If you spend a whole day cooking a nice piece of meat on your grill and cut into it after many hours, you will be happy or surprised when you see a smoke ring. You see a pink edge on the outside of the meat that ranges from a few millimetres to sometimes 1 centimetre wide. Thinner pieces of meat such as spare ribs can sometimes turn completely pink due to a smoke ring.
That pink ring is not raw meat. It is physically quite difficult to heat meat from the outside, causing the inside and outside to cook while the meat remains raw only below the surface.
On Instagram, a smoke ring shows that whoever was behind the barbecue is a BBQ Hero. We will explain to you what a smoke ring is and how you can ensure that you get one too and that a smoke ring is not important at all.
What is a smoke ring
The simple explanation is that smoke hits the meat and then makes a smoke ring. But that is not always the case, so something more is going on.
Myoglobin is a red-coloured ferrous protein in animal muscles that retains oxygen from the lungs and transports it to the cells. The more oxygen an animal needs, the higher the myoglobin content in the meat and the redder the meat is. An adult cow needs much more energy than, for example, a calf so that the meat contains a larger amount of myoglobin and is more red.
This colour difference can also be seen in different limbs of the same beast. In a chicken, you see that the legs need more oxygen than the wings or the chest and are therefore darker in colour. Thus, the smoke ring will be more apparent in chicken legs than in chicken breast, where you will hardly see it.
The colour of myoglobin is naturally purple and changes under the influence of oxygen. Then it also gets a different composition. When fresh meat comes into contact with a high concentration of oxygen, purple myoglobin turns bright red. If there is little oxygen, it will turn brown again afterwards. With prolonged exposure of fresh meat to oxygen, the myoglobin will oxidize and also turn brown. Within this triangle, the colour change is reversible.
Another way to make myoglobin change colour is by heating it. If you keep beef below a core temperature of 60ºC (140F), the meat will remain pink. But at a core temperature between 60 and 75ºC (140 to 167F), myoglobin breaks down so that it also turns brown. At a temperature higher than 75ºC (167F), it is over, and the myoglobin will no longer be able to change colour.
You can keep myoglobin red by letting it come into contact with nitric oxide and carbon monoxide. These are gases that are created when wood is burned and gets in contact with oxygen. These gases, especially nitric oxide, will bind to the myoglobin, preventing it from oxidizing.
If these compounds are formed at a temperature when the myoglobin is still pink, the meat will remain pink during cooking. Because gases cannot get far into the meat, the rest of the meat will discolour further, creating a pink ring on the outer edges of the meat.
If you want to know more about these chemical compounds, we recommend that you visit the website of Dr Greg Blonder. He explains everything very clearly. If you want to dive even deeper into the matter, here’s another page from the Texas A&M University.
Which fuel gives you the best chance of a smoke ring
Wood is the best fuel to produce the right smoke. Burning wood produces a high concentration of nitrogen dioxide, which is converted into nitrogen monoxide when it comes in contact with oxygen. After that, briquettes are a good candidate because they mix carbon and residual wood that secretes the same nitrogen dioxide.
Charcoal is a less good fuel for a smoke ring because it consists mainly of pure carbon and produces the least amount of nitrogen dioxide of the three.
It is difficult to create a smoke ring on a gas barbecue without using extra smoke wood. Little carbon is released during gas combustion, but virtually no nitrogen dioxide, so the chance of a smoke ring is minimal.
Neither will be released on an electric grill, or the heating elements must not be very clean. Also, no oxygen supply is required to generate heat on an electric grill so that any carbon released will hardly be converted into the required carbon monoxide.
What can you do to get a good smoke ring
Remove the hard fat layer on the outside of the meat
Remove the outer layers of hard fat from the meat. That fat is a barrier to the gases. Fat will only soften and let the gases through from a temperature of about 60ºC (140F). That is the same temperature when myoglobin begins to break down and lose its ability to change colour.
Salt draws moisture from the outer layer of the meat. In that moisture, the salt will dissolve and become small enough to penetrate deeply into the meat cells. That salt carries the nitric oxide from the smoke, which is also small enough. The deeper the salt can penetrate, the wider the smoke ring will become.
Start with cold meat
Toss the meat directly from the refrigerator onto the smoker. The longer the meat stays below 75ºC (167F), the longer it can absorb smoke. It also helps if you occasionally spray the outside of the meat to keep the surface cool for longer.
Keep the meat moist
A moist surface also causes the necessary gases to condense on the surface so they can penetrate the meat with the salt. A wet surface also ensures that the bark or crust does not form. The bark also stops the smoke from reaching the meat.
Put water in the smoker
To increase the humidity in the kettle, you can place a pan with water in the barbecue. Add little or no acidic liquids such as lemon juice or vinegar to the water because acids stop the formation of nitric oxide. What does help are sweet liquids such as apple juice. The sugars will stick to the meat, and gases will stick better to a sticky surface.
Ensure a good flow of oxygen in the kettle of the barbecue. Without oxygen, the nitrogen dioxide in the smoke will not be converted into nitrogen monoxide. What does happen is that only the heavy carbon in the smoke settles on your meat which gives the wrong smoke taste.
low and slow
Smoke the meat low and slow so that the core temperature of the meat remains below 60ºC (140F) for a long time. Above 60ºC, the myoglobin will break down and become browner. It will then no longer be able to turn red.
When you’re looking, you’re not cooking
Keep the lid closed (but never entirely closed) for a stable flow of oxygen and therefore fresh smoke. When the lid is opened, extra oxygen enters the kettle, which can cause the wood to ignite and produce less nitrogen dioxide.
Use the right smoke wood
All wood produces smoke, but different types of smoking wood produce different flavours of smoke. Cherry wood in particular, creates a beautiful dark red smoke ring. In addition, you get a slightly sweet, smoky taste that fits perfectly with barbecue.
What do we not recommend for a better smoking ring
Burning wet wood creates a slightly higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide that comes into contact with oxygen and is converted to nitrogen monoxide in the smoke. But wet wood also causes incomplete combustion, creating PAHs that can cause cancer.
Burning sawdust or wood dust does give a lot of smoke and smoke flavour, but it produces too little nitrogen monoxide to create the smoke ring. So it is better to use thicker chunks of smoke wood.
A lot of smoke
More smoke does not immediately lead to a wider smoke ring. A cloud of light smoke is sufficient to get a nice smoke ring because you mainly need the gases in the smoke that create the smoke ring. The smoke itself is too thick to penetrate far into the meat and only creates a darker surface because of the carbon. But nitric oxide is thin enough to do that.
Can you get a smoke ring without smoke
There is a possibility to guarantee a smoke ring without the meat being in contact with smoke. You can sprinkle a small amount of curing salt over the meat. Curing or nitrite salt is used to preserve meat for longer and gives the meat a pink colour. It is used in making sausage and bacon.
The nitric oxide in the nitrite salt binds to the myoglobin and magically creates a “smoke ring”. The use of nitrite salt is why a smoke ring is no longer assessed separately during barbecue competitions.
If you prefer not to use nitrite salt, you can also use celery seed in your dry rub. Celery contains natural nitrates that also bind with myoglobin. This reaction is less violent than with nitrate salt, but it does help.
In this way, you no longer need smoke to still get an impressive smoke ring. Impressive but not worthy of bragging about. If you have to take the neighbours into account and if you prefer not to smoke in the backyard or if you have nothing but a gas or electric barbecue, there is a possibility to get a smoke ring.
Is a smoking ring really important
Although a smoke ring is a pretty good indication that the meat has been smoked, you do not need to see a smoke ring to still have a smoke flavour in the meat. The red colour only refers to the appearance of certain chemicals in the meat and not to taste.
The reverse is true. To get a smoke ring, you have to make concessions to the taste of the meat. If you like a nice layer of fat on your meat, you have to settle for a thinner or no smoking ring. You also have to find a good balance between creating a smoke ring and shaping the bark.
As far as we are concerned, a smoke ring is a nice bonus, but not crucial for good barbecue. A smoke ring in meat does not guarantee a tasty piece of meat. In fact, meat with a beautiful smoke ring can be bone dry, tasteless, or even inedible.
So first, learn how to barbecue properly, and with a bit of luck, you will see a smoke ring every now and then. If you still want great meat that also looks good on Instagram, then the above tips are enough to ensure a smoke ring in your meat.