Long before people had the ability to can or freeze their food, smoking was used to help preserve meat. It’s also used to give a wonderful smoky flavor to both meat and cheese. Although we preserve food by canning, freezing and storing it in our root cellar, a smokehouse allows us to flavor and preserve our food in a new way.
In this article, I will discuss how my husband built the smokehouse and firebox this year. This smokehouse will serve both as a cold smoker and as one that can cook food. Later in the winter, I will share our experiences with smoking our pork, poultry and cheddar cheese.
“Cold smoke” is an important concept because cooler temperatures give food time to dry out before heat seals in its moisture. Bacteria need a moist environment in which to multiply. The slow drying of food is therefore one method of preservation. The combination of salt and cool smoke prevents spoilage, repels insects and preserves meat.
I remember the description of Pa smoking meat in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.” He used a smoldering fire at the base of an upright, hollow tree in which the meat was hung high inside. Smokehouses weren’t much more sophisticated than this in established homesteads in the late 1800s. Some state and metro parks have preserved these simple brick or wood smokehouses that were meant to have fires built inside them. These could cook and flavor foods, but because the fire was in the structure, it was difficult to keep the smoke cool.
Resources for building a smokehouse: As smokehouses are growing more popular today, people can buy commercially built ones or build simple ones consisting of a barrel connected to a firebox. My husband dedicated last winter to reading Adam Stanley’s and Robert Marianski’s, Meat Smoking and Smokehouse Design, as well as Frank G. Ashbrook’s Butchering, Processing and Preservation of Meat, before building the smokehouse that I describe in this article. Many other variations on this design are shown in these books.
Constructing the smokehouse: Our smokehouse was begun by digging a six-by-eight-foot foundation for a cement footer. Three courses of block were laid on this footer. Because elevating a smokehouse makes it easier to have the smoke enter through its floor, soil was then laid up to the top of this three-block level. The smokehouse project came after burying our nearby cistern so that the dirt would be readily available.
The 12 courses of block that are now seen above ground were laid on the buried, three layers of block. The metal roof was then built with a pitch that allows for adjustable vents at each gabled end. A long-stemmed, digital thermometer and hydrometer, read from the outside, go through the wall of the smokehouse to monitor the inside temperature and humidity. These are then modified by adjusting the vents.
Constructing the firebox: Although smaller, the firebox was still a challenge to build. It is built of brick lined with firebrick on a concrete foundation. It measures 40 inches by 4 feet and has a removable concrete cover that will make it easier to build a fire within. Its door is made of steel with one edge bent forward to serve as a handle. In order to allow smoke to cool before entering the smokehouse, the distance from firebox to smokehouse is about five feet.
Connecting firebox to smokehouse: The smoke will travel through the six-inch, clay sewer pipe that is laid underground with an upward pitch. This pipe curves to enter the smokehouse mid-point in its cement floor. As the smoke enters, it is drawn up and out by the vents near the roof. There is a removable wooden plug in the pipe where it enters the smokehouse floor. When storing food in the smokehouse, we’ll want to keep varmints out.
The next big step of actually using the smokehouse is still ahead of us. Although we have friends with distant memories of food being smoked, no one has been able to supply us with helpful how-to tips. Therefore, the books I mentioned remain open at our house as we prepare ourselves for this next adventure. Stay tuned!
Mary Lou Shaw and her husband, Tom, grow most of the food they eat on their 13 acre Ohio homestead. Mary Lou’s book, “Growing Local Food,” can be bought through Mother Earth News.