Mastering the art of great BBQ and smoked meats starts with understanding the chemistry of meat, fat, and last but not least, smoke and fire. In this article we explore the science, the why, behind successfully smoking meat. We’ll also do a little myth busting around commonly believed theories on BBQ and grilling. All this BBQ geekdom to help you understand basic factors that dictate the quality of your BBQ.
Apply dry heat get moist food
That phrase doesn’t make sense unless we know the chemistry of meat. There are three components that give a moist juicy and enjoyable end result:
Each of these three elements are affected by heat in different ways, and also by the chemical compounds around them, and equally as often, by each other.
Yes, we know the best smoking environment uses humidity in the process, sometimes naturally, sometimes an addition we control, and sometimes because the meats add vapor to the environment. Smoking is however, considered a dry cooking process, especially when compared to braising, stewing, or steaming.
Meat is Mostly Water
Many of us have been told that we are 98% water, or some equally high number. That is slightly exaggerated, but we, and the meat we cook, are certainly composed of a very high percentage of water. Beef, veal, lamb, and chicken average about 73% water content, pork and meatier fish fall just under 70%, delicate fish can exceed 80% water content.
Another big component of most meats is myoglobin, cousin to the better publicized hemoglobin in our blood stream, with a parallel function in the body and similar iron content for a red color. Myoglobin is a water soluble protein that is an attractor and binder of oxygen for the cells. Myoglobin is also responsible for the coloration in the meat itself, the deeper the red color the higher the concentration of myoglobin.
When meat is cut, the juice we see on the plate is a mix of water from the ruptured cells and the myoglobin, which is what gives juice the reddish hue.
When subjected to heat, myoglobin loses its red coloration, fading to pink and eventually gray or tan in color. This is one of the more noticeable visual cues of cooking meat. In steaks and chops, or meats that are kept to lower temperatures and doneness (medium rare for instance at 135 degrees +/-), the flesh is still bright red and juices free flowing. Well done meats have the juice and the color cooked out of them, which in a steak or quickly cooked cut makes for a dry end result. So juice, mostly water, is the first aspect of a moist end product.
Increasing the temp and keeping it moist
COOKING WITHOUT OVERCOOKING
Fat is the next component of meat that we associate with moistness in the end product. Fat is also a huge component in the textures and flavors of meats. Animal fats store flavor compounds from what the animal consumes and produce over their life (this gets interesting with grass fed beef).
These flavors they store in the marbling/intermuscular fat are omnipresent in differing amounts; just under the skin are subcutaneous deposits, between muscles is intermuscular, and intramuscular is within the muscle fibers giving us our favorite, marbling. With concentrated caloric values, fats, along with oxygen, are the main fuel that power muscles in animals.
Fat contents vary greatly between types of animal meat, and the different cuts within the category. Being aware of the fat content is crucial to maintaining moistness by the end.
Animal fats begin melting in the 130-140 degree range. As the temperature increases the expansion of the other tissues will begin to squeeze out the fats.
Taken too far and cooking the meat too fast, will force out the fats resulting in a dry end product.
We know that the magic number for doneness of brisket and pork butt is over 200 degrees, so we need to understand the relationship with fat and temperature to help us get that ideally cooked texture and moistness to enjoy, this is where the next component becomes an equally important factor.
Low and slow with the heat
Intertwined with the muscle meat and fatty deposits are the connective tissues. We’ve all seen the tendons that stand out in meats and the silverskin they often flatten into. These are much of what we think of as gristle, and they are known for tightening up when heat is applied and becoming tough nuggets of stuff that is impossible to chew.
Similar to marbling, there are softer connective tissues throughout the meat called collagen. They also appear as almost invisible tissue surrounding the fibers and sheaths that hold muscle groups together, along with invisibly entwined throughout. Slapping them with high and fast heat will cause them to become rubbery and chewy. However, if they are slowly heated they are the source of a rich smooth well textured material called gelatin.
Gelatin sounds like the name of a jiggly fruit dessert because originally that was made from the rendered animal collagens. This richly textured liquid is what makes your slowest smoked meats have great textures. When warm it has fluidity while retaining a silkiness of texture, as meat cools it permeates back into the areas around the cells and structure ending up as noticeable ‘moisture’ in your end product.
Now we have a broader understanding of what happens inside our meats during the smoking process. But how does the outside end up so differently tasty and textured? Again, there are a few answers, but we will focus on two aspects. First the Maillard reaction creating our bark. Second the ‘Ring’, as the pink halo around the edges of well smoked meat is commonly known.
Both a physician and chemist, Maillard codified the reasons why food gets brown; crusts on bread, crispness on fried foods, the exterior colors of seared meats, etc. It would be easy to dismiss it all as simply caramelization, or the browning of the sugars naturally present and added by the cook. And some of it is based on that, the application of heat causing steadily darkening coloration as more heat or more time are added.
But Maillard realized there is another chemical reaction in play to get the exteriors we love so much. In 1912 he posited that enzymes present in food, and the amino acids they are made from, interact with the caramelization to get the full reaction of an enjoyable browned exterior to the food. You can go down the rabbit hole of how pH is involved, or the secondary Maillard reactions with ketosamines and a slurry of other compounds. For our purposes, we are going to suffice it to say when heat is applied the exterior of our food takes on deep rich colors from amino acids combining and enhancing caramelization.
There is a very important factor that directly applies to those of us geeking out with our smoker. The Maillard reaction is not just about temperature. It is really effective when temperatures hit around 300 degrees, the reaction takes off. However, you can achieve similar results at lower temperatures for extended periods of time. Twelve hours at 225 degrees will get you similar results to about a 350 degree exposure for an hour. The longer time helps the breaking down of fats and collagens and the tenderization that results. And it allows for the development of the iconic smoke ring.
Put a ring on it
As much as our brain wants to say the smoke causes that delightful pinkish ring around the edges of say a brisket that is not exactly what has happened. It goes back to our friends the myoglobin present in meats. Fire releases carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrous oxide (NO). These two compounds interact with the iron in the myoglobin, essentially freezing it in place to cause a permanent pink-ness to stay in the cells of the meat. These gases, not the smoke itself, create the ring, and can occur even in a cooking environment that has zero smoke.
Every time you look at the ring around the edge of your smoked meat, you get a visual representation of how far the CO & NO were able to penetrate before the heat beat them to the myoglobins making them turn gray, with the temperature winning out at about 170 degrees. The penetration of these gases maxes out just shy of one half inch, and is more typically abut an eighth of an inch into the meat.
Because this is a race, you can influence the results. Using brisket again, we all know of the stall; moisture on the exterior of the meat evaporates keeping it cool so the cooking process stalls. What we just said there, “keeping it cool”, that is the trick. Our old friend spritzing or mopping will aid with a deeper pink ring, along with a water tray in the smoking chamber. The water on the meat’s surface actually latches on to the smoke, containing the CO and NO molecules, allowing better penetration.
The chemistry of smoke
Now that we have a bit of the science regarding the ring of color that comes with smoking food, and the idea that the smoke itself does not cause the ring, let’s look at what smoke actually does to flavor our food. Of course, we need to look backward a bit at the science of the wood’s composition. What we will not do here is talk about different wood choices, that alone is books of information, and loads of it available for your research.
A couple basic tenets for this area. Wood needs to be dried, preferably air dried. Green wood burns too inconsistent, produces too much steam, and can carry nasty flavors to the food. Even dried wood contains some water, but it goes down from about 50% to well below 10%. After drying Cellulose is the most common component, Hemicellulose next and then Lignin. In general, the harder the wood the higher the Cellulose and Lignin content. There are also a handful of trace elements and minerals in wood.
So, we light it up. We know that CO and NO are present when we get the temperature over about 700 degrees. There is a whole slurry of other gases present. We want to keep the temp high at the combustion site. Lower burning temps are what create the oily white some that is actually a negative flavor component of your food. That’s right, white smoke bad, blue smoke good. Barely visible blue smoke is cleaner with less impurities so it imparts more pleasant flavors. It also contains guaiacol, a near cousin to creosote. Creosote can be nasty, guaiacol is the positive flavor component that we love and associate with good smoked foods.
Nearly invisible clean blue smoke carrying the smallest particles (as opposed to white smoke with larger visible particulate) enveloping our food with guaiacol and other milder flavoring agents from the gas slurry is the goal that we have for well smoked meats. Even with all the right components, the smoke and flavor will adhere better to a pebbled surface, facilitated by a rub, and a moist surface either because of the moist smoking environment or by basting the food as it smokes.
Its brisket time…or whatever
Let’s walk through all of this quickly as we look at a piece of brisket being smoked.
We start burning fuel creating a nice cloud of NO, CO, and smoke, along with an environment heated to 225°F.
We put our rubbed brisket in the smoking chamber along with a pan of water. Slowly the internal temp of the meat begins to rise. All the while the NO and CO are binding with the myoglobin to create a nice pink ring into the meat. Warming up further starts the fats liquefying and permeating down through the meat. Also during this process we have initiated a slow version of the Maillard reaction, enhanced by caramelizing any sugars we have in the seasoning rub we applied.
As we crest 150°F or so inside, the collagens begin to melt, the fibers of the meat start releasing and tenderization gets going. Soon the myoglobin will fade into the pale gray color of fully cooked brisket, the bark thickens as the Maillard reaction keeps delivering the goods.
By the time our interior temp is 203°F we have nice bark, a good ring, and a center of meat fibers softened and permeated with flavorful fats and collagen, and residual water left in the cells because we didn’t heat them so quickly they burst. For more detail, see our Smoking 101 guide.
We all miss those guys busting myths that we all know are fact…until they get through with it. Deep down we all just wanted their gig, what a job! We’ll take that role over for a bit here albeit without explosions and such. There’s a lot of great information about smoking grilling and preparing meats, and most of it is accurate. Emphasis on most, and unfortunately some of the inaccuracies are in the field of doneness, making sure that your food is cooked to a wholesome safe degree. We’re going to dispel some of those ideas along with a variety of myths that we all know are facts…for now.