When you pull your meat off the grill, do you ever notice an oily black substance on the surface? While it isn’t aesthetically pleasing, this phenomenon is not all that unusual. Our guide to black oily coated meat will give you the rundown on the cause.
Black Oily Coated Meat
That black oily substance on meat is caused by creosote, a chemical compound. Creosote forms when smoke comes into contact with a cool surface. If there’s not enough oxygen in the smoker environment, creosote can build up on the interior and deposit residue on the meat as it cooks.
What Causes Black Oily Coated Meat?
That black oily substance is called creosote. This is a bitter-tasting residue with a sticky texture that resembles tar. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not the ideal outcome for a barbecue.
Creosote forms when there’s not enough oxygen in the smoker. This closed environment causes the fire to smolder instead of burning cleanly, creating a thick, dense smoke. That’s when creosote builds up on the inside of the smoker—and on your food.
Creosote is a carbon residue that forms when smoke forms condensates instead of combusting.
When the wood in your smoker burns, it vaporizes. The vapors combust to form a flame, but any vapors that don’t burn turn to smoke instead. If this smoke comes into contact with a cool surface, it will condense. The result is the substance known as creosote.
The CDC defines creosote as a blend of various chemicals—hundreds, in fact. Chief among them are Cresols, Phenol, and Guiacol. Many of the chemicals are natural, but there are other artificial ones present in the compound as well.
If you’ve ever taken a bite of smoked meat that’s coated in creosote, you’ll know that it has a strong, bitter flavor. It also leaves behind a strange aftertaste and can make your tongue feel numb for a while afterward.
Is Creosote Dangerous?
Creosote can be used as a pesticide and a wood preservative. It has other uses as well, but none of them are directly related to the culinary arts.
The compound can be toxic when consumed in large amounts. If you were to eat too much, you could suffer from stomach pain, dizziness, and a burning sensation in the throat and mouth.
A small amount of creosote on your food shouldn’t be enough to produce these symptoms. Since it tastes so unpleasant, though, it’s something you should definitely strive to avoid.
How To Prevent Creosote Buildup
There are ways to prevent creosote from building up in your grill or smoker. If you follow these tips, you might be able to avoid the dreaded phenomenon of black oily coated meat in the future.
Clean The Smoker
It should go without saying that you want to keep your smoker clean. If there’s a black film of creosote coating the interior, it will flake off as it heats up, landing on your food.
Immediately after every use, scrub the inside of your smoker with a wire brush. This will prevent any creosote from hardening up as it cools.
Use The Texas Crutch
The term “Texas crutch” refers to the step of wrapping the meat in foil or butcher paper during the smoke. This allows the meat to cook more quickly by trapping heat and moisture inside.
For the sake of the meat itself, we aren’t huge proponents of the Texas crutch because we prefer a thick, crunchy bark. The trapped moisture can soften the bark, especially if you take this step too soon. The barrier also keeps the smoke flavor out.
If your main goal is to prevent creosote from tainting your meat, though, wrapping it in foil is a good bet. That way, if there is any creosote buildup in the smoker environment, it can’t land directly on the meat.
Open The Vents
As we mentioned before, creosote forms easily in low-oxygen environments. By opening the vents, you’ll be letting more oxygen in, creating a fire that burns cleanly.
Can Charcoal Create Creosote?
Creosote buildup can sometimes resemble charcoal. That’s because the process of making charcoal is quite similar to the way creosote is formed.
To produce charcoal, manufacturers burn wood in a low-oxygen environment. The goal is to create a carbon char with as little creosote residue as possible. Lower-quality brands might have more creosote than the good stuff.
Even if you use a high-quality brand, though, creosote can result if you burn the charcoal too hot and reduce the oxygen in the environment. Again, keeping the inside of the smoker clean is the key to avoiding creosote buildup on your food.
Testing For Creosote
The next time you fire up the smoker, pay close attention to the smoke itself. If it’s dark gray or a pea-green color, that denotes a low-oxygen environment. Creosote may also be forming if the smoke hangs low in the air instead of rising.
The smoke should also have an appealing aroma. Smoke that has a bitter smell is likely causing creosote buildup.
How To Remove Creosote Buildup
Even if you’ve neglected the cleanup phase in the past, it’s not too late to clean the creosote out of your smoker.
One option would be to burn off the residue using a propane torch. This will turn the creosote to ash, which can be easily wiped off with a damp cloth.
Water will soften the creosote, so you can also use a hose to spray the interior of the smoker. After that, you’ll be able to scrape off the residue.
Oven cleaner is another option. Since a smoker is essentially a type of outdoor oven, this method makes sense, assuming you don’t mind using chemicals to get the job done.
Whichever method you choose, remember to re-season the smoker afterward. You can do this by applying a thin layer of neutral oil to the interior, then heating it to a high temperature.
The Bottom Line
Black oily coated meat is ugly to look at and unpleasant to eat. Fortunately, you should be able to avoid this outcome by maintaining a clean, oxygen-rich smoking environment.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!