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Smoke Ring in Barbeque Meats

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TasunkaWitko View Drop Down
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    Posted: 11 July 2012 at 15:24
Smoke Ring in Barbeque Meats
How to Get That Coveted Pink Ring With Your Cooking
by Joe Cordray

Slow cooked barbecue meats often exhibit a pink ring around the outside edge of the product. This pink ring may range from 1/8 inch to 1/2 inch thick. In beef the ring is a reddish-pink and in pork, chicken and turkey it is bright pink. This pink ring is often referred to as a "smoke ring" and is considered a prized attribute in many barbecue meats, especially barbecue beef briskets. Barbecue connoiseurs feel the presence of a smoke ring indicates the item was slow smoked for a long period of time. Occasionally consumers have mistakenly felt that the pink color of the smoke ring meant the meat was undercooked. To understand smoke ring formation you must first understand muscle pigment.

Myoglobin is the pigment that gives muscle its color. Beef muscle has more pigment than pork muscle thus beef has a darker color than pork. Chicken thighs have a darker color than chicken breast thus chicken thigh muscle has more muscle pigment (myoglobin) than chicken breast tissue. A greater myoglobin concentration yields a more intense color. When you first cut into a muscle you expose the muscle pigment in its native state, myoglobin. In the case of beef, myoglobin has a purplish-red color. After the myoglobin has been exposed to oxygen for a short time, it becomes oxygenated and oxymyoglobin is formed. Oxymyoglobin is the color we associate with fresh meat. The optimum fresh meat color in beef is bright cherry red and in pork bright grayish pink. If a cut of meat is held under refrigeration for several days, the myoglobin on the surface becomes oxidized. When oxymyoglobin is oxidized it becomes metmyoglobin. Metmyoglobin has a brown color and is associated with a piece of meat that has been cut for several days. When we produce cured products we also alter the state of the pigment myoglobin. Cured products are defined as products to which we add sodium nitrate and/or sodium nitrite during processing. Examples of cured products are ham, bacon, bologna and hotdogs. All of these products have a pink color, which is typical of cured products. When sodium nitrite is combined with meat the pigment myoglobin is converted to nitric oxide myoglobin which is a very dark red color. This state of the pigment myoglobin is not very stable. Upon heating, nitric oxide myoglobin is converted to nitrosylhemochrome, which is the typical pink color of cured meats.

When a smoke ring develops in barbecue meats it is not because smoke has penetrated and colored the muscle, but rather because gases in the smoke interact with the pigment myoglobin. Two phenomenon provide evidence that it is not the smoke itself that causes the smoke ring. First, it is possible to have a smoke ring develop in a product that has not been smoked and second, it is also possible to heavily smoke a product without smoke ring development.

Most barbecuers use either wood chips or logs to generate smoke when cooking. Wood contains large amounts of nitrogen (N). During burning the nitrogen in the logs combines with oxygen (O) in the air to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Nitrogen dioxide is highly water-soluble. The pink ring is created when NO2 is absorbed into the moist meat surface and reacts to form nitrous acid. The nitrous acid then diffuses inward creating a pink ring via the classic meat curing reaction of sodium nitrite. The end result is a "smoke ring" that has the pink color of cured meat. Smoke ring also frequently develops in smokehouses and cookers that are gas-fired because NO2 is a combustion by-product when natural gas or propane is burned.

Let’s review the conditions that would help to contribute to the development of a smoke ring. Slow cooking and smoking over several hours. This allows time for the NO2 to be absorbed into and interact with the meat pigment.

Maintain the surface of the meat moist during smoking. NO2 is water-soluble so it absorbs more readily into a piece of meat that has a moist surface than one which has a dry surface. Meats that have been marinated tend to have a moister surface than non-marinated meats. There are also a couple of ways that you can help to maintain a higher humidity level in your cooker; 1. Do not open and close the cooker frequently. Each time you open it you allow moisture inside to escape. 2. Put a pan of water on your grill. Evaporation from the water will help increase humidity inside the cooker.

Generate smoke from the burning of wood chips or wood logs. Since NO2 is a by-product of incomplete combustion, green wood or wetted wood seems to enhance smoke ring development. Burning green wood or wetted wood also helps to increase the humidity level inside the cooker.

A high temperature flame is needed to create NO2 from nitrogen and oxygen. A smoldering fire without a flame does not produce as much NO2. Consequently, a cooker that uses indirect heat generated from the burning of wood typically will develop a pronounced smoke ring. Have fun cooking. A nice smoke ring can sure make a piece of barbecued meat look attractive.

About the Author:

Joe Cordray is the Meat Extension Specialist at Iowa State University’s nationally renowned Meat Lab, located in Ames, IA. He has been writing for The BBQer since Fall of 2001
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 July 2012 at 15:33
for the record, i only understand about half of the "scientific stuff" that is there. i simply use charcoal (lump charcoal prefered over briquettes, when i can get it) and chunks of hardwood, and heat the meat slowly (225 to 240 degrees) up until it reaches a 140-degree internal temperature, and usually have great results. the smoke ring reaction stops at 140 degrees, and i can cook it at higher temperatures 240 to 260) after that until I get to the desired internal "finished" temperature.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Daikon Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 July 2012 at 15:42
Yet more evidence of the critical (and often under-appreciated) role that humidity plays in the cooking of meats.  If you are serious about smoking and barbecuing meat, then you should be paying attention to what meticulous investigators like Nathan Myrvold are saying -- and you should be paying attention to the wet bulb temperature inside your cooker.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 July 2012 at 15:52
i read the post that you referred to, daikon - interesting stuff there, even though some of the terms are unfamiliar to me. I'll usually spritz the meat with a mop, which helps keep it moist, and will also sometimes put a loaf-pan of water between the heat and the meat, with good results in the final product. i'll have to do more reading on this wet bulb temperature concept.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Daikon Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 July 2012 at 16:17
That whole thread (particularly the contributions of Nathan Myrvold, nathanm) is very worthwhile.  The basic idea is that wet bulb temperature, the temperature measured by a thermometer whose surface is wet, is a far more important measure when cooking meat than is the conventional dry bulb temperature of the cooking air.  If the humidity inside the cooker is 100%, then the wet bulb and dry bulb temperatures will be the same.  Otherwise, moisture will be evaporating from wet surfaces inside the cooker, and the temperature at and inside those surfaces will be at most at the wet bulb temperature, which will be less than the dry bulb temperature.  That is why, for example, the internal temperature of barbecuing meat with a wet surface will plateau for a long time (until the surface dries out) even if the dry bulb air temperature inside the cooker is significantly higher.  Cordray's contribution to this is that the "smoke ring" formation will also only happen while the surface of the meat is moist.  So, if you measure the wet bulb temperature inside your cooker, then you will know the maximum internal temperature that meat with a wet surface can attain within that cooker; and if you measure the difference between the dry bulb and wet bulb temperatures, then you will have an indication of how quickly the wet surface of the meat can dry out, which will then lead to rising internal temperature and an end to the formation of the smoke ring.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 August 2012 at 13:30
here are some notes that resulted from this conversation.
 
when i designed the "great northern manifold" in order to help tune in the across-the-board temperatures for my brinkmann/charbroil offset, i deliberately made sure there would be room on the primary manifold to accomodate a waterpan:



i even went so far as to move the handle back far enough so that one would fit, even though it resulted in the handle being slightly off the center of balance.

this, of course, was a sentimental nod toward my barbecue beginnings, using an ECB (el-cheapo brinkmann, the little R2D2-shaped bullet smokers). i figured that it would be good to at least have the option there, in case i ever needed a little extra buffer of protection from direct heat, or to help stabilise temperatures a bit when using lump charcoal.

but, since getting the manifold, i never actually USED a water pan in there - i did my smoking "dry," and things seemed fine, so no need to change, and no real reason to speculate or fiddle with things....

at least not until recently, when i did go ahead and give the water pan a try. the decision to do so wasn't based on the considerations above, but rather because of this discussion. i'll be the first to admit that i only understood about half of what i read, but it did get the wheels turning, and i reasoned that, as long as cooking temperatures are high enough to avoid the formation of creosote, a good amount of moisture might improve smoke penetration, smoke ring formation, texture and, ultimately, flavour. this is only marginally related to the wet bulb discussion, but as i said, the wheels were turning, at least.

so, with that in mind, i added boiling water to a large foil breadpan at the head of the manifold during my last two smokes (a pork butt and a picnic shoulder) and maintained my cooking temperatures well above 225 at all times (an average of 242). with both of these, i did perceive some significant improvements in the "smokiness" of the meat, in that it seemed sweeter-smelling and more wrap-around-your-mouth savory as if the smoke did penetrate better. no creosote problems, no "smoky ash tray" smells or tastes that my wife sometimes complains about. the meat was also good - juicy, tender and moist, but this is to be expected with pork shoulders and all of their juicy fat and collagen breaking down. I didn't really notice a huge improvement in the smoke ring itself, but then again, i wasn't really looking and comparing, either. i can tell you that one was there, for sure, and it was, at the very least, reasonably deep as any other i've done.

the next step in this journey will be to try it with ribs and, ultimately, a brisket, if my wife will ever let me buy one again (they're getting EXPENSIVE!).

any thoughts, observations or experiences from anyone else?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote AK1 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 August 2012 at 19:31
I'm not a fan of water pans at all. It just does not work for me.  Mind you I use an ugly drum smoker (UDS) to do my smoking. I find I just don't need it. What I find is that if a water pan is used, you lose the crust on the meat.

IMO water pans are only there to make up for deficiencies in the equipment being used.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Daikon Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 August 2012 at 21:35
What I find is that if a water pan is used, you lose the crust on the meat.

That's pretty much the point.  If the humidity in the cooker is below 100%, then the surface of the meat is going to be drying out (forming a crust) and measuring the normal dry bulb temperature of the air inside the cooker isn't really going to be telling you much about how rapidly heat is or is not being transferred into the meat -- you need to measure wet bulb temperature to know that.  A piece of meat held at, say, 275F and low humidity will cook very differently and at a different rate than the same piece of meat held at 275F and high humidity.  Using only a dry bulb temperature measurement, you'll have to guess what that 275F measurement means in terms of cooking in the low humidity conditions.  If the humidity is at 100%, then the wet bulb and dry bulb temperatures will be the same, and will also be the maximum temperature that the interior of the meat can reach.  The surface of the meat will not be drying out, and the moist surface will allow smoke ring formation.

At some point you will want to remove the water pan and you'll also likely want to elevate the dry bulb temperature.  That will allow the humidity in the cooker to drop and a crust to form on the meat.  But low humidity earlier in the cooking process will spend available heat energy on drying out the meat instead of on cooking it. 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Hoser Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02 August 2012 at 02:24
I'm not a fan of the water pan method myself.....I much prefer to brine or marinate the meat I'll be using and spritz it during the smoking process when I add wood.

I've always had very good results that way...just my 2¢
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02 August 2012 at 15:43
i should have been a little more clear on a couple of things ~
 
i've been getting great bark using this method - i'm not turning it into a steam bath, just adding some humidity to the party. the pulled pork has had excellent crust with the savory explosion of flavour that is to be expected. the only time i've ever lost the crust is when i've foiled the meat in question (which i hardly ever do), or when i put the meat in  heavy, covered cookware (such as a dutch oven) to finish in the oven.
 
also, as the cook progresses, the water pan "simmers" (for lack of a better term) down to almost nothing - with, i am assuming, a corresponding drop in humidity.
 
in any case, i've noticed no "overly-moist" effects from using the water pan, just a deeper, moister end product that seems to have more smoke intensity without being "too" smoky. keep in mind, this is for a horizontal offset wood/charcoal smoker.
 
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 August 2012 at 11:03
some other notes, "for the record," in case anyone is interested:

as far as placement of the water pan, if you look at the picture above, i've been placing mine right between the 45-degree angle of the primary manifold and the handle - the space there is perfectly placed to put a large loaf pan, and the water in there is held at a bare simmer for several hours. i can add water if i wish, if it comes close to running dry, or during long smokes i can simply remove the pan and let a brisket or pork shoulder spend its last couple of hours in dry heat.

i don't think it would be accurate to say that it tastes smokier, but rather that the smoke flavour is deeper and richer - somehow more fulfilling and satisfying. hard to explain.

this last weekend, i used the water pan to try two racks of spare ribs, along with 15 "mad hunky"-brined chicken leg quarters and a mess of CSRs. the ribs were done in a way that has proved outstanding, employing a yucatan method that incorporates naranja agria, achiote paste and many exotic-yet-simple flavours that are perfect for pork:

http://foodsoftheworld.activeboards....topic2145.html

results were very similar to my tests with pulled pork: moist, flavourful meat with a great smoke ring (nearly all the way through) and good, crispy bark. once again, the "smokiness" wasn't overpowering, but it wrapped around the ribs and other meats perfecly, providing a wonderful, rich old-timey taste without being oppressive, bitter or as my wife used to say, "like an ashtray." she is normally not a fan of my barbecue, but she did love the ribs done in this yucatan style, so it is worth trying.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13 September 2012 at 15:56
More notes "for the record...."
 
I've been experimenting a bit with some concepts inspired by this thread, and have been rewarded with some freaking-awesome smoke rings - especially with ribs. I am coming to believe that this success is a of two factors that touch on this discussion:
 
a) Putting the meat over the heat and smoke cold at a pit temperature of 207 degrees (the boiling point at my elevation here in Chinook) and gradually bringing up the heat over the course of the smoke to finish at probably around 260 to 265 degrees, the logic behind this is to get smoke into them while their internal temperature was low enough for a long enough period of time to allow good smoke penetration (and formation of the smoke ring), while the higher temps at the end rendered out the fat beautifully and put some color on them thanks to the Maillard reaction with the rub and the meat.
 
b) The other factor, and this is in my opinion just as crucial, is to have a water pan going in the pit, keeping it full during the early stages and allowing it to evaporate and go nearly dry toward the end of the cook. This is all in keeping with the discussion above.
 
After messing around with this concept over the summer, I can say a water pan does indeed seem to promote a better smoke ring, as long as the internal temperature of the meat is below the 140-degree range or so. As a side benefit, the meat seems moister, juicier and more packed with "good" smoke flavour.
 
This brings up a tangent: without careful fire tending and attention to cooking temperatures, airflow etc., there is a danger of creosote developing using these methods. If you want to explore these methods, make sure you're on top of your game with your pit tending, and be prepared for a mistake or two early on - but don't be discouraged - i do believe that you will be rewarded for your perseverence! Clap
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Margi Cintrano Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14 September 2012 at 06:28
Gents,
 
Just to let you know even though I am a novice on the suject & a Metropolis city dweller, I have enjoyed reading the thread and the contributions, and have learnt a little in the process
too. 
 
Geek
 
Thanks for posting.
Marge.
Volamos a Mediterraneo, un paraiso que conquista su gente u su cocina.
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