Smoked Food 101
When you think about smoked meat, the topic seems pretty simple -- add meat, add smoke, done. But it's actually a very complex subject and how you smoke your meat will have a big impact on what you get. Read on to find out about why to smoke, how to smoke, and what to smoke. Smoking meat is nothing new. Cave men were smoking meat to preserve it tens of thousands of years ago. In fact smoking is one of four primary forms of preserving food. Can you name the other three? I'll give you a hint: one is sweet, one is salty and one is sour. Sugar, Salt, Vinegar/fermentation and smoke have been the primary means of food preservation for thousands of years. So what makes smoking meat so complex? Well, you could dry smoke, wet smoke, cold smoke, hot smoke, slow smoke, or fast smoke your meat. And you could use hardwoods such as oak, alder, hickory to smoke your meat. Or, you could use fruit woods like apple, pear, cherry, plum etc. Then, of course, you could select from the nut woods, like pecan, almond, walnut, etc. Each wood has a different flavor and each method yields a different result. So let's give you some ideas on what you can experiment with and what to watch out for. Cold Smoke Vs. Hot Smoke It's true that wood smoke comes from combusting wood. If that wood is burning inside the cooking chamber you have a classic "hot smoke" situation. That means that the temperature in the cooking chamber is being influenced by the combustion of the wood that's creating the smoke. Hot smoke is great for steaks, chicken, etc. Especially for those recipes that will be done in less than two hours. Cold smoke, on the other hand, is provided when the wood is combusted outside the cooking chamber and piped into the cooking chamber. You would think it doesn't matter as long as you have smoke, but you'd be wrong. Cold smoke has a tendency to linger longer in the cooking chamber (remember heat rises and carries smoke up the chimney with it, but cold some doesn't add heat, so it lasts longer.) Longer presence of heavy smoke in the cooking chamber produces a heavier smoke flavor. Some meats really benefit from that. Another benefit of using cold smoke is you can do things that don't tolerate heat. For example: smoked cheeses are out of this world. You haven't lived until you've had a slice of freshly smoked pepper jack cheese. Or consider smoking vegetables. For example, smoked tomatoes and onions make the most heavenly spaghetti sauce you've ever tasted. But if you're going to smoke vegetables and cheese you can have the heat. Wet Smoke Vs. Dry Smoke This is kind of a misnomer. Usually when you talk "wet smoke" it means you're going to put a pan of water in the cooking chamber. The smoke mixes with the steam to theoretically help the smoke bind to the meat. Realistically, smoke without a pan of water works better. You're going to get some steam no matter what. For example, you soak the wood chips so they smolder not flame up. All the moisture in the wood from soaking needs to off-gas in the form of steam before they can combust and form smoke. So really, you don't need any added moisture. When you add a pan of water you really end up with steamed food in place of grilled / smoked food. Wood Choices Most people prefer hickory on bacon, ham, pork, etc. It's a powerful flavor and it's nice for pork products. It's a little strong for beef, poultry or fish. Oak is also a very strong flavor. It's also best used on pork. Alder is milder and can be used on most anything. Poultry and fish seem to work best with cherry and apple. The smoke from fruit woods is milder and somewhat sweeter. Bison, beef and other red meats are best smoked with mesquite, fruit woods or nut woods. Hickory or oak will overwhelm red meat.. In short, you'll want to experiment to see what you like with what. You'll find you like some better than others, but they all taste good. What you use as a marinade or rub will also have some effect on the final flavor as well. Mix and match to get just the flavor you like. Conclusion: Smoked meats are absolutely delightful. Smoked veggies and cheeses are heavenly. You might even consider making deviled eggs out of smoked, hard-boiled eggs. There's nothing else like it. If you like smokey flavor (and who doesn't?) you're going to have a blast trying new things. Let us know what you've smoked and how. We'd love to hear from you in the comments below.