How to Get a Smoke Ring on Your Meat
You hear it talked about in recipes, praised during cooking competitions and lauded at backyard barbecues — it’s the smoke ring. Whether you’re a veteran griller or a barbecue novice, the smoke ring can be an elusive standard of pitmaster perfection. It’s deceivingly difficult, and many fall short when trying to achieve a smoke ring.
Perfecting the look of a striking pink smoke ring can feel impossible and may cause backyard barbecuers to give up the dream. But bust out your barbecue apron again because we’re here to give you some prime pointers to achieve the perfect BBQ smoke ring. In this article, you’ll learn the truth behind what causes a smoke ring, how to get a good smoke ring on meat and the secret to creating a smoke ring without a smoker.
What Is a Smoke Ring?
Before you can achieve a perfect meat smoke ring, you have to know what a smoke ring is. The smoke ring is the highly sought-after, pinkish circle that runs around the edges of a perfectly slow-smoked cut of meat, just under the outer crust. The width of the ring’s pinkness can range from about 1/8 of an inch to 1/2 of an inch, with barbecue smoke rings closer to 1/2 inch being more desirable.
The smoke ring is regarded as a symbol of ultimate barbecue bravado and the mark of a true pitmaster. With all the hype surrounding a smoke ring, a brisket with a 1/2-inch smoke ring must taste unbelievable, right? Not necessarily.
Despite all the smoke ring lore, it’s mostly just for looks. A BBQ smoke ring on meat looks appealing but doesn’t do anything to enhance the meat’s flavor or add any smokiness. Although it’s no indication of flavor, a smoke ring does signify the meat was cooked slowly and properly for the right amount of time to ensure maximum tenderness — so it’s still something for barbecue bosses to strive for.
What Causes a Smoke Ring?
To really understand what a smoke ring is, you’ll have to strap on your safety goggles and button up your lab coat because it all comes down to chemistry. Essentially, a smoke ring is the product of a reaction between the chemical properties of the meat and smoke.
Most living creatures have a protein known as myoglobin in their muscles, which holds oxygen within the muscle cells. Myoglobin gives meat its red color, and animals with more myoglobin, like cows, have redder meat than animals with less myoglobin, like chickens. When meat is exposed to the air, the myoglobin binds with the oxygen, which can oxidize fresh meat and cause it to turn brown if it sits out for too long.
Although exposure to oxygen during the cooking process turns meat brown, any nitric oxide (NO) and carbon monoxide (CO) in the air will bind to the still-red myoglobin. This binding prevents oxidation, enabling part of the meat to maintain its pinkish glow. So where do you get the NO and CO that are key to preserving the pinkness of the smoke ring? Wood smoke.
When wood burns, the combustion process combines carbon and nitrogen with oxygen to produce NO and CO, which then sinks into the surface of the meat to adhere with the outer layer of myoglobin. NO and CO bind tightly to the myoglobin, blocking the oxygen from turning the meat brown as it cooks. The center of the meat will become a brownish-gray color because it does not come into contact with the gases in the smoke.
In this sense, the smoke ring is really a remnant of the myoglobin that was part of the meat’s makeup. The beautiful smoke ring is already within the raw material, you just have to bring it out. This means the type of meat you choose to cook is one of the main determinants of how impressive a smoke ring you’ll be able to get from it.
Time is the other big factor in making a smoke ring. To achieve a thicker smoke ring, the meat must be slow-smoked long enough for the smoke to seep as deep as possible into the meat to preserve more of its pinkness. This is why a smoke ring remains the mark of a master chef — it shows the cooking method was expertly executed.
How to Get a Good Smoke Ring
Before firing up the smoker to try your hand at making a smoke ring, there are a few key factors to think about. Most importantly, you have to consider your fuel. If you want a good smoke ring, you’ll need to use a fuel that will create a high concentration of NO in its exhaust. CO is less important to consider because it doesn’t condense on the surface of meat during cooking as well as NO does.
Plain wood is the best material for generating the most NO, but charcoal briquettes are almost equally as effective because they are full of nitrogen. This means if you can get your hands on a wood pellet smoker, you’ll be the smoke ring king.
To get the most NO out of your wood smoke, burn the bark rather than the heart of the wood, which contains less nitrogen. Green wood produces a lot of smoke — much more than seasoned wood. You can place a small piece of green wood in the firebox of your smoker for maximum smoke output. Although popular for adding smoke among charcoal users, sawdust does not release much NO and won’t get you a good smoke ring.
Lump charcoal’s combustion process doesn’t produce as much NO as wood’s and leaves a lot to be desired in its smoke ring performance. The worst options for trying to generate a smoke ring are gas and electric smokers as neither produces much NO through their combustion processes. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get a smoke ring from them, but we’ll talk about your smoke ring cheat options later.
Besides the type of fuel you use, here are the main variables that affect the quality of your smoke ring:
- Amount of oxygen: There needs to be oxygen for combustion to happen. If there’s not enough oxygen present, your fuel will smolder and produce less NO, which means no smoke ring.
- Combustion temperature: The combustion temperature is the point at which a fuel will burst into flames. A lower combustion temperature is better for making a smoke ring because it means NO is produced sooner in the cooking process. This means there’s less chance for myoglobin to break down from high heat and less chance for the meat’s colors to become fixed before a smoke ring can develop.
- Humidity levels: A higher humidity will help make a more moist meat surface, which creates a better smoke ring by giving NO something to stick to.
- Dryness of the wood: The amount of NO produced from wood’s combustion process depends on how dry it is — moist wood that’s been coated in water will result in more NO.
Pro Tips for a Flawless Smoke Ring
Now that you know the smoke ring basics, it’s time to kick it up a notch — but not turn up the heat, of course. Here are some extra tricks to ensure a deep, pink smoke ring:
- Lock in moisture: Make it easier for your meat to absorb the NO by mopping, spritzing and spraying it to keep it cool and moist. A moist meat surface will cling to the NO in the smoke, pulling it in to form a deeper smoke ring, whereas a dry surface acts as a roadblock. This technique will also delay the outer crust or bark from forming, which can hinder smoke ring formation.
- Pick the right smoker: Using an electric smoker will make it hard to get a smoke ring because of the low levels of NO involved in its combustion process.
- Keep it cool: Storing the meat in the fridge until you’re ready to cook will keep its temperature low. Lower temperatures provide a larger span of time for the NO to sink into the meat and preserve its pink color before the myoglobin begins to break down under higher heat.
- Get rid of the fat cap: You can toss the fat cap because fat doesn’t contain any myoglobin, so it only blocks the NO from reaching as much meat as possible. It’s better to remove the fat cap altogether so nothing hinders your smoke ring.
- No smoke shows: It might seem counterintuitive, but more smoke won’t give you a better smoke ring. Meat stops taking in smoke after it hits 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so adding more smoke won’t make it seep any deeper into the meat.
- Slow and steady wins the race: High temperatures break down myoglobin faster and don’t give the NO adequate time to get past the surface of the meat before it turns brown. Ultimately, cooking meat low and slow is the best way to get a striking smoke ring.
How to Cheat a Smoke Ring
Even if you don’t have a sturdy wood pellet smoker, you don’t have to give up your dream of the perfect smoke ring. There’s a lot of myths surrounding the legendary smoke ring that need to be busted, but here’s the biggest one: Smoke isn’t even required to make a smoke ring. That’s right, you can make a smokeless smoke ring.
In fact, because it can be cheated so easily, a smoke ring is no longer part of the judging criteria at the professional barbecuing level. Most competitive barbecuers still like to include a BBQ smoke ring for the visual appeal. Despite the possibility of cheats and shortcuts, a smoke ring will always be a classic mark of good barbecue.
A smoke ring can be faked without smoke because it’s not actually the smoke that makes a smoke ring, it’s the nitrites and nitrates of the NO within the smoke that produce the pinkish ring. So if you can artificially replicate the NO reaction in the meat’s myoglobin, you don’t even need the smoke. The secret to cheating a smoke ring is curing salt. Simply sprinkle a bit of curing salt with sodium nitrite around the surface of your meat before putting it in a regular oven, and it’ll come out with a smoke ring deep enough to make it look like it took hours to cook.
Of course, you’ll know the truth about your faux smoke ring, and it certainly won’t come with the same satisfaction as a smoke ring you truly “earned.” You might want to skip this method if you’re a pitmaster purist. But, it’s a great trick to wow party guests in a pinch. Keep in mind that some barbecue fanatics can sniff out a fake smoke ring on meat quicker than it takes to make one.
If you have an electric smoker, there’s a trick for you too. Though electric smokers aren’t known for producing good smoke rings, you can still achieve a deep pink ring by placing a few lumps of wood and charcoal in your electric smoker’s wood tray before beginning to cook. Smaller electric smokers might not be big enough to fit the amount of wood needed to produce the smoke to create a smoke ring, so you might still have to use the curing salt cheat method to get that famous smoke ring look.
Get the Perfect Smoke Ring With a Grilla Grills Smoker
There’s no need to cheat your smoke ring when you have a wood pellet smoker from Grilla Grills. Designed by steel engineers, our smokers are built with all the necessities and none of the frills. These straightforward wood pellet smokers are versatile and simple to use. Our smokers give meat that mouth-watering barbecue flavor by using convection grilling airflow for maximum smokiness. They also feature top-of-the-line technology that gives you complete control over the temperature so you can achieve the smoke ring you’ve always dreamed of.
Let a Grilla Grills smoker help you master the art of the smoke ring and make you the star of your backyard barbecue. Locate the Grilla Grills nearest you or check out our online inventory today to find the best wood pellet smoker for your backyard.