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The smoking process

Smoke is complex. It can be subtle or overpowering. You need to know your stuff to manipulate it for great results. Take a look at the basics and not so basics of smoking food.

Smoke is the complex production of very complicated compounds that occur during the thermal decomposition of wood (chips or sawdust). Although at the point of generation smoke is a gas, it rapidly separates into a vapor and a particle state.

It is the vapor phase that contains the components largely responsible for the flavor and aroma that smoke imparts to foods. More than 300 different compounds have been isolated from wood smoke, but not all of these compounds occur in smoked meat products. The components most commonly found are phenols, organic acids, alcohols, carbonyls, hydrocarbons and some gaseous components such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxygen, nitrogen and nitrous oxide.

The smoking process allows cured meats, poultry, game and seafood to be subjected to smoke in a controlled environment. Smoke is produced by smoldering hardwood chips, vines, herbs, fruit skins or spices. This smoke influences the flavor, aroma, texture, appearance and shelf life of foods. The process can be performed at temperatures that range generally from 65°F to 250°F. The food merely retains the flavor of the smoke at lower ranges (cold smoke), while the food actually cooks at the higher end of the scale (hot smoke).

Virtually any meat, poultry, game or seafood can be smoked, as can hard cheeses, nuts, vegetables and sausages.

Process for Smoked Fish

Raw material: Fish must be fresh and must be maintained at 33°F or less.

Thawing: When using frozen fish, thawing must be done at a temperature no greater than 45°F.

Evisceration: Fish must be eviscerated in a separate area and washed thoroughly.

Brining: Mixing of fish species in brine is not allowed. Brining or dry salting, in excess of 4 hours, must take place at 38°F or less. Salt concentration and period of time must be adequate to ensure salt penetration to give a water phase salt (WPS) of 2.5 percent. Determination of  WPS must be done on the thickest piece of fish.

Hot smoking: Fish should be arranged to facilitate complete smoking of all surfaces. Fish temperature in the smoker must reach a minimum 145°F and be held for at least 30 minutes. Temperature probes are to be inserted in the thickest portion of at least three fish with the lowest reading recorded on the process record. Temperature will be recorded at least three times during smoking.

Cold smoking:Fish should be arranged to facilitate complete smoking of all surfaces. Smokehouse temperature should be maintained at a temperature not to exceed 50°F for a time not to exceed 24 hours, or not more than 90°F for not more than 20 hours. The smokehouse temperature should be recorded at least three times during smoking.

Cooling:Fish shall be cooled to 50°F within five hours and to 33°F within 12 hours and maintained at that temperature until sold.

Packaging:Fish can only be sold air packaged and must be labeled in bold print “Keep refrigerated at 38°F or below.”

Records:Records must be kept on each batch of fish showing the name of the product, a lot code, date processed, container size and number of containers if applicable. A record must be kept in ink on the temperature of thawing, brining, smoking, cooling and storage of each batch of fish processed. The record must also show the duration of smoking. 

Woods for Smoking

Hard, fruit or nut woods are preferred. All woods impart a slightly different flavor. Wood is available in sawdust, chip/nugget and chunk form.

Hickory is the most common type used and provides good color and flavor. Apple, cherry, mesquite and alder wood are also common.

Soft or resinous woods should never be used; they will either flare up and burn or add too much color to the product, imparting a bitter taste. They are high in creosote resin, which may cause cancer. Never use pressure-treated wood; it may contain arsenic or other toxins.

Dry herbs and spices can also be used for smoking. Jasmine and other teas are also an option; the Chinese also use peanut shells.

Pick your wood chips

Alder: Mild taste, ideal to use with vegetables and fish.

Apple: Unique fruity flavor, use with fresh ham, frog legs, pork chops, sausages, Cornish hens, salmon.

Cherry: Similar to apple, but with a slight tart aftertaste, ideal to use with lamb, pheasant, duck, venison and steak.

Maple: Universal subtle hint of sweet flavor, ideal to use with turkey, ham Canadian bacon, tenderloin of beef and pork, poultry, most kinds of game and vegetables.

Hickory: Strong bacon flavor, ideal for use with ribs, bbq items, steaks, chops, spicy food and broiled chicken.

Oak: Mellow version of mesquite, ideal to use with steaks, duck, hamburgers.

Mesquite: Authentic Southwest twang, leaving a little bit of a hot burning sensation as an aftertaste, ideal to use with pork, spare ribs, steaks and most red meats. If used with great care it can also be used across the whole ingredient spectrum.

Sweet Birch: Leaves a sweet delicate taste on the palate, ideal to use with chicken, swordfish, tuna, salmon, lamb, bbq pork items and all vegetables.

Pecan: Mellow flavor, similar to hickory. Cool burning is one of its major characteristics, ideal to use with chicken and duck and most game that is of the winged variety.

Why we Smoke Meat

For preservation: Phenolic compounds and formaldehyde have anti-microbial action; this affects only the surface of the meat, as smoke does not penetrate deeply into items. Smoke emits a number of acids, which cling to the meat and form an outside layer or skin. The acids help the coagulation of the surface meat, and also help preserve the meat by preventing the growth of surface mold and bacteria.

To add flavor: Phenols, carbonyl compounds and organic acids contribute the smoky taste. Excessive smoke flavor can become bitter, though.

To add color: Carbonyl compounds combine with free amino groups combined with meat protein to form furfural compounds that are dirty brown in color and translucent; when added with the reddish color of the cooked cured meat, you see a reddish brown color that is characteristic of smoked products.

For protection: Smoking acts as protection from lipid oxidation (stale fat taste). In the formation of a protective skin on meats and emulsion-type sausages, acids in smoke help coagulate the protein on the surface of the meat.

Smoking Facts

Cold smoke: Smoking occurs at 70°F to 100°F, imparting flavor without firming proteins. Items may be cold smoked, then finished in the oven.
Hot smoke: Smoking occurs at 160°F to 225°F, imparting flavor and cooking the product.

Conventional: More smoke flavor, the air does not circulate as much. Product must be dry.
Convection: Less smoke flavor because the air is being circulated. Product does not have to be dry because of the air circulation.
Pan: Pan smoking gives a lot of flavor in short period of time. Can be done with no special equipment.

Key temperatures
103°F Proteins begin to set or denature
137.5°F Trichinosis bacteria is killed
155°F Federal requirement for cooking pork
160°F All proteins are coagulated
165°F Federal requirement for cooking all poultry

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