Sous vide and smoking are two of my favorite methods of cooking. The precision of sous vide with the flavor of smoke makes for a great combination. No wonder there are entire websites dedicated entirely to the marriage of the two.
When sous vide cooking traditional BBQ food, adding some time on the smoker is a must. What’s BBQ without smoke and bark? The tougher decision is whether to smoke before or after sous vide.
We’ll explore the topic in this article. If you’re impatient and want to cut to the chase, I prefer to smoke afterwards. It’s less of a process tacked onto what’s already a lengthy cook time. What you lose is the ability to build as heavy a smoke flavoring.
In this article we’ll discuss why marrying sous vide and smoking makes so much sense, the pros and cons of smoking before and after, as well as walk through the process for each.
Table of Contents
Benefit of Combining Sous Vide and Smoking
You get rid of the laborious parts of smoking and end up with food cooked precisely to your liking with smokiness and texture layered onto the food. Cooking large expensive cuts of meat like brisket become far less intimidating.
Read below if you care for the logic. Otherwise skip to the ‘Smoking Before Sous Vide’ section.
Benefits of Cooking Sous Vide
Precision cooking is the name of the game with sous vide. No other cooking method allows you to cook food to your exact liking as effortlessly as sous vide. Add to that the tenderizing that takes place through cooking sous vide and its hard not to fall in love with the method. Oh, and one more thing, even if your meat is shaped oddly, it will cook evenly.
When cooking with large cuts of protein, such as ribs or brisket, the ability to set it and forget it without worry of overcooking is particularly beneficial.
Drawbacks of Cooking Sous Vide
The primary drawback of sous vide is that the process itself doesn’t excite any of the senses while cooking. No hiss and crackling of fire or captivating aromas come from food being cooked in a plastic bag in water.
Benefits of Smoking
Smoking creates a deeply satisfying flavor profile and texture that brings added dimensions to food.
Drawbacks of Smoking
Smoking can be laborious.
You have to make the heat source remains near constant. Spritzing at intervals helps. There’s often wrapping involved. You need to play close attention to know when to carry out actions and pull the meat to prevent from overcooking. Oddly shaped meat causes a real challenge in cooking evenly.
This though is a labor of love.
Smoking Before Sous Vide
Process of Smoking Before Sous Vide
Trim any excess fat off the cut. Season to your liking. Set the smoker to 225°F with your favorite for wood chips or chunks. Place the meat on the smoker when its ready for 2 hours or more. Be sure the internal temp doesn’t rise above the temperature you intend to sous vide at.
Remove from smoker and bag the meat and vacuum seal it. Set your sous vide up to desired temp and place the bagged meat in the bath for you desired length of time. For a brisket I’d go 155°F for 30 hours. For BBQ, you’re going to be in the 132-165°F range for 24-48 hours. 132°F will produce a steak like texture; the texture will soften with increased temp and time as the muscle fibers breaks down.
Now for the finish. For a quick finish, finish with high heat to create a crust via grill or a broiler.
If you’re going for perfection, keep the meat bagged and put it in an ice bath to chill for 2+ hours before returning it to the smoker to re-create bark and reach a target temp. I wouldn’t set the smoker above 225°F. This method will take much longer than the grill or broiler finish, but also adds additional smokiness.
A target internal temperature of 130°F will give you a good warm mouthfeel while keeping you from cooking beyond your sous vide temperature.
While smoking, it’s helpful to spritz the meat with something as simple as apple juice every half hour to help the bark form and smoke take.
Note, after the ice bath you can refrigerate or freeze the meat to finish later.
Benefits of Smoking Before Sous Vide
The benefit of smoking before sous vide is the ability to get deeper smokiness. This comes from smoking raw meat, which takes up smoke better.
Drawbacks of Smoking Before Sous Vide
The initial crust falls apart and takes effort to rebuild. The cook time will be substantially elongated for a proper crust, which requires smoking twice.
Smoking After Sous Vide
Process of Smoking After Sous Vide
Trim any excess fat off the cut. Bag the meat, season to your liking and vacuum seal it. Set your sous vide up to desired temp and place the bagged meat in the bath for you desired length of time. For a brisket I’d go 155°F for 30 hours.
Remove the meat from the bath and put it in an ice bath for a couple hours to bring the temperature down. Don’t remove it from the bag before doing this. The smoke will stick better to a cold and wet piece of meat.
Set the smoker to 225°F with your favorite for wood chips or chunks. Place the meat on the smoker when its ready for 2 hours or more. Target an internal temp of 130°F, which will give you a nice warmed up mouthfeel. Make sure the internal temp doesn’t rise above your sous vide temp. In conjunction with the target internal temp, you’re looking for bark you’re happy with.
It’s helpful to spritz the meat with something as simple as apple juice every half hour to help the bark form and smoke take.
Note, after the ice bath you can refrigerate or freeze the meat to finish with smoke later.
Benefits of Smoking After Sous Vide
This method is quicker and easier and will produce better bark than the pre-smoke method.
Drawbacks of Smoking After Sous Vide
All else equal, the smoke will be milder than if you pre-smoked. You won’t get a vanity smoke ring, which doesn’t affect flavor.
Verdict: Smoke After Sous Vide
Like I said at the outset, I prefer to smoke after having cooked sous vide. Mostly because I don’t think the added bit of smokiness is worth the added effort. Call me lazy.
Not everyone likes to smoke after sous vide, so the best way to find out what works for you is to simply have fun and experiment.
Just don’t skip smoking when preparing BBQ with the sous vide method.
If you love smoke and are looking for a handheld smoking gun, check out my Breville Smoking Gun Review.
If you need an XL container for your cook, check out my sous vide containers post.
Whether you should smoke before or after sous vide depends on how important bark is on what you’re cooking. For something like a brisket or pork butt, I would smoke after. If you’re talking about something like a steak, smoking before sous vide and finishing with high heat works best.
I would smoke for at least 2 hours at a maximum temperature of 225°F before cooking sous vide. Most importantly, do not let the internal temperature exceed the temperature you plan to sous vide at.
You should smoke a brisket at 250°F for as long as it takes to get to an internal temperature of 130°F.
We would not recommend smoking a brisket at 150°F because the meat will be in the danger zone where pathogens and bacteria in the meat multiply. Just not worth it.