A smoke ring is a coveted thing in the barbecue world.
For anyone reading this who doesn’t spend their Saturdays next to a smoker, a smoke ring is the pink layer of meat below the exterior bark around a brisket, pork butt, rib, or other cut of barbecue. It usually cuts about ¼ inch into the meat.
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It was thought to be an indicator of high-quality barbecue. And yes, there’s something satisfying about slicing into the crusty bark of a barbecue brisket and seeing that rosy-red ring swaddling the smoked meat.
When I first started development on our Texas-style barbecue brisket on a charcoal grill, I can attest that I made plenty of awful briskets that had gorgeous, thick smoke rings. (Now the recipe is delicious and still has a solid smoke ring.)
Rather, the smoke ring is caused by a chemical reaction between the meat and invisible nitric oxide gas that’s produced when wood or charcoal are burned to heat a smoker or grill.
A smoke ring is a color change in the meat’s myoglobin, the same protein that makes raw beef red. Myoglobin readily changes color, from the purplish red of freshly cut raw beef, to bright red when it binds with oxygen, to the brown color familiar to anyone who has cooked a well-done steak.
But if nitric oxide is present while cooking, it can penetrate the surface of the meat and bind with the myoglobin before it turns brown, so that part of the meat stays red.
Since nitric oxide, along with smoke, is produced when wood or charcoal is burned, it’s often present in the smoker while cooking barbecue, but it’s not the same as smoke. And certain types of wood and other burning materials produce more or less nitric oxide, depending primarily on how much nitrogen is present in the material before it is burned.
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When you get a smoke ring, the rest of the meat turns brown, but that outside layer keeps a hue more akin to the meat’s raw color. But the color change does not change the flavor.
Since different animals, and different cuts, have different amounts of myoglobin in their muscles, the type of meat you’re cooking can play into the amount of smoke ring. Wild game and whales with deep red meat can get an even deeper smoke ring than beef brisket. Some heritage pork will have darker meat and therefore more of a smoke ring than commodity pork. It’s going to be hard to make a deep smoke ring on chicken breast, which has almost no myoglobin.
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While your barbecue will taste great without it, if you really want to see a smoke ring, here are some tricks that pit masters use. (It’s important to note that these tricks do not necessarily make better-tasting barbecue—just a thicker red ring.)
- Start with cold meat or hold the meat in your smoker at a temperature below 140 degrees. Myoglobin will start turning brown at 140 degrees, and once it turns brown, it won’t go back to pink. So the longer it’s below that temperature and absorbing nitric oxide, the deeper the smoke ring.
- Rubbing or brining the meat with a small amount of baking soda before cooking raises its pH, which greatly increases the development of the smoke ring.
- Soak the wood you’re using or use a water pan in the grill for a more moist cooking environment.
- Trim more fat from the exterior of the roast so that there’s more of a chance the nitric oxide comes in contact with the actual meat under the fat.
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Many people even fake a smoke ring using Morton’s Tender Quick, which contains sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. These are the same curing ingredients that give pastrami and cured ham their pink color.
But here at Cook’s Country, we think what really matters is the flavor. So as long as you’re adding enough salt and smoke, don’t stress about getting that smoke ring.