This question comes up in the Facebook groups all the time when people 1st start using sous vide with their smokers and grills: "Should I smoke it before or after Sous Vide?". As with most cooking procedures, methods, doneness, tastes, etc, this can boil down to how you like to cook or which finished product you prefer after trying them both. You will always have people on both sides of any issue like this including pre or post seasoning, preferred times/temps, etc, but I am going to address the reason that I myself prefer to Smoke AFTER cooking sous vide on most of my cooks. I will also link to a very good article from Amazingribs.com that explains how smoke actually works and reacts to meat so you can see where the science falls on this subject.
How Does Smoke and Meat Work?
One of the BIG misconceptions with smoke and meat is that meat will "Absorb" smoke deep into the meat as if the meat is something like a sponge that sucks up things like marinades, smoke, juices, etc. Meat is made up of mostly muscle, fat, and connective tissue, which is made up of mostly protein cells. These cells themselves are not porous in anyway. This is also why when using marinades or other sauces they do not penetrate deep into the meat. Smoke, just like a marinade or other seasonings (besides Salt), cannot penetrate very far past the surface of the meat, BUT it really does not need to. Smoke can and will attach to and cover the surface of the meat and can develop great smoke flavor in layers due to evaporation, cooling, and reapplying moisture to the meat. Kind of like you would apply paint to a surface. You apply a coat, let it dry, and then apply another coat. With smoke, you can apply moisture to the meat, let it evaporate and stick to the meat, then apply another layer of moisture. This is why barbecue pit master in competitions spritz the meat every so often.. it help with smoke flavor and bark development during the cook. Here is the link to Amazing Ribs very detailed article how smoke works and how it also works with meat - CLICK HERE
Applying the Science
So, with all of that being, Since all the science in that article point to smoke is mostly a surface treatment, it makes more sense to me that smoking before hand is not optimal to keep a good bark and smoke profile on the meat. Since cooking in the bag will make sure there is more fat and other juices rendered into the bag, removing bark and smoke from the surface and releasing it into the purge, it makes very little sense to smoke 1st. Besides the fact that it will negatively affect the bark and smoke layers you built up during the smoking process, it will also add another unneeded step to either sear or finish at a higher heat after the sous vide to make a better bark then the soggy state it will be in when removing from the bag.
Which Way is Right?
So, which way is the BEST way to smoke with sous vide cooks? It will still boil down to what you personally like and prefer. I consider it the same for other cooking preferences like pre-seasoning vs. post seasoning, meat doneness, types of seasoning used, etc. People will swear that using mustard as a "Binder" for barbecue is BEST, but after doing a head to head blind taste taste could not tell the difference, but will still swear that way is best. Sometimes tradition and the old "This the way we have always done it" attitude takes over. One of the reasons I love Amazing Ribs website is they will actually do testing and apply scientific principles to these cooking methods instead of using tradition, myths, and mis-information. There are those that will fight me on this, but that is OK with me. Cook how you like and eat how you like and I will do the same. In the end it is just cooking and eating and it is meant for enjoyment. So cook the way that makes you happy!
How I Cook Most Sous Vide BBQ
In conclusion, Here is how I personally like to cook my brisket, pork butt, ribs, and many other meats using sous vide and the smoker. I will usually season the meat before putting it in the meat in a vacuum bag. I then will sous vide the meat at the time and temp for the doneness and tenderness I am looking for. When the meat is done with the sous vide bath, I will chill in an ice bath, and let it chill overnight in the fridge. The next day I will remove it from the bag, leave as much moisture on the meat as possible, add a little more season to the meat, and then smoke it back up to the Internal temperature it was sous vide to the day earlier. As an example, if it was sous vide to 155, let the Internal temp come back up to 155 in the smoke. You can also spritz the meat every 30 minutes or so to attract more smoke to the meat. I have found this method produces the best smoke flavor, bark, and overall end result that works best for me and those I cook for. Do you have a different opinion? Great! Feel free to cook how you like! But I hope this article has given you some insight and information.
Articles on Amazing Ribs -
Check out these articles on Amazing Ribs that can help you understand some of the things I discussed above. They are a truly amazing resource for all things related to barbecue and cooking in general. Check out their complete article and recipes on "Sous Vide Que" and you will see, just like me, they prefer to smoke AFTER sous vide as well..
How Smoke Really Works
What is the Smoke Ring Really?
Myths About Marinades
Salting, Brining, and Curing
More Myth Busting and Cooking Science
Until Next Time...