country living skills


meat smoking basics


RELATED PAGES: smokers & smokehouses for cold smoking


Smoking, an ancient food preparation and preservation technique, is applicable to practically all sorts of meat, poultry, fish, and game (which will be simply called ‘meat’ further on in this text). Smoking lowers the moisture content of food, inhibits food spoiling by microorganisms throughout the volume and seals the exterior surface with a golden-brown film, while intro-ducing various food flavors related to a diversity of wood burned, temperature and venting conditions. Additionally, preservative qualities are improved and unique tastes are achieved by brining or curing prior to smoking.

Three basic ways of curing and/or smoking meat have been perfected through time:

(1) hot smoking,    (2) cold smoking,  and  (3) curing and smoking

Hot smoking is performed at temperatures from 85 to 2500F (30 to 1200C). It is a fairly rapid process that at the same time cooks and flavors the meat. The slower the hot smoking process, the more intense the flavor. Foods prepared this way should be consumed right away or kept refrigerated up to a week.

Cold smoking is performed at temperatures never exceeding 850F (300C), preferably at 70 to 800F (20 to 250C). It is a slow process that can last weeks or months, contingent upon the size of meat pieces. Usually just a trickle of smoke flows over the meat, and periods of smoking and air venting are alternated. Some procedures advertise a brief burst of hot smoking, up to 1400F (600C), at the end of the cold smoking process. Cold smoked products keep for months at ambient temperatures, particularly in freely circulated air.

Curing and smoking: two popular methods of meat curing before smoking are dry curing and brine curing. Both involve salt, sometimes sugar and/or some artificial food preserver like sodium nitrate. Unfortunately, salt became recently a persecuted item in food domain but it is the imperative in meat curing.

Dry curing is basically a salt dehydration process in which salt gradually draws the moisture from the meat tissues. It involves rubbing the meat with salt only, nowadays rather rear procedure, or rubbing the meat with a dry mixture of salt, sugar and/or a small amount of sodium nitrate. Then the meat is stored in cool place, allowing three days for each pound of the largest meat piece (six days per each kilogram). Large hams and bulky cuts may take longer than a month to cure. At the end of curing process, the meat is soaked in fresh water for a couple of days to draw off excess salt, then air dried, then cold smoked. Meat preserved this way is salty but almost unspoilable.

Brine curing involves soaking the meat in a pickling solution of salt and spices, sometimes sugar and/or a small amount of sodium nitrite [1], at a rate of two to four days per pound (four to eight days per kilogram).

Large meat cuts, like fifteen-pound (7 kg) ham, must stay in brine for two months. To shorten the process, brine may be injected along the bone of a big ham with a hypodermic needle. . At the end of curing process, the meat is soaked in fresh water for a couple of days (small pieces could be thoroughly showered), then air dried, then smoked. Although the decisive flavor is given by smoking conditions, brine curing with spices greatly improves the flavor variety.

[1 I do not use neither sodium nitrate nor sodium nitrite - I ward off chemicals whenever possible. Sodium nitrite, rather than sodium nitrate, is commonly used for curing (although in some products, such as country ham, sodium nitrate is used because of the long curing period) to improve the preservation of meat taste and color. As for the use of sugar in meat curing, see my comment in GR weekly.



UPDATED : 2008-05-19

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