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The all mighty "Smoke Ring"... fact or fiction?

I am no expert on BBQ, I grill and dabble with Jerk occasionally. I hear,see and read about the mystical Smoke Ring on some BBQ and know it supposed to illustrate the care and skill the meat has been handled and smoked with....BUT and it's
a big one. I also hear and have seen on the BBQ circuit that the smoke ring can and frequently will be faked using additives and brine.
So the question remains,are all the supposed BBQ aficionados who wax eloquently about the mighty smoke ring being largely hoodwinked by clever pit masters and basically talking out of their collective asses?

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  1. Put another way, if you ate BBQ with a fake smoke ring and still enjoyed it, do you have to turn in your Chowhound credentials? MAYBE!

    I'm pretty sure the neon red babecued spare ribs at my local Chinese carryout were nowhere near a smoker. They still taste pretty good, though. But hey, I actually LIKE chicken chop suey so what the hell do I know?

    1 Reply
    1. re: monkeyrotica

      I'm with you.....Not a fan of "Falling of the bone", still have all my teeth and like to use them. I posed the question because of all the frenzied coverage and rabid following BBQ seem to have garnered as of late with "experts" both new and old with glazed over stares proclaiming authentic BBQ from it's smoke ring only to find out it is frequently faked.
      The question is can the fakery be detected by the folks that really know BBQ not just the armchair quarterbacks?

    2. A good smoke ring is a great sign that you are going to have good BBQ, but it is by no means necessary for good BBQ.

      It's my understanding that smoke rings are formed by the reaction of chemicals created by the combustion of wood with the meat being smoked, and that some methods of smoking will NEVER lead to a smoke ring becuase they only heat the wood enough to smoke, not enough to combust. By almost all accounts a smoke ring is purely a visual thing and has no effect on flavor/texture.

      5 Replies
      1. re: twyst

        Understood and agree... It's the "By almost all accounts" that I am questioning.

        1. re: Duppie

          Well, the foodscience crowd is firmly in the "it doesnt matter" category, but there will always be a few who disagree.

          Modernist Cuisine has an interesting section on the science of smoking and they are definitely in the "it adds nothing but a visual" camp. They say it simply means that there was not enough carbon monoxide or nitrous oxide produced to create the ring. Wet wood or low smoldering temperatures are the usual reasons that a smoke ring is not produced according to them.

          1. re: twyst

            Maybe the ring adds nothing to the flavor, but when I smoke beef ribs, it definitely adds something to the texture. I get a crispy char on the surface of the rib, like on a good seared burger, something that's lacking in the industrial smoker ribs I had a few weeks ago. Those had the ring, but the entire rib was spongy and swimming in fat.

            1. re: monkeyrotica

              The ring doesn't add to texture. It's just the way you cooked your ribs relative to the "industrial" smoker you've had experience. Yours have better texture ring or not

            2. re: twyst

              I will always lean towards what science supports.

        2. alot of BBQ competitions dont allow smoke rings to be considered a mark of quality in said competition. they can be faked chemically.

          also, they can at times show up just from being in the smoker for a long time. however you can also smoke something all day and you will get no smoke ring. its a complicated chemical process.

          20 Replies
          1. re: charles_sills

            "they can be faked chemically. "

            the debate makes me wonder if there is a similar question of a surimi ring...

            1. re: charles_sills

              KCBS competetions are judged on taste, appearance and tenderness. Smoke ring was part of the tenderness score but that was dropped many years ago. It can be enhanced using nitrites. It does not affect flavor, it's purely visual.

              It's pretty cool to see it darken on a freshly sliced brisket.

              1. re: chileheadmike

                I think a nice smoke ring adds to the appearence and should add to the appearance score, the most lightly weighted of the three.

                1. re: rich in stl

                  Smoke ring is no longer part of the appearance score. Judges are instructed not consider it.

                  1. re: chileheadmike

                    The smoke ring makes the meat look better, but you are instructed to NOT consider it. HOW WRONG IS THAT?

                    If presented with 2 platters of meat, one with a smoke ring, the other without, which will be eaten first? Except at a KCBS function., Why?

                    Find out why KCBS takes this weird position - they did wrong and are still trying to cover their butts after all these years.

                    1. re: rich in stl

                      It can be chemically enhanced. Therefor it is no longer considered. Thems the rules.

                        1. re: Fake Name

                          I think enhancing flavor is called cooking :) but a chemical enhancement that misleads is called cheating.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            I understand your point.


                            That's a tough line to draw. Could be argued (was I the type to do so) that the addition of NaCl is a chemical enhancement. MSG is used everywhere.

                            I'm not disagreeing with the rules- it's their dance, they can play whatever music they like.

                            1. re: Fake Name

                              I think my point is that doing something to enhance the flavor is cooking. Doing something to mislead people into thinking something tastes best isn't okay. And I don't have a problem with salt or MSG. They do enhance flavor and I use them.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                So your argument is that it's OK to chemically enhance flavor, but not appearance?

                                How does that work?

                                My goal is to offer my guests (and, I suppose myself as well) a positive dining experience. I want people to enjoy the food I prepare and the experience associated with it. To me, flavor and appearance count.

                                Granted, I'm an appearance guy. I've been paid a lot of money to make things look good, so I have a natural bias.

                                And if the judges want to eliminate appearance as a factor, that's their privilege.

                                But I question that value.

                                1. re: Fake Name

                                  Does the lack of a smoke ring make the food less appealing to look at? Not to me but if it does to others then go for it. The point of this thread is does the smoke ring actually change the flavor and the answer seems unequivocally no. I'm not here to discuss anything else.

                                  1. re: c oliver

                                    I'm looking for that defined point- about it changing flavor- and the thread title is "fact or fiction".

                                    I agree with you, and I've learned much from this discussion- it does not (apparently) enhance flavor. I never knew that, as I previously stated I've never had good BBQ that didn't have it.

                                    But, to return to the discussion of "fact or fiction", I believe it's a fact that, for most people, the smoke ring enhances their dining experience.

                                    I've never attended a sanctioned competition, but from what I've seen on TV (so you know it's fact!!) competitors often serve their product sitting on lettuce. Certainly the lettuce is not part of the taste test, but it's clearly an enhancement to the judges experience of the food. And who knows what chemicals were used to produce the lettuce- chemical fertilizers, pest control methods.

                                    I appreciate your contribution to the discussion- thank you.

                                    1. re: Fake Name

                                      My pleasure. If I came across snippy, I apologize. I've gotten in trouble here for arguing thing I don't even care about :) So I'm trying to exercise some judgment these days.!

                                      1. re: Fake Name

                                        I'm watching football with a rack of ribs on the Weber.

                                        Why are football players allowed to drink gatoraide but not use HGH?

                                        1. re: chileheadmike

                                          Didja know that Gatorade pays the NFL in the nabe of $400,000,000 for an 8 year contract???

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            Maybe I can get someone to pay me that to use nitrites.

                                    2. re: Fake Name

                                      There are different ways to make great bbq, and some of those won't produce a smoke ring. If they allowed smoke ring to be considered, it would dominate the competition. Nobody could afford to give up those points.

                                      I am not saying I agree with it, but that's the reason.

                                2. re: c oliver

                                  Where do you classify injecting?

                                  Pre cook and post cook injections are common

                                  1. re: scubadoo97

                                    Hi scube,

                                    As I just wrote those are not the thing I'm here to discuss. AND having NEVER done either, don't have any opinion anyway. Sorry.

                  2. I believe it has been shown on Chowhound before that there are ways to get a smoke ring without smoke at all.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Steve

                      Yet peruse posts right here on CH,any number of specials on FN,CN,PBS,and you are regaled with oohs and ahhs of great authentic BBQ evidenced sometimes solely by the smoke ring.

                    2. The smoke ring doesnt indicate any skill or care or great BBQ. It's just a chemical reaction between the meat and wood smoke. It could have a beautiful smoke ring and be dry as a bone. Conversely you could have a succulent delicious brisket done on an electric smoker that lacks a smoke ring due to the conservative use of wood used in electric smokers

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: scubadoo97

                        Thank you,What little I've read supports that conclusion. I guess I'm fascinated with the myth that has persisted and thrived with expert after so called expert holding up the smoke ring as definitive evidence of great BBQ.

                        1. re: scubadoo97

                          Are you saying a 'smoke ring' can not be found in charcoal-only bbq?

                          1. re: Steve

                            Actually, just the opposite.
                            A smoke ring is a result of using charcoal (either hardwood or briquette) and the chemical reaction with the meat it produces.

                            I have smoked for a decade using an electric smoker and all sorts of wood and no smoke ring.
                            When I break out the charcoal smoker (and it still needs wood to accomplish the smoke portion same as the electric), you get a smoke ring.

                            It's the fuel source, and the process.

                            1. re: Steve

                              Not sure where you got that. No I was not saying that.

                              1. re: scubadoo97

                                "It's just a chemical reaction between the meat and wood smoke."

                                Leads me to believe there is something about wood smoke (as opposed to other kinds of smoke) that creates a unique smoke ring.

                                Sorry if I misunderstood, that's why I asked.

                                1. re: Steve

                                  Okay, now I understand why you were asking. But charcoal is made from wood is it not?
                                  It's the nitrogen dioxide that is produced from burning wood, charcoal and even propane to some degree that reacts with the myoglobin to form nitrites and nitrates which give the meat the pink color.

                          2. The smoke ring is a side effect of a certain cooking process, but not an end goal in itself. It is not the only visual cue of that process but it is probably the most obvious. It is not 100% predictive of quality or technique - there are indeed ways to fake the smoke ring, and you can get a smoke ring via the traditional method but still botch the process in other ways. And its absence doesn't necessarily imply poor quality - there are other smoking methods that produce results that are just as good in their own way but don't create a smoke ring. But it is a visual cue that generally indicates a cooking process that is (rightly) associated with good flavor and texture. And it does arguably add a bit of visual appeal on its own.

                            BBQ isn't alone in having this kind of visual cue, btw. Here are a few others off the top of my head:
                            - The oily slick on top of cups of coffee made in certain ways.
                            - Leopard spots on the crust of traditionally made Neapolitan pizza
                            - Vivid grill marks on grilled foods (this may be controversial to some, but I really don't believe that the grill marks are where the 'grilled' flavor comes from)

                            There are probably countless other examples that either aren't coming to my mind right now or else that are just over my head.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              I love the looks of a nice smoke ring on brisket, and I was happy to see it on some meat in a famed KC restaraunt. Unfortunately the meat had little smoke flavor.

                            2. Well, let's all suspend science for just a gol durn minute, and rely on good, ole fashioned anecdotal "evidence".

                              Works in economics and politics, right?

                              1. I've never enjoyed any BBQ that did not have a smoke ring.

                              2. I've never NOT enjoyed BBQ that did have a smoke ring.

                              I understand all the fancy-pants science. Caused by fuel, what kind of fuel, and I have no reason to doubt the pervious poster who claims to make good BBQ without a smoke ring. I think that's great.

                              But it has never been my experience.

                              11 Replies
                                  1. re: scubadoo97

                                    Good. We all 'think' and 'feel' things but if it's not tested then how would one really know? Being new to this technique, the little I've read leads me to the conclusion that it's probably "think" or "feel."

                                    1. re: c oliver

                                      This article talks about how the smoke ring doesn't indicate that smoke has penetrated the meat but here I'll quote from the article:

                                      "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."


                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        That was my point- one can debate all one wants, but if I'm gonna eat it, I don't give a damn about the science.

                                        I just don't take myself that seriously.

                                        1. re: Fake Name

                                          And if it doesn't have a smoke ring then you know you won't like it. The mind is a powerful thing. And that's totally cool. There are things I'm not budging on either :)

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            That's untrue. I'm entirely open to the existence of excellent BBQ without a smoke ring.

                                            My statement is clear:

                                            I've never experienced it.

                                            I did not say it was not possible, nor that it doesn't exist.

                                            1. re: Fake Name

                                              Thanks. I just reread your post and I apologize.

                                                1. re: Fake Name

                                                  Excellent! I'm a "senior citizen" and sometimes don't read all the fine print :)

                                  2. IMO, the smoke ring is only significant in fatty brisket, which is mostly a Texas thing, and impossible to fake there.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      But is it purely visual or does it add to the flavor?

                                      1. re: scubadoo97

                                        Scuba, the visual is unimportant, but is an indicator that the smoke has penetrated to up to 1/4 inch depth, which with hickory, apple, oak, or mesquite, means good eatin' to follow.
                                        You are a doctor, think of the red smoke ring as a sort of a rectal smoke thermometer....:)

                                        1. re: Veggo

                                          /(!)\ Okay, now I understand Veggo. ;D

                                          1. re: Veggo

                                            A smoke ring has nothing to with any smoke penetration...as already stated.

                                      2. Much about nothing....
                                        For quite awhile, I ran a restaurant which served charcoal-fired rotisserie chicken (maple lump). This smoky cooking process created not so much a "ring", but it did turn the chicken flesh pink just under the skin.
                                        For years, I'd try to explain to customers the concept of the smoke ring. They were having none of it, as far as they were concerned, the chicken was undercooked and raw...
                                        I eventually gave up and changed my story: the reddish color was because my "high quality" poultry was grain fed. Everyone was happy.

                                        4 Replies
                                          1. re: porker

                                            Porker, you Canadians and your maple! The smoke ring on chickens, sheep, and goats is hardly measurable. The Richter test is on fatty briskets, I'm here to tell you. Maybe we'll meet in Mexico and smoke a redfish in banana leaves and achiote someday!
                                            Buen provecho, amigo

                                            1. re: Veggo

                                              Someone once said "I don't give a damn about the science"...

                                              But the same chicken in a conventional oven (or boiled) was never pinky. In the charcoal oven, always...

                                              Not the same process and WAY off topic (except relating to rosy color...), the wife makes meat pie (or what Quebecois might call tourtiere) just as her mother did and her mother before her.
                                              She starts out by simmering a pork hash slurry in water then adds boiled, chopped potato, then into pie crust and baked.
                                              Anyway, she serves it to her 80 year old mother and the pork is pink.
                                              OH MY GOD THE PORK IS NOT COOKED AND WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE.
                                              "But ma, the meat cooked for over an hour, then into the oven, how can it not be cooked?"
                                              "I don't know, but it ain't cooked."
                                              Took awhile, but I realized mrs. porker was salting the cold pork slurry before setting on the stove and bringing to a simmer.
                                              The salt was curing the finely ground pork, keeping it a rosy, cured color.
                                              Mother-in-law wasn't buying that either...

                                              Mrs. porker now only salts after the pork is cooked, the meat pie is a dull grey, and the old lady is happy.

                                              1. re: porker

                                                Oh, now, let's not get all carried away.

                                                My point is, and was, I don't take myself so seriously that I allow technique and theory interfere with my enjoyment of good food and flavor.

                                                The fine dining foodies get themselves all worked up about authenticity, and, like a smoke ring, I don't get too wrapped up in it.

                                                And I don't cook pork chops until they're grey. Or gray, either.

                                          2. The smoke ring really has nothing to do with smoke. People assume it does, but it is nothing more than a chemical reaction.

                                            It is fairly common knowledge that the ring formation stops when the meat reaches a certain temperature range.

                                            Many folks combine the false information that the ring is actually associated with smoke and the true information that the ring stops forming at a particular point and come up with the belief that the meat stops absorbing smoke flavor at the same point.

                                            I have made this point before and it always leads to a good discussion.

                                            Your meat actually continues to absorb smoke flavor throughout the cook. This is why you regulate the smoke for the proper flavor. Some methods are harder to regulate (some are impossible to regulate) and you see people wrapping or oven cooking to keep from over-smoking.

                                            Different methods are used by many different people to produce truly great barbecue.

                                            So back to the foundation of this post...smoke has nothing to do with the ring. Most electric smokers use wood, but you rarely get a ring with most of these machines. At the same time, you can season your meat with a little tender quick and get a perfect ring right out of your kitchen oven...

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: JayL

                                              JayL, I think this is a great summary. You can like scientific explanations or not, but the science clearly supports what you and others have said. BTW, my Bradley smoker has been giving me rings. OT, I'm doing a tea-smoked duck tomorrow!!!

                                            2. A good smoke ring is an unmistakeable sing of a good smoke ring, nothing more. I feel it makes the food more attractive PERIOD

                                              We went to a well known KC bbq place, the brisket had a wonderful smoke ring - little smoke flavor. Does Sysco sell Smoke Ring??

                                              1 Reply