Mythbusting The Smoke Ring: No Smoke Necessary!
"I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles." Audrey Hepburn
Smoked meats, like ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket (shown here), often have a pink layer directly below the surface, nestled neatly under the bark.
Bark and smoke rings have long been emblems of great barbecue. Backyarders know they have arrived when they make their first smoke ring. BBQ judges eat with their eyes and look for smoke rings at competitions. But anybody who tells you that good barbecue needs a smoke ring is blowing smoke in your face. You don't even need smoke to make a smoke ring, and, sadly, a smoke ring has no flavor.
The fact is that you can make a smoke ring in your indoor oven by giving the meat a dusting of pink salt or any other curing salt containing that sodium nitrite. These are the salts that give bacon and corned beef their characteristic pink color. Pink tint is sometimes visible in meats braised in a slow cooker. The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder, has even created a smoke ring by cooking indoors and exposing meat to carbon monoxide.
Blonder has done his own research and read all the conflicting scientific papers on the subject and he says that the process is very complex and depends on a number of variables including humidity, oxygen levels, combustion temp, and even how dry the wood is, among others. In fact, as of today, nobody really understands the whole process. But one thing is sure, there is a lot of misinformation out there.
According to Blonder, the smoke ring is mostly caused by CO (carbon monoxide) and/or NO (nitrogen monoxide) gases from combustion combining with liquid on the surface of the meat. CO and NO are not very stable so they willingly mix it up with wet meat juices and basting liquids. These dissolved gases prevent myoglobin, the pale pink protein in meat (it is what makes meat juice pink), from turning gray as it heats up. But the dissolved gases cannot diffuse very far beyond the surface before the meat is cooked or dried out, dooming the myoglobin in the interior to a gray fate. As a result, smoke rings usually only go about 1/8" deep, but I've seen them up to 1/2" deep on smokers whose primary fuel is wood.
But the pink band does look cool, it gets the saliva flowing, and it gives your meat a look of authenticity, so here's what we know about how to get a good smoke ring:
Blonder's experiments and my experiences say the secret is to keep a moist surface with a combination of:
- High humidity in the cooker to reduce natural moisture evaporation. A water pan helps.
- Low cooking temperatures to minimize evaporation and surface drying.
- Use a cooker that does not have strong air currents that can parch the surface.
- Keep the surface wet by basting or spritzing it with a thin water based mop. In many parts of the country mopping with vinegar based liquids is popular. Many people spritz with apple juice, which also has fructose which can help with browning.
Moisture plays an especially vital role. Blonder explains: "First, when it evaporates from the surface of the meat it cools the meat and this enhances condensation of nitrogen oxide. Second, the water is 'sticky' and grabs onto passing nitrogen oxides and flavor molecules. And third, it delays the formation of a dense bark which impedes absorption of smoke chemicals."
When smoke roasting, moist meat holds on to smoke more readily than dry meat. Less smoke sticks as the cooking continues because the surface of the meat begins to dry. For this reason putting a pan of water in a smoker helps create a smoke ring. In fact some smokers, called water smokers, have water pans built in. The Weber Smokey Mountain is the best known of this breed.
As smoke particles and combustion gases land on the surface of meat, especially cool moist meat from the fridge, they condense, dissolve, and some are moved deeper into the meat by diffusion and absorption. The cells are simply seeking equilibrium. The process is the same as when someone lights a cigar in a room, says Blonder. All the smoke starts out near the cigar, but eventually it spreads throughout the room as it achieves equilibrium. After a while it penetrates clothes, furniture, and even food. Because it is water soluble, cigar smoke will get into wet things first, like your wife's eyes. Before long you and your cigar will be seeking equilibrium in the garage.
A faux smoke ring can also develop without smoke if you cook low 'n' slow. When meat is cooked fast, the proteins in the muscle and myoglobin denature at the same time and combine to turn brown. When cooked slowly, the muscle proteins finish denaturing before the naturally pink myoglobin denatures and so the meat remains pink. You can occasionally see this phenomenon in braised meat like a beef stew. It may have been cooked for hours in a liquid at low temps, yet the meat will still be slightly pink inside.
On the other hand, some meats cooked low and slow in a smoky environment in an electric smoker will not develop a smoke ring. That is partially because the wood smolders at a low temp in electrics, and high temps (around 1,200°F or so) are required to create the most nitrogen and carbon monoxides. Experts at cooking in electric smokers add a charcoal briquet as well as wood to create the correct atmospheric conditions for a smoke ring. Some of these briquets actually contain powdered sodium nitrates, which enhance ring formation. But in general, a vigorous charcoal or wood fire at just the right temperature, produces the deepest ring and the best meat. Click here to learn more about wood and smoke.
This page was revised 9/23/2013
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