Smoking Meat at Home

Even without professional equipment, smoking meat at home can be done in a variety of ways.
August 2015
Bacon is one of the most familiar smoked meats. If you want to try smoking meat at home, you can enjoy fresh bacon made on your own grill.

Photo by Fotolia/igor

Charcuterie (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, is a comprehensive guide to smoking, curing, brining and preserving meat. Classic and contemporary charcuterie recipes are presented with clear illustrations and instructions so even beginners can enjoy the rich flavors of cured and smoked meats.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Charcuterie.

We smoke foods to give them a great flavor. Smoked meat and fish also take on an appetizing caramel-brown hue. Hot dogs are brown, not pasty looking, because they’re smoked. While the smoke coating does have some preservative effects by making the surface of the meat acidic, thereby discouraging the growth of unwanted microorganisms and bacteria, smoke is not used to preserve foods the way drying and salting are. Smoking may have become part of the charcutier’s trade because of its initial preservative nature, but we continue to smoke food because of the fine color and flavor it gives to dried and cooked foods, and especially to pork.

Smoke is flavor. It’s why we love barbecued ribs, chicken on the grill, burgers cooked over open flame. Smoke is what gives bacon its depth. It’s the reason smoked ham hocks are so good with beans or long-simmered greens. Cure salmon in your refrigerator, then smoke it, and you will have transformed it into something truly special. Jalapeño peppers, when smoked, become chipotle peppers, one of the great seasoning elements of Southwestern cuisine. Smoke not only elevates a ham, in many cases the type of smoke used determines the kind of ham it is and the regional nuances that distinguish it. Was it smoked over American hickory and apple wood, traditional woods for the American hams, or over the beech and juniper of Westphalia, Germany? Smoke can describe a culinary tradition and the spirit of the terroir.

The smoking environment may be hot, in which case it cooks the meat or fish while enhancing its flavor (as with Canadian bacon), or it may be cold, so the food remains uncooked but takes on a smoky flavor (as with smoked salmon). Smoking at or below 100 degrees F/37 degrees C is cold-smoking; smoking at between 150 and 200 degrees F/65 and 93 degrees C is hot-smoking. Meat or sausages that are hot-smoked cook gently for a long time while being flavored by the smoke. They can then be eaten immediately or chilled and later reheated. Pan-smoking (smoking on your stovetop) and smoke-roasting (as in a cylindrical smoker or barbecue grill) occur at temperatures of 300 degrees F/150 degrees C.
or more.

Salmon is typically cold-smoked, ideally at a temperature below 90 degrees F/32 degrees C; if the smoke were hotter, it would cook the fish and drastically change its texture. Some dry-cured sausages, such as pepperoni and Spanish chorizo, are cold-smoked before being hung to dry. Smoked kielbasa and other hot-smoked sausages are hung in the smoker until fully cooked.

There are varying degrees of smoke and temperature, but the basics remain the same:

• We smoke food primarily to make it taste better (smoking has negligible preservative effects).
• We also smoke food to give it a rich color; smoke results in an appetizing appearance.
• The level of heat defines the type of smoking. Cold-smoking does not cook the food; hot-smoking cooks it gently and slowly; and smoke-roasting and pan-smoking cook the food as if it were in a hot smoke-filled oven.
• The longer the meat is smoked, the deeper the flavor and the color will be.

The venerable kitchen rationalist Harold McGee writes: “Smoke’s usefulness results from its chemical complexity. It contains many hundreds of compounds, some of which kill or inhibit microbes, some of which retard fat oxidation and the development of rancid flavors, and some of which add an appealing flavor of their own.”

The composition of smoke depends, of course, on the substance you’re burning. When smoking food over wood, it’s critical to use only hardwoods (hickory, maple, fruitwoods). Avoid soft woods (such as pine), heavy-sap-producing wood, green wood, and any treated wood; these can release a sometimes-harmful resin and their smoke coats the food with an unpleasant flavor. Hickory, perhaps the most common choice for smoking, has a strong, smoky flavor and gives a rich amber color, suitable for hearty meats and sausages. Fruitwoods are preferable to harder woods for their mild sweetness. Pear is very mild and gives a light color, making it ideal for delicate fish, such as whitefish. Cherry is a favorite in Michigan, where the trees are abundant—Brian likes to hot-smoke duck breast over cherry. And the pairing of applewood smoke and bacon is so felicitous it’s become almost commonplace. But hardwoods do not provide the only smoke beneficial to food: herb branches and tea leaves give off tasty smoke as well.

Home-Smoking

Home cooks can smoke their own food, but results depend on the equipment. You can certainly smoke on your stovetop with a pot or roasting pan, a rack to fit inside, and some sort of cover—and an excellent exhaust system. (You could even use a pot with a steamer insert.) You can smoke on a covered grill by adding hardwood to low coals and keeping the food off to the side, away from direct heat. All kinds of stovetop and outdoor smokers are available today, and these are all hot-smoking devices. They cook while they smoke, which limits the time you can keep the food in the smoke.

Smokers that enable you to smoke at low temperatures generate the smoke outside the smoke box. Most smokers that allow you to adjust the heat are expensive, in the thousands of dollars range, and commercial smokers that allow for cold-smoking cost even more. There are many different smoking options, from big box smokers that provide continuous smoke, such as the Bradley Smoker, to Weber grill smoker inserts, to Kamado-style earthenware grills, such as the Big Green Egg, which is pricey but a fabulous way to smoke bacon and pastrami and other big whole muscles.

True cold-smoking is difficult to do without the proper equipment or a purpose-built smokehouse and smoke pit. Placing a tray of ice between the meat and the smoke source is one way to keep the smoke cool longer. Professional smokehouses that include some sort of refrigeration device and do all the work for you cost as much as a car.

So smoking for the home cook without professional equipment takes some work and often ingenuity. It’s possible to smoke for long periods on a grill with a little effort. Bruce Aidells, the San Francisco–area sausage king, writing in Gourmet magazine (“Making Bacon,” June 2002, p. 72), describes a method whereby he puts a few burning coals into a pie pan filled with wood chips or dust and sets it in a kettle grill. He then places a brine-cured pork loin inside the grill and smokes the pork for six to eight hours. This requires continual maintenance of the smoke as the coals burn out, but the resulting Canadian bacon is very good. If you brine a pork loin using the All-Purpose Brine, including 2 teaspoons/12 grams of pink salt in the brine, and then smoke it, you’ll have Canadian bacon. This method of smoking is also a perfectly acceptable way to smoke your own pork belly for traditional bacon. In the same way that a pork loin (or a pork shoulder, for that matter) takes on a dark color and a rich smoky flavor, so too does cured pork belly. Also, an item can be smoked on a grill then finished in a low oven.

Hot-Smoking, Cold-Smoking: Definition and Method

Most home-smoking recipes instruct the cook to “hot-smoke” a food.

To hot-smoke means to cook at or above 150 degrees F/65 degrees C in a smoker. The temperature we recommend for hot-smoking is 180 degrees F/82 degrees C for sausages (because of their higher fat content) and 200 degrees F/93 degrees C for whole cuts, allowing for slow cooking and maximum smoke. If you have a smoker with a heat control, hot-smoke all these recipes at 200 degrees F/93 degrees C unless otherwise specified.

If you don’t have a smoker, and are relying on ingenuity, then “hot-smoke” simply means smoking the item as you wish until its internal temperature reaches the desired temperature, measured on an instant-read thermometer. To smoke bacon, for instance, you might set five or six burning coals in a pan of hickory sawdust, set the pork belly on the rack, and cover the grill: add a few more coals after an hour. Once you see that you have good color on the bacon, you might finish it in a 200-degree-F/93-degree-C oven, cooking it to the final temperature. Or, if you have a basic kettle smoker, you might simply make the lowest fire possible and cook the bacon entirely in this smoker, removing it when it reaches 150 degrees F/65 degrees C.

Cold-smoking is defined by a temperature of less than 100 degrees F/37 degrees C and is difficult to achieve without the proper equipment. But there are new devices and how-to videos available with a quick Internet search.

When a recipe calls for cold-smoking, it assumes that you have a reliable smoke box that can stay below 100 degrees F/37 degrees C indefinitely. If you don’t, we don’t recommend cold-smoking food. To cold-smoke the food, place it in the smoke box for the recommended time, making sure the temperature doesn’t rise, ideally, to above 90 degrees F/32 degrees C, and certainly no higher than 100 degrees F/37 degrees C.

If you’re the sort of cook who likes to improvise and jury-rig, tend fires, manage smoke, regulate the heat, and generally spend a lot of time hanging out with your food, you’ll have no problem with smoking. If that sounds like a headache to you, then just stick to conventional forms of smoking; that is, hot-smoking on a charcoal grill. Even if you have a good smoker, smoking food at lower temperatures takes care and attention.

Smoking and Food Safety

Most recipes involving smoking require pink salt, or sodium nitrite, as an insurance against the possibility of botulism poisoning. The spores that can produce the deadly nerve toxin botulism tend to thrive in smoking conditions (low temperatures over long periods, and the low-oxygen environment inside the smokebox). So in most instances of smoking we recommend using pink salt. Food that is smoke-roasted, however—that goes from the refrigerator into a hot smoker (300 degrees F/150 degrees C or more)—does not require pink salt.

As with foods high in fat and cured foods, smoked cured foods should be eaten in moderation. Smoke is composed of many wonderful compounds but some harmful ones too. Again, Harold McGee: “Prominent among these are the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are proven carcinogens and are formed from all of the wood components in increasing amounts as the temperature is raised.”

The All-Important Pellicle

Of smoking basics, the only issue that isn’t a matter of common sense is the importance of allowing the food to dry long enough before smoking to form a pellicle, a tacky surface that the smoke will stick to. (This is especially noticeable with salmon, which develops a distinctly tacky feel when dried.) If you put damp meat or sausage into a smoker, it won’t pick up the smoke as effectively as it would if dried uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. Yes, food will still pick up smoke if you don’t give it a chance to develop a pellicle, but the end results will be superior if you do.

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