BBQ Brisket and Smoke Ring Science

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About: I am a person who loves Math, Science, Barbecue, Computers, and Programming, among other things.

Barbeque. Barbecue. BBQ. Or just plain Q. In some regions of the country, barbecue means throwing raw meat, such as hamburger and hotdogs, on a grill (and having friends over). However, the true definition of barbecue is the slow cooking of meat at low temperatures, usually with smoke. Classic barbecue should hit three of the senses: Smell, Taste, and Sight. The visual smoke ring in barbecue has been a prized scoring category in competition barbecue and achieving the smoke ring is an art unto itself. This component of barbecue has been the subject of many conversations (and debate!) around a smoker and meat carving table. So, what is the best way to produce a smoke ring? This Instructable will teach how to create tender, mouth-watering brisket with a glorious smoke ring while exploring the different kinds of smoke from fire and the chemistry secrets of the smoke ring. These topics are all worth investigating to gain a deep understanding of the art of barbecue, and raise your smoker-side Q-talk to deity status in the eyes of your barbecue loving Q-brethren. Creating a barbecue beef brisket that tastes delicious and is so tender it falls apart in your guest’s hands truly is an art, and science plays an immensely important role in producing a delectable, tender, and visually appealing product. Ready to be a Q-diety? Lets get going!

Supplies:

Smoker, such as Masterbuilt electric from Academy Sports + Outdoors

Hot Smoke generator

  • Small Kettle Grill (Available at Academy Sports + Outdoors)
  • Dryer Duct and Metal Duct Tape (local hardware store)
  • Cloth or T-Shirt or something similar
  • (I bought an extra over-sized circular grill grate at Home Depot to put into the small kettle grill. It separates the lid from the base and lets oxygen in. I recommend Weber brand.)

Charcoal and/or hickory wood chips

Brisket (Buy at a local store, Publix, Ingles, Kroger, etc), whole or flat

Thermometers

Rub for Brisket (50/50 Kosher salt and coarse ground pepper)

Sharp Knife

Aluminum Foil or Butcher/Pink Paper

Various Pans and Cutting Boards for trimming and slicing the brisket

Nitrile Gloves for working with the raw meat

Heat Resistant Gloves for moving the hot brisket

Patience!

Note: The next steps are preparing the smoker; preparing the brisket; creating smoke; resting, slicing, and eating the brisket.

The smoker can be prepared while the brisket is being prepared, if you have a couple extra hands. These two steps can be done in the order of your preference.

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    Step 1: Preparing the Brisket

    So. You went to the store and bought a 10-15 pound brisket. You were smart, hunted around at different stores, and settled on a price from about $2 - $3.50 for a full brisket. You still shelled out $50 and are likely nervous about chucking this piece of meat into a smoke chamber for half a day. It's ok... everyone felt this way with their first brisket, but the brisket is going to be awesome!

    Don a pair of the nitrile gloves. With a large pan waiting, cut the top of the brisket package open carefully, and then lift the brisket out of the bag onto the pan. If you have people around you, go ahead and ask for help. You'll need it unless you want to spill the blood-water (myoglobin water) all over your counter. (More on the myoglobin later!)

    With a large sharp knife, trim as much fat from the brisket as you like, but try not to cut into the muscle. Most of the fat will melt off in the smoking process, but it is still a good idea to trim the meat. Personally, I trim almost all the fat so that there is a little bit of flavor going into the meat from the fat, but the decision is yours. Trimming most of the fat off also allows the rub to stay on the meat rather than slide off with the fat into your handy drip pan.

    Next, using a mixture of 50/50 kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper, rub the meat. You can ask for help again and have someone sprinkle the rub on the meat while you pat it down. Spread it evenly over the meat. You don't need to smother the meat in rub, but spread it over the surface, as in the picture at the beginning of this step.

    Step 2: Preparing the Smoker

    Preparing the smoker is pretty simple. Start with making sure you're using a clean smoker. If not already clean, wipe it down with a wet scrubbing sponge. Only water is needed because you don't want to add the cleaning chemicals to your barbecue.

    Second, prepare a water pan. The water pan will create steam inside your smoker and keep your brisket moist. (Remember this when we talk about trimming the brisket.) You can use the water pan that came in your smoker or place a pan of water in the smoker on the rack above the heating element.

    Third, a drip pan (optional). A drip pan can be placed ABOVE your water pan to catch the fat and drippings from your brisket during smoking. This is so much easier than scrubbing the bottom of the smoker for three and a half hours trying to get all the little bits of dried juice up. Trust me. This is something I learned from experience.

    Step 3: Wood and Hot Smoke Generator

    To produce a smoke ring, you'll need 'hot smoke' or 'blue smoke.' Most smokers generate a cold smoldering smoke instead of 'hot smoke,' so you'll need to make some yourself. To create hot smoke, you need good fuel and continuous supply of air/oxygen. Hot fire is important to release nitrogen from the fuel, and the hot smoke that is produced is either clear or has a faint blue tint to it. The hot smoke needs to be cooled, at least a little, before being introduced into the chamber with the meat, so your brisket can be slow-cooked or barbecued. Cool damp meat will accept the smoke and nitrogen, where warm dry meat will not. More on this in the Extra Credit section.

    First, create an offset chamber as a hot smoke generator. Get a small, low to the ground kettle grill and metal clothes dryer duct. Cut a hole in the top of the kettle grill slightly smaller than the duct, attach the duct to it using some metal duct tape, and attach the other end of the dryer duct to the hole in the smoker where you normally insert wood chips. Ensure there is gap between the lid and bottom of the kettle grill so adequate air can flow into the kettle. This method may be different for different smokers, but basically make a place to burn stuff in an enclosed space and attach a tube to route the hot smoke to the smoker. If there is smoke leaking out through the entrance or exit, then wrap it up using some tape or cloth to form a gasket in order to reduce the escaping smoke.

    Second, given the adequate air flow, we need an appropriate fuel to get the hot smoke. The easiest fuel for the smoke is Kingsford charcoal. Kingsford charcoal has extra nitric oxide in the ingredients, which helps create the beautiful smoke ring. Less easy is to use wood chips, and I recommend hickory. The hickory contains less nitric oxide but still produces a nice smoke ring.

    Set the smoker to 225 F and fully open the damper. After about 10 minutes and the smoker is warm with the hot smoker generator is connected, light the fuel in the hot smoke generator. Once lit and the fire is blazing producing blue smoke, replace the lid not he hot smoke generator. Within a few minutes, you should have smoke being pulled through your smoker and out the damper. This means the smoker is ready for the brisket!

    Step 4: Cooking the Brisket

    The entire process of cooking the meat should be anywhere from 12-15 hours. Plan on the longer end.

    After the meat is rubbed, the kettle grill is creating smoke, and the smoker is getting up to temperature, you are finally ready to start smoking the brisket. While wearing the heat resistant gloves, put the brisket into the smoker, starting with the highest rack. Stick a temperature probe into each piece of meat, and place/hang one temperature probe in the smoker (touching nothing) so that you know both the temperature of the meat and the smoker. Now you wait. About every 20-30 minutes, check the wood or charcoal, and add more if it needs it.

    After the meat has reached 150 degrees F, close the damper a quarter to halfway, stop adding fuel to the hot smoker, and continue waiting. After the brisket has seemingly stopped gaining temperature (this should happen around 165 degrees F) wait some more. After an excruciatingly long time of the brisket having little temperature change (called the 'stall'), and the brisket is anywhere from 170-180 F, put your heat resistant gloves back on, double wrap the brisket in aluminum foil or butcher/pink paper. Put it back in the smoker. Add the temperature probes back to the meat. If using pink paper, check the water pan. Raise the smoker's temperature to 275 F. If you used aluminum foil, the brisket will 'self-baste' and remain very moist. The advantage of using the pink paper is that the brisket will develop a bark, or crust, and the water pan will ensure that it will remain moist.

    When the brisket reaches anywhere from 195 degrees F to 205 degrees F, it is cooked, and ready to come out. Try not to let the temperature go too much over 205 F, or it could be overcooked.

    Let the brisket rest for 30 minutes (at least) before you unwrap it. When slicing the brisket, use a sharp knife and be sure to cut across the grain. The grain on the brisket changes across the full brisket. If you miss this part about the grain, who really cares? You have brisket to eat!!!! (And I guarantee that none of your friends will complain about it! If they do complain, schedule the next barbecue at their house next weekend.)

    Step 5: Extra Credit: Chemistry of the Smoke Ring and Wood Types

    While we have about 12 hours to wait for the finished brisket, lets talk about the chemistry of what is happening. Or you can skip to the next chapter for the conclusion.

    Technically speaking, cooking is chemistry. When one cooks, certain molecules are combined and heated to a certain temperature in order to produce an edible product. Mixing eggs, flour, and other ingredients produce batter. The batter is heated until the desired consistency is reached, then the product is eaten. Cooking with smoke is one type of cooking chemistry. When cooking with smoke, the smoker or grill must maintain a certain temperature to cook the meat to perfection. Most barbecue experts suggest slow cooking tougher cuts of meat such as brisket, pork shoulder, or Canadian bacon.

    Myoglobin is an important element in the science of smoking meat, and myoglobin can be defined as: a red iron-containing protein pigment in muscles. The red color of myoglobin is important to note because the smoke ring one hopes to attain when smoking brisket comes from the myoglobin. The myoglobin water is the 'blood-water' you found in the vacuum bag that held the brisket, and there is plenty more in the meat itself.

    The beef purchased at the store appears completely red, indicating myoglobin throughout the piece of meat. However, when myoglobin is exposed to heat it degenerates, dissolves, disappears, and is gone forever. When the myoglobin in the meat is exposed to nitric oxide containing smoke, it undergoes a chemical reaction with nitric oxide (NO) 'fixing' or 'curing' the red myoglobin before it can be broken down by the heat, and it retains its red color.

    Another question one might ask pertaining to the chemical reaction is if the meat bonds with nitric oxide when it is smoked, why does only a portion of the meat stay red? There are two factors that are important. First, the nitric oxide can only fix the myoglobin which it contacts. Penetration of the blue smoke deep into the solid piece of meat takes time. Second, as stated above, the myoglobin breaks down with heat. As a result, we are in a race to get the hot smoke to the brisket while the brisket is still cool. Eventually, as the brisket cooks, the myoglobin not in the outermost portions of the brisket breaks down prior to being reached by the nitric oxide in the smoke. So, lets get the most nitric oxide we can into the chamber around the precious brisket.

    The smoke that comes from burning wood gives these meats a distinct and wonderful flavor. For instance, baked brisket tastes different than smoked brisket. A taste test was conducted, by yours truly, comparing smoked brisket to baked brisket for flavor. Taste testers reported a difference in flavor between the two meats with the smoked brisket winning more votes for the smoky flavor over the bland baked brisket.

    The type of the smoke is dependent on type of wood or charcoal used. The type used also affects the taste of the final product. Different wood from different types of trees, such as apple and hickory, flavor the meat differently. Smoking brisket gives it a distinct smoky flavor. As mentioned before, different types of wood produce different flavors of smoke, which in turn flavor the meat differently.

    Wood choice when smoking meat is an important consideration. There are basically two types of wood, hard wood from deciduous trees and softwood from coniferous trees.

    Hardwood trees, such as hickory, oak, and apple have cell structures are compact, making them good tp use for smoking barbecue. Softwoods, including pine and spruce, are airy, light woods that have lots of sap, and burn quickly. The softer woods not recommended for cooking.

    It is inadvisable and dangerous to smoke any type of meat with any type of evergreen wood. When heated up, the sap of evergreen trees produces toxic fumes that are lethal to human beings. Based on this safety issue, one should never use any type of softwood for smoking meat, as this can cause anyone who ingests the meat serious harm. The selection of wood used in smoking meat influences the flavor of the meat. There are as many woods to choose from as there are varieties of trees. However, as previously stated, hard wood varieties produce the most desirable flavors and are safer than soft wood varieties. The type of wood one uses is based on the availability and personal preference as well as what pairs well with the cut and type of meat being cooked. Here is a link to a helpful page that can help you select your wood for a barbecue: http://www.smoking-meat.com/barbecue-woods. One more important consideration regarding the type of wood used when in smoking meat is whether the wood is green wood or seasoned wood. Barbecue experts agree that seasoned wood is the best choice. Green wood is fresh cut from a live tree and is full of sap. Seasoned wood is wood that has been cut and then left to cure so that the sap evaporates out of the wood and makes it better to burn. Due to its higher moisture content green wood tends to be difficult to burn and does not generate as much heat as seasoned wood.

    Step 6: Conclusion of the Science

    While achieving a smoke ring in barbecue brisket is often highly sought after by both professional pitmasters and amateur home barbecue enthusiasts, the truth is smoke rings do not change the flavor of the meat, and this judging criterion has actually been removed from judging in barbecue events. Therefore, the sole purpose of the smoke ring is to cause the meat to appear visually appealing. That allows us to hit the three senses mentioned at the very beginning: smell, taste, and SIGHT. Consistently obtaining a smoke ring is considered a badge of honor in the barbecue world and elevates the cook who achieves this mark to Master of Barbecue by many practitioners of the art. This smoke ring is achieved through the correct smoke and heat combination: hot or blue smoke with low and slow heat.

    Now, go get to working on your Q-diety status and drop some notes below on your experiences!

    (and now, I am hungry...)

    Step 7: Additional BBQ Information Resources


    “Difference Between Seasoned and Green Firewood.” FirewoodResource.com, firewoodresource.com/faq/difference-between-seasoned-and-green-firewood/.

    “Nitric Oxide Smoke Ring.” GEB Writings and Interviews, genuineideas.com/ArticlesIndex/articlesindex.html.

    “Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America's Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/.

    Franklin Barbecue: a Meat-Smoking Manifesto. Ten Speed Press, 2015.

    “What Is Barbecue?” BBQ & Grilling In Depth: Up Your Game With Tested Recipes, Science-Based Tips On Technique, Equipment Reviews, Community, amazingribs.com/barbecue-history-and-culture/what-barbecue.

    “Every Type of Wood to Use for Smoking Every Type of Meat.” Wide Open Eats, 27 Mar. 2018, http://www.wideopeneats.com/kind-wood-use-smoking-meat/

    "Flavorite’ Barbecue Woods.” Smoking Meat - The Complete How to Smoke Meat Guide, http://www.smoking-meat.com/barbecue-woods.

    “How to Get That Perfect ‘Thin Blue Smoke.’” How to BBQ Right, howtobbqright.com/blog/?p=1665.

    “The ‘Science’ of BBQ.” Earth, Meat & Fire, 24 Dec. 2014, earthmeatandfire.wordpress.com/blog/.

    “Time to Geek Out on the Science of Smoke.” Smoking Meat Geeks | #MeatGeeks, smokingmeatgeeks.com/smoke-science-meat.

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      21 Discussions

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      BrotonTorpedo

      12 days ago

      mmm looks delicious i will have to try that sometime mate, thanks for the well written instructable and the detail about the smoke ring. I really appreciate chap.

      1 reply
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      bigloaf

      18 days ago

      Just when you think you've seen everything, someone comes along with a new brilliant idea. Fantastic Instructable! I am a Q wanabe. I don't have enough meat eating friends to consume a 15# brisket so I've held off doing my own. I still love to follow Aaron Franklin and Harry Soo. Time for some You Tube videos?
      Thank you so much for sharing.

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      Koopins

      17 days ago

      Excellent information! Love the science behind cooking good food! I can’t wait to try this! Thank you!

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      SusanP170

      17 days ago

      Great information.... I love that you explain the science behind the smoke ring, and what not to do. My husband loves smoked brisket so this is a definite "going to try, one day soon" Thanks for posting your Instructable..... It is detailed and very well written : )

      1 reply
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      PeeDonkeyPit

      18 days ago

      An interesting read, and nice conversion of what I assume to be a dead Masterbuilt smoker.

      The actual difference between softwood and hardwood is above coniferous or deciduous, which really only pertains to whether or not they hold their leaves year-round rather than dropping them seasonally. The true distinction is in whether or not they "flower". And, too: softwoods are not necessarily softer than hardwoods - the density of the cellulose structure can be very similar between what we call softwoods vs what we call hardwoods - and many softwoods are more dense than some hardwoods!

      Generally, we choose woods for smoking based on the the nature of their sap. Most conifers have aromatic, volatile, resinous saps. It is primarily the resins that turn us off, though, as they generate significant soot as they burn, which would coat your product (and thse resins are also the reason such woods are unsuitable for your fireplace: they create a volatile coating in your chimney over time). Also, the oxidation byproducts of the phenols and terpenes arguably generate unpleasant flavors when such wood is used for open cooking (but which can make very interesting teas for marinades...).

      And most modern pellet or disk grills generate hot smoke - just not as hot as a good firebox-heated smoker can generate. Still, many barbecue purists insist on traditional, non-electric/non-automated chunk-wood smokers, which you have effectively converted that Masterbuilt into: a vertical offset smoker.

      "Cold smoke" is exactly that: smoke that is of a temperature that it will not melt or cook the product being smoked. My favorite type is a small, labyrinthine fixture in which a trail of appropriate saw dust is made ember-hot to cause sufficient smoke to flavor the product without generating enough heat to even alter its surface, beyond a gentle "sweat". This is the one I use, though I use it for cheeses and not fish as they intend it: https://www.amazon.com/kucoolou-Generator-Salmon-Smoking-Rectangle/dp/B07FY2TG3R/ref=asc_df_B07FY2TG3R/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=241975269250&hvpos=1o2&hvnetw=g&hvrand=16309810850743157279&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9016864&hvtargid=pla-667317229636&psc=1. You can run it under a cardboard shoebox on your countertop.

      Finally, here's an interesting read from on the subject of the coveted smoke ring: https://amazingribs.com/more-technique-and-science/more-cooking-science/mythbusting-smoke-ring-no-smoke-necessary You have the reaction correct, just that the smoke is optional - any source of NO or CO will do - even that generated by a simple pile of burning charcoal briquettes, which renders that "raw meat on the a grill" into smoke ring-producing barbecue, if that was the only defining factor.

      Nice work - keep studying food science and life-hacking! The world is an amazing - and tasty! - place!

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      MalleusCrashPeeDonkeyPit

      Reply 18 days ago

      You've nearly hit the nail on the head. The Masterbuilt still works,
      however, it does not burn charcoal, so I added the kettle grill. You are
      absolutely correct that any source of NO or CO will do, I just didn't
      mention it. I had planned to, but it didn't add much to the
      Instructable. For instance: Merely applying baking soda with your rub
      can create a massive smoke ring. Greg Blonder is the scientist behind
      all of Amazingribs.com's fantastic research, and I have already linked his website in my more resources www.genuineideas.comAnd thank you for reading!

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      jwdrewadsk

      Tip 18 days ago

      That brisket looks awesome; the fat is rendered, moist inside, bark on the outside. Perfect!

      I highly recommend Aaron Franklin's book, the "Meat-Smoking Manifesto." He tells how he got started in the business, the failures and learning experiences along the way, and goes into some science behind BBQ as well.

      He also did some really good tutorial videos for public television that are posted here on YouTube:
      https://www.youtube.com/user/BBQwithFranklin

      After several of my own brisket failures (tough as leather) I read Franklin's book, watched the videos, and followed the methodology to finally figured out the secret to good brisket, which is mainly time and patience.

      You can't beat a basic salt and pepper rub on brisket smoked with oak wood, finishing it wrapped in butcher paper. That's my go-to for an annual 4th of July brisket. I've used foil before as the "Texas crutch" but it just seems to steam the meat and makes it taste like pot roast. You also lose most of the bark. Butch paper allows the meat to "breathe" a bit, I guess? For whatever reason, the bark formation is still there.

      Lately, we've been asking the butcher to split our briskets so we can manage to cook a flat or point within a days time and enjoy it in the late evening. I've found you can get a 7 to 8 pound brisket done in 10 to 12 hours or so.

      For a full brisket, I was starting it at midnight the day before, "babysitting" the fire overnight, sleeping a bit, then finishing it for a late lunch the next day. That's using a horizontal smoker. I'm sure as I get older I'll switch to a pellet smoker that I can set and forget.

      1 reply
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      MalleusCrashjwdrewadsk

      Reply 18 days ago

      Thanks for the tips. I have already consulted Aaron Franklin's book multiple times. The bark still forms on brisket when you do the aluminum foil because it happened before you wrapped it, not while it was wrapped.

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      kleetus92

      18 days ago

      I've been smoking for a while now, and I still read articles to pick up bits and pieces and ideas to make my life easier. I had never considered marrying an electric smoker with a charcoal grill... but, the logic is sound and should make life a lot easier. I'm a purest at heart though and have resisted getting a pellet stove smoker, seems to me that it takes all the finesse out of it: might as well throw some wood chips in the oven and just cook it indoors at that point! I have a side by side smoke hollow grill, and have found it's thermal and mechanical limits. It's fine for steaks and such, but even with the side indirect fire box on the side, I quickly learned that it does not have enough ash capacity for a 12-15 hr burn. That becomes an interesting juggling act when you try to burn that long dealing with the ash. But, that's part of the fun!

      I thought your article was well written, easy to follow and very mater of fact and to the point. Thank you, I enjoyed reading it. Now I have to go find something to smoke because I'm hungry!

      1 reply
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      Carlos Sabino

      18 days ago

      Buddy, amazing meat! But i would eat her just by going to the U.S. ... Meat like the ones you make, here in Brazil is hard to find!
      1 reply
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      drdanman

      18 days ago

      That looks great. I hope to make some soon!

      1 reply
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      BayRatt

      20 days ago

      That was very interesting, and looks very delicious. Gotta love tasty science! :-)