Smoking Meat at Home

Smoking meat is without exaggeration one of the most rewarding food experiences.  The smell is bewitching, and the meat goes through a remarkable transformation in taste and colour.  If you have a fire-pit or some type of wood-burning oven, you already have a smoker.  Simply build a fire, let it burn down, then toss some hardwood twigs or wood chips onto the coals.  This post is about some simple ways to use common backyard barbecues to smoke meat.

Most of the commercial smokers I’ve used suck.  Especially the ones that come with little pucks of sawdust that are somehow bound together.  The smoke produced by these pucks has a harsh, ashen quality reminiscent of cigarettes.  The joke Mike and I used to make at Nomad was, “I thought we were smoking pork butt, not cigarette butts.”  (“Butt” is another word for the upper shoulder of a pig…)

Wood Selection

It’s easy to notice the different flavours of smoke produced by different methods.  Pipe tobacco has a very sweet, vanilla-like aroma, while cheap cigarettes smell more like tar.

Almost all meat-smoking in North American is done with hardwood from maple, hickory, mesquite, or fruit trees like apple and cherry.  I use a lot of apple wood, as last year we had to cut down a large apple tree that was decimated by a spring storm.  We now have plenty of twigs and chips that are ideal for smoking.  I’ve also used pruning trim from our Manitoba maples with good results.  I still supplement with wood chips from commercial sources.  The best chips I’ve come across are the True North brand, sold at Canadian Tire.  They are larger chunks that smolder well.

As for the exact type of wood, many say it matters little (eg. Alton Brown in I’m Just Here for the Food), while some indignantly argue otherwise (eg. Ruhlman in Charcuterie).  I’m sure there must be a difference between apple and mesquite and hickory and pear, but frankly I’ve never had the opportunity to smell them all side by side, so I couldn’t pick out one over the other.

In Europe there is a long tradition of smoking with wood from evergreens, notably fir and spruce.  True Black Forest ham (Schwarzwälder Schinken) is smoked in this manner.  I tried smoking with evergreen once with decent results, though I’m by no means an authority…

The Power of the Pellicle

All meat that will be smoked should be patted dry, set on a wire rack, and left in the fridge uncovered to allow the exterior to dry out slightly.  The dry, tacky surface that forms is called a pellicle, and it aids in the absorption of flavour during smoking.  This is a nuance that takes patience, but makes a huge difference in the look and flavour of the finished product.  Sausages especially benefit from proper drying, as the casing are quite moist after they have been soaked and stuffed.  Pellicle formation takes several hours.  I leave the meat in the fridge overnight.

Hot-Smoking

Hot-smoking aims to cooks the meat while exposing it to smoke.  The ideal temperature range is 200°F to 250°F.  This hot enough to cook food, but very slowly, so we maximize the meat’s exposure to smoke.  This is how bacon, ham, pulled pork, barbecue ribs, and smoked beef brisket are prepared.

I make a few aluminum foil packets, each filled with two handfuls of wet maple chips and one handful of dry, then punch holes on both sides of the packets with a fork.  The packets are set directly onto the right-hand barbecue burner, which is kept on its lowest setting.  This starts the chips smoldering while maintaining the ideal hot-smoking temperature of 250°F in the rest of the barbecue.  I try to keep the meat on the left-hand side so as not to be over direct heat.

Smoking bacon on the barbecue

This method definitely needs to be tweaked to individual barbecues.  Many newer barbecues have fancy heat-distribution bars that hold the wood chip packets too far away from the burner to smoke effectively.  In this case you have to start the smoldering by cranking the barbecue heat with the lid open.  Once the chips are smoking well you should be able to close the lid and adjust the heat to maintain 225°F.

Cold-Smoking

The point of cold-smoking is to impart the flavour of the smoke without cooking the meat.  Examples of food that you might want to keep raw are cured fish, jerky, and certain types of cured meat like salami or speck.  To keep the meats from cooking the temperature has to stay below 100°F.  Barbecue burners are so large that no matter how low you set them, they will always produce enough heat to raise the temperature of the barbecue above 100°F.

The solution is simple enough.  I ignite wood chips in a stainless steel pan on my stove top, then put the pan in the barbecue, where I usually rest the foil packets for hot-smoking.  The barbecue remains off, and functions only as a chamber to hold the smoke.

The major disadvantage of the pan method is that, without any active heat source, the chips only smolder for about five minutes before they have to be re-ignited.

Cold-smoking pickerel on the barbecue

Properly curing cold-smoked meats is very important because they usually stay in the temperature “danger zone” for several hours.  The danger zone, between 39°F and 140°F, is where microbes grow best.  Below this range they are inactive, and above this range they die.  In professional kitchens they say that fresh food that stays in the danger zone for more than two hours is unfit to serve.  When we cure meat we make the flesh inhospitable to microbes, and we can therefore keep it in the danger zone for extended periods.

Food safety aside, properly curing the fish makes the flesh firm, dense, and pleasantly salty.

On the “Smoke Ring”

When you cut into smoked meats there should be a pink ring around the outside.  Many say that this is the smoke “penetrating” the meat.  Really it’s a reaction between the pigments in the meat and the NO, nitrogen oxide, created during the smoking process.  It doesn’t necessarily represent smoke flavour.

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