Discussion, how to produce smoke ring in electric smokers?

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Master of the Pit
Original poster
OTBS Member
Jun 3, 2008
Sacramento Area
Many of us electric smoker owners, are at a loss about how to produce a smoke ring when low & slow smoking whatever meat in our electric smoker. I have read to use either a piece of lump charcoal or briquet, but so far no real success.

To kick off a discussion, here is a piece of science that may help guide us electric smoker owners to smoke ring nirvana.

The below article has been discussed and posted previously on SMF, this time I hope electric smokers dissect the same info and come up with some solutions that work.

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.

Letâ€[emoji]8482[/emoji]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 Spe******t at Iowa State Universityâ€[emoji]8482[/emoji]s nationally renowned Meat Lab, located in Ames, IA. He has been writing for The BBQer since Fall of 2001
Thanks, I did check it out, however there are no real suggestions for electric smokers. I would like to see the written article broke down and applied to produce a smoke ring when smoking with electric smoker. I would dive into it, except I'm exhausted and can't think real straight after 4 or 5 beers, still haven't been to bed yet... :)
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You can always "cheat", especially since you have the same Weber that I do:


Use the electric smoker to do the last part of the cooking. Use the Weber for the first half. The thing that worked for me was not to worry about keeping the Weber at temp. I just let it cool down twice, which extended the time it was under low temp (and smoke too). Plus, I continues to smoke it by throwing wood chips in the ECB in the beginning of the final cooking.
What I would suggest right outta gate for watt-burners is a water pan, and possibly venting to allow more flow. Yes, you'll go thru more wood, but my gut feeling tells me that's what's needed.
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Wood burning causes nitrogen dioxide > meat +NO2 > interact producing> nitrous acid which diffuses creating pink ring (oxymyoglobin).

My guess is the small amount of wood that electric smokers use isn't enough to cause the NO2 reaction with the meat. In my smoker I have the vents open maximum always, so vent control won't do it. If I increase the amount of wood then creosote results. Electric smokers that have larger vent systems and can effectively burn enough wood without resulting in creosote should be able to generate the "smoke ring".

For those of us with electric smokers that only burn small quantities of wood chips, a possible solution may be to use sodium nitrites in our rubs, thus getting sort of a false smoke ring, but maybe the right combo may be enough to get a better reaction from the limited wood NO2.

Also keeping the meat moist helps the NO2 reaction with meat. So wood / charcoal smokers who mop/spray their meat every hour most likely get a better smoke ring.

Wood ash may also help to generate even additional NO2.

I still haven't got any sleep, so I'm not sure this post even makes sense.
I have been experimenting lately wth mesquite charcoal, and hickory lump on my MES.

Conclusion: My best flavor is with chips and chunks.

Seems like the charcoal and lump are very lacking in flavor.

Still no smoke ring of any significance.

I'll try something else and see.
Regarding lump/charcoal and smoke ring

I'm off today, was going to experiment, but too tired to fool with it. Going to use the kettle instead on some tri-tip.

As you have said before, the smoke ring is nice but, its all about results, meaning flavor and taste. If your smoked food tastes great, and there is no smoke ring, who cares? This is backyard cooking, not competition.

Having made that statement, in the interest of trying to solve the smoke ring issue with electric smokers, I still would like us electric smoker owners to continue the discussion until we can consistently produce a smoke ring in an electric smoker, since so many want to achieve the smoke ring.
I have pretty good results with charcoal briquettes in my MES. Last few used Kingsford, maybe 8 briquettes during the smoke. 4 to start and one every hour or so. I also like a nice deep smoky flavor, so I add small chunks every half hour. So there is a nice pile of wood and coals going in the box.

If you want the ring try adding more briquettes and use chunks. I think chunks give a more consistent and longer lasting smoke where chips might give a quick shorter burst of smoke.

Couple of ring pics from the electric



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That is some good looking Q, and you are successful getting a smoke ring with your method. Fantastic!

I'm worried about creosote, what color is your smoke when you use 4 briquets and chunks. How long before you add any more briquets?
DD...when dumping in a chunk in the beginning, the smoke color is normal, a little white-ish (not billowing) and settles down to a nice thin blue . Never had any creosote flavor with the food. I use larger chunks hatcheted down to around 1x1, 2"~3" long. I also like a nice deep smoky flavor so add wood more often than some.

I toss in 4 briquettes and a chunk while the unit warms up (about an hour). When I put in the meat I add another chunk and a briquette. After that I put another chunk every 30~40 mins and a briquette each hour. You might find the loader sometimes binds a little after dumping a chunk and briquette, I rotate it back and forth a little until it kind shoves everthing over and it spins free. You could also use a stick through the loader hole to move things aside and to clear the dump spot.

I think after the briquettes have burned down some, an ash layer builds up on the bottom of the wood tray, isolating it somewhat from the cycling action off the element. The charcoal kind of takes over as the heat to get the wood smoking. I think what you end up with is a nice pile of coals and embers which help give you the ring. I also notice my smoke is more consistant regardless whether the element is on or off.
Well, if you want to cheat......just rub some Morton tender quick or sugar cure on the outside. Let stand a couple hours, rinse off and smoke normally.

I did this fatty over the weekend over hickory chips in a KC Rival electric smoker/roaster (no water pan or anything like that). I need to get a better thermometer, but I cranked up the heat to between 250 and 300 (on the cute little knob labels they provided...). The resulting smoke ring (below) is better than past efforts at lower temps. Of course, this is also the first time I wrapped a fatty in BACON! so perhaps the combination of higher heat and added moisture of the fat contributed? I suppose the "scientific method" would suggest trying both separately--I'm willing to try.
Or.... it could have been the cure in the bacon permeated into the fatty. That would be my guess. Either way, nice looking fatty!!


PS, I just noticed where you are from, I grew up in Northville.
I do not have an electric smoker, but I do have a gas smoker and I get a smoke ring using it. I use large chunks of Hickory in the pan that came with the GOSM. I have heard some people mentioning no smoke rings, but never encountered it myself. Hope you get it figured out. But like a previous poster said, if it tastes good then that is all that matters.
Thanks DaveNH, for sharing your process using wood chunks and briquets, it looks like a process that will produce the sought after smoke ring.

From your observation I agree the charcoal using 4 briquets result in pile of coal-embers, that seem to generate more heat and thus can produce NO2 nitrous dioxide. This is obviously better than smoldering wood and the electric heat elements alone, which doesn't produce enough NO2 to cause a reaction with the meat's myoglobin > no reaction - no smoke ring.
---from the original article---
I seem to recall from reading somewhere that charcoal ash, and it's continued burning also releases NO2, I did a google and can't seem to find anything to support this.

Overall this is great, so chemical additives with sodium nitrite are not needed to produce a smoke ring in an electric smoker. Smoke rings can naturally be produced with the addition of enough briquets/wood ratio. And us lucky MES owners have DaveNH to thank for working out a ratio that works in an MES smoker.

For MES owners, it would be great to figure out minimum/maximum ratios.
What is the minimum amount of briquets to produce a ring.
What is the maximum amount of wood that won't produce creosote.
What is the maximum number of briquets before we get negative results.
It takes your MES an hour to warm up? I don't think I've ever seen mine take anywhere near that long to reach temperature -- not even in winter.

Fellow MES users: Do you recommend warming up the smoker? I know Masterbuilt says there's no need to warm it up, so I've always just followed that.

I've got a bag of Hardcoals lump charcoal, so I'll give that a try for my next smoke: http://www.nakedwhiz.com/lumpdatabase/lumpbag73.htm
I preheat to 270 for an hour to make sure all the internal parts of the smoker have heated up. Even though the display says it's at temp, it probably takes a while before the mass of the internal parts are no longer heating up and making the heater work harder. Could mean less energy available to recover temp after tossing in the meat. Just my way

Going by some earlier results posted by others, lump may not work as well as briquettes. Not sure why, could be something about the materials used to make them. It would be interesting to see how it works for you.
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