The art and science of smoking foods
The modern method of smoking foods evolved from its roots as a process for preserving. Long before refrigerators and chemical preservatives, smoke was used to extend the shelf life of food, particularly meat. Wood smoke contains many of the chemicals—among them, formaldehyde and acetic acid—that slow the growth of microbes. In addition, the pH level of smoke is a very low 2.5, which is extremely unfriendly to microbes.
Today, smoking is so much more than an age-old technique for preserving, tenderizing and adding flavor to food; it’s also the subject of festivals, clubs, organizations and competitions. People are smoking cheese, fruits, nuts, vegetables, salt and whatever else they can get their hands on. So let’s explore the wonderful world of smoking.
First, let’s choose our cut of meat
The first word that comes to my mind when someone says “smoke” is pork, maybe because it offers relatively inexpensive cuts of meat that lend themselves well to the smoking process. Some of the most common cuts used for smoking are the motion muscles—Boston butt, shoulder picnic and spare ribs (belly)—as well as the whole loin. Beef, including beef brisket and ribs, also works well for smoking applications.
What I look for are cuts that are generally tough with a lot of connective tissue and a fair amount of fat. These cuts will actually benefit from the long cooking period—as the connective tissue dissolves, the meat becomes increasingly tender and the melting fat bastes and flavors the meat, all while absorbing the smoke. Poultry and other lean cuts can also benefit from smoking; however, brining these cuts is almost mandatory.
Choosing the wood you want to cook with can be a challenge, especially if you do not know what types are available and how each one will affect the flavor of the meat you are cooking. Here are some of the best and most common woods used for smoking and when to use them:
- Alder—Natural sweetness and delicate flavor. Typically pairs well with fish, poultry, pork and light meats. Commonly used in the Pacific Northwest to smoke salmon.
- Apple—Sweet and fruity taste, mild. Works best with ham, fish and poultry.
- Hickory—The king of woods used in the Southern BBQ belt. A strong and pungent wood with a smoky, bacon-like flavor. Best with ribs and red meat.
- Maple—Sweet and light tasting; has a tendency to darken the color of the meat. Works well when balanced with oak, apple or alder. Used for poultry and ham.
- Mesquite—Great care must be taken when using this wood or the flavor can be overpowering. Best avoided with larger cuts that require a prolonged smoking time. The wood is oily in nature, tends to pop embers and burns hot and fast. Best used in tandem with another type of wood.
- Pecan—Belongs to the hickory family, therefore similar in flavor. Fruity flavored and pungent, so use sparingly. Pecan burns cooler then most woods, which makes it ideal for larger cuts.
- Oak—Good choice for larger cuts that require longer smoking periods. Produces a good strong smoke flavor that’s not overpowering. Ideal for beef brisket. Varieties include red oak, which is sweeter, and white oak, which burns longer.
- Cherry—Good with beef and pork; tends to turn meat a rich mahogany color. Best used in conjunction with hickory, oak, pecan or alder.
- Grapevine cuttings—Nice for fish, poultry and light beef cuts. The effect can also be achieved by soaking wood chips in inexpensive wine.