Smoking Meat

Introduction

As explained, there are several preservation techniques commonly used for increasing the shelf life of different products. One such food preservation technique is smoking. This is a great way to treat foods by preventing any spoilage caused by pathogens. Smoking is a preservation technique that promotes the shelf life of the product and improves its flavor profile. It helps flavor, cook, and preserves the food by exposing it to steady smoke. Smoke is generated by burning plant material such as wood or even hardwood. While it is mostly a commercial process, it can be carried out at home provided you have the right equipment.

Methods of Smoking

Meat grilling on outdoor barbecue with smoke

The two methods are commonly used for smoking are hot and cold smoking.

In hot smoking, the food is directly exposed to smoke in a controlled environment. Smoked foods can be cooked or reheated as and when required. They are also ready for consumption with no further cooking. The usual temperature range for hot smoking is between 125-180°F. When food is exposed to this temperature, it’s normally cooked internally. The ideal temperature for most cooked meats is around 180°F. So, if the ingredients are exposed to hot smoke, you can consume them immediately. Foods tend to retain their moisture and texture at this heat level while a smoky flavor is added. If the temperature increases beyond this, foods can lose their moisture, and the fat starts drying. Usually, smoking is used combined with other preservation techniques such as curing or drying. For example, once foods are salt-cured, they are smoked to increase their shelf life.

This brings us to the next smoking method known as cold smoking. This is more of a flavor enhancer than a cooking technique. It is commonly used for improving the flavor of chicken breast, pork chops, scallops, steak, and even salmon. The temperature used for this is between 68-90°F. The temperature is maintained at this level with the aim of moisture retention. It is not meant for food preservation. It’s simply about adding a smoky flavor to the food. So, foods that are cold smoked shouldn’t be consumed immediately, and instead, they need to be cured before they are cold smoked. When meats are cured, the moisture in them is removed, which prevents bacterial growth. Once the meat is cured and preserved using any other technique, it can be cold smoked.

Benefits of Smoking Meats

Smoke is believed to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. This means that any pathogens present on the surface of meat are eliminated, as are their chances of reappearing. However, smoking cannot be used as a standalone preservation technique. The problem is that the compound of smoke only sticks to the outer surface of the food, and it does not penetrate the meat or the food you are trying to preserve. So, the antioxidant and antimicrobial properties of smoke are restricted to the external surfaces of the meat. This is why smoking needs to be combined with other preservation techniques such as salt curing or drying.

Whenever wood is burned, its smoke contains phenol and certain phenolic compounds believed to be natural antioxidants. Oxidation is a process that occurs when the structure of the molecules is changed due to oxygen exposure. A common example of damage caused by the oxidation of food is rancidity. Food goes bad when left exposed to the elements for prolonged periods. So, the helpful compounds in wood smoke curtail the rancidification of fats present in meat, fish, and even poultry. This, coupled with antimicrobial agents such as formaldehyde, acetic acid, and several other helpful organic acids, reduces the pH of smoke. The usual pH of smoke is around 2.5. This low level of pH makes it difficult for pathogens to survive.

Besides prolonging the shelf life of food, smoking also elevates the flavor profile. Smoked meats are simply delicious! Once the meats are smoked and preserved, they can be stored for up to one year at the right temperature! This gives you easy access to the required ingredients whenever you want to cook. This certainly makes the meat more appetizing and flavorful. The color of the meat also changes once it is smoked. The meats seem shinier and redder. This simply makes them more appealing.

Risks to Consider

Too much of anything is bad. Everything needs to be balanced in every aspect of your life, which is true for diet. Eating too much of anything is not good for your body. So, eating too much smoked food is certainly not good for you. A common reason is the active compounds released from wood during smoking dries out the food. This essentially means the substances from smoke are incorporated into your food. Increased consumption of smoked food is associated with an increased risk of different types of cancers. Read on to learn more about the disadvantages associated with smoking food.

Smoking is a tedious process that requires specific equipment and plenty of attention. It can be a little expensive in terms of the resources involved. Keeping the moisture content low must be a priority while smoking. If not, it increases the risk of pathogen contamination. While smoking, if the fire is too hot, or if there isn’t sufficient heat or smoke, the meat can quickly go bad before it is properly smoked.

Potential carcinogens can also be present in smoked food. This is due to the transference process responsible for smoking. Apart from the helpful phenols released by burning wood, certain hydrocarbons known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are also released. PAHs are believed to be food contaminants that increase the risk of gastrointestinal cancer. In recent research undertaken by the American Chemical Society, a simple way to reduce the risk of exposure to carcinogens is by taking a leaf from the auto industry’s playbook. The zeolite filters used in automobiles filter harmful compounds and reduce air pollution. By using such filters fitted to smokers, the risk of carcinogens can be reduced. Once again, it is important to note the real problem starts if you consume too much smoked meat. Eating it occasionally is not harmful.

However, it is worth noting that the research is not definitive, and more evidence is needed to prove the case.

Chapter 4: Basic Things to Note Before Smoking

The modern concept of smoking food is a continuation of an age-old technique of food preservation. Before chemical preservatives and refrigeration were invented, smoke was used to extend the shelf life of ingredients, especially meats. In the previous chapter, you were introduced to the different reasons smoke is believed to be a preservative. From acetic acid and formaldehyde to the low PH level, smoke has several antioxidant and antimicrobial properties that prolong its shelf life. It’s not just about prolonging the shelf life, but it also reduces any risk of contamination.

These days, smoking is mostly about tenderizing meats and enhancing their flavor. However, it doesn’t mean you can’t use it to preserve food. Once you get the hang of smoking, don’t restrict yourself to meat. These days, nuts, vegetables, fruits, and even different types of cheese are smoked! Before you smoke food, here are some important things you should consider. Get more information on preserving wild foraged foods through fermentation and canning.

Consider the Cut of the Meat

Hand flipping steaks on a smoky grill

Whenever you think about smoking something, it’s important to determine the ingredient you wish to smoke. From poultry and different types of meat to fish, different things can be smoked. Why is it important to consider the cut of the meat here? Depending on the thickness of the cut, the time required for smoking will differ. The most common cuts used for smoking include all the motion muscles. For instance, spareribs from the belly, loin, beef brisket, and ribs are the most common meat cuts chosen for smoking.

For smoking, it is always better to choose fatty cuts. Fat helps the meat absorb the delicious smoky flavors. So, whenever you choose any meat to smoke, look for cuts with plenty of fat and connective tissue. Choosing fattier cuts keeps the meat tender and moist. When the fat starts melting, it bastes the meat in its juices. This further elevates the flavor profile while easily incorporating the smokiness into the chosen meat.

As you read through the different chapters on food preservation discussed in this book, a point to remember is that smoking is the final step in the preservation process. Whether it is fish, poultry, meat, or game, the ingredients are first salt-cured before they are smoked. Learn more about preservation of seafood using sous vide techniques.

Selecting the Wood

If you want good results from smoking, pay extra attention to the wood used. Yes, wood type plays an important role here. Different types of wood tend to pair with different flavors of the meat and would need to complement the flavor of the meat. Let us look at some common woods used for smoking.

Apple wood has a fruity and sweet taste. It is rather mild and pairs brilliantly well with poultry, ham, and fish. Another commonly used wood for smoking is alder. Alder has a delicate flavor profile and natural sweetness that elevates the flavor of pork, fish, poultry, and all other types of light meats. The best way to incorporate some hearty smokiness into red meats and ribs is to use hickory. This is the most popular word used in barbecues. Hickory’s pungent and strong smell perfectly complements the hardness of red meats. This brings us to another commonly used wood- oak. Oak is ideal for large cuts of meat smoked for extended periods. It offers a good smoky flavor that is not overpowering. Whether it is brief brisket or game meats, this is a great choice of wood. Mesquite is also popular, but it can be overwhelming. Mesquite should be used just like peppers in cooking. It is ideal for short durations when used in combination with other woods.

Maple has a light and sweet taste that pairs well with ham and poultry. Be careful while using maple, however, because it can darken the color of meat. As with mesquite, maple is used with other woods such as oak and apple. Pecan has a pungent fruity flavor but use it sparingly. It also doesn’t burn quite as hot as other woods, making it ideal for smoking larger cuts of meat. To improve the color of any meat, add some cherry wood. It pairs brilliantly with pork and beef.

If in doubt, always choose oak or alder. These are the safest bets for smoking meats.

Select the Smoking Method

As explained, there are two types of smoking methods available. Depending on the results you are trying to achieve, the smoking process you need to choose will differ. For instance, if you aim only to infuse the smell of smoke into the meat, choose cold smoking. On the other hand, if you want to cook the meat thoroughly, choose hot smoking.

Brining

During the smoking process, meat tends to dry out. This is one reason why placing the meat in brine is a wonderful idea. A solution of water and salt is known as brine. Depending on the cut of the meat, the quantity of brine required will differ. Brining meat is a great way of ensuring lean cuts of meat do not dry out during the smoking process. If you decide to brine the meat, it becomes easier to preserve it. If you are interested in immediately consuming the meat, this step is optional. You will learn more about using brine for different meats in the subsequent chapters.

Select the Smoker

Now that you have decided on your meat, how you want to smoke it, the type of wood, and when you want to consume it, all that’s left for you to do is select the right smoker. Selecting the wood was one aspect of deciding how to go about the smoking process. So now, it’s time to determine the smoker that will work well for you. The most common smokers on the market are gas-fired barbecue pits and electric ones.

Stick Burners

Stick burners rely solely on wood as their fuel source. In the previous section, you were introduced to the different types of wood paired with different meats. Carefully go through the list and select one combination that appeals to you. Once you have the wood ready, you simply need to place them on the stick burner. These burners require the most attention compared to all the others mentioned in this section. Because you need to pay constant attention to the food while it’s on the burner, a steep learning curve is involved.

And most cheap variants from any local hardware or departmental store are not good at retaining heat and are rather flimsy. There are higher-end stick burners available made of heavy-duty materials. However, they can be rather expensive.

Electric Smokers

Electric smokers use an electric heating rod. It helps ignite the wood pellets present inside the smoker. The wood pellets serve a dual purpose here. They act as a heat source to cook the meat and as a flavor enhancer. When the wood pellets are placed into the firebox, the heat can be regulated using a thermostat. The heating element of these smokers produces smoke instead of an open flame. Since there is no combustion here, its smoke is different in flavor compared to live fire.

Pellet Smokers

These are similar to a pellet grill or a kitchen oven. They come with an embedded thermostat that can be used for regulating the smoker’s temperature. All you need to do is simply place the smoker where you want, plug it into a socket, set the ideal temperature, and let the smoker do the rest. You don’t have to constantly check on the smoker to ensure the meat doesn’t burn, thanks to the adjustable thermostat. In a pellet smoker, pellets made of compressed sawdust are pushed into a firepot next to the smoker’s internal mechanism, which then combusts in the firepot to produce the required heat and smoke. These smokers are incredibly easy to use. That said, the flavor produced by a live fire cannot be replaced or even duplicated by any other smoker models.

Gas Smokers

The next category of smokers includes gas-fired ones. As with electric smokers, these use propane or any other natural gas for ignition. The gas-fired units can be used for hot and cold smoking meats. These smokers usually have a water pan that helps retain moisture in the meat while cooking or smoking it. This means the meat isn’t at risk of drying out quickly. Gas smokers offer great control over the cooking temperature, but they produce no smoke.

Kettle Grills

Charcoal, Garden Party, Baking, Barbecue

This is a live-fire piece of kitchen equipment that most home cooks are familiar with. If you are a little careful and use it smartly, it can be used for smoking meats at home. However, these grills are not ideal for slow-smoking meats. For instance, you can create an indirect heat source by restricting the charcoal or wood chips to one-half of the grill. You can place the meat on the other side. Similarly, keep a thermometer nearby to ensure the meat is cooking properly. You will learn more about the different cooking temperatures for different meats in the following chapters.

Charcoal Smokers

Charcoal smokers include the most popular smokers, such as the stainless-steel Weber Smokey Monkey, Pit Barrel cooker, other drum smokers, and ceramic kamado ovens such as the Big Green Egg. When compared to a stick burner, these don’t require that much attention but are not entirely hands-off either. After the coal is lit, you will need to adjust the temperature using the built-in dampers for controlling the airflow. Most of the smoke will be produced from the charcoal, but you can always add some extra wood chips for flavoring the meat. While doing this, it’s important to remember that wood smolders instead of combusting, and the smoke given out by it might not be as flavorful as those produced by a stick burner.

Charcoal is the fuel source for these smokers. Simply ignite the charcoal and leave it in the smoker until the ash is left. This is similar to grilling meats on a barbecue. The food must be placed on racks once the coal is hot enough. Close the smoker and let it cook. This is perfect for hot smoking meats.

If you are considering buying a smoker, there are a few factors you need to remember. The most obvious one is your budget. If you are just getting started with smoking meats, stick to the basics for now. Once you get the hang of it, you can always invest in a higher-end version. To learn to barbecue and smoke, starting with a charcoal smoker is a good idea. They are affordable and easy to use. The next factor to consider is the fuel type used by the smoker. This factor is in tandem with the previous one. Once again, it is better to stick with charcoal to get the hang of barbecuing and grilling meats.

But if convenience is the sole priority, a pellet smoker is a worthy investment. Consider the usual size of the meat to be smoked before buying a smoker. If you are interested in smoking large cuts of meat or game meat, you will need a considerably bigger smoker.

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