Cold Smoking Meat
Cold smoking became a project for me that I researched and it was because of bacon, which we love so much, that is cured but uncooked. How could we make our own bacon from start to finish?
I backward engineered research, learning about cold smoking first, and bacon last. Cold smoking has risks to which you don't necessarily want to expose your kid.
This is not to say that cold smoking meat can't be done safely, but the level of precision compared to (hot) smoking and grilling is like comparing making sugar cookies to a wedding cake. With the added assumption that the members of the wedding party will try to kill you if the cake isn't perfect.
What is Cold Smoking?
Cold smoking dates to very primitive days, when meats were hung to dry in environments smokey from constantly smoldering fires. Not only did the accidentally cured meat keep much longer than dried strips, it tasted better.
Cold smoking does not cook food. This technique flavors and preserves it, and while preservation is a goal, done improperly, cold smoking can present severe risks of bacterial contamination.
The key to cold smoking meat is that, while smoke (from fire) is present, the temperature never reaches a level that will cook the product. Cold smoking meat's disadvantage is that you are potentially keeping raw meat at an unsafe temperature for an extended period of time. This can be a very difficult feat, involving both perfect control of the fire and the temperature of the meat being smoked.
If Primitive People Smoked Meat so simply, why can't we?
Even all those beloved Italian cured meats, salamis and pepperonis and prosciuttos, are cured prior to smoking.
Don't fool yourself into thinking that the raw meats you can buy at your grocery store are safe, clean, and free of bacteria. Hopefully you wouldn't even consider cutting the saran wrap off a package of pork chops and eating them raw. If you do this regularly and survive you deserve a Darwin Award.
Overlooking professional smoke houses, the most common cold smoke design is a box offset from a drum barbecue. The barbecue is can be used for it's purpose, while smoke is piped into a box cooled with ice or water containing the meat being treated.
This type of smoker has major advantages and some real downsides as well. While it is reasonably easy to use and suitable for families that grill, it isn't capable of smoking very much meat for very long. The temperature can be difficult to control, and outdoor cold smoking isn't advisable on hot days.
Other designs include the upright drum, which uses a pan of water to diffuse heat, and is criticized for losing some of the flavor enhancing smoke. A vertical water smoker is more efficient, keeping it's temperature steady and mixing the smoke and steam for optimal flavor.
Propane smokers, which still use wood smoke, allow for excellent temperature control. All of these models are readily available, but large and expensive, intended for light professional use.
Electric smokers are also available as an attachment to barbecue grills, and do employ wood smoke, but impart less flavor than a traditional smoker. They're not expensive, but they're not particularly easy to use, either. They do have the advantage of excellent temperature control.
Smoke box designs are more traditional, and the theory is back to basics. One 'box' is dedicated to the smoldering fire, and a pipe connects it to another box which is cooled and contains the food.
Small smoke boxes are sometimes hand crafted for restaurant use, and the food box is usually in a refrigerated area, ensuring that the meat never overheats. This is not the most practical design for a casual home smoker, unless you have a spare mini fridge and a lot of technical know-how, but if you can build a still, you can probably manage this. You might want to check out our video on Best Wood for Smoking Meat here:
Curing Meats in Advance of Smoking:
If we haven't stated this emphatically enough so far, the risk of bacterial contamination is very high in cold smoking meats. Here we are specifically discussing meat. Cold smoking is used in cheese making, smoking chilis, and malts for whiskeys, but the processes aren't the same.
The process for preparing meats involves removing as much of the liquid as is possible. This is done by drying, salting, brining, and specifically the use of 'Prague powder pink salt', which is in no way related to fashionable 'pink himalayan salt'. This is made in part with sodium nitrate, the classic, and sometimes reviled, meat preservative, and readily available.
People that are interested in cold smoking meat despite all these cautions likely to have their own reasons. They may be cooking professionals or very serious hobbyists, and no matter how much experimentation they want to do, it’s likely that they have one meat in particular that interests them, like Danny's bacon.
It is far beyond the scope of this article to cover cold smoking every type of meat. A ham may take weeks, while a salmon fillet can be accomplished in an hour, and requires only the simplest brining. Luckily for us, bacon is an easy meat to brine and smoke, and we will use it as our example.
The curing process involves first either brining or salting your meat for a certain amount of time, depending on the porosity of the meat, (e.g., fish is far more porous than pork), the cut of the meat (thin strips of any meat have more surface area and less density) and the weight of the meat, assuming a solid piece, such as a turkey. And since it almost the season, check out an easy tutorial on How to Smoke Turkey Breast for Thanksgiving.
The Culinary Institute of America recommends drying meat after brining, which forms a 'pellicle'. This is done under refrigeration.
A basic recipe for brine is:
- 6 parts water
- 1 part kosher salt
- 1 part sugar**
- 1/8 part seasoning**
The meat in question is placed in a brine filled bag and refrigerated for a period of time appropriate to the size of the cut, ranging from hours to days. The process called 'quick brining', which involves using hot brine to speed the process, is never used for cold smoking, as it partly cooks the meat.
Brining bacon (which starts with raw pork belly) begins with a 4 day marinade, less salt, and the sugars used may be maple syrup, brown sugar, etc. After brining, once the pork belly is thoroughly dried, (due to bacon's high fat content, this may take no more than a pat down with paper towels and an hour in the refrigerator), the pork belly can be sliced.
What makes cold smoking bacon good for beginners is that slicing the bacon prior to smoking, reduces the time needed for the cold smoke to a few hours. This may not be a purist's approach, but it's kid friendly and it works, producing a satisfying product.
This is a great opportunity to teach your kids about handling raw meat. My standing joke about boning raw chicken is that I wear something slightly short of a hazmat suit, an understatement as I also cover all kitchen surfaces with plastic, wear gloves which I change frequently, wash hands maniacally, and bleach everything near my work place when I'm done. Always keep in mind that cold smoked meat is raw from start to finish, and must be handled as such.
Danny's mature enough to appreciate a slow process that leads to exceptional results, so we chose a cold smoker attachment for our grill and planned a little barbecue for the day of the great test, which would be four days after the purchase and brining of the pork belly. Since Danny wanted to wrap some steaks in the bacon, we smoked the strips early. He had chosen rosemary and maple syrup for the brine, which sounded a bit odd, but tasted wonderful.
Our bacon is the biggest hit at breakfast, and for use such as topping baked potatoes, salads, and in BLTs. We plan to make more in advance of the holidays to give as gifts, (frozen gifts, as smoke meats must stay cold) and use in our favorite seasonal dishes.
The cold smoker has been a reasonable investment for my family, mostly because of Danny. I save a lot of money on sports gear due to Danny's preferences. Is such a project for you? My family has a big outdoor grill, extra refrigerator space, and can afford a device that isn't used every day. Even if you are capable of building a cold smoker yourself, the necessary equipment is somewhat costly.
It can't be emphasized enough that cold smoking meat requires a cook who is capable of great precision, and that the stakes are high, as you risk breeding bacterial contamination rather than removing it. Because of this, many articles simply advise you not to try cold smoking at all, or worse, offer vague recipes that may not keep you safe. If you have your heart set on cold smoking, research, read articles from reliable sources and try to visit a professional smoke house to learn how the big boys do it.
Hopefully this article has been helpful to you! Please let us know by leaving your comments.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Cold Smoked Meat Cooked?
Cold smoking does not cook meat, as the temperatures of the cold smoker never get hot enough to cook the meat. In fact, the temperatures are so low that the smoker is never become hot enough to kill potentially harmful bacteria. Because of this, meats should always be fully cured before cold smoking for safety. Alternatively, you can cold smoke meat for flavor before heating it up to safe eating ranges.
What Temperature Do You Cold Smoke?
Temperatures for cold smoking range between 68 to 86 degrees F. This allows the food to take on a smoky flavor but remain moist without drying out. These temperatures are not hot enough to fully cook the meat.
What Types of Meat Can You Cold Smoke?
May different types of meat can be cold smoked to enhance its flavor. Common meats are pork, beef, chicken, fish (such as salmon), and scallops. All meats should be fully cured before cold smoking.
How Long Does it Take to Cold Smoke Meat?
The amount of time it takes to cold smoke meat depends on the weight of the item and its thickness. For example, it takes approximately 6-7 hours to cold smoke a picnic ham, but it takes only 4 hours to cold smoke a salmon.
What Is the Purpose of Cold Smoking?
Originally, cold smoking was used as a way to preserve meat. Today, it is still used to preserve meat products, although we can do that more effectively using a refrigerator and freezer. The main purpose of cold smoking today is to impart a deep flavor of smokiness into your food.