The Science of Smoke

Pro Joe Kamado Joe Grill cooking with Desora BBQ

Smoke-infused food tastes good. One of the main reasons for grilling, and furthermore for using a charcoal grill, is smoke. However, the interplay of food and smoke is far from simple. In order to cook like a pitmaster, you will need to understand what smoke is made of and how it interacts with your food.


The Charcoal Grill: Prime Source of Smoke

The charcoal grill naturally produces tasty smoke, but what precisely is in smoke made of?  Smoke is a mixture of heated air, gases released from combustion, large flavorful molecules and tiny particles. It rises due to the buoyancy of hot gas. All of these aspects develop rich flavor in food cooked on a charcoal grill. Hence, the tastiness of smoke-infused food. Using smoke from flavorful hardwoods further enhances this process.


Smoke-Infused Food: Tasty or Tarry?

It’s very important to choose only hardwood, such as hickory, apple, or cherry wood, for smoking food. Softwoods, such as pine, contain a lot of tar, which tastes terrible and can be hazardous. Also, the water content of the hardwood matters. Freshly cut wood produces so much water vapor that it prevents the food from absorbing the smoke. Therefore the best wood for smoking is dry hardwood, to which you can add a measured amount of water to control how fast it burns. After that, the choice is up to your personal tastes.


Cook Like a Pitmaster: Work With the Fat

Fatty foods absorb smoke better. They also cook up with a much more juicy texture on the grill. Indeed, fat has several roles to play in smoke-infused food.

What we call ‘fat’ in terms of meat is actually built on a collagen structure. When cooked slowly, the collagen breaks down into gelatin. This gelatin soaks the meat, retaining moisture and improving juiciness. As well, it attaches to the flavor molecules in the smoke, sticking them to the meat. 

Wood also breaks down when exposed to heat. One of its major components is cellulose, which breaks down into simple sugars. These are carried by the smoke to the meat, where they caramelize and react with proteins to create rich savory flavors.

Finally, fat molecules also bind directly to flavor molecules in smoke, then melt. Therefore they baste the meat’s internal fibers with smoke-infused fat, supplementing the gelatin in making the meat richly flavorful and juicy. 


Smoke in Grilling: Variations

Smoke functions in grilling in many ways, depending on its temperature.  It can act as a cooking medium, like water or steam, to directly cook the food. This works well for more delicate lower-fat foods like white fish and chicken breasts. Smoke can also contribute deep flavor during long slow cooking, as in classic barbecue. Moreover, smoke can even provide preserving qualities, extending the storage life of foods like pastrami. Smoke is as versatile as it is delicious!

A Note On The Smoke Ring

The smoke ring is that beautiful pink layer just beneath the surface of well-smoked food. It’s considered a sure sign that you can cook like a pitmaster. However, you may be surprised to know that only certain components of smoke produce that color. Technically you could cause a smoke ring without smoke! The smoke ring happens when two gases produced by burning (Nitric oxide and carbon monoxide) interact with myoglobin, an oxygen-carrying pigment in meat. While combustion, such as from a charcoal grill, creates that beautiful pink ring, the visible smoke has nothing to do with it. But it still tastes good.


Smoke is a delicious aspect of grilling, and deserves to be well understood. To cook like a pitmaster and to enjoy smoke-infused food at its best, become familiar with the features and abilities of smoke on the grill.