The sign of a proper job smoking meat is when that first slice is made and you see the delicate, deep red ring surrounding perfectly cooked meat. Getting the perfect smoke ring is as much an art as it is a skill. In order to learn how to get good smoke rings you need to know why the smoke ring forms to understand the tricks for getting it right.
What a Smoke Ring Looks Like
The perfect smoke ring starts with the crusty bark that forms on the surface of the meat. The ring is the first quarter of an inch or so of the meat that will have a toasty, smoky reddish-brown color that gives way to succulent, juicy meat. A good smoke ring takes more than just tossing meat into the smoker and hoping for the best. The smoke ring carries the smoke flavor into the meat and produces the tenderness and perfect pink color you want from excellent smoked meats.
What Creates the Smoke Ring
The smoke ring doesn't just happen by chance. It is a complex chemical reaction that only occurs under specific conditions. Creating the ideal conditions for making a great smoke ring begins with the type of dry rub or brine you use and how you operate your smoker.
It is important to point out that a deep red smoke ring does not indicate that your meat will taste good, only that the conditions in the smoker were ideal for creating the ring.
There are hundreds of different chemical reactions taking place in your smoker that change with the temperature and the type of smoke that is being created. Different types of wood and lump charcoal can cause reactions at different times and to differing degrees. Even the amount of humidity in your smoker will cause certain reactions not to happen.
The main reaction that results in a smoke ring is the interaction of nitric oxide and a protein in meat called myoglobin that is found in striated muscle. The reaction happens below 140 degrees and causes the meat to turn a pink or red hue. Once it changes color, it will not brown. The reaction happens in a moist, warm environment, so using a water tray is a must for developing a good smoke ring.
Red meat contains myoglobin in much higher percentages than white meat. That is why you can't get a good smoke ring on chicken or turkey. Pork has more myoglobin but is still white meat, although it is possible to get a lovely pink ring on a pork butt roast. The best smoke rings happen on cuts of beef that have dense, stringy muscles like tri-tip and brisket. Wild game is typically higher in iron which is where the myoglobin is found.
What Does a Smoke Ring on Meat Indicate?
The ring is created when nitric oxide formed from burning wood products interacts with the myoglobin in the meat. A thicker smoke ring indicates that the reaction has gone deeper into the meat, usually as a result of holding the meat at the perfect temperature for the reaction to happen for a period of time. The ring is often considered to be a sign of well-smoked meat, but the ring contributes very little to flavor or tenderness.
How Do You Get Smoke Rings on Meat?
The chemical reaction between nitric oxide and myoglobin happens below 140 degrees. Past that point, myoglobin turns to a brown color as iron oxidizes and will not return to a pink color. the trick for generating a good smoke ring is to keep the meat temperature below 140 degrees for an extended time. It also helps to use a type of wood smoke from wood with high nitrates and nitrites. Fruit woods tend to be excellent choices for getting great smoke rings. Cherry is one of the best for developing a deep red smoke ring. Mix the fruitwood with a hardwood base like hickory or pecan to balance the fruitwood and enhance the process.
Getting the Best Smoke Ring
There are some handy tips and tricks for getting a great smoke ring and even a cheat or two out there. We have some great ways for you to get a bright red and pink ring.
- The first thing that you should do to get the best ring is to remove all visible fat. Fat prevents the smoke from penetrating and will limit the amount of ring you get.
- One of the simplest tricks is to add some baking soda to your dry rub. The baking soda will lower the pH of the meat and help encourage the reaction to happen. This trick will develop a deeper smoke ring.
- Food safety also helps out in this situation. Since the reaction happens at higher temperatures, you can keep the meat in the refrigerator until you are ready to smoke it. The cold meat will stay below the point when the iron compound in the blood and the smoke can no longer interact.
- You will want to use a water pan to enhance the humidity. Some people also suggest soaking wood chips which will release steam before the wood begins to smoke. This trick can improve the moisture level when your water tray isn't sufficient.
- Another way to get a great smoke ring is to use sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate. These are the same curing ingredients used to give ham and corned beef the pink color they are known for. By rubbing the meat with these ingredients, the surface of the meat will partially cure, giving it the appearance of a smoke ring.
One of the reasons that a smoke ring is recognized as a sign of great smoked meat is because pit masters who compete in barbecue competitions will maintain a very low smoker temperature to prevent the surface of the meat from exceeding 140 degrees for a longer period of time. The trick is to keep the smoker producing a clean-burning fire at low temperatures while preventing the meat from getting too hot. Long periods in these conditions lead to the most dramatic smoke rings.
For the average backyard griller, you don't need to get that crazy. Typically, the first hour of the smoke is considered to be the most important for getting a good smoke ring. Make sure you have plenty of humidity and a clean fire and use a high-quality seasoning that will enhance the reaction and give your meat tons of flavor.
You should also avoid using acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar because these will inhibit the development of the smoke ring during the smoking process.
Getting a Smoke Ring on an Electric Smoker
Getting a smoke ring in a propane or electric smoker is possible. Simply use wood chips or hardwood pellets in an appropriate pellet box or tube and monitor the internal temperature of your meat to keep it low and slow as long as possible.
Using curing solutions is also an easy way to give your meat the appearance of a great smoke ring from an electric smoker without having to use pellets or wood chips.
The Best Smoker for Smoke Rings
Offset charcoal smokers tend to be the best for creating a great smoke ring. The ability to make a larger, hotter fire while preventing the cooking chamber to rise too quickly makes these smokers the ideal choice. That is why you see many barbecue experts at competitions using these types of smokers.
A pellet smoker like the Grilla Silverbac works very well when used with moisture-enhancing steps like a water tray. Pellet smokers offer the option of easily combining different types of pellets to create the flavor profile and smoke ring thickness you want.
It is also possible to set up the Big Green Egg or another kamado-style grill for smoking and get the benefits of the use of lump charcoal while getting great smoke ring results.
A smoke ring looks nice and is a fun thing to know how to do, but it is no substitute for properly smoked meat. Getting the meat to the perfect internal temperature and using a high-quality seasoning for the dry rub are the most important steps for getting a great flavor. A smoke ring is only awesome if that cut of meat is also delicious.
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