Everyone who’s read a little bit about barbecue or watched a few cooking shows on TV knows about the smoke ring, that line of pink color that runs beneath the exterior crust of barbecued meat. Some will tell you that it’s a sign that the smoke of the fire has penetrated into the meat. It isn’t. Others will claim that the smoke ring is the difference between true barbecue and plain grilled meat. It isn’t that either. But if you’re looking for a good smoke ring in your meat, here are some tips on how to achieve it.
It’s important to remember that the smoke ring is not necessarily a sign of quality barbecue. You can produce awesome ‘cue that has a thin or nonexistent smoke ring, or inedible meat that has a big bright ring. As you’ll see below, it’s easy to chemically cheat your way to a perfect smoke ring. This is why competition barbecue judges, as well as barbecue connoisseurs, ignore the smoke ring when judging meat quality. And the smoke ring has nothing at all to do with any smoky flavor in the meat.
So why bother trying to get one? Because it looks good, and many people still won’t believe that they’re having true barbecue if they don’t see the ring. Still, never forget that in the final analysis, it’s taste and tenderness that matter the most. Don’t ruin your meat just to get a smoke ring.
Oddly enough, you don’t even need smoke to make a smoke ring. All you have to do is expose your meat to nitrogen dioxide. The NO2 will produce nitric acid on the surface of the meat. The acid soaks in and reacts with the chemical myoglobin, which is what gives meat its color, to produce the pink ring beneath the surface of the meat. The no-brainer way to get a good smoke ring is to rub the meat with a curing agent that contains sodium nitrate, such as Instacure or Tenderquick. This will produce all the nitric acid you need when exposed to heat and the meat’s juices.
If you prefer to try to get a smoke ring the natural way, try a longer cooking time so the ring-producing reaction has more time to work. Using moist, cold meat straight out of the refrigerator, along with a lower temperature, will give you extra cooking time. You can also use green and/or soaked wood for fuel, since wet wood puts out more nitrates when it burns. Adding a charcoal briquet to your fuel will also produce more nitrates.
You’ll need to experiment, because every piece of meat is different, but with a little practice you should be able to produce impressive smoke rings consistently. Try it and see how you like better-looking meat!