The Science of Smoke

from Dr. Matt Lowrance, "The BBQ Doctor"


When I first started cooking BBQ I wanted to know what was going on chemically. I needed all the help I could get and I thought that if I understood what the basic science was behind smoking, I could produce a better product. I hit the books started cooking more and became an MBN trained BBQ judge. Here is what I found.

1: wood/charcoal is burned creating smoke which is particulate matter of the material burned.

2: This produces NO2 or Nitrogen dioxide. The more wood, the more smoke and the more NO2 produced. (don't want to over do it! BITTER) This mixes with the surface of the meat and dissolves.

3: It becomes acidic losing an oxygen molecule and wanting to bind with something to become a more stable compound.

That led me to ask "what is in the meat that really wants oxygen?" The meat that we cook is muscle and, since it is no longer alive, it is without an active vascular supply to bring it oxygen via the blood stream in the hemoglobin molecule. So what's in there? Myoglobin. That is the oxygen binding component in muscle that holds oxygen in the tissue. (When you exercise and get sore, you are pulling oxygen from the myoglobin making an acidic environment in your muscles. That's why it hurts!!) This is similar to what we are doing with meat when we smoke it. Creating an acidic environment and allowing the meat to bind and pull this acid into it.

4: The myoglobin in the muscle tissue binds to the acidic nitrous created from the smoke introduced and dissolved into the surface of the meat. This creates the red color and that great flavor.

The absolute necessary element in BBQ and in any chemical reaction is energy. In this case it is heat. Low, slow and very controlled. That is what is so unique about southern BBQ.

Chuck, you're on to something. Can you start to see why I am so excited about the cooking technique and especially the Stacker Smokers? They maximize the natural process of these reactions. The inside of the Stacker is the perfect environment for making this happen. The technique gets the natural flavors to come out. Adding a rub/marinade or whatever LATER in the cooking cycle not only adds flavor but creates a barrier and helps to seal this inside the meat. Like you always say...balance is still the key. The difficult part is controlling the heat and keeping moisture in the environment and I think we know how the Stacker does with that. The drawer system is the ultimate in control and the natural convection, water pan and the other elements of the smoker….well let's just say I am more than impressed.

This isn't the secret to winning championships. Or is it?

The fundamental elements of smoking and cooking are what cooks and teams need to know in order to understand what they are doing. Once these processes are understood at the basic level, I believe the doors fly open as to the possibilities with cooking BBQ. I think the teams that get this are the ones that are able to win and keep winning. The Stacker does better than any other I have ever seen at giving the most optimal environment for the physiology of smoking meat. It lets you blame only yourself for not winning.

Dr. Matt Lowrance
"The BBQ Doctor"