A General Guide To Smoking

Introduction

Along with drying and salting, smoking is another old form of food preservation. Not so long ago, the smokehouse was a familiar sight on farms and ranches. The size of a small shed, it was generally constructed of wood. The earthen floor held a firepit and in the roof was a vent that provided air circulation. A fire was kept smoldering in the pit, occasionally fed with hickory to keep the smoke coming.

This was the final step in preserving food for families who raised their own poultry, beef, and pork. If fishing went exceptionally well, the surplus also found its way to the smokehouse. Smoking served two functions: to be a preservative and to impart flavor to foods. The smoking was finished by the holidays, providing smoked ham, turkey, or goose for Christmas dinner.

Smoking has gone totally modern and you no longer need to live on a farm or have an outbuilding dedicated to this method of food preservation. You can choose from electric, gas, hybrid, or charcoal smokers you can fire up on your back deck or patio. Obviously, the amount of food able to be smoked in these smaller units doesn’t come close to what the old smokehouse could handle, but if don’t need to feed an army, these new appliances might be just what you’re looking for. These compact models have built-in thermostats and wireless technology that allows you to monitor your smoker from anywhere in the house, and if you have a combination smoker/grill function, you can smoke and cook with the same appliance. Additionally, indoor models that fit on your countertop are also available. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of these various types later in this chapter.

The Science Behind Smoking

Rack of seasoned meats in a modern smoker grill

Smoking is another method of drying foods that helps prevent insects from contaminating the meats being preserved in this way. Smoking generally follows salting, which is covered in Chapter 21. Once foods have been salted, they’re ready for the finishing touch of the smokehouse. As we’ve noted in previous chapters, moisture, molds, yeasts, and bacteria are the enemies we must conquer in our quest to preserve foods. Each method touched on in this book addresses those issues. Smoking imparts flavor, and in the case of hot smoking, it also preserves foods. There are two general categories of smoking: cold and hot. In the Resources section at the end of this book, you’ll find links to approved, research-based instructions for safe home smoking. Meat, poultry, and even some cheeses are good candidates for cold smoking. Fish falls into a different category and is only recommended for hot smoking.

So what’s the difference between cold and hot smoking? Time and temperature, with temperature the most important part of the equation. In the traditional smokehouse, a cold-smoking process is used. The meat is smoked over a smoldering fire for anywhere from 2 days to 1 week or more. The temperature of that fire is somewhere in the vicinity of 85°F (30°C) and that means the foods being smoked are being processed in the danger zone of temperatures—between 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C), the place where rapid growth of bacteria could occur. Because of this, only meat products that have been fermented, salted, or cured should be handled in this fashion. Most cold-smoked foods should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F (70°C) before being consumed. Cold smoking shouldn’t be considered a preservative but rather a flavor enhancer.

If you’re interested in hot smoking, you’ll probably purchase a portable smoker. Hot smoking is a method of food preservation, and with the assistance of rubs, marinades, and liquid smoke products, it also imparts flavor. Modern smokers (gas, electric, hybrid, charcoal) are designed as hot smokers. They process meat well above the danger zone, at temperatures above 150°F (65°C) and often in the 215°F to 225°F (105°C to 110°C) range. Meats processed in this manner are considered safe to eat.

Both cold-smoked and hot-smoked foods should be refrigerated after smoking. You need to know about the history of canning.

Supplies

Whether you go the smokehouse or the back deck/patio smoker route, you’ll need some basic supplies to get the job done. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Long-handled spatula and tongs
  • Racks and grill brush
  • Heat-resistant gloves
  • Sturdy cutting board
  • Set of good knives
  • Workstation
  • Wireless thermometer and probe
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Building Your Own Smokehouse

If you plan to do quite a bit of smoking, you might consider building your own smokehouse. A simple internet search will acquaint you with a good variety of plans to choose from.

Before you begin, check to see what your local ordinances require so you’ll be in compliance. These requirements might include permits and inspections. Generally, the smokehouse must be made of noncombustible materials and must be located at a safe distance from other structures. Your local fire marshal is the one who makes those determinations.

The smokehouse will need a roof vent and a firepit in the center of the floor. Generally, the pit is about 2 feet (60cm) deep and 2 feet (60cm) wide. You’re not going to have a raging fire in the pit—the process is to make a cold smoke. That means a bed of coals that smoke and smolder while the meat is being smoked.

Cold smoking in the smokehouse needs to be done during cool but not freezing weather. Late autumn and early spring usually provide the best chances for temperatures to hover in the 30s and 40s Fahrenheit (between -1°C and 10°C).

It’s best not to interrupt the smoking process, but if you must, refrigerate the meat until you can resume. After smoking is complete (and the process generally takes several days), the meat is wrapped for storing in a cool, dry place or is placed in the freezer (the better choice). If your winter climate is severe, you want to avoid having your smoked meat freeze, thaw, refreeze, etc. This causes the quality to deteriorate, so it’s best to either use the meat or freeze it.

Line is strung across the inside of the smokehouse and the meat gets hung from that. Each piece of meat should hang freely and not touch another piece. Keeping the meat separate helps prevent spoiling. Meat usually hangs 4 to 5 feet (120 to 150cm) above the pit. When the smoking has been completed, the smokehouse can serve as a storage facility.

Let the Chips Fall Where They May

The most commonly used woods for smoking are apple, hickory, and maple. Evergreen woods, such as pine, spruce, and fir, are high in resins and aren’t suitable as smoking materials. During the smoking process, creosote and other resinous products could deposit themselves on the food. Not good—or good for you!

If you don’t cut and split your own wood, you can purchase chips, flakes, or pellets at the hardware store. Before using these products, soak them in water to prevent them from burning up the minute you set them on the fire. You add these to the charcoal in small amounts—about ½ cup—to get that good aroma going.

Charcoal is also useful for smoking, but be selective in the kind of charcoal you use. Cheaper charcoal can be made from compressed sawdust and other wood waste products that are glued together and then burned to achieve the charcoal appearance. Following the firing process, they’re saturated with lighter fluid—these are the “quick start” briquettes. Avoid them.

You might need to search a bit more diligently to find real charcoal and it might cost a bit more, but the search is worth it. Real charcoal is simply wood that’s been cooked in a metal kiln or metal barrel by indirect heat so the gases are driven out.

Smoking Beef in the Smokehouse

Select the cut of meat you want to smoke and then cut out the joints and other large bones to keep the meat from turning sour while it’s smoking. Trim as much fat as you can from the outside of the meat to help prevent it from turning the meat rancid.

Cut the meat into sections. Always cut across the grain. This will give you more tender meat and will hasten the smoking process. Pierce the meat with a hook and insert a piece of heavy twine. Be sure you’ve allowed enough space so the twine doesn’t rip through the meat and dump the meat into the pit. String the meat up on the line.

Smoking Pork in the Smokehouse

Pork is handled a bit differently from beef in that you don’t remove the fat or the bone, except for ball and socket joints. Pierce the meat with a hook and insert a piece of heavy twine. Hang the meat from the line. During the smoking process, fat will render from the carcass and this shouldn’t be disturbed.

Smoking Poultry in the Smokehouse

Think beyond chicken and turkey when you’re envisioning smoked poultry. Goose and duck are excellent when smoked, and they’re no more trouble than a chicken. Again, fresh is best. If you’re butchering your own chicken, had a successful bird season, or are using commercially raised poultry, keep the birds refrigerated until you’re ready to brine—and get to the brining within a couple of days to get the best results.

You can purchase special poultry bags for hanging poultry from farm or hunting supply stores or you can wrap the birds in cheesecloth. This keeps them from drying out during smoking. Hang them tail up and with enough room between them for the air to circulate. You’ll be using a hot-smoke method and the poultry will be ready to eat when you’re finished.

Set the temperature to 170°F (75°C) for 6 to 10 hours to allow the skin to turn a light brown. Then raise the temperature to 185°F to 200°F (85°C to 95°C) and hold it at this level until the interior of the bird is 165°F (75°C), as determined by a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest portion of the breast.

After smoking, the poultry is ready to eat. It will keep in the refrigerator for several days, but if you aren’t going to be eating it by then, it’s best to freeze it.

Thawing

If you’ll be working with meat that’s frozen, it’s important to thaw it first. The safest way to do this is in the refrigerator. Smaller cuts will thaw overnight, but larger cuts might take a day or two to thaw. Planning ahead becomes an important part of smoking.

Why thaw first? If you’re cold smoking, frozen meat will linger too long in the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F (5°C to 60°C) and that encourages harmful bacteria to grow.

Marinades & Rubs

Some people prefer their meats without fancy marinades and rubs, while others prefer the zest a little extra treatment can give. Check out www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com for a good list of marinades and rubs to try.

Rubs are dry mixtures of spices. You can find a wide variety at any specialty store or mix up your own. Most include brown sugar, cumin, paprika, garlic—the possibilities are endless. They do more than intensify the flavor though. They form a light crust around the meat, sealing in the good juices while your meat is in the hot smoker.

Marinades are a mix of spices along with an acidic base made either from vinegar or even wine. Their principal function is to tenderize the meat before cooking. Italian salad dressing, barbecue sauces, and balsamic vinegar with Dijon mustard are just a few options. Mix up your concoction and put it in a food-safe plastic storage bag with a zip closure, add the meat, and turn the bag frequently to keep the marinade soaking all the meat. If your recipe calls for marinating the meat for a period of time, be sure to do that marinating in the refrigerator. Again, you want to keep meat in the temperature safety zone. And always boil any leftover marinade that’s been used for meat and poultry before you serve it at the table. Make sure you bring it to a rolling boil for a full minute before transferring it to a serving container.

Portable Smokers

With the various types, sizes, and price points of these appliances, you should be able to find a smoker that’s the perfect fit for what you want to do. Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of each type.

Gas Smokers

These come in two types: natural gas and propane. If you choose a natural gas model, you’ll have it professionally hooked it up to your home’s supply system. If you go with propane, you’ll need a tank. These are easy to find and generally come in a 20-pound (9.1kg) size. There will be a place over the heat source for the chips, flakes, or pellets you’ll use to flavor your meats.

Gas smokers have dials for regulating gas flow and, thus, temperature, but instruction manuals will guide you through the learning curve. One advantage of gas is that when it’s on, it’s on and when it’s off, it’s off—instantly.

Electric Smokers

Just plug these in and you’re ready to go. The pricier models have wireless technology, which is a nice feature, and with their built-in thermostats, they’re very easy to use. If you go lower on the price range, you’ll be adjusting the dials until you get the correct temperature for what you’re smoking.

Electric smokers take a bit of time to heat up and turn off, unlike the gas types, which are immediate on and off. But for convenience, electric wins. However, purists feel that gas smokers produce a more flavorful product than electric models.

Other Smokers

Charcoal smokers require a bit more hands-on activity, so be prepared to settle in for the long haul while you keep an eye on the temperature and airflow. This isn’t the type of smoker where price doesn’t matter. It does, so if you want charcoal, be prepared to spend what it takes to get a really good one.

Offset smokers are also an option, but again, don’t take the cheap route. Cheap means flimsy—and flimsy means uneven heating and smoked meat that can be overdone in one part of the smoker and underdone in another. Also, when you think about it, smoke rises—it doesn’t prefer to go sideways. Just some things to chew on when you’re considering your purchase. Take the time to do your research. There are many online sites that discuss the pros and cons of specific brands and it’s well worth your time to check these out before you invest in a unit.

Common Sense & Safety

Common sense sometimes isn’t all that common. Whether you’re using a commercially manufactured portable smoker or have improvised one on your own, don’t be tempted to cut corners or take shortcuts when you’re smoking meats. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Heed these general cautions:

  • Don’t use galvanized steel cans or garbage cans as improvised smokers. Chemicals released by them during smoking can contaminate your foods.
  • Use approved fire starters. Don’t use gasoline or paint thinner to get the fire going. And never squirt a shot of lighter fluid onto a smoldering charcoal bed to get it flaming. You might end up with more flame than you anticipated.
  • Set up the smoker in a well-ventilated area that’s away from any flammable structures, such as shrubbery or your home.
  • Don’t work in the dark. Be sure you have plenty of light.
  • Use insulated mitts to transfer hot items.
  • Roll up your sleeves or, even better, don’t wear long sleeves or baggy clothes when working with fire.
  • Don’t bring an outside smoker inside. Smokers give off a good deal of smoke. You don’t want the fire department making a visit because the smoke alarms keep going off. You also don’t want your house to reek of smoke forever.
  • The Finished Product

How long you’ll smoke the meat depends on the size and shape of the cut as well as the temperature of the coals and the size of the smoker. The goal is to arrive at the safe minimum internal temperature:

  • 145°F (65°C) for chops, roasts, and whole cuts of beef, veal, and lamb
  • 160°F (70°C) for all pork, ground beef, ground veal, and ground lamb
  • 165°F (75°C) for all poultry
  • Smoking Fish

Unlike meats, which should be lean, you want fish to be the high-fat varieties. This means salmon and trout smoke quite well. Fat absorbs smoke more readily than lean tissues, so lean fish can be dry and tough when you smoke them. For fish, think fat!

Preparation

Grilled steak with char marks on barbecue grill

Fresh. That’s the first rule of working with fish. If you’ve caught the fish, keep them iced until you’re able to clean them—and don’t wait too long to clean them. Fish to be smoked should be in excellent condition, without rips, bruising, and other damage to the flesh. As with any other means of preserving foods, the process of preserving won’t improve on the quality of what you’ve started with. As soon as you can, prepare the fish for brining. (See Chapter 21.)

When brining is complete, remove the fish from the brine, rinse them in cool water, and let them dry—skin side down—on greased racks. The grease keeps the skins from sticking to the rack. Fish should be dry within a couple of hours. You’ll know they’re ready for the smoker when the flesh has a shine, known as a “pellicle.” Get more information on food preservation methods.

Method

Hot smoking uses a short time in the brine followed by a short time in the smoker. In any case, you’re looking for a uniform brown color on the fish. For hot smoking, you’ll set the temperature at 90°F (35°C) for the initial 2 hours and then raise it to 150°F (65°C) until the fish is finished (anywhere from 4 to 8 hours). Hot smoking will kill parasites that fish are notorious for harboring. The fish will need to be refrigerated after the smoking process and should be used within a few days.

If you won’t be using the fish immediately, it’s best to freeze them. Coat the fish lightly with vegetable oil to prevent them from drying out and oxidizing during storage. Then wrap them in moisture/vapor-resistant freezer wrap and overwrap with aluminum foil or place them in freezer bags. Seal, label, date, and freeze.

Smoked fish cans beautifully and you’ll have a supply that won’t need to be thawed before you use it. See Chapter 12 for directions.

Be sure there’s enough room in the smoker for the air to circulate around the fish. Also make sure they’re not touching each other.

Storage

For smoked meats that will be used soon, refrigeration is fine, but if you’ve smoked a whole ham or roast or goose or 2 or 12, you’ll be storing them in the freezer after the smoking process is complete. Before you reach for the aluminum foil for the big wrap, stop and think about how you’re going to use this meat. What are the recipes you’re likely to use? How will the meat for these be prepared? Slices? Smaller roasts? This is the time to use those good knives and cut slices off the ham or roast or whatever you’ve smoked, wrap them in meal-sized portions, and use your vacuum sealer before consigning them to the freezer. Then when you want to use your smoked meats and poultry for salads or soups or whatever, you won’t be confronted with frozen slabs of meat the size of the Rockies. And don’t forget to label and date each package.

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