Out of all the different cooking techniques available to us today, smoking is one of the few that can be traced back to the caveman. Anthropologists believe that prehistoric man was smoking meat in caves during the Paleolithic era. It's likely that smoking was "discovered" by accident when a cave-wife was making dinner for her cave family and thanks to the absence of fans, chimneys, or any sort of exhaust system, her cave filled with smoke. At that point, it was probably too late to go back out…
to hunt for dinner, so the family just ate the smoky-flavored dinosaur steaks and realized that it tasted pretty good.
But all joking aside, anthropologists do believe that early man figured out that by digging a hole in the ground and filling the space with smoky embers, they could cook meat that would come out tasting different than meat cooked over an open fire.
In our more recent history, experiments with wood chips from different sources yielded different flavors and aromas. And the tools we've developed for smoking meat, vegetables, and cheese is state of the art.
What is Smoking
Smoking is a cooking technique used to achieve a specific flavor. It also describes a flavor, aroma, and a seasoning. A smoker looks like a charcoal grill or a box-shaped "vault" with a door. Heat and smoke are created by smoldering wood chips, or a gas burner is attached to a propane tank and sits beneath a tray that holds smoking chips or sawdust. Cold smoking refers to a process of flavoring food--there's no cooking involved. Hot smoking is when you cook and flavor the food Inside a smokehouse. Both processes also give the food a smoky aroma and a darkened, and for some types of food, a "sooty" russet tinge and texture.
How Smoking Works
The distinctive smoky flavor and aroma are created by the combination of organic compounds from burning wood chip embers and a reaction by proteins in meat. Smoke cannot penetrate food very much past the exterior. So the vapors created inside a smokehouse mainly affects the surface of the food.
This technique is also used to preserve food because acids from smoke prevents the growth of mold and bacteria on the surface of meat and vegetables.
Types of Smoking
There are two primary types of smoking food - cold smoking and hot smoking. Both of these methods affect the food's flavor, aroma, appearance, and in some cases the texture. Foods that can be smoked include hard cheeses, nuts, vegetables, pork, beef, and lamb.
Cold smoking is only for seasoning meat, cheese, and vegetables with a smoky flavor and aroma. The smokehouse temperature, which ranges between 70-degrees F and 100-degrees F, is not hot enough for cooking. It's the perfect environment for harmful microbes to grow on food. So it's recommended to only cold smoke foods that have been fermented, cured, or salted should be cold smoked. Before eating cold-smoked meat, it should be cooked and reach an internal temperature of at least 160-degrees F. (Note that some cold-smoked fish is eaten in its uncooked state, including smoked salmon and smoked mackerel.)
Cold smoking is commonly used to flavor fish, nuts, eggs, olive oil, garlic, cheese, butter, vinegar, and foods that you are going to cook at a later time. Cold smoking works by smoldering embers in one chamber--called the firehouse-- while pumping the smoke into a separate smokehouse. The food is placed in this unheated chamber for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.
Commonly smoked cheeses include Gruyere, provolone, smoked Cheddar, and smoked Gouda.
Cold Smoking Times
Cheese, Estimated Smoking Time (EST) - 2 to 4 hours Salmon, EST - 12 hours or more Tomatoes, EST - 2 to 3 hours Olive oil, EST - about 9 hours per batch Almonds and cashews, EST - about 4 hours The temperature inside the food chamber should be no higher than 90-degrees F.
The hot smoking process is used for flavoring and cooking food. The food, heat, and smoke are in the same chamber, where the temperature ranges from 225-degrees F to 250-degrees F.
Hot Smoking Cook Times & Temperatures
Beef Brisket, Estimated Smoking Time - 12 to 20 hours, internal temperature - 190-degrees F Beef smoked ribs - 3 to 4 hours, internal temperature - 185-degrees F Pork butt - 90 minutes per pound, internal temperature - 205-degrees F Pork ribs - 5 hours, internal temperature - 180-degrees F Turkey whole - 4 to 5 hours, internal temperature - 275-degrees F Note that smoking time can be impacted by a variety of factors, like if the meat is deboned, the thickness of the meat, how much fat or connective tissue it has. Certain weather conditions can affect your cooking time, too.
There is a third type of "smoking," but like a lot of food flavoring, this one is artificial. You can buy smoked flavoring at a grocery store -- much like buying bbq sauce -- and add it to recipes the same way you would add herbs, spices, or condiments. "Liquid smoke" is made by capturing vapor produced by fire and distilling it down to a concentrated form. Think of it as smoke that's suspended in liquid. It may sound blasphemous to use this manmade sauce to flavor your smoked meat, but if you've ever cooked with barbecue sauce or a marinade with "natural" applewood, mesquite, hickory, or pecan wood-chip flavors, then you've had liquid smoke. Liquid smoke is also used to make hot dogs, bacon, smoked-flavored deli meat, and packaged smoke-flavored cheese.
There are some advantages to using liquid smoke flavoring. You can better control how much smoke flavor to give your food.
One of the best things about smoking is choosing what type of wood chip to smolder. The number of choices may be overwhelming for you so here's a brief break down.
Alder wood - This a delicate wood imparts a mildly sweet taste. It's an ideal wood for smoking fish, vegetables, and light meat, like chicken recipes.
Applewood - Applewood is one of the more popular cooking woods. It has a subtle fruity flavor. It's ideal for smoking ham, sweet sausage, salmon, pork butt, and pork chops. When cold smoking salmon, use apple wood chips and put some water and apple cider vinegar into the water pan.
Cherry Wood - Cherry wood chips are subtle and fruity, with a mild tart aftertaste. The smoke it produces is less dense than other wood chips. It's ideal for pheasant, duck, and most types of red meat, like smoked beef brisket.
Maple wood - These mildly sweet-flavored wood chunks are ideal for turkey, ham, game, vegetables, cheese.
Mesquite wood - Mesquite wood chips pack a bold, smoky flavor that pairs well with seafood, cheese, and pork. It's been said that mesquite has a taste and aroma reminiscent of Southwestern-style flavors. Smoldering mesquite wood chips are popular in Texas kitchen and when making pork ribs and smoked brisket recipes.
Sweet Birch - This is a fast-burning wood with a mild and sweet flavor. Sweet birch is ideal for smoking fish, chicken recipes, smoked ribs, and barbecue pork.
Pecan wood - A mildly smoky flavor, pecan pairs nicely with vegetables, cheeses, Southern chicken and beef recipes.
What Else Can You Smoke?
Bartenders have been known to hot smoke water and freeze it. The cubes are then used to create smokey-flavored libations. One chef from Switzerland cold smokes yogurt to dress salads.