If you have eaten BBQ at a restaurant or spent any time around competition barbecue, chances are you’ve seen that beautiful looking roughly quarter-inch pink band located just under the surface of the smoked meat. This is what is known as the smoke ring.
It is most commonly found in smoked brisket but can appear in other cuts of beef, as well as pork. But, you may be wondering, how do you create it and how much does it equate to “great” BBQ? We’ve got you covered.
In this article, we’ve taken a deep dive into exactly what a smoke ring in meat is and what causes it, how much it really affects the taste of the meat (or not!), and how to get it.
A smoke ring is all thanks to a simple chemical reaction that happens in the meat when it is cooked low and slow. This reaction revolves around a protein known as myoglobin, which is present inside the bodies of almost all living vertebrates. Myoglobin works to hold oxygen in the muscle cells and also contains iron pigments (known as hermes) that are rusty red in color.
So, when the meat is being smoked using wood smoke, nitric oxide (NO) and carbon monoxide (CO) is produced. As these gasses envelop the meat while it is cooking, they penetrate just below the surface and interact with the iron in the myoglobin, preventing it from oxidizing and keeping it a bright pink color. The more nitric oxide that gets into the meat, the thicker the ring will be.
Smoke (and therefore NO and CO) cannot penetrate all the way deep into the meat. So, the inner parts of the cut will turn the desired brown color as it cooks, leaving the pink smoke ring just below the surface of the meat. The smoke-ringed part of the meat will, in fact, be cooked but it just won’t change color like the rest of the meat’s interior.
It is important to note that the smoke ring is not caused by the smoke itself, it is caused by the nitrates and nitrites within the gasses in the smoke. So, a huge amount of smoke isn’t needed to create a smoke ring as long as there is a sufficient level of NO and CO present.
This is one of the most common questions when it comes to a smoke ring and the most important one to address. Simply put, the answer is no, a smoke ring will not make the meat taste any better. Any belief that it does is a BBQ myth.
An even, pink, smoke ring definitely looks great to the eye. Many competition barbecue teams always aim for one because many judges are always on the lookout for it and may even question the skill of the pitmaster if it’s not there. Somehow, a smoke ring has become somewhat of an indicator of a job well done.
But the truth is, a smoke ring does nothing to add to the natural flavor of the meat or any seasonings/rubs/sauces used. You can absolutely smoke a piece of meat to perfection without having a single bit of a ring. Alternatively, you can create a “perfect” ring, but still overcook and dry out the meat.
So, a smoke ring has magically gotten to the point where it can convince people that they are eating quality smoked meat while actually being nothing but a mouth-watering illusion.
While it doesn’t add any additional flavor, having a good smoke ring can give your meat an authentic smokehouse look and can definitely catch the eye of barbecue competition judges (or those friends, family, or neighbors you are trying to impress). So, here are a few tips on how to get a good smoke ring in meat:
The more myoglobin in the meat, the more of a smoke ring: Remember, myoglobin is a key component of a prominent smoke ring. So, the more of it, the more of a smoke ring. Keep that in mind if you are aiming for a large ring. Beef has the most myoglobin, followed by pork, which is then followed by chicken. And hard-working muscles will have more than fattier muscles. Also, freshly killed animals will have more myoglobin than ones that were processed several days ago. Older animals will also have more than young animals.
Start with colder meat: If you start with colder meat that was taken out of the fridge not long ago and keep your smoker’s temperature down at first, the smoke ring will have more time to form. When meat is cooked hotter from the start, the myoglobin will turn brown faster, which means the NO and CO can’t penetrate very deeply before the meat changes color. So, colder temperatures will help your smoke ring.
Trim the excess fat: If your cut of meat has a thick fat cap, trim it down thinner. NO and CO can penetrate fat, but if the underlying meat oxidizes and changes color before these gasses can get to it, you’re not going to have a smoke ring.
Don’t go too heavy on dry rub: The smoke and gasses need to be able to penetrate the seasoning crust on the exterior. So, don’t overly coat your meat with dry rub. Go with a bit thinner layer than you normally would if you want a nice pink smoke ring.
Smoke it low and slow: The smoke ring will stop growing when the meat hits roughly 160°F. At that point, the myoglobin loses its ability to retain any more oxygen (aka denatures). So, smoking at lower temperatures for as long as possible until the meat reaches the desired internal temperature will help the smoke ring. The muscle proteins will be able to finish breaking down before the pink myoglobin denatures.
Keep the exterior of the meat moist: Keeping the exterior surface wet will significantly help smoke ring formation. This can be done by occasionally spritzing the meat and using a water pan in your smoker. The moisture helps the smoke ring in several ways. Firstly, as the water evaporates from the meat’s surface, it cools the meat, enhancing the condensation of NO. Secondly, the passing smoke chemicals will stick better to the exterior moisture. Finally, the exterior moisture will slightly delay the formation of a thick exterior bark on the meat, which can impede the absorption of the smoke chemicals.
Use hardwood as your fuel source or in addition to your main source: Burning hardwood produces ample amounts of NO and CO. So, make sure you are either using it as your main fuel source or at least using chunks of it in addition to your main source.
So, as you can see, it’s pretty easy to get a good smoke ring going when you understand exactly what causes it. Follow the tips we covered above and you’ll be well on your way to achieving that thick, pink ring you are aiming for.
But, remember, besides looking cool, a smoke ring doesn’t improve the flavor or quality of your smoked meat. So if you don’t make one don’t think that you are a terrible outdoor cooker or that the meat won’t taste good. You can still smoke great barbecue without ever creating a single smoke ring.
What’s your opinion on smoke rings? Do you like seeing them in smoked meat or could you care less? Or do you have any other tips to achieve a pretty smoke ring? Leave a comment below. We want to hear from you!
If you want to take your meat-smoking skills up to a whole new level, BBQ Champs Academy can help you do just that. Grab your All-Access pass today and follow along in in-depth online video classes, all taught by Champion Grillmasters and Pitmasters. These classes, unlike you will find anywhere else, will show you step-by-step exactly how to cook competition-caliber brisket, pork ribs, pork butt, and chicken.
These online BBQ classes will teach you how to perfectly cook each of these cuts of meat in your smoker or grill. You’ll also get valuable insider info and cooking secrets straight from the pros.
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Let’s imagine, you’ve gone to your local butcher shop or even through one of the great online meat wholesalers and bought yourself a great-looking brisket to smoke. You fire up the smoker, get your cooker to the right internal temperature, and start smoking your brisket. But, after cooking for a few hours with the meat’s internal temperature consistently rising, it evens out and sticks there (maybe even decreasing slightly), and you start to get real nervous. You’ve hit the infamous “stall”.
If you’ve been backyard cooking for a while, you probably know what’s happening and what to do next. But for new outdoor cookers, this can be a panic-inducing situation, causing you to think you’ve done something wrong and maybe even reaching to kick up the cooker’s fuel source. But, the stall, sometimes also referred to as the plateau or the zone, is totally normal and nothing to be scared of. It is important, though, that you handle it correctly.
If you are wondering why does meat stall when smoking and what to do about it, this article covers what you need to know about what the stall is and what causes it. Plus tips on how to handle it properly to ensure you still end up with a delicious final result.
The stall usually happens when you are smoking a large piece of meat, like brisket, pork butt, rack of ribs, etc. It is when, after several hours of the meat’s internal temperature rising, usually to between 150 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, it suddenly stops rising for several hours or even goes down a few degrees.
What is happening during this time is a form of evaporative cooling. Similar to when our body sweats when we get hot or during a hard workout. Once the meat gets to a certain temperature, it starts to sweat out some of the excess moisture. That moisture evaporates and slightly cools the meat, “stalling” the rising temperatures. This lasts until all of the surface moisture is evaporated. Then the meat’s internal temperature will continue to rise again and finish cooking. This is also when the delicious external “bark” on the meat is formed, due to the Maillard Reaction.
Source: Seasoned Advice
The stall definitely won’t last forever. You can’t get stuck there. Depending on several different factors, it can last anywhere from an hour to as long as 7 hours. It will just depend on how long it takes the surface moisture on the meat to evaporate.
Once the temperature does start to rise again, it usually won’t take long for the meat’s internal temperature to reach the desired number.
And don’t worry, the stall doesn’t cause all of the meat’s internal moisture to be evaporated and turn your cut into a dried-out chunk of meat. There will still be plenty of moisture within the meat’s fat, collagen, and protein that it can still end up juicy and tender, even if you experience a several-hour stall.
Several different factors affect the stall and how long it will last. The two biggest being airflow and humidity. The size of the cut of meat will also affect it because the larger the cut, the larger the surface area and the more water it will contain.
To put it simply, the more airflow within your cooker, the sooner the stall will occur. Often starting at around 150 degrees Fahrenheit versus at around 170 degrees Fahrenheit. This is most noticeable in smokers that have multiple vents and ports etc. Also, the increased airflow can sometimes shorten the length of the stall, but that is not always the case. (Depending on the humidity and other factors)
The more moisture there is, the longer the stall will take. Plus the longer your overall cook time will take. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You want to make sure that there is enough moisture available to keep your cooker’s temperature at a good level for flavor transference of the smoke. As well as allowing the “low and slow” cooking process to give the fat and collagen within the meat time to render properly.
The humidity inside your smoker can come from the humidity of the outside weather where you are at, a water pan, or from a baste or mop sauce on the meat itself. So just keep that in mind when planning how long the cook will take. Using a Texas Crutch will help during the cooking process. (See below)
It is usually a good idea to use a water pan in your smoker when you are cooking. The moisture from this will help raise the humidity inside and slow the evaporation process on the surface of the meat. This allows the interior temperature of the meat to properly catch up with the temperature on the exterior of the meat, resulting in uniform cooking. The evaporated liquid from the water pan will also condense on the exterior of the meat, causing the smoke to stick to it. This is where that delicious smoky flavor really comes in.
There are a couple of things you can do to ensure you handle the stall properly and end up with a final result that you’ll be happy with. These include:
More than likely, you’re going to experience some kind of stall. So, factor that into your timeline when you are planning your cook and give yourself plenty of time. Ideally, you want the meat to be finished about an hour before it is time to eat. This will give you enough time to let it rest properly.
Problems usually occur when people don’t plan for a stall, panic, and crank up the cooker’s internal temperature. While you could technically do this, it will be even tougher to ensure you don’t quickly dry out the interior of the meat or burn the outside before the inside is done.
One particular method that is used to help power through a stall is what is known as the “Texas Crutch”. This is when the meat is wrapped in either aluminum foil or Peach Paper three-quarters of the way through the smoking process. (Peach Paper is a pinkish-brown food-grade butcher paper.) This locks more moisture in the meat and prevents the evaporative cooling effect that happens during the stall, helping to maintain the meat’s internal temperature better. Instead of the moisture being carried away, it condenses on the inside of the wrap and pools at the bottom. This method will significantly cut down on the length of time that the stall will take.
To utilize this method, cook the meat unwrapped for about two-thirds of the total cook time until you get the desired bark on the exterior of the meat. Once the meat starts to hit an internal temperature of about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, take it off the cooker. Wrap it tightly in two layers of either the foil or Peach Paper and then return it to the cooker. You can even add a little extra liquid inside the wrap for flavor, like beer, juice, or a liquid sauce. Let the meat continue cooking until it reaches just under the target temperature. Then, unwrap it and put it back on the smoker just long enough to let the exterior bark crisp back up.
When deciding between what to wrap it in, keep in mind that the Peach Paper will allow more smoke on the brisket than aluminum foil. But, both of the materials will work for a Texas Crutch and allow you to get through the stall quicker.
So, hopefully, now you have a better understanding of exactly what the stall is when smoking meat and how to deal with it like a pro. When it happens, don’t panic. Just anticipate that it will indeed happen and make sure to give yourself plenty of time. Using the tips above will help you get ahead of it.
Have some horror stories from a stall? Do you have any other tips you use to handle the stall? Let us know below in the comment section. We want to hear from you!
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Unless you are a competition BBQ cooker, you may not know all of the intricacies and science that separates barbecuing, smoking, and grilling. Even though they all involve cooking outdoors over a heat source, they are not all the same thing. Many times, people use these words (especially barbecuing and grilling) interchangeably when they actually are all very different from each other.
Elevate your outdoor cooking game by taking the time to learn the distinctions between these cooking methods and wow your friends, neighbors, and family at your next backyard party or tailgate event with your new knowledge.
The biggest things that differentiate each method from the others is the type of heat used and the total cook time. Let’s break down exactly what the differences are between barbecuing, smoking, and grilling.
The phrase that you should remember when it comes to differentiating barbecuing from other cooking methods is “low and slow”. Meaning low heat and slower cooking times. Temperatures for barbecuing range from 190 degrees Fahrenheit to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking times are usually in the range of several hours (roughly 4-6).
Barbecuing meat started about 1.8 million years ago during the times of Homo Erectus. Even before Homo sapiens. It was a way to cook and tenderize tough cuts of meat from many animals, like cows or whole pigs, that traveled long distances.
By cooking meat over indirect heat (away from a flame) at lower temperatures for longer periods the meat becomes very tender and flavorful. Resulting in the meat being juicy and almost falling off the bone. Most of the cuts of meat that outdoor cooks use for barbecuing are large bone-in cuts (often pork). Like ribs, brisket, pork butt, and pork shoulder.
Barbecuing (or barbeque) is also often the word that people use, somewhat incorrectly, as a “catch-all” term for large social gatherings involving any type of outdoor cooking. Even if the food is actually is being grilled or smoked. This is often where a lot of the confusion comes from regarding the difference between the methods.
Smoking meat has many similarities with barbecuing meat. The one thing that truly sets it apart is that one of the main goals of smoking meat is to impart the smoky flavor from the smoldering hardwood into the meat itself. This is done by enclosing it in a smoky chamber over the indirect heat from the smoking wood. During this process, meat is also cooked at lower temperatures and long cooking times. Smoking often requires a lot of patience and great high-quality cuts of meat. Smoked meats can take anywhere from 6-8 hours for some cuts to around 20 hours for a brisket.
The Paleolithic era was also the time that smoking meat originated. During the process of smoking meat to cook it all the way through, locking the moisture and natural flavors into the meat. Resulting in amazing taste and aroma.
There are two methods of smoking: “cold” smoking and hot smoking. Cold smoking is done at a temperature range of 68 degrees Fahrenheit to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. This method is used mainly only to impart the smoked flavor onto meats or food that is already cured or cooked. Examples of things that are great for cold smoking are chicken breasts, sausage, beef, scallops, salmon, and cheese.
Hot smoking meat is done at temperatures ranging from 300 degrees Fahrenheit to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. With hot smoking, the goal is to not only impart the smoky flavor but to also cook the meat all the way through. Like barbecuing, hot smoking is great for large cuts of meat like ribs, pork shoulder, brisket, ham, and ham hocks. Hot smoked meats are often cooked further later or reheated but you can eat it immediately if the meat is cooked all the way through.
An important thing to remember to achieve great smoked meats and food is to use a great smoker and good quality wood chips.
Source: Choco Chicken
Grilling meat is the method that is most often utilized by the average backyard outdoor cooker. The thing that sets grilling apart from both barbecuing and smoking meat is that in this method the meat is cooked hot and fast over direct heat. Grilling is done at much higher temperatures than the other methods. In a range from 325 degrees Fahrenheit to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. This method gives the food a good sear and char on the outside. This also helps to seal in the natural juices and flavors of the meat.
The method of backyard grilling meat on a metal grill rack like we all know today started in 1952. George Stephen, of Weber Bros. Metal Spinning Company, modified their popular harbor buoy into what is known today as the Weber Grill. With the introduction of the Weber grill, backyard grilling swept America. Grilling is now a popular cooking method performed in cultures all over the world.
Grilling is done usually on gas or charcoal grills. More recently we’ve seen the introduction of higher-end infrared grills as well. Meats that are great for grilling are steaks, chicken, burgers, hotdogs or sausages, seafood, and more. Vegetables and fruits are also great grilling additions to help kick your backyard event or tailgate party up a notch.
You can also enjoy a great barbeque sauce on grilled meats even if you aren’t barbecuing. Just make sure to brush the BBQ sauce on when the meat is almost finished since the sugars in the sauce can allow it to burn over high heat.
Source: Sayers Brook Bison Ranch
These names of these cooking methods above are all too often used interchangeably. But, as you can see, even though barbecuing, smoking, and grilling may have similarities, they are not the same. They all have distinctions that set them apart. They can also produce very different flavor profiles.
Hopefully, after reading this article you have a better grasp of the differences and goals of each method. The main things to remember are:
Taking the time to learn the science and techniques behind different cooking methods like this, especially when it comes to meat, will help you elevate your outdoor cooking game to new levels.
Do you have a preferred cooking method? Have you tried your hand at smoking? Think you can grill a perfect steak since you’ve mastered the temperature? Tell us about it. Leave a comment below. We want to hear from you!
Here at BBQ Champs Academy, we can help you kick up your outdoor cooking game even further. Join award-winning Pitmasters and Grillmasters in our tell-all online cooking school and learn the best techniques and secrets to competition cooking. Check out our classes today!
Have you ever taken a bite of a hot and juicy piece of BBQ meat off the grill or smoker and wondered how it can possibly taste so good? Your immediate thought might be that it must be the rub that was used. Or the sauce it was finished with. But it is much more than that. To be a great BBQ pitmaster it truly comes down to science. Let’s take a look.
Any truly great BBQ cooking class will tell you how impactful it is to not just utilize one of the main flavor profiles but a combination of several of them. Doing this will help you create a flurry of signals to the brain from the taste buds.
Our tongues contain over 10,000 papillae (pah-pill-ah). These are the little bumps on your tongue that contain your taste buds. With such a complex system for taste, using multiple flavor profiles is a key component to great BBQ. In doing this, you will cook food that is dynamic in flavor and will truly wow your friends, family, and even judges.
The four main flavor profiles that most people are familiar with in BBQ are salty, sweet, tangy, and spicy. In 2002, scientists officially recognized a fifth flavor profile that is extremely relevant to great tasting BBQ: umami. Umami (ooh-ma-mee), simply translated from Japanese, means yummy. Because of its similar characteristics, this flavor profile is sometimes lumped in with techniques for saltiness.
In being familiar with each of the profiles and how certain ones play off of others, you can create a balanced taste that will make anyone’s taste buds dance. You can utilize any of these flavors within your rubs, sauces, brines, or even complementary sides. The goal is to create a harmonious overall flavor profile for your meat.
Source: Cook Smarts
The flavor profile of salty is what most people are familiar with and is one of the more forward-tasting of the flavors. When meat or other food is under-seasoned, salt is an obvious option to correct that. Salt does naturally occur in most meats and some foods like tomatoes. But, you can add savory depth to your meats and foods by adding things like kosher or sea salt, tomatoes, or cured bacon. Salt flavor counteracts and balances tangy flavor.
Umami is achieved by using one or more of three elements: Glutamate, Inosinate, Guanylate. Glutamate is an amino acid that is found in “salty” things like soy sauce or parmesan cheese. It is also something that naturally occurs in meat. Inosinate is those hearty tastes found in muscle fibers of meat and fish. Guanylate is found in things like dried mushrooms and other earthy ingredients and is only ever used in combination with Glutamate or Inosinate.
One element of Umami is often enough to create delicious food, but when two elements of Umami are combined it is what is called a “Umami Bomb.” This is a flavor explosion that many people crave. Think amazing dishes like grilled steak with sauteed mushrooms or combining several umami elements in your BBQ seasoning mix.
Many great BBQ pitmasters utilize some level or form of sweetness in their BBQ. It is important to understand that sweet is not just for desserts. Sweetness can help balance the tangy and spicy flavors and create a unique and flavorful taste that will be hard to forget.
Sweet flavor can be added to BBQ by the use of things like honey, maple syrup, raw sugar, or apple.
By utilizing tangy or sour flavors you can balance both salty and sweet flavors and create a deliciously complex flavor combination in BBQ. It will instantly brighten up the seasoning of the entire dish.
You can achieve tangy flavor by using ingredients like lemon, different kinds of vinegar, mustard, grapefruit juice, or even beer.
Another familiar flavor profile for many people is spice. Even just a small amount of heat can create mouth-watering BBQ and sides. Spicy flavors also perfectly balance sweet so if something is tasting too sweet, adding a little bit of heat will do the trick and create a mouth-watering overall taste.
Spice can be added to BBQ through the use of hot sauces, pepper jellies, Habanero rib candy glazes, fresh hot peppers, and more.
When combining several of these flavor profiles, it is also important to know the scientific processes that happen to meat when it is cooked and how this enhances the flavor even more.
One of the many scientific processes that happen during cooking is called the Maillard Reaction. This has a profound effect on the flavor and aroma of the meat. This scientific process was named after Louis-Camille Maillard. He was a French scientist who studied the browning of foods during the early 1900s.
The Maillard Reaction is based on high exterior temperatures that cook meat (and other food like bread) from the outside in. It starts when you reach cooking temperatures between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The outside of the food meets much higher temperatures before the inside of the meat. This triggers the beautiful browning reaction on the outside surfaces of the meat and gives the robust flavors you are trying to achieve. This reaction will intensify the flavor profiles you have used for your BBQ and create delicious food.
To break it down into more detail, the Maillard Reaction is specifically a reaction between the amino acids in proteins found in meat and the reducing sugars of fructose and glucose. In food that is baked, wheat proteins and sugars react and produce the golden brown that often signals the food is almost done. The Maillard Reaction is what gives things like a roast its distinct crust, the perfect sear on a steak, or the golden-brown crust of freshly baked bread.
Taste is also determined through scent, as we mentioned earlier in the article. During the Maillard Reaction, the browning of the meat also creates an amazing and distinct aroma that signals your taste buds and activates the saliva ducts in your mouth. This will activate the signals to the brain that tells you this food is about to be amazing. Smoking meat and Caramelization impact your olfactory sense in a very similar manner.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine
As you can see in this article, as any top BBQ pitmaster knows, to truly be able to cook great BBQ meat you should also understand the science behind BBQ. How our brain deciphers flavors, the complexities and differences of different flavor profiles, and the scientific processes that happen when the meat is cooked plays a big part in why BBQ meat tastes so good.
These types of things are just some of the things you’ll learn from award-winning BBQ pitmasters and grillmasters just like the ones you’ll watch in our online bbq cooking school here at BBQ Champs Academy.
Have you perfected some ways to balance different flavor profiles? Are you having trouble with creating a perfect balance? Leave a comment, we want to hear from you!