Smoking is one of the original food preservation methods and (along with drying and salting) probably the most commonly used method for preserving meat, before the advent of refrigeration.
Smoking requires the following:
- A low level of heat, so the meat doesn’t over-cook.
- A constant supply of quality smoke. The smoke must impart a desirable taste, and be free of undesirable flavours. Some woods can make the meat less palatable (e.g. eucalypts and camphor laurel and should be avoided).
- A long smoking time is required for the meat to be properly penetrated by the smoke.
You can smoke any type of meat but the tough cuts are the most commonly used i.e. ones that you would normally slow cook – these tend to end up having the best flavours. Oily fish such as salmon and trout but also lobster are commonly smoked but white firm fleshed fish can also be used (you just need to smoke for a shorter period using low heat). Turkey and chicken are also well suited.
When smoking (using either hot or cold methods) it is normal to hang the meat in an enclosed environment, such as a homemade or store bought smoke. Smokers use a small fire or hot coals to generate smoke. This is placed near the hanging or rack held meat. A great store bought example is the Tennessee Smoker (it looks like a BBQ on wheels) there are also Australian versions readily available.
Smokers can be purely wood (these impart the best flavour but are hard to control), electric or gas (which heat up the wood chips and you can regulate the temperature easily).
You can also buy ‘water smokers’ – these smokers have water use part of the process or alternatively you can just place a dish of water inside a wood smoker. Water is a great way to control the temperature inside the smoker and this is commonly done when you are smoking large cuts of red meats. The only down side to using a dish is that you need to top it up whilst you are using the smoker.
Temperature control is important to smoking – and the temperature used depends on the meat, fish or other product you are smoking but ranges between 70°C (160°F) and 100°C (212°F). If you smoker doesn’t have a thermostat then it is wise to use a thermometer inside the smoker so you can keep an eye on the temperature.
What is Cold Smoking? - Cold smoking is a technique used when the meat still needs to be refrigerated which allows for smoking to take place over a longer time period. In this technique, the smoke filled chamber itself remains cold during the smoking process, and the meat remains uncooked.
Humidity of the smoker
Humidity is important when smoking - moist meat as opposed to dry meat will pick up smoke flavours better, and will form a pellicle on the outside. Filling up trays of water and keeping them in the smoker will help with the humidity, it will also act as a heat sink if strategically placed. It is also recommended to use a spray bottle to squirt a mist of water every now and again in the smoker to ensure humidity.
Soaking wood chips
If your goal is to make the woodchips last as long as possible, soaking them will achieve this. Unfortunately this will also increase the likelihood of undesirable compounds in the smoke that is produced.
Preparing the Meat
The meat itself can be prepared in numerous ways although if you are seeking a quicker smoking time, thinner cuts are desirable. Unlike strips of meat, minced meat can also be smoked when flattened thinly onto a sheet of parchment paper and placed on a rack within the smoker. It is often recommended that you use curing salts (nitrates) before smoking minced meat as it has a high risk product for aerobic microbial action. It is a great idea to sprinkle your favourite herbs and spices blend onto the product too.
Smoking times vary according to the cut of meat. Cheaper cuts that have a lot of muscle, connective tissue and fat prefer longer smoking times. Higher heat will shorten the duration but also risks drying out the protein fibres. Lean, prime cuts of meat usually prefer quick and very hot smoking techniques. An example would be to throw wood chips on top of a charcoal BBQ before throwing the meat on. Then BBQ the meat as per normal, a smoke flavour from the wood chips as well as the cooking fuel will be imparted upon the meat. When making beef jerky however, dryness is the desired outcome.
It is also important that in some cases, multiple cooking methods should be used in order to achieve your preferred product. An example of this could be pork spare ribs. Smoked low and slow for at least 8 hours will produce ribs of a hammy texture. This is generally regarded as competition ribs. These ribs won’t fall off the bone they won’t be dry but may not be what you are after. In order to produce melt in your mouth super tender ribs then you will need to employ additional cooking stages. Wrapping the ribs in foil and cooking in an oven or the smoker after 3-4 hours of smoking for about 2 hours will break down a lot of the collagen in the connective tissue into gelatine which will make the meat melt in your mouth. Finish the meat unwrapped in order to get the desired browning.
How to Make Bacon
Bacon is made in four steps:
1. Obtain a slab of pork belly, with the rind (skin) still attached. Around 2kg of the freshest meat is ideal.
2. Cure the slab by rubbing it with about 4 cups of salt, and up to 2 cups of sugar. Sugar adds flavour, but isn’t essential in this quantity, if you want to be healthier. Other herbs (e.g. pepper or garlic) can be also rubbed in to give a different flavour. After the rubbing, put all remaining salt and other components, with the meat, in a sealed bag or container; and place in the refrigerator for seven days. Turn a couple of times during the week and drain off any build-up of liquid.
3. Uncover the meat and place back in the fridge for a day. At this stage, it will form a sticky layer on the outside of the meat (called the “pellicle”)
4. Finish by smoking the slab for around 2 hours at a temperature not exceeding 200 degrees Fahrenheit.