Ah…., the smell and tastes of smoked food. Few things can compare to properly smoked entrees. Smoked food is satisfying on a very primitive level. Who can resist the allure of perfectly smoked, “fall-off-the-bone”, tender ribs? Even rabid vegans have a hard time passing up on a plate of smoked Porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, tofu, and other veggie delights.
Many people think of smoking as just firing up the smoker, keeping it under 160°F, and smoking meat anywhere from 4 to 24 hours, but there is a whole ‘nuther world known as Cold Smoking. And by cold, I mean colder than room temperature. Cold smoked food has a completely different character. It has its own set of nuances that just can’t be achieved by any other means.
If you’ve ever had lox (smoked salmon), smoked cheeses, smoked kippered herring, smoked sardines, smoked oysters, real traditional chorizo sausage, salami, etc…, you have eaten cold-smoked food. Just about anything edible or drinkable can be smoked. Teas are sometimes smoked, especially my favorite blend, Lapsang Souching. Scotch Whiskey is sometimes cold-smoked, as are some bourbons, and other whiskeys. There are even some pipe tobacco blends that are cold smoked. Once you get the hang of cold smoking, the only limit is your imagination.
Cold Smoking vs Hot Smoking
Normal smoking is done at low temperatures to support long, slow cooking times, but cold smoking does not involve any cooking at all. Cold smoking is actually a form of food preservation, and most cold smoked foods need to be cooked before serving. Cold smoked meat is still raw. Needless to say, the low temperatures require the smoke box to be separate from the smoking chamber so that the heat from the wood does not enter where the food is. You absolutely need a smoker with an offset smoke-box.
Which is better, cold or hot smoked? I can’t say, because I love both equally. But there are some foods that are better suited to cold-smoking. If you put cheeses or tofu in a 160°F smoker for any length of time, you will be left with a colorful puddle of goo in the bottom. They will melt. Fish is very delicate and spoils rapidly at room temperatures and above. Less than 160°F is not hot enough to kill all bacteria that may attack a fish. Fish and seafoods also do not respond well to long cooking times, even at the lower temperature of a smoker.
The solution to these issues is to keep the temperature below 75°F, be sure the meat has been well cured, and is dry before placing in the smoker. This process can take anywhere from 2 or 3 days, to several weeks, or even months, depending on the food you are wanting to cold smoke, and how you want to cure it.
Is Cold Smoking Dangerous?
Let me start by saying that any type of cooking, in general, can be dangerous, especially when done by an inattentive cook, or using old, ill-kept equipment. So anything I say about cold smoking needs to be kept in perspective. When we cook, we are literally playing with fire, and sometimes, we may get burned. Every year people get sick, hurt, or worse, trying to deep-fry turkeys, canning without observing standard safety precautions, using meat slicers and not paying enough attention, grease fires on the stove, improper fermentation for pickles, sauerkraut, meats, etc… and even improper storage. In fact, for many people, cooking is the most dangerous thing they ever do, aside from operating a motor vehicle. But, strangely enough, millions of people do it safely, several times each day. Don’t get too apprehensive about cooking dangers. Just follow proper procedures and techniques, and chances are, you’ll do fine.
Cold smoking is no different. Sure, we are operating within the Danger Zone for bacterial growth, but the proper procedures have been in use for thousands of years, and the human race is not extinct. We must be doing something right. Just don’t take any short-cuts. Follow standard procedures, use proper techniques, and always pay close attention to what you are doing.
There are really only 4 risks associated with cold smoking:
- Meat is held within the Danger Zone for bacterial growth for extended periods of time.
- Parasites that may be present in some meats are not killed by the cold smoking process. Most cold smoked food is cooked before serving.
- The risks of exposing yourself and others to E coli., and Listeria are particularly high when cold smoking fish and sausages, so extra care should be taken. Always do a good cure.
- People with significantly impaired immune systems should probably avoid cold-smoked foods completely. No matter how careful you are, nothing is 100%.
So why would we want to try cold smoking, with all these risks? Because when done properly, the risks are minimal, and the finished food is exquisite. We counter these risks in two ways. One is by cooking the cold smoked food again before serving it, and the other is by curing meats and seafood prior to smoking.
It’s All In The Cure
Curing is very important in cold smoking meat because it keeps bacteria and other pathogens from getting into your food during the smoking process. The temperatures are too low to stop them on their own. Due Diligence in curing will affect the outcome of your smoking process more than any other single thing.
160°F is enough to kill most microbes that may attack your food. We are mostly concerned with meat and seafood, because it is the most susceptible to bacterial attacks, and particularly serious ones like Listeria and E. coli. In cold smoking, we are considerably below that temperature, and for long periods of time. So, to thwart the ambitions of enthusiastic microbes, we prepare the meat for cold smoking by using an antibacterial process known as curing. Curing is using salt, and or sugars, to retard bacterial action. Bacteria, and most other microbes, do not like salt at all. Some curing processes create a thick layer of biological protection on the surface of the meat that bacteria cannot get through. Other methods make the surface too dry for bacteria to thrive on, and still others use brine to infuse the meat with salt, which is detrimental to bacteria, molds, yeasts, etc…
Dry curing is the preferred method for making real ham, bacon, prosciutto, etc… The slabs or chunks of meat are coated with a salt solution, aged for a few weeks, then rinsed, dried and cold smoked for up to 6 months. True hams and bacon can be stored at room temperature for quite a long time. Surprise: Most of the ham and bacon you buy in the store is not real. It has been injected with a curing solution, brined and hot smoked. They have to be kept refrigerated. It does imitate the character of true ham and bacon, but if you ever get to eat the real thing, you will immediately notice the difference.
Dry curing requires a lot of space and time. You’ll need something to use as a smokehouse. You can use the wonderful smokers from Masterbuilt for dry curing and smoking, but it will tie it up for a long time. If you go this route, you may want to consider buying a second unit just for dry curing and cold smoking. After you dry cure and cold smoke your meats, remember, they are still raw and need to be cooked before serving.
* Note-Dry curing does not use table salt. Only use curing salts, which we will cover in a future article.
Wet curing is also known as brining, just like in hot smoking. The meats are submerged in a solution of at least 10% salt. The difference is the time element. For curing, you may need to brine large cuts of meat for up to 6 weeks. There are two kinds of wet curing. A salt cure is basically just salt and water. Other ingredients and spices can be added, but the main part is salt and water. A Sugar-Cure is the same thing, only with sugar added (my favorite…).
Once your cure is completed, you rinse off the meat well, and dry it off as good as possible. You can then place the meat on an ice tray, and place it in your smoker. I always keep several plastic bottles of frozen water in the smoker as well, to be sure the temperature stays at or below 60°F. Many cooks allow higher temperatures, but in my experience, this is the “sweet spot” for cold smoking.
Space limitations do not allow me to go into more details on cold smoking here, but I will be expanding on the subject in future articles. The process goes like this:
- Cure your meat. Things like veggies, cheeses and a few other things do not require curing.
- Whatever cure you use, rinse your food off well (or even soak it in water for a day or two), then dry it off as good as possible after curing.
- Start your smoke fire in an offset smoke box. Be sure you have enough smoke-wood or pellets for 8 hours, to a few days worth of smoke.
- When you have enough smoke, place your meats on an ice tray, place frozen water bottles on the rack, and set the ice tray with the meat in the smoker.
- Monitor the temperature closely and adjust the fire and ice to maintain 55°F – 70°F.
- Allow the food to smoke anywhere from a few hours, to several days, depending on what you are smoking.
- Except for certain fish and seafood, remember to cook the meat by traditional cooking methods before serving.
I will leave you with my favorite cold smoking recipe for salmon, or any other thick fish. I use this a lot for carp, trout, drum, suckers, fresh mackerel, shark, and of course, salmon.
Lox (Cold Smoked Salmon), or any other suitable fish
- A couple of pounds of fish fillets, skin on, or off.
- A few cups of course, or Kosher salt. Do not use fine grind table salt.
- A few cups brown sugar
- Check each fillet for small bones and remove any that you find. I am an expert on filleting fish, but once in a while, I will miss one, so it can happen to anyone. Always check your fish for bones before cooking, even if bought at the store.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix the salt and sugar together well.
- Spread a solid layer of the salt/sugar mix over the entire bottom of a glass, or other non-reactive flat pan.
- Rub each fillet liberally on both sides with the salt/sugar mixture, and place in the glass or other non-reactive pan. It’s OK to stack the fillets in layers if need be.
- Spread the remaining salt/sugar mixture over the fish, covering them completely. Make up more mix if needed.
- Cover the pan with an airtight lid, or plastic wrap, and place the coldest part of your refrigerator for a couple of days (at least 2).
- After curing, remove the fillets from the pan and rinse well. Place the fillets in a large bowl and cover with water. Allow to soak for at least 30 minutes. Then drain and pat each fillet as dry as possible. Return the fillets to the refrigerator and let them dry while you attend to the smoker. The fillets are ready when they feel sticky and appear to be glazed.
- Fire up the smoker and let if fill with smoke. Place a few frozen plastic water bottles (filled with frozen water, of course…) in the corners of the smoke chamber, and try to keep the temperature between 55°F and 65°F.
- Using a deep roasting pan with ice in it, place the fillets on a wire rack for the smoker, then set that on top of the ice pan. Make sure the fillets are no more than 1 inch above the ice. Place the entire unit in the smoker and close the lid.
- Smoke the fish for at least 12 hours, or more. The fish is ready when they feel leathery and sort of firm.
- Place the fillets in zip lock bags and allow to chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving. Overnight is even better.