In the world of barbecue, the smoke ring is one of the most sought-after properties of smoked meats. It is believed to show that you have done a good job and properly low and slow smoked the meat in question. Is particularly prized in smoked brisket. So what is it?
What a Smoke Ring Looks Like
A smoke ring is a pink discoloration of meat just under the surface crust (called bark). It can be just a thin line of pink or a rather thick layer.
A good smoke ring is around a 1/4 inch in thickness.
What Creates the Smoke Ring
The smoke ring is produced by a chemical reaction between the pigment in the meat with the gases produced from wood or charcoal. When burned, these organic fuels produce nitrogen dioxide gas. This gas infuses into the surface of the meat as it cooks surrounded by this smoke. It reacts with water in the meat and produces nitric oxide.
Myoglobin is the iron-containing purple pigment in meat. When meat is exposed to air, it reacts with oxygen to develop a bright red color that you might think is blood, but isn't. The red or pink color of raw meat is due to this oxygenated myoglobin. When cooked, or exposed to air for a longer duration, it turns brown as the oxygen escapes (basically, the iron in the myoglobin rusts).
But when myoglobin is exposed to nitric oxide, it retains a pink color even when cooked as the nitric oxide binds instead of oxygen.
The nitric oxide stabilizes it and binds tighter than oxygen, so it doesn't convert to the brown metmyoglobin form with cooking.
Getting the Best Smoke Ring
Opinions vary on how to get a good smoke ring. Generally, water-soaked wood produces more nitrogen dioxide-loaded smoke than dry wood, but only by a small margin.
The type of wood also matters in producing more nitric oxide. Charcoal briquets beat lump charcoal. Propane and electric smokers produce far less of the desired gases.
A wet, sticky meat surface will also hold more nitric oxide, so mopping or spraying the meat rather than cooking it dry will enhance the smoke ring. Or, a pan of water in the smoker keeps moisture condensing on the meat. However, you should avoid acidic components like vinegar or lemon juice as that can prevent the smoke ring from developing.
Removing fat from the surface of the meat also exposes the meat to the smoke and will allow more nitric oxide into the meat. Cooking the meat at low and slow temperature will allow the nitric oxide to penetrate more before the meat's temperature is high enough to turn the myoglobin brown.
If you really want to make sure you get a smoke ring, then cheat. Coating meat with a salt tenderizer like Morton's Tender Quick will load up the surface of the meat with nitrogen dioxide and give you a great smoke ring. Because of the prevalence of this kind of "cheating", smoke rings are no longer taken into consideration in barbecue competitions.