The smoke ring. Many backyard pitmasters swear by it. In BBQ competitions, judges usually look for it.
But is the smoke ring really a symbol of great BBQ? Or just another one of them BBQ myths?
In this article, I’ll provide an answer to that question. I’ll start with the definition and get geeky with the science behind it. Then, there will be a section where I outline different techniques to get a good smoke ring, as well as how to cheat your way to one if you have to.
So, fasten your seatbelt. You’re in for a ride.
What Is The Smoke Ring BBQ?
In BBQ, the smoke ring is that pink layer found underneath the bark when you slice your smoked meat, whether ribs, pork butt, or brisket.
Depending on many factors, the thickness of a smoke ring varies. But ⅛ inch is typically the average.
What Causes The Smoke Ring?
Now that we know its definition, let’s talk about the nitty-gritty science of the smoke ring.
A Word On Myoglobin
Oxygen is life. We need it. Animals, too.
When they breathe in oxygen, it is carried to the muscles’ wall by a protein in the bloodstream called hemoglobin. Once there, the oxygen is then transferred to another protein called myoglobin. These myoglobins don’t do anything to the oxygen. They simply store it until it’s called for.
Myoglobin stays within the muscle cells, even after the animal gets butchered. In fact, the blend between myoglobin and water, or myowater, is responsible for most of the moisture after cooking.
Still with me?
Now, myoglobin also contains iron, namely heme. This iron compound accounts for the amount of pigment in meat. The more of it, the darker of the meat.
Marine mammals such as whales or seals have to hold their breath for a long time. Therefore, they need more myoglobins to store more oxygens. So their meat is a darker shade of purple.
Then we have our regular cows with their rosy red meat. Obviously, they don’t need to do a whole lot of cardiovascular exercising like whales. Just eat grass and moo. Thus they need less oxygen storage.
Pork is a lighter hue of red. Poultry is pinkish. So on and so forth.
Keep in mind that meat does “rust” after long exposure to the air. The heme oxidizes and turns the meat into an uninviting brown color. But under the right conditions, the color can revert back to its original.
During The Combustion Of Charcoal & Wood
When charcoal or wood burns, it releases smoke, which is a combination of water vapor and other gases. In those gases, we have nitric oxide (NO) and carbon monoxide (CO).
So what do the myoglobin, NO, and CO have anything to do with the smoke ring? Let me explain in the next section
Here’s How It Works
The cold meat inside the smoker has a wet surface, from its natural myowater, marinade and whatnot. NO and CO therefore can stick to it.
Here, these compounds react with heme, preventing the oxidation and keeping the meat’s pink color. In fact, some meat packers are introducing CO into the meat packaging to maintain the color longer.
But with anything in cooking, myoglobin breaks down after being in contact with the heat. Once that happens, it changes the color forever.
Compared to the heat, the NO and CO cannot penetrate far into the meat. Just on the surface and a little bit below it. That explains why the core of the meat eventually turns light brown while the perimeter remains pink.
And that’s pretty much the smoke ring science. In a nutshell, here is the formula for the smoke ring.
The smoke ring = myoglobin + nitric oxide OR carbon monoxide
Sadly, it has nothing to do with the smoke we see from our smoker (well, partially). As long as you have NO or CO, you can create a smoke ring in any cut of meat.
Is A Smoke Ring A Badge Of Honor?
Yes and no.
It certainly gives your smoked meat the classic look of BBQ low and slow. People will be wowed by it. And it looks more appetizing than non-smoke-ring meat.
But it won’t add any extra flavor to the end product. In some cases, you’ll see meat with a perfect smoke ring yet dry as hell.
So, take it with a grain of salt. With or without the smoke ring, the most important thing is that the meat needs to be tender and succulent.
How To Get A Good Smoke Ring
That being said, it doesn’t hurt knowing how to get a good smoke ring. Juicy meat with a beautiful smoke ring will always be a resounding hell-yeah.
Keep Your Meat Moist & Cool
As I mentioned earlier, myoglobin will change its color permanently once it’s been exposed to heat long enough. It usually starts to happen at around 140F, and reaches its peak at 170F.
So from the time you put your meat on to when it hits 140F, you need to make sure that your meat gets all the NO or CO that it needs. There are two things you can do to achieve that.
First, you keep your meat moist by spritzing in addition to using a water pan. Wet surface will allow more smoke to adhere to. Thus it gives the meat the maximum absorption of NO or CO.
Second, you can start with a cool piece of meat. It’s the same principle as above. Wet and moist surface equals more smoke sticking. What I usually do is to let the meat sit for about 10 minutes after applying the rub. Then throw it on the smoker. Don’t allow it to get to room temperature.
Go Low n Slow
You also want to prolong the time before the meat reaches 140F. You do that by cooking it low and slow.
This allows the NO and CO to penetrate deeper into the meat. It also lets the protein and fat completely break down and render.
If you cook it too hot, there is too little time for a smoke ring to develop.
Trim Away The Excess Fat
Some cuts of meat have more fat on the surface than others. Now, NO and CO can penetrate the fat, but there is no myoglobin in it. As a result, no color change. And by the time these compounds get through the fat, it’s already too late for the meat below it.
So there’s no point in leaving too much fat on the meat surface. It will only hinder the smoke ring formation. Just leave a thin layer if you prefer it.
Choose The Right Fuel
There are many types of fuel to choose from in BBQ. We have gas, electric, charcoal, and wood.
The wood bark (the outer edge) has a lot more nitrogen than the wood core. Therefore, burning wood with the bark on will give you the most NO available.
As wood is seasoned up, it loses some of its nitrogen. As a result, freshly cut or green wood is a better choice than dried out wood. But be careful that too much green wood can add an acrid taste to your food. So only use a few pieces along with seasoned wood when cooking.
Charcoal briquettes produce the same amount of NO as in wood once burned. That’s because of the extra additives in them. Also, their grooved shape allows for better airflow and hotter burning, which means more NO generation.
On the other hand, lump charcoal doesn’t have much nitrogen in it. It’s mostly pure carbon. Therefore, lump charcoal won’t release much NO. It’s also because of its irregular shape, blocking airflow and all.
Propane burns extremely well. But it won’t produce any extra NO or CO.
Electric as in an electric smoker has no combustion going on at all. Even if you put a piece of wood in there, it smolders rather than burns. That means very little NO is produced in this case.
All in all, the best fuel for creating a smoke ring is either wood or charcoal briquettes. Lump works too, but you might need to add a few pieces of wood or mix it up with briquettes.
How Do You Make A Fake Smoke Ring?
Sometimes, life gets in the way. And you don’t want to go through all the techniques above to get a good smoke ring. Because let’s face it, they require time and patience. But hey, you can always cheat your way to a smoke ring.
You can add a tiny amount of curing salt to your marinade, dry rub, or brine before applying it to the meat. Curing salt contains sodium nitrate and is used to preserve bacon and hot dogs.
Remember that only parts of the smoke (NO and CO) are what creates the smoke ring. So you don’t really need any smoke here. Just as long as you have the nitrites and nitrates in the NO, you can “fabricate” a smoke ring.
The other method is to use ground celery seed. It’s high in nitrates so making a smoke ring is no problemo! Please check the YouTube video below by the great Greg Mrvich of Ballistic BBQ. He will walk you through an experiment he’s done in regards to celery seed smoke ring formation.
I hope I didn’t bore you with all the sciencey stuff on the smoke ring. Like I said, a smoke ring is the product of a chemical reaction between myoglobin, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. You really don’t need smoke to make one. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably blowing smoke.
That being said, it’s a lot of reading, researching, and cooking involved in writing this article as well as putting this website together. If you know someone who might appreciate this type of information, please forward it to them.
And with that, y’all have a good day.