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How to get a Good Smoke Ring in BBQ

Probably each of us has seen a pink layer directly under the surface of smoked meat. This occurrence is called smoke ring and many people see it as a symbol of true BBQ.

There have been many rumors on the topics circulating over years that misinform most of us to a large degree. Which is why I decided to answer the key questions and clear up most confusion that has arisen around the topic.

To a large extent, we eat with our eyes which is why each of us looks for a smoke ring in our meat. Below you will learn all the basic information on the topic and of course will see how to get a good smoke ring.

What Exactly is The Smoke Ring ?

smoke ring meat definition

Plenty of people who have at least a little experience with BBQ will say that it is a pink meat coating that is created upon smoke touching meat. It is true to a degree, but we can’t consider this answer to be final and explanatory of the whole concept.

The truth is that understanding what the smoke ring is requires looking at this phenomenon up close and then it turns out that the pink layer being formed is a result of many chemical reactions. Below I’ll try to briefly explain it all based on several tests that I had an opportunity to witness.

The smoke ring is a result of chemical reactions that occur in the meat between a protein ( called myoglobin ), carbon monoxide ( CO ) and nitrogen monoxide ( NO ).

First let me discuss everything related to the protein ( myoglobin ). You may have noticed that different kinds of meat have different colors. It is caused by a protein (Myoglobin ) that gives meat its red color. For example, beef is much redder in color than pork because it has as much as 4 times more Myoglobin.

What color does Myoglobin have in its native state? It is purple red which can be seen the moment a butcher cuts through beef. You have to know, though, that Myoglobin is great at merging with oxygen which is why, upon being exposed to air, meat starts to change its color.

After the first contact with air, fresh meat changes its color to bright red which lets us know that the meat is fresh. It is because myoglobin, upon contact with oxygen, turns into oxymyoglobin. Once the meat is exposed to oxygen for a longer period of time, you get metmyoglobin, which stands out with its repulsive brown color. The last phenomenon can be observed in meat that was cut few days earlier ( it also indicates the freshness level of the meat ).

After all of this, though, you’re wondering what all of this has to do with the smoke ring ?

When wood is being burned, a gas is produced ( nitrogen dioxide ) that gets dissolved on the wet surface of meat, combining with myoglobin and thus preventing the reaction of myoglobin changing into metmyoglobin. That way the smoke gets trapped within a pink color, creating a smoke ring.

The nitrogen gas gets absorbed from the outside which is why the pink smoke ring only occurs on the outside part of the meat. Standard smoke rings have 1/8 to 1/2 inch in depth, below you will learn what to do to make the pink ring much better.

How to Get a Good Smoke Ring ?

The main key to achieving a beautiful and deep smoke ring is humidity and slow meat smoking at low temperature. Maintain a wet surface of the meat using water-based sauces for that purpose, as water is “sticky” and perfectly sticks to the smoke.

When smoking meat, it is recommended to put a bowl of water in the smoker, which helps achieve a smoke ring. Plenty of manufacturers make built-in water bowls in their devices for that exact purpose.

High temperature causes Myoglobin to quickly change its color to brown, preventing carbon monoxide and nitrogen monoxide from getting absorbed. Slow cooking causes the carbon and nitrogen monoxide influence to determine the color when the meat is pink.

When you expose meat to a high temperature, the myoglobin gets broken down, determining a single color ( gray with beef for example ). Of course the value of temperature varies depending on the type of meat.

So in few steps, How is The Smoke Ring Created ?

- The right fuel creates gases when at low temperature: carbon dioxide and nitrogen monoxide.

- Gases get into the meat, reacting with Myoglobin and determining pink color.

- Depending on the humidity inside the smoker and humidity of the meat, a smoke ring is created.

- The continuously cooking meat reaches higher temperature, changing its color on the inside ( it is because the smoke doesn’t get inside the whole meat ).

Do you prefer a video about this topic? Below is a video that I recommend to you, which deals in detail with this topic. (the film is not mine).

What influences The Smoke Ring ?

Low temperature – Slow cooking at low temperature gives the meat time to absorb the gases. Too high a temperature will cause the myoglobin to permanently change its color which makes it important for the meat to be cooked low and long, as it will keep the smoke inside the pink smoke ring.

Moisture – Moist meat surface and higher air humidity inside the smoker result in a much better smoke ring.

Oxygen – The right amount of oxygen is necessary for proper fuel burning and production of nitrogen oxide.

Wood – It is suggested to soak wood chips so that such wood being burned produces more nitrogen dioxide and increases the humidity.

Cheat The Smoke Ring

You don’t have the right equipment to create the right conditions and all the natural methods have failed? There is a way to get a smoke ring using pink salt or any curing salt with sodium nitrite. Just spray a bit of such salt on the meat’s surface and you’re done.

The smoke ring will surely be formed, but the results won’t be as deep as when using natural methods.

The Smoke Ring Tips

Below I present several important tips that should be remembered.

Keep the meat’s surface moist – The meat rubbing and spraying process not only allows to cool down the meat but also creates better conditions for gases to get through. Keeping moist meat at low temperature allows to get a much deeper smoke ring. A lot of attention has to be spent on this process until high temperature in the meat is reached that will permanently change the color.

Try to maintain a fixed, low temperature by cooking slowly - That way you allow the meat to absorb as much of gas as possible ( carbon oxide and nitrogen oxide ) thus creating the smoke ring. Cooking at high temperature causes the myoglobin to break down before the meat absorbs the smoke which will result in lack of pink ring.

Remove the thick layer of fat – Myoglobin is not present in fat so it won’t create a pink layer called the smoke ring. On top of that, gases have to get through a thick layer of fat to the meat which makes the whole process harder, significantly lowering the thickness of the smoke ring.

Use a smoker box – If you’re planning to smoke meat on a gas or electric smoker then it is something that you must have. Smoker Box is a container for wood chips, which produce smoke and obviously nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide, which is all required to get the smoke ring. It’s a good idea to soak the wood chips beforehand so that they make more nitrogen oxide and increase humidity.

What fuel is the best for a smoke ring?

Based on articles published on the Amazing Ribs website, the best choice will be briquettes or regular wood. Both of them produce comparable amounts of nitrogen dioxide, which is necessary to get a smoke ring.

What is a little surprising, on the other hand, is much poorer performance of lump charcoal. More information on the tests related to this topic can be found in detail here.

The worst option is an electric smoker or a gas grill, but it can be changed by using combustible wet wood chips or regular briquettes in the smoker box.

I hope that this guide has made everything on the topic clear.

Getting a nice and deep smoker ring is not a difficult task. As you can see, you just have to follow several basic rules and that’s it.