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Grilling Science: How to Get the Perfect Smoke Ring in Smoked Meats

Posted by Jake Eller on

Grilling Science: How to Get the Perfect Smoke Ring in Smoked Meats
We’ve gone through the basics of smoking before. But today, we’re going to go a little more in-depth.
In the world of barbecue, the ‘smoke ring’ is considered the hallmark of a job well-done. For the unindoctrinated, the ‘smoke ring’ is what Pit Masters call the small layer of pink underneath the browned crust (or bark) of smoked meats.
Today, we’re going to get into what causes that smoke ring, and some of the science behind smoking meat in your backyard. 
To understand the smoke ring, we have to understand some of the chemistry of barbecuing. The first piece of the puzzle is going to be a chemical in meat called myoglobin. As some of you may know, when we cut meat, and that red liquid comes out, it is certainly not blood. It’s myoglobin! Myoglobin is an iron chemical in animal proteins that carries a purple-ish pigment.
Myoglobin only turns a bright red color, though, when exposed to oxygen. As the Myoglobin binds with the oxygen, it creates that bright, fresh-meat red we love to see at the butcher. As that fresh meat sits, though, it turns brown. This red-to-brown change is caused by that same oxygen slowly escaping from the myoglobin.
So now we know why fresh meat is red, and old meat is brown. But what’s that got to do with smoking and the fabled smoke ring?
Well, when organic fuels like wood chips or charcoal are burned, they release nitrogen dioxide. This nitrogen dioxide dissolves into the meat from the outside in, bonding with the myoglobin. This nitrogen dioxide creates a pink color in the myoglobin chemical. The new compound does not denature in heat, so it is able to keep its bright pink color.
Because the nitrogen dioxide is only able to penetrate slightly into the meat itself, the pink ring only extends about a half-inch into the meat.
Now how do we, as home cooks, achieve that pitmaster-level smoke ring?
The key is moisture.
Nitrogen dioxide is attracted to water molecules along with the myoglobin. So, the more moisture you can impart, the brighter and more defined that smoke ring will become. On the other hand, the dryer the surface of your meat is, the harder it will be for that nitrogen dioxide to get in there.
That’s where mopping comes in. To make sure your brisket is absolutely soaked, we’d suggest constantly mopping it with your favorite barbecue sauce. The more, the better. Mopping is going to deepen and intensify your smoke ring, creating that prize-winning barbecue at your next cook-off.
While there are ways to cheat using nitrites and salt in creating a smoke ring, we don’t see the point.
A good smoke ring is more than just an aesthetic touch. It is pleasing to more than just the eye. A nice, bright pink smoke ring should foreshadow quality, moisture, and flavor. And with a little bit of knowledge on the chemistry of smoking, you can achieve that perfect smoke ring every time.
In short - Want a nice smoke ring? Cook low and slow and add plenty of moisture. You'll get that coveted smoke ring every time.