We admire the prodigious knowledge of Meathead Goldwyn at AmazingRibs.com and we love to share what we learn from him. What does he have to say about a scientific approach to best techniques for grilling and smoking meat? To understand the science of grilling, you’d do well to read this piece. It includes much discussion about meat’s composition, especially muscle, fat and connective tissue—and myoglobin content which is what brings the reddish color to meat juice and differentiates ‘dark’ from ‘white’ meat. (More on myoglobin in a minute.)
Temperature and cooking time all matter. The constituent elements of meat factor into optimal cooking time. Goldwyn says “Because different cuts of meat vary significantly in tenderness, fat content, and collagen content, some must be cooked hot and fast to be at their best, some must be cooked low and slow, and some must be cooked with a combination on both to reach their optimum.”
Can you tell if meat is done just by looking?
That’s a ‘no,’ according to Meathead
“You cannot tell if meat is safe or cooked to the proper temp by looking at it. Sometimes vegetables in the grill can produce gases that alter meat color. When you cut into meat to look at it, it can change in a few minutes after it has been exposed to oxygen. Compounds in marinades and brines can impact color. There is only one way to tell if meat is at its optimum quality and safety: With a thermometer, preferably a digital.”
Smoked meat—Meathead and other BBQ experts note—often develops a ‘smoke ring’, a bright pink color just under the surface all the way around the piece. Meathead realizes that some people might think the pink color means the meat is raw, but “nothing could be further from the truth.“
In a related article, Goldwyn cites research showing that “the smoke ring is an interaction between … myoglobin with the gases nitric oxide (NO) and carbon monoxide (CO). NO and CO are made by the combination of carbon and nitrogen with oxygen during the combustion of wood or charcoal… Like many proteins, myoglobin changes color permanently when it breaks down after exposure to heat. In beef the meat goes from purple to red to pink to gray at very specific temperatures, and that is what defines rare, medium rare, well done, etc. Once myoglobin breaks down, at about 170°F in beef and 100°F in tuna, the game is over, it cannot return to pink.”
“While meat is starting to cook, if NO or CO land on the surface and dissolve into the meat, they “fix” the color pink while the rest of the meat heats up and goes to gray. But NO and CO cannot diffuse very far beyond the surface before the meat beneath it heats up, dooming the myoglobin in the interior to a colorless fate. As a result, the pink forms a thin layer, the smoke ring, which usually only goes about 1/8″ deep, although, under some circumstances, it can go up to 1/2″ deep.” Goldwyn says that the locking of the myoglobin color starts almost immediately with a good, stable, clean fire.
Yes, you read that right. Heat, not smoke, creates the smoke ring. Isn’t education grand?
For a pellet fire, Goldwyn recommends putting a slab of ribs on at 225°F. “After 30 minutes, move it indoors and finish cooking. There will be a fine looking smoke ring. After just 30 minutes exposed to NO and CO!”
Be sure to read the Griller’s Gold post about best cuts of meat for grilling and slow cooking. You’ll find a little historical note about why low-cost meats have been BBQ favorites since the cooking technique’s beginnings.
And check out a full history class on grilling at Back to School 1 also on this blog.