Curing And Smoking

Introduction

Curing, a method used to preserve meats and fish, can be used as a preservation method on its own or as a prelude to the smoking process. It is a method of preservation using salt, sugar, and/or nitrate, with salt being the key ingredient in the curing process, while sugar and nitrate may be optional. No matter what method you choose, salt is always part of the curing process.

Curing

Vintage jar lifter and bottles in metal bucket

Salt removes water from the meat, slowing its oxidation and preventing the meat from becoming rancid. And, although the salt by itself does not actually kill the bacteria it does slow it down.

Sugar plays against the strong flavor of the salt and feeds beneficial bacteria. During the curing process, sugar may take the form of maple syrup, corn syrup, white or brown sugar, or honey.

Nitrates kill harmful bacteria, enhance flavor, and provide the appealing red or pink color that cured meats have. Without nitrates the meat takes on an unappetizing gray color. However, while nitrates are a necessary ingredient in curing sausage (and other dry meats) to prevent botulinum toxin (which causes botulism) the use of nitrates is now in question. This is due to the fact that when there is a high concentration of nitrates present, and the cured food is cooked at high temperatures, nitrosamines may be produced which may be carcinogenic in animals. While the debate goes on, some find celery juice to be a respectable replacement for nitrates. But like nitrates, this too is under debate as to whether it is a good replacement or not. In the end, it comes down to the individual doing their due diligence and choosing their preferred method.

Methods of Curing

There are four methods of curing:

  1. Dry
  2. Wet
  3. Combination
  4. Salt curing

1. Dry Curing:

Dry curing is a salt cure with nitrates. A rub mixture is applied generously by hand. The meats are then packed tightly into a tub or large container, with drainage. Curing time will depend on how much meat is being cured, but the rule of thumb is two days per pound for small cuts of meat and three days per pound for larger cuts, such as ham and pork shoulder. Dry cured meats will experience a 15–20 percent loss in water weight.

Dry curing is the best method to use in hot climates. It is excellent for curing bacon, ham and sausages, especially if you plan on air drying.

2. Wet Curing:

Wet curing is basically curing using a salt water base, also known as a brine. The addition of sugar turns it into a sweet brine, which some may also refer to as a sweet pickling brine.

Wet curing is commonly used with hams or butts and is most often used in conjunction with smoking. It is a slow method, with the meat being submerged into the brine for up to two weeks at 40 degrees.

This curing process also has some other drawbacks. The meat will need to be turned for even distribution of the solution. The surface of the brine solution will need to be skimmed periodically to prevent possible contamination. There is also a risk of the meat spoiling, especially close to the bone, if not done correctly. Therefore, if this is your method of choice, spend some time doing your homework on the proper way to wet cure the cut of meat that you have selected.

Curing prosciutto in a sea salt solution. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

3. Combination:

The combination method of curing is simply using a combination of the dry and wet curing methods. In using this method, the dry cure is done first then after a few days brine is added to the container, immersing the meat. (For the combination method, you do not want to use a container with drainage). Curing time will depend on the cut of meat, but can range from four days on up, after which the meat would be smoked, usually using the cold smoked method.

4. Salt Curing:

Basically another form of dry curing, salt curing is still used with some meats. The difference between this and dry curing is the absence of nitrates in the salt rub. Air-dried hams, such as prosciutto, are cured in this way.

The salt concentration needs to be at least 10 percent for safety purposes. Salt curing is the fastest method of curing, as it quickly pulls and removes the water from the meat. Curing time with this method will depend on the meat, but an average 10 pound ham could take up to seven months to complete, as salt curing also involves air drying the meat and not smoking it.

It should be noted that along with the salt, nitrate, and/or sugars, herbs and spices may be added to the curing rubs or brine for additional flavor. Salt curing is the good curing system but you have to know about the basics of home canning.

Smoking

Shelf of jars against a stone wall in black and white

One method of preservation that has been making a big comeback in home preserving is smoking. Once common only on farms, where the family smokehouse would preserve meats so that after the late fall/winter slaughter time the family could be kept in meat through the winter, today smokers and small smokehouses can be found in many backyards, small camps, and restaurants throughout the country.

The smoking of foods is done slowly using low heat. You can smoke meats, cheese, fish, peppers (chipotle peppers are simply smoked jalapeños), and more.

The Types of Smoking

There are four types of smokers that are normally used by the home smoker:

  1. Electric
  2. Charcoal
  3. Propane
  4. Water and steam

The first three options—electric, charcoal, and propane—are the most common types found in the home. However, if a smoker is not an option for you at this point, then a regular charcoal grill can also work by putting heat on one side only while the meat sits on the cold side. This will give the same indirect heat and smoke result that you would get from a small backyard smoker.

As smokers come in all different sizes, shapes and types, you will need to operate yours according to the specific instructions that come with it. And, at least for the first few times that you use it, it would also be advantageous to use the recipes that either came with the smoker or are in a cookbook with recipes specifically for smokers. Once you have the know-how you can go off on your own and create some of your own dishes. But, there is one point of instruction which is necessary to follow with all smokers. When you are filling your smoker with the food you are planning to smoke do so only in the amounts recommended by the manufacturer. Otherwise it can slow down the smoking process. In addition, the food should not touch each other, as this can lead to underdone spots on your food, especially if you started with raw meats.

The Methods of Smoking

Along with there being different types of smokers, there are also different methods of smoking. The two methods or processes that the home smoker will commonly use are:

  1. Hot smoking
  2. Cold smoking

1. Hot Smoking:

The hot smoking method is what typically comes to mind when a person thinks of smoking food. This method uses both smoke and heat, fully cooking the foods that are (usually) hung in the smoker. Because this method fully cooks the foods and kills most of the common bacteria, you can usually eat hot smoked foods without any additional cooking. Hot smoking is what gives you the pink smoke ring on meats (which you would see when cutting the meat open), under the bark (or crust) or skin. The short, very simple explanation of a smoke ring is that it is caused by a reaction of gases from the smoke and the myoglobin (the pigment which gives muscles their color) in the meat. It is worth mentioning that while these pink smoke rings are coveted among smoked meat enthusiasts, it does not seem to add to the flavor of the meat.

Hot smoking temperature is at least 150°F.

2. Cold Smoking:

Cold smoking is for flavor enhancement only. The meat must be already cured beforehand, as cold smoking does not cook the meat. It is basically smoking without the heat.

Cold smoking temperature is usually at 100°F or less.

Hanging meat preserving in a smokehouse.

Flavorful Fuels

When using smokers—especially charcoal, but with the other types of smokers as well—wood is needed to create the smoke that will preserve and flavor the meat. Due to their slow burning traits and lack of sap or resin, hardwoods are commonly used. The most popular types are apple, mesquite, oak, hickory, maple, cherry, and pecan. It used to be that the type of wood you used depended upon what was readily available in your area. Now, with the availability of all types of hardwood chips and chunks for smoking in any number of home, hardware, and outdoor stores the available choices are much less limited.

The process of producing the smoke simply consists of wet wood chips or chunks interacting with a heating source within the smoker, with the source dependent upon the type of smoker being used. The smoke and heat both cures (basically cooks) and preserves the food. Get informed about pressure canning basics.

Brining

Some foods (primarily meats) will need some preparation before being placed within the smoker. This is so that the meat does not dry out during the smoking process. This process is called brining. Brine is basically a saltwater solution that will add approximately 10 percent water weight to the meat, which will help to offset the 20 percent water weight that the meat will lose during the smoking process. The percentage of saltwater will depend on the meat being smoked. Any brining recipe you use will give you the correct percentage, but it is usually a 3 percent solution (2 tablespoons salt per 1 quart water) or a 6 percent solution (4 tablespoons salt per 1 quart water). Many brine recipes will also add a sweetener such as sugar or honey, to prevent the smoked meat from becoming too salty. Brining can take anywhere from hours to days depending on the recipe. When the meat is removed from the brine the brine should be discarded, as it will now contain raw meat juices and is not safe to reuse.

Once the meat is removed from the brine, it can be put into the smoker as is; additionally, it can be given an extra layer of flavor by using a dry rub or marinade before smoking. This is only an option. The average smoking time of meat is one and a half hours per pound; however, this may vary based on your smoker’s performance or the meat you are using. As with any meat, smoked meat should be at the correct temperature for that particular meat before removing from the smoker. Always test the smoked meat with a meat thermometer before removing. Some recipes may call for the meat to be “fall off the bone” done. This is just as it says – the meat will actually fall right off the bone when ready. Smoked meat should also be moist and tender.

When smoking cheese, cold smoking is the process that is used; you want to flavor the cheese, not cook it. There is no set time to cold smoke your cheese; continue smoking until you get the color and flavor that you’re looking for.

Vegetables can be easily smoked by cutting them into chunks or pieces (depending on the vegetables you are using), placing them in a pan, brushing them with oil and putting them in a smoker until tender. Some, like peppers, may be smoked whole.

Smoking will give foods a wonderful flavor, but it is also a slow process that will take time and patience. It will also take time to master. You will need to watch your temperatures, making sure the smoker maintains the necessary heat level for what you are doing, and adjust the smoker accordingly as per its directions when necessary. Although it is not a process where you can preserve your food and have it ready to eat in a half hour, and it is not an instant gratification way of preparing food, the finished product is definitely worth the wait.

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