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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.
Which wood?

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.

Hot vs. cold smoking

There are two types of smoking: hot and cold. Cold smoking is done at a low temperature and is not intended to actually cook the product. The meat or fish is held in an unheated chamber and smoke is funneled through from a fire box. Wood dust or pellets work best for cold smoking, as they will smolder and smoke at a lower temperature. Hot smoking is a technique where the meat is held directly above or in the same enclosure as the wood, so it cooks as it smokes. Hot-smoked items tend to have a firmer, drier texture, making temperature, timing and moisture control essential. Optimal temperature for hot smoking is around 212°F; remember, low heat and slow cooking are the keys to success. The low temperature gives the smoke enough time to sink in and naturally tenderize the meat. Slow cooking gives the natural fibers in meat time to break down and become tender.  

To brine or not to brine

Meats tend to dry out during the cooking/smoking process; that’s why it is helpful to brine. A brine is a salted water solution containing anywhere from 3 to 6 percent salt by volume. The strength of your brine will depend on the cut of meat and what you hope to achieve by brining. A 3 percent solution (2 tablespoons of salt per quart of water) will dissolve parts of the protein structures that maintain the contracting filaments, while a 6 percent solution (4 tablespoons per quart) will moderately dissolve the actual filaments. Items can be brined anywhere from two hours to two days, depending on the cut, its size and its thickness.

Another fact to know about brining is that the interaction of salt and protein results in greater water-holding capacity within the muscle cells. As a result, the weight of brined meat is increased by 10 percent. The process of cooking/smoking meat yields a 20 percent loss in moisture, which is offset by the added weight from the brine—essentially cutting the loss of weight by half. Brines penetrate the meat from the outside inward (unless a brine pump or needle is used to inject brine directly into the center of the muscle), lending its greatest effects on the outer portions of the meat, which are typically the first to overcook and dry out. Therefore, just a short or partial soak in a brine can make a noticeable difference.

A major disadvantage to brining is that the meat can become salty. This is why it is common to see recipes for brines that include sweeteners such as sugar, honey, maple syrup and sorghum, along with fruit juices and vinegars that provide sweet and sour contrast and complexity.

In addition to brines, which can impart an aromatic flavoring to your meat, dry rubs are also great for adding specific flavorings prior to smoking. When using a dry rub in addition to a brine, be sure to choose one that does not contain any additional salt. My preferred method is to brine, rub with mustard and follow up with my favorite dry rub.

Choosing the right smoker

We have selected our cut of meat or fish and decided to brine it, rub it or both. We’ve chosen our wood and smoking method, so now we need to determine which smoker will work best for us from the many different types available. Along with capacity and portability, the type of fuel used is a consideration when choosing a smoker:

Electric—These smokers have a rod that heats up electrically and ignites the wood pellets, which are used as both the heat source and for their smoking qualities. The pellets are fed into the firebox by an auger, which is controlled by a thermostat.

Gas-fired—This style works very much like the electric smoker, but uses natural gas or propane to ignite the wood. Many gas-fired units can be used for both hot and cold smoking applications. They generally contain some sort of water pan to help retain the moisture level of the smoked food.

Barbecue pit—If charcoal is used as the fuel for one of these smokers, it should be lit and left until there is a gray ash covering the coals, just as with grilling on a barbecue. The wood that provides the smoke is dampened and placed on the charcoal, and the food is then placed on the racks. When the smoke begins to form, the smoker is closed and the food is left to cook. Alternatively, wood can be used as fuel to create that smoky flavor. There are models of barbecue pit smokers available that use propane gas. These units also contain fireboxes located on the side for indirect smoking.

In addition, smoking can simply be done on top of the stove by purchasing a stovetop smoker pan or by making your own using a series of solid and perforated hotel pans. Oven smoking works well too—just don’t bake a cake in the same oven! 

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