Crutch that relies on wrapping meats like ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket in foil with 1-2 ounces of liquid into the foil and then sealing all ends tightly so no liquid or steam escapes.  This process tenderizes and speeds the overall cooking process, which with hot smoking, can be quite lengthy.

Here’s the thing – when you use this technique, you do so after the meat product has cooked to about 135-150°F.  That means a great deal of smoke flavor has already penetrated.  What about if you start out cooking in foil?  Let’s look at the pros and cons of cooking in foil, information you can use for traditional oven cooking as well.

Con #1

Aluminum leaches into foods that are wrapped in it.  Current research indicates that the average person can tolerate about 2400mg of aluminum exposure per day due to our body’s ability to excrete the small amounts of this metal efficiently.  Therefore, any ingestion levels over this would be considered a health risk by the World Health Organization.

Pro #1

Aluminum foil is disposable so it is a convenience.  There is no clean up when you cook foods in foil and often there are recycling programs that accept used foil.  It can save on degrading your cookware and grill grates.

Con #2

Aluminum is found in other items like corn, yellow cheese, salt, herbs, spices, tea, cooking utensils, and in over-the-counter medications like antacids.  A derived from aluminum is also used during the purification process of drinking water.  These all must factor into the recommended daily intake of this metal, meaning you need to assess whether cooking in foil will put you over the daily recommended limit.

Pro #2

Aluminum foil aides in producing a convection heat as it is an excellent heat conductor.  Thus, cooking times can be significantly reduced when foods are placed in foil.

Con #3

Foods with higher levels of acid have a higher rate of leaching aluminum into them.  This is true whether the acidic ingredient is in solid or liquid form.  In fact, acidic liquids have a higher leaching rate than solids.  Give this consideration when working with foods such as tomatoes, vinegar and citrus items.

Pro #3

Using aluminum foil can tenderize tougher cuts of meat when you include an ounce or two of liquid.  Additionally, aluminum foil is leak proof when you seal all ends.

Con #4

When cooking in foil using acidic ingredients both the appearance and taste of the foods can be altered by the reaction to aluminum.  Often, the tastes are described as metallic.

Smoking Considerations

From the smoking perspective, if you start the foods on the grill grates without any aluminum foil, cook until 135-150°F internal temperature, and then wrap in foil to finish, you likely will find very little change in taste.  Ingredients containing acid would have cooked down and not be at a level that would interact as aggressively with the aluminum.

If you do elect to cook on the smoker, charcoal grill or LP grill with foil, know that you can see firsthand the reaction of the aluminum with food ingredients and even the wood molecules by the smoke vapor particles that develops on the outside surface of the foil.  As foil is a heat conductor, it also is somewhat of a sponge and will steal some of the smoke vapor particles from the food.

Remember, one of the key benefits to using aluminum foil is its ability to seal tightly whether preventing spillage to a piece of cookware or sealing in liquids for cooking.  Cooking smoked items wrapped in foil from start to finish will not allow for full penetration of the smoke vapor particles that account for the unique color, texture, and taste to smoked foods.  Plus, you likely will increase your risk of health issues with repeated exposure to high aluminum levels.

We’re grateful for this question submission and hope you found value in our information.  We welcome all types of questions and encourage you to follow and subscribe to our social channels so you don’t miss anything.  We look forward to providing you with tip, techniques, recipes, and science for all types of wood-fired cooking.

More Related reading on this subject

More Related reading on this subject

Here’s some additional reading:

Why Charcoal Is Not An Ingredient

How Much Wood To Add When Smoking

Purchase products:

Wood Chips- Grande Sapore®

Wood Chunks- Double and Single Filet

Dr Smoke- "To foil or not to foil? That is the question (personal preference)."

Dr Smoke- “To foil or not to foil? That is the question (personal preference).”

We discuss the pros and cons for foiling your foods, in particular you BBQ and how it can affect the food.

We discuss the pros and cons for foiling your foods, in particular you BBQ and how it can affect the food.

This Diagram shows the two key elements of the tree that can effect your Barbecue results. Smokinlicious® only harvest wood from the heartwood of the tree.

This Diagram shows the two key elements of the tree that can effect your Barbecue results. Smokinlicious® only harvest wood from the heartwood of the tree.

LISTEN

This is one of my favorite debates.

Should I cook with bark on woods or go bark-free?

I’ve heard all kinds of reasoning for leaving the bark on: it burns up right away so you don’t need to worry.  It’s what gives the flavor to foods.  It’s what gives the color to smoked and grilled foods.  It is the essence of BBQ!

Well, my intention is to simply provide you with more detail about what is in the bark and then you can decide for yourself if you want to include it in your wood fired cooking method.

What Is Bark?

There are two types of bark in every tree: living bark which is called phloem and dead bark called rhytidome.  For today’s discussion, I am only focusing on the rhytidome or dead bark which is the outer bark layer.

Outer bark’s main purpose is to protect the wood tissues against mechanical damage and preserve the wood tissues from temperature and humidity variations.  Bark chemistry is much more complicated than wood tissue chemistry but let’s cover the basics.

Chemistry of Bark

Outer bark has high concentrations of pectin, phenolic compounds, and minerals.  Although the exact chemical levels vary by species, location of the tree, age of the tree, and growth conditions of the tree, let me list some of the common extractives:

ethyl ether – a common laboratory solvent as well as a starter fluid component

dichloromethane – common compound used in paint strippers and degreasers as well as to decaffeinate coffees and teas

calcium oxalate crystals – a calcium salt found in plant materials with a link to kidney stones in humans

Air Pollutant Meter

For many years, university and research facilities around the world have used tree bark as a bio-indicator of air pollutant levels as bark is highly porous, rough, and high in lipids making its surface ideal for absorption.  It’s been proven that tree bark soaks up airborne gases and particles.  In fact, in my own home state of New York, the Niagara Falls area trees have been noted to have significantly higher levels of Dechlorane Plus, a flame retardant chemical that is produced by a factory in that city.  How much higher?  Several thousand times higher!

After many decades of non-regulated chemical use in various products – think pesticides, flame retardants, building material preservatives, etc. – and with the subsequent halting of production of many of these highly toxic chemicals in the 1980s and 90s, research now shows that as those chemicals evaporated, they became air borne particles.  Those particles landed and were absorbed by the outer tree bark.

Temperature Fluctuation

My experience with bark-on woods used for the intended purpose of cooking has been that bark results in temperature control issues.  Often, when the bark combusts it does so in variable levels, producing a short burst of elevated temperature.  This is likely due in part, to the chemical air pollutant particles that have settled into the outer bark layer.  Knowing that bark harbors impurities that the tree is exposed to, I hypothesize that there likely are other particles, likely transferred via air as well as direct contact from the carrier (think animals, humans, etc.), that are absorbed by the tree’s bark.

Change of Taste

Just as lighter fluid can add unpleasant or at the very least a distinct taste difference in foods cooked over product lit with lighter fluid, I caution that some of you will also find an off taste to foods cooked over bark-on woods.

If you are lucky enough to have a source of wood within your own property, that has no neighborly contact with chemical industry, and you feel confident that the bark-on wood is safe, then the choice to cook with it may be easy.  If, however, you rely on an outside source say a firewood supplier, you may want to rethink cooking over that bark-on product or at the very least, take the time to rid the bark.

We hope you found the article interesting and helpful.  Leave a comment or suggestion as we’d love to hear from you so we can bring the information you’re looking for.   And don’t forget, follow us and subscribe so you don’t miss anything!­­

Additional Reading You May Like:

10 Thinks To Consider Before Purchasing Wood For Cooking, Grilling & Smoking

Purchase products:

Smoking Wood Chips- Grande® Sapore

Dr Smoke- "Dr Smoke is very biased over this topic. After years of cooking, the inclusion of bark in a smoker adds impurities trapped in the bark to your food. We are a no bark proponent!"

Dr Smoke- “Dr Smoke is very biased over this topic. After years of cooking, the inclusion of bark in a smoker adds impurities trapped in the bark to your food. We are a no bark proponent!”