Smoking food can be used as a method of cooking, preservation, or just as a way to add a deliciously smoky flavour and darker colour. Smoked meats, fish and cheeses are all popular, and can be prepared in a number of ways, including cold smoking, warm smoking, hot smoking, or adding liquid smoke. Wood is most commonly used to create the necessary smoke, with different woods imparting a different flavour to the food.
Types of food smoking
Cold smoking is a process that involves smoking raw foods at relatively low temperatures of 68 to 86°F (20 to 30°C). This type of smoking does not cook the food, so meats and fish should be fully cured beforehand, and may also need to be cooked afterwards.
Popular cold-smoked foods include cheese or nuts, as well as meats like chicken breasts, beef, pork chops, salmon, scallops, and steak. Cold-smoked meat can be hung up to dry first, causing a tacky outer layer called a pellicle to form on the surface of the meat. This is useful as it holds more smoke, resulting in a stronger flavour.
Warm smoking uses temperatures of 77 to 104°F (25 to 40°C) and can be used to flavour cured pork, sausages, fish and soft cheese. As with cold smoking, this does not cook or preserve the food.
Hot smoking is the method with which most people are more familiar. It uses temperatures that are hot enough to fully cook the food as well as smoking it, but not so hot that the meat becomes overly dry, typically in the range of 126 to 176°F (52 to 80°C). Hot smoking can take place on a large scale, in industrial smokehouses, or at home, using a stovetop smoker or smoker oven. It is popularly used for a variety of foods, including ham, ribs, steak, salmon, chicken or lobster.
Liquid smoke is another way to add smoky flavour to your food at home. Made from water infused with wood smoke, it can be added to various dishes in small amounts to give that unmistakable smoky flavour.
There are many different types of wood you can use for smoking, each with their own subtly different characteristics. Different woods pair well with different foods, so it’s worth taking time to learn about a few of them before you make your choice.
Alder has a light, slightly sweet flavour, and works well with white meat like fish or poultry.
Applewood is sweet and fruity, and is typically used with pork, fish and poultry.
Hickory has a stronger, more pronounced flavour that makes it perfect for red meat, and ribs in particular.
Pecan has a strong, nutty, fruity flavour, and works particularly well with poultry, beef, pork, and game.
Maple has a sweet, delicate flavour, and works well with poultry and ham. It can also be used to add colour, and may be paired with another wood like alder, oak, or applewood.
Mesquite is the most intensely flavoured wood smoke, and should be used carefully to avoid overpowering your food. Use a little in combination with a milder smoke, and avoid using it on larger cuts of meat that need longer cooking times.
Oak has a subtle flavour that builds gradually during the cooking process. This means it works best with those large cuts that need longer in the smoker.
Cherrywood has a mild, sweet flavour that goes well with most things.
Types of smoker
If you’re thinking of investing in a smoker, there are several factors to consider. As well as looking for results, you may need something that’s simple to use, especially if you’re still a beginner, and affordability is always important too.
Electric smokers use an electrical element to heat the wood and make it smoke. You can adjust the temperature using a simple dial, which makes them great for beginners, but they do tend to be on the expensive side, and actually create less smoke than other types of smoker.
Propane smokers use a gas flame to make the wood smoke. They, too, can be controlled using a temperature dial, making them simple to use, and they can reach higher temperatures than electric units, which means more smoke.
Charcoal smokers impart more flavour than electric or propane smokers, and they also tend to be cheaper, although you do need to keep paying out for more charcoal. They require a little more knowledge and attention, as you will need to start and tend to the fire without the help of technology.
Wood smokers give the best flavour, but can be tricky to maintain at a constant temperature. They’re a great option if you know what you’re doing, but they may prove frustrating for beginners.
Pellet smokers have all the flavour of wood smokers, but the wood is in a convenient pellet form, which makes it easier to assemble the fire and maintain a constant temperature. Unfortunately, they don’t come cheap, but if you’re looking to invest in something that combines lots of smoke with relative ease of use, they’re a great choice.
How to smoke meat
Smoking meat is pretty easy when you know how. Follow these simple steps and you’ll soon be smoking like a pro.
- If your smoker is new, you need to cure it before using it for the first time. Heat it up to 392°F (200°C), then reduce to 212°F (100°C) and let it smoke for a few hours. This will burn away any contaminates and season the smoker with an initial layer of smokiness.
- Select your wood chips, choosing a wood that suits the type of food you’re preparing, or perhaps a combination of several different types of wood.
- Leave the meat to marinate for several hours, and use a dry rub if desired.
- Light the smoker and open the air vents to raise the temperature as quickly as possible. Heat for at least 20 minutes, then partially close the air vents to bring the temperature down to around 221°F (105°C).
- Add some wood chips, and keep a few more close by to top them up as needed. Fill the water pan with cold water.
- Add your meat to the grill and close the lid. Remember that opening the lid will let out both heat and smoke, so only open it to add more wood or water, or to turn the meat.
- Smoke the meat for roughly 1 hour per 15 oz and turn every couple of hours, brushing with more marinade every time.
- Use your vents to regulate the smoke, and add more fuel or adjust your temperature dial to control the heat.
- Check your meat is fully cooked with a meat thermometer, pushing the probe right into the centre of the meat.
How to smoke fish
- As with smoking meat, you will need to cure your smoker if you haven’t used it before, and select the right wood for the job.
- Some fish smoke better than others, so choose an oily fish that will stay moist on the inside.
- Leave the skin on your fish, as this prevents pieces of meat from flaking away and disappearing beneath the grill. For larger fish, cut into roughly 2 inch fillets, as the thickness of the meat will vary, and this way you can smoke each piece for as long as it needs.
- Prepare the fish with a brine for several hours, then rinse and add seasonings.
- Preheat your smoker as above, with fully opened vents for 20 minutes, then partially closed to bring the heat down to the correct temperature. You should be aiming for between 175 to 200°F (80 to 93°C).
- Add your wood chips and fill up the water pan.
- Add the fish to the grill, placing fillets skin side up and everything else skin side down.
- Smoke the fish for around 3 hours, turning as needed.
- As the 3 hour mark approaches, start checking the internal temperature of the fish with a meat thermometer, and remove it when it reaches 160°F (71°C). It is important to check fairly regularly, as there isn’t much margin for error with fish.
Smoked salmon is synonymous with gourmet luxury. Learn how to make your own with our guide to smoking salmon at home.
How to smoke cheese
- Cheese needs to be cold smoked to prevent it from melting, which can be achieved by using a tube smoker inside a regular smoker that has not been switched on. Tube smokers are metal tubes covered in holes that can be stuffed with wood chips, and are generally used to provide extra smoke to regular smokers or grills. They are fairly inexpensive and can be picked up online for a few dollars.
- Choose a mild wood like apple, cherry or maple, to avoid overpowering the cheese.
- Fill the tube smoker with wood chips, light according to the manufacturer’s instructions and place it inside your regular smoker.
- Wait until the flame is out and there is lots of smoke from the tube, then add your cheese to the smoker, making sure there is plenty of space for the smoke to circulate around each piece.
- Close the lid and smoke the cheese for approximately 2 hours, checking regularly to make sure the temperature does not exceed 90°F (32°C).
- Wrap each piece of cheese individually in parchment paper and refrigerate for 1 to 2 days.
- Remove the paper and vacuum seal the cheese, then leave it for 2 weeks for the flavour to mellow.
Is it good for your health?
There have been some health concerns surrounding smoked foods, as smoke contains a compound called polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which may increase your risk of cancer. Because of this, experts recommend enjoying smoked food as an occasional treat only.
Now you know the basics, try out your smoking expertise on these delicious smoked recipes.
Smoked beef tongue: with its rich flavour and melt-in-the-mouth texture, this tender, smoky beef tongue will be the talk of your next cookout.
Montreal smoked meat: this Canadian classic from Glebe Kitchen makes the ultimate gourmet sandwich.
Smoked haddock gratin: use your favourite smoked fish in this creamy family casserole from BBC Good Food.
Smoked cheddar cheese: this irresistibly smoky cheddar from Leite’s Culinaria is perfect on burgers, crackers, or made into mac and cheese.