Todays post is a quick introduction to smoking food – entire books have been written on the subject and we’ve provided a deeper dive in our cookbook as well. This is really an introductory primer – if any experienced eyes have further guidance/suggestions I’d love to hear about them in the comments and will add them as we go! Smoking food is one of the oldest food preservation techniques in the world – and it can also be one of the most debated. Some argue on the definition of the two main smoking techniques (cold smoking and hot smoking). Others debate that it’s rarely a preservation in it’s own right as it’s often combined with another technique such as dehydration (as is the case with smoke-dried chipotle peppers) or curing (such as smoked bacon).
I draw the line at flavor – if the majority of taste of a preserve comes from smoking, I consider smoking to be the technique that defines the preserve. This makes categorization easy and, I believe, most accurate. For example, a cut lemon will last days in your fridge while the same lemon, after being cold smoked, will last for weeks or longer (I know this because I ‘lost’ a jar of said citrus in the back confines of my fridge over the summer).
Introduction to Smoking Temperatures
There is plenty of discussion on the difference between cold smoking and hot smoking. I have read convincing arguments where temperature defines the technique (the dividing line is usually around 90 degrees), other arguments that divide the techniques by equipment/setup (Harold McGee claims that hot smoke means the food is smoked in the same chamber as the coals) and more.
Once again, I lean to the side of simplicity for my definition. Hot smoke, to me, is any instance where you are cooking and adding smoke at the same time where cold smoking is a process used to impart flavor without significantly altering the properties of the food other than the taste. If you’ve ever tried to cold smoke cheese in the middle of summer you may find cold smoking to be a challenge (one that is surmountable) due to the heat captured by your smoker sitting in the sun.
Hot smoking is often done in a smoker which is a special cabinet which captures heat and smoke. You can purchase units which regulate temperature as consistently as your home oven does or create your own cabinet which you feed with coal or other wood to smoke. Many people will hot smoke with a BBQ and it is most common with BBQs that burn wood or lump coal but others will add coal/lump wood in the base of their grill or on an unused section of the BBQ). Hot smoking is common for cooking pulled pork, brisket, chicken, ribs and other proteins.
A cold-smoker can also be purchased but is easy to create in any container at all. We use an unlit BBQ and place coals on an unused section of the grill or use a pellet smoker such as this one which is lit with a blowtorch and smoulders to produce smoke while adding minimal heat). It is perfect to smoke bacon, gravlax, cheese and even chocolate though the ‘meltier’ items work best in winter to keep things relatively cool.
Types of Wood for Smoking Food
There are two things to consider when choosing wood for smoking:
- Species, including oak, hickory, pecan, mesquite, maple, apple, cherry and many more. Fruit trees typically produce lighter tasting smoke that can be used for subtle flavors (though given enough time any type of wood will add plenty of smoke to your meal) while others produce heavy smoke and flavor. Oak, hickory and cherry are great places to start and can be combined as well.
- Format of wood including:
- Lump/chunks. Common with the most experienced smokers are these large pieces of wood (often about the size of a softball) which are generally turned to coal before being added to the smoker (though not always).
- Chips. Most common in hardware stores and often shown on cooking shows. Irregular pieces of wood that are small. Often soaked before using to prevent flare-ups (fire) and often added in a bundle of foil and tossed below the grill of a BBQ.
- Pellets. They look like rabbit food and are, essentially, compressed sawdust. Good pellets have no filling and are predictable, stable and rarely flare up due to their smooth surface (compared to chips).
Although many will disagree with me, all 3 are perfectly suitable. I prefer using lump or pellets and keep several types of wood handy at all times for any smoking need.
Learning the Process
Learning to smoke is largely trial and error. You should know that there is such a thing as over-smoking food (it will taste like an ashtray) but that’s a pretty extreme event and nothing to be overly concerned with. We generally smoke our food for 5-10 hours but the amount of time varies wildly depending on the amount of smoke the smoker is producing, the ambient temperature of the backyard and the type of food we’re smoking. It’s a difficult process to truly screw up so my best advice is get out there and give it a try!