Why No Smoke Ring

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Original poster
Feb 26, 2011
Hi folks,

A science question for you, why no smoke ring with an electric smoker?


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.This is part of a long artical on smoke ring formation. I use the MES 40" and can tell you that you will not get much smoke ring w/ an electric smoker.
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Hey Sluggo,

The smoke ring, as we refer to it as, is not actually a product of the smoke itself. It is caused from the burning of organic material to fire/heat a grill or smoker, such as propane gas, natural gas (methane), charcoal briquettes, lump charcoal, or hardwood (stick burners).

Nitric Oxide reacts with the hemoglobin in meats causing the pink color in the surface/sub-surface of the meats creating a stabilized pigment. When using an electric appliance, there is an absence of fuel burning, other than in the case of smoldering wood chips/pellets/sawdust if using an electric smoker. I've read that nitric oxide forms at temperatures of 600*F and above, so very little would be formed by smoldering smoke woods, if that is true.

I've noticed a slightly reduced depth, and at times lighter color smoke ring when I use a propane fired smoker instead of charcoal, which indicates that a solid fuel fired smoker generates a higher nitric oxide content in the smoke chamber gases, possibly due to a less complete burn of the fuel.

If smoke ring is a major factor with your product, either for personal gratification, or during bbq competitions/cook-offs where some judges may not have been well educated or may be inexperienced on the subject and don't understand that the smoke ring doesn't effect flavor or indicate the doneness of the meat, then a solid fuel fired smoker is what you want to use (charcoal, lump or hardwood).

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Reactions: virginiasmokesignal
Wow awesome responses fellas, thanks for the knowledge bomb!
There is a ton of science out there about the smoke ring.

Actually, if you are getting smoke, and if you like the taste of the grub, I wouldn't sweat the smoke ring thing that much.  Others will jump me for that, and I know about the competition thing and all.  But if you are getting smoke, and if you and your family likes the food?  Who is hurt?

Good luck and good smoking!
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