The Science of Smoke

Jason Webster
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What is smoke?

Smoke is usually defined as the combination of gaseous particles drifting in air. Smoke consists primarily of solid particles, including liquid particles sometimes suspended in air.

However, this definition is not accurate in every case. The correct definition is that smoke is a collection of particles (solid, liquid, or gas) which are so small in size that they can move through the air on their own.

How smoke flavors meat

All smokers have this question, “How does smoke flavor the meat?”

We all know that. For those of us who are experts or wannabe experts, we have the ability to explain the science behind smoke flavor. But for most folks, there is the question of how does smoke flavor the meat without actually knowing how it does it.

Here is a simple explanation of how smoke flavors the meat.

Smoke is not easy to understand. The flavor of smoke is carried in the vapor phase. When the vapor is dissolved into the meat, it is transferred into the cells through osmosis and diffusion. Then it diffuses back out into the surface of the meat and finally into your mouth.

So, when you take a bite of the meat, it doesn’t just taste like smoke. There is the flavor of the meat, the flavor of the smoke and the flavor of the water. All three are blended into one experience. I think that is why some of us like to call it a flavor enhancement.

The two-hour smoke saturation myth

We do not always have smoky backyards to practice barbecuing. Therefore, we need to know some important tips to keep the smoke from getting into our food. This is where the two-hour smoke saturation myth comes in.

This myth is often spread without any scientific reference, so let’s take a look at the science behind this phenomenon.

On one hand, smoke-saturated meat is delicious, as it is often accompanied by a smoky flavor and a crispy crust.

On the other hand, smoke is a result of combustion. Burning wood releases smoke, which contains hundreds of different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as acetaldehyde, aldehydes, benzene, benzoic acid, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and furans.

Combustion of wood is a complex process and is influenced by the amount of oxygen available and its temperature. Smoke is released into the air which travels long distances to the outside environment. That is why you can’t control it completely.

The two-hour myth claims that if you keep your food in smoke for more than two hours, you get so much smoke-saturated meat that it tastes and smells like ash.

What are the facts? Recent research examined the smoke penetration into food.

They found that depending on the type of food, relatively little smoke gets into the food.

Too much of a good thing?

Smoke can be good for you, when in right amounts. But excessive smoking can lead to health problems.

Smoking can land you as much as an 80-year-old by the time you are 40. Scientists have tried to understand the reasons why smoking shortens a person's lifespan.

One of the main culprits in cigarette smoke is that it causes oxidation of the body's cells. Oxidation is the process in which air, water, and other chemicals in the environment chemically affect our tissues, resulting in a number of physical ailments, including cancer and stroke.

In a study, scientists looked at oxidant LDL (low-density lipoprotein), and measured the amount of oxidant LDL in smokers. They found no significant difference between smokers and nonsmokers.

The researchers also measured blood lipid profiles in smokers and nonsmokers. Their results showed that smokers have higher levels of oxidant LDL than nonsmokers. Hence, they concluded that smoking raises the amount of oxidant LDL in the body.

The second mechanism by which smoking shortens lifespan is by increasing the risk of blood clots. As a result, smokers are at higher risk of heart disease.

To explain this, scientists at Harvard Medical studied more than 5,500 middle-aged women in the Women's Health Study. The researchers found that women who smoke are at at least twice the risk of a heart attack than women who do not smoke.

How to generate smoke

The first thing you probably want to know is how to make or get smoke. Smoke particles are small enough to be breathed into the lungs and harmful.

When smoke is generated, it first comes out of the tip of a lit cigarette. The smoke is then whipped around the burning tip of the cigarette by the wind. When it curls up, it’s inhaled by the smoker.

Smoke has many components but it is primarily made up of hot air, cigarette tar, ash, propane, and carbon monoxide. When inhaled, these destroy lung tissue.

Smoke contains many particles that are invisible to you, but not to the human eye. This is how smoke that is produced close to you creates a haze or smoke cloud effect. The bigger the smoke cloud, the more particles emitted from the cigarette.

The most common health effect from inhaling smoke is the development of lung cancer. Those who smoke tend to have a greater risk of diseases than nonsmokers.

The amount of time a person smokes determines how many smoke particles are inhaled, in relation to their health.

Different methods for generating smoke

The best woods for barbecue

When you barbecue, you will always encounter wood lovers and non-smokers.

Some people just love the smell of wood smoke and are obsessed with adding it to the menu. The other side of the spectrum will hate the smell and avoid using any wood at all.

The chatter around what wood to use is ongoing. Personally, I only use wood when smoking fish and lamb. Every time I try using it with beef, pork or chicken, it fails.

Personally, I don’t love the smell of smoking wood. That’s primarily the reason why I’m very picky with the wood I use when smoking salmon or lamb.

The best sorts of wood for smoking salmon or lamb is alder and maple. Another good choice is oak, but the flavor is hard to control. These woods produce less intense smoke and taste sweeter and milder than an average barbecue.

You require the right wood for the right meat flavor. Different wood smokes produce different flavors that will in turn impart that particular flavor on the meat.

The best instance of this is when you use apple wood to smoke bacon or sausage. That’s because the bacon is made from pork and the sausage pork and beef.

How wood burns

When you burn wood, it creates smoke. Even when you light a pile of wood in your backyard, you can see the smoke rising up into the air.

What is it made of and how did you create that smoke?

The smoke consists of water vapor, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other microscopic particles. The microscopic particles come from the flammable gases, or aerosols, that are released from the burning wood. A lot of the flammable gases are already present in the air we breathe. In fact, if you smell your wood burning, you’re actually inhaling these flammable gases.

The burning of wood heats up the water vapor, causing it to turn into water vapor. The change of state is called a phase transition. A lot of heat was required to change the water vapor into a gas, so you end up with a lot of heat in the gas so it expands rapidly. The rapid expansion of the gas then cools off rapidly, cools rapidly to lower energy levels.

When a gas is cooled below its condensation point, the water vapor that makes up the gas will condense back into the water.

Condensation results in a cloud of water droplets that are found in your chimney and rising up high into the air.

Good smoke vs bad smoke

The whole idea behind smoking food is to infuse a lot of smoke into the meat. You can see this as bluish smoke rising from the meat.

But just how much smoke is too much? The smoke is good when it is thick and white.

If it is thin and grayish, it is bad smoke. It is the same smoke that is produced when a cigarette is burning. The meat will be salty and will contain nitrites. This can even be dangerous.

But if the smoke is thick and white, it will contain water and will contain a lot of flavor. Then, the result will be crispy skin and a tender inside.

How to get good smoke


The common misconception that most folks have about a “smoke ring” is that it is a stain on the meat.

Actually, it is not. It is a chemical reaction of the burning process, which is created by burning the meat surface with high temperature so that only the outer layer of the meat is burnt and the center remains raw in pinkish color. Or in other words, the presence of a reddish-pink ring of color around the meat surface is none but the “smoke ring.”

The process of becoming a chard or blue-green ex-smoker is not a natural thing from the burning process. It is caused by cooking with some additional wood chips, or smoking the meat using a method like grill-smoking.

If you are making smoked meat for the first time, first you would want to go through some basic steps that should be followed while making a smoked food.

The smoke ring

Is a vortex flowing anti-clockwise, towards the center of the smoke ring. This moves the smoke outwards and away from the axis of the cylindrical vortex. But as the smoke rises, the cooling air sweeps around the edges of the vortex and closes it off.

Also, as the smoke rises and follows the edge of the vortex, the carbon particles in the smoke become oxidized – losing electrons.

These ions (electrically charged particles) attract the smoke particles, which are oppositely charged. This leads to condensation and forms the smoke ring. The central column of smoke is the densest part.

The vortex of the smoke ring is not static. It rotates faster when smoke particles are pushed against the vortex by the updraft of wind. This creates a very dense smoke ring because of the more quickly rotating vortex.

See for yourself the smoke rings in part 4.

How to get a good smoke ring

What makes that perfect hamburger irresistible or a gorgeous rack of ribs was always hard to explain, especially to non-BBQ gourmets. Smoke is part of that magic.

There’s a good reason why many folks add a few drops of liquid smoke to their meat marinade. When meat is smoked using the proper technique, the meat produces a ring of light carbon that surrounds the meat’s surface, and the meat acquires a distinctive flavor and aroma.

You can’t just throw meat on the grill or a cast iron pan and expect a smoke ring to accumulate.

There are some definite techniques that must be followed in order to get the right smoke ring.

Here are a few tips:

Marinade your meat first! The ingredients in your marinade can help break down the meat and soften the fibers. A great marinade contains an acidic ingredient to help break down proteins. A juice like lemon juice or vinegar works best. You can replace that with vinegar, sour cream, buttermilk or yogurt. Don’t forget to add some herbs in there too.

Smoking the meat can take time, so you can actually marinate it for 8 hours prior to smoking it.

NEVER wrap your meat with foil. The foil prevents the smoke from reaching the meat.

You can smoke more than just meat

Have you ever saved a little leftovers and tried to smoke them but with no luck? Smoke only freezes on clean surfaces where the smoke can effectively attach itsef to particles of the food. While dirty surfaces, causing smoke to whirl around the room. How do you achieve a clean surface and introduce smoke to a food?

In this chapter, I will take a step by step tour through the process of smoking a variety of foods. From eggs and bacon, to smoked salmon.

One note. What you’re going to smoke will begin to smell like smoke. It will not be pleasant to smoke in the same house that you’re going to cook a meal. It’s a good idea to go for a walk when you’re smoking.


It’s not until we are deprived of it that we realize how much we take for granted the most common and essential of natural resources … clean air.

Smoke can have devastating consequences, both for health and the environment. Before you let the smoke in your kitchen take control, take action and start cooking with reliable alternatives: cook with a leaf blower.

Depending on when your smoke was released, a strong leaf blower can move the smoke and fumes from most rooms. Use the current leaf blower in your home to clean out your living space.

If you’re really in need to down a saucy steak then head on over to your local steakhouse, where you can expect the worst smoke in the world to get worse.

Which Is Better? Ribeye vs Sirloin Steak

If you’re comparing a sirloin steak versus a ribeye steak from the same cow, and the two are cooked identically, they should have very similar nutritional profiles.

The difference between a ribeye and a sirloin is the location of muscle. The ribeye is a steak from the rib section, while the sirloin is a muscle just below the ribeye. The sirloin is a bit more tender than a ribeye.

The flavor of ribeye and sirloin is very similar, however, so if you can’t tell the difference between both, it is probably because the sirloin steak was a bit overcooked.

The ribeye is a little more meaty than a sirloin, and it’s also a bit more expensive. You might pay about a dollar per ounce more for a ribeye than a sirloin steak.

In my opinion, if everything else is equal, you should just go with a ribeye versus a sirloin because it’s a bit more meaty.