When people see a good smoke ring on meat that’s been barbecued, they assume that’s a sign of amazing BBQ. But looks can be deceiving.

Brisket slice with thick smoke ring.
Fake smoke ring.

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Really good barbecue often does have some sort of a pink smoke ring, but there are ways to fake it, and I’m going to show you how.

What is a smoke ring

While a beautiful smoke ring on a slice of brisket, can be a sign that the meat was smoked really well, it doesn’t guarantee that the meat tastes better. It’s actually created via a chemical reaction between gas and protein.

To understand it, let’s go back to science class for a bit and discuss myoglobin and nitric oxide.

Myoglobin: Meats contain myoglobin, which is a protein that stores and transports oxygen in the muscle cells. It’s what gives meat its reddish hue. As meat cooks, myoglobin loses its ability to bind oxygen so the meat becomes tan or brown.

Beef and lamb have higher concentrations of myoglobin. Dark meat chicken like legs and thighs have higher amounts than chicken breasts.

Nitric Oxide: When wood burns, it releases a colorless gas called nitric oxide, which is basically a chemical formula containing one nitrogen atom and one oxygen atom.

When myoglobin is introduced to nitric oxide, a chemical reaction occurs. Instead of the meat turning brown as it cooks, the area exposed to the gas transforms into a pinkish color.

Because the meat is dense, the nitric oxide is only able to penetrate the surface of the meat, which results in a thin layer of pink often called a smoke ring.

brisket slices and burnt ends at Jack Daniel's.

How to naturally create a smoke ring

Through my years of barbecuing, I have found that there are a few ways to increase the size and vibrancy of a smoke ring.

Cook at lower temperatures

When smoking a brisket, the smoke ring is formed during the initial part of the cook stage before the bark forms.

At this stage, the smoke is penetrating the meat and interacting with the myoglobin. If you cook at a lower temperature, the brisket will stay in this penetrating stage longer.

If you cook your brisket hot and fast, there is less time for the smoke interaction.

Start with cold meat

When I want a sexy smoke ring, I always take my brisket straight from the fridge to the smoker. I don’t bring it to room temperature first.

This can add some time to your overall cook, but it also increases the exposure time that the nitric oxide will interact with the myoglobin before the myoglobin has the chance to turn brown.

Spritz your meat

Keeping your meat moist as it cooks helps with smoke absorption.

I spritz my brisket, pork butts and ribs every 30-45 minutes. Any type of spritz will work. I often use water, apple cider vinegar, apple juice or spray butter.

I also place a water pan in my smoker to increase the moisture content. This is particularly important if you live in a dry climate.

Which fuel source creates the best smoke ring?

When you barbecue, there are a variety of wood sources to choose from, ranging from wood to wood pellets. Each type produces a different amount of nitric oxide as it burns.

Nitric Oxide Ranking

Dry hardwood like hickory, oak and mesquite will produce the most nitric oxide, followed by charcoal briquets, lump charcoal, and wood pellets.

  1. Wood
  2. Charcoal Briquets
  3. Lump Charcoal
  4. Wood Pellets

With my competition BBQ, I cook with a combination of Cowboy All-Natural Hardwood Briquets and Cowboy Lump Charcoal. I add about 4-5 wood chunks to increase my chances of forming a great smoke ring.

cookin with cowboy logo

Electric smokers

There are some electric smokers, like the Ninja Woodfire Grill and GE Indoor Smoker, that use wood pellets to add smoke flavor to meat.

These types of smokers will not produce a prevalent smoke ring because the wood pellets produce a low level of nitric oxide.

Sliced brisket with smoke ring.
Smoke ring produced with pink curing salt.

How to fake a smoke ring

While great pitmasters will use the techniques above to form their smoke rings, there is a way to cheat the system.

Because of this, the Kansas City Barbeque Society instructs their certified judges to ignore the smoke ring when judging barbecue competitions.

The KCBS Official Judge’s Certification Manual states: “Although a smoke ring adds to the presentation of brisket, we do not take it into consideration, as it can be artificially produced.”

So how is that possible? Let’s go back to science class.

There is another substance that will interact with myoglobin to produce a smoke ring and that’s sodium nitrite.

Nitrite is a a curing salt that is used to inhibit the growth of bacteria to preserve meats. It’s used in making bacon and pastrami.

When added to meat, the sodium nitrite reacts with the myoglobin to help stabilize the color of the meat. It’s what makes pastrami pink and what can be used to make a fake smoke ring.

Warning: Use nitrite with caution

Sodium nitrite, also called Prague powder #1 or pink curing salt #1, is toxic in high concentrations. Read the product packaging before using. Most products recommend limiting use to one teaspoon per every five pounds of meat.

Shaker of pink curing salt over brisket.

How to apply nitrite to brisket

If you want to generate a fake smoke ring, place some sodium nitrite into a shaker bottle with fine holes.

Sprinkle a very, very light amount to the top of your brisket. Do not exceed 1 teaspoon per five pounds. I generally use a lot less than that. Follow that with your favorite brisket rub.

The more curing salt you add, the thicker the smoke ring will become, so be careful. Also, be sure you sprinkle it evenly. Otherwise, the pink color may be uneven.

uneven smoke ring on brisket slice.

Instead of pink curing salt, you can also use celery seed or ground celery. It is a natural source of nitrates, which converts into nitrites. Either apply it on top of your brisket or mix it into your brisket rub.

The downside to this method is that the smoke ring won’t be as thick, and your flavor profile will have a hint of celery.

GCG Pro Pitmaster Tips for Smoke Rings

  • Keep your meat cold before adding it to the smoker
  • Increase the humidity in your pit by using a water pan or spritzing your meat
  • Cook your meat slower at lower temperatures

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the red color on the outer edge of smoked meat?

The red color on the outer edge of smoked meat is referred to as a smoke ring. It can be created naturally when cooking meat with wood, charcoal, briquettes or wood pellets. It can also be produced artificially with sodium nitrites.

Why would you fake a smoke ring?

If you want the appearance of smoked meat but you only have an electric smoker, propane gas grill or oven, you can create an artificial smoke ring. Some competitive barbecuers also enhance the smoke ring in hopes to impress judges.

Does a smoke ring affect the taste of BBQ?

A smoke ring is flavorless. Because it can be artificially created, it shouldn’t be used to judge how BBQ may taste. A well-smoked piece of meat will often have a deeper smoke ring, but great BBQ can also be produced without a smoke ring.

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christie vanover standing against wood wall.

Hey BBQ Family

I’m Christie, the head cook and award-winning competitive pitmaster for Team Girls Can Grill. I have won multiple grand championships and top 10 category finishes. I’m an expert grill reviewer for BBQ Guys, and I have appeared on the Food Network and Ninja Woodfire Grill infomercials. I established this website in 2015 to share my BBQ tips and recipes.

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