Learning to prepare your own smoked foods can seem daunting at first, so start with a food you know you'll love.
Curing meat is very forgiving and doesn't require much specialist equipment.
Photo by Nick Pope
Curing and Smoking (Firefly Books, 2012), by Dick and James Strawbridge, offers encouragement and practical instruction on how to transform fresh meats, fish, seafood and even eggs and cheese into flavorful treats. The authors show you all the key methods and give you ideas on making your own creations with your homemade products as the star. The following excerpt from “Preparing to Cure & Smoke,” introduces you to several methods of preparing smoked foods.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Curing and Smoking.
When you set out to learn any new skill, you are faced with a mind-boggling number of choices. The main problem can be deciding when — and where — to begin. Most of the projects in this book can be started very quickly. You may need to take a shopping trip for some raw materials, but you will probably be able to get your hands on enough ingredients that are already in your kitchen to try something right away.
We suggest that you start by making what you love the most or what you cannot find in stores. If you have ever been disappointed by “premium” quality bacon that when grilled, lacked any flavor other than saltiness, do something about it. If you find the white residue that is released into the pan when you cook your cured meat a little worrying, take charge of your own destiny and make your own. We started with smoking cheese simply because we loved it and good smoked cheese was hard to find.
Curing meat is an ancient skill, and brining is the most widely practiced and fundamental of the methods. This wet cure is very forgiving and requires very little specialist equipment: a food-grade plastic container is all you need to get started. You will need some space in the fridge for your container of brine or at the very least a cool storage space. Try a basic cure first, and then you can go on to vary the ingredients. If at first you do succeed, don’t be fooled into thinking you have mastered the art: you are immediately faced with lots of decisions. Do you make the same cure again to show how clever you are? Do you change the cut of meat and keep the same method? Do you vary the cure and add your own aromatics? There is no right answer, but the fun lies in the experimenting. Keep a notebook, and as well as writing down the date and details of what you did, make some tasting notes. It’s surprisingly easy to forget which of your many delectable dishes was your favourite.
Dry curing can be a method in its own right, or the forerunner to air drying or smoking. The container required for dry curing can be as simple as a crock or other large pot or a plastic food container. Using a hardwood box or barrel is the ultimate in traditional dry curing, and such items are sometimes available to buy, but you should start by using a simple tub instead. If you pop a couple of extra items into your cart next time you are in the supermarket you will be able to start dry curing the moment you get back home.
Making gravlax was one of our first forays into dry curing, which involved making a press, although you can improvise one. One day a side of salmon was on offer at the fish market and, having bought it, we decided to “add value,” as gravlax is probably three or four times the price of fresh fish. If we are completely honest, the press has never really saved us money, as we tend to eat a lot more of this delicious dish than most families. Not that we are complaining.
Most people love the idea of air drying meat — imagine having hams in the attic or salami and chorizo in a coldroom — but trying to determine the perfect location for their maturing products can stop them from trying. It is worth remembering that there is more to air drying than legs of meat hanging up for all to see — air-dried foods range from bunches of herbs to beef jerky. By all means start by hanging up your excess chillies to dry in the kitchen, but there is something special about curing meat. You do not need special equipment to make salami, but this method does require some patience because the meat takes time to mature as it dries out. You might as well be patient in the preparation, too: equipment can be expensive if you go out and buy it immediately, but hand-operated meat grinders or sausage machines come up for sale on the internet or in the classified ads in the paper. Keep your eyes open and think ahead to improve your chances of spotting a bargain. And you can always improvise — we have made some very acceptable sausages on board a boat using a bicycle pump.
With hot-smoked goods widely available in delis and supermarkets, you will already know if you like the flavors before you even make your first batch. Be prepared to be very pleased with yourself — “made at home” is always better than “store bought!” There are a number of rules to follow when hot smoking, so take the time to read about how to do it properly: at certain temperatures, microbes and bacteria can grow to dangerous levels. A stove-top smoker is the usual place to start, as it is all but foolproof and can be improvised from items found in most kitchens. That said, with some rudimentary DIY skills you can build an impressive smoker that offers plenty of flexibility and allows you to expand your repertoire of smoked foods. Commercially produced domestic hot-smokers are readily available on the internet. If you are not keen on DIY, they are a functional, reliable solution.
We have worn out several cold-smokers. Ours have always been based on oil drums, but any container that holds smoke for long enough to infuse your food will work. Cold smoking is probably one of the easiest ways to produce very tasty food that will surprise those around you, and as long as your chosen smoking box does not get warm enough to allow bacteria to grow, you will succeed. Before you begin, you will need to source some sawdust and wood shavings. Make sure they are pure apple wood or oak or whichever type of wood you prefer, otherwise you will fail to get the wood’s typical characteristics and flavors. Half a bucketful is more than enough for one batch, but it’s best to source sacks so you can repeat and experiment with flavors. It is worth having a collection of different sawdusts so you can present a platter of flavors. Make sure you let people know you need the sawdust or shavings to smoke food because they will be interested and well disposed toward you. Letting them try your products will stand you in good stead in the future.
We don’t like spending a lot of money on our equipment, but we do like good-quality items that will last a long time. If you decide you are going to make your own curing box or smoker, take the time to make something that does exactly what you want it to — not only is that satisfying in itself, but it will also become a family heirloom. It is also worth keeping your eyes peeled for second-hand equipment, but make sure the items are functional and not those that have been treated to make them attractive. If you know anyone else who cures or smokes food it is always worth asking them for advice, as most people are happy to share their ideas and experiences.
Used with permission from Curing and Smoking: Made at Home, by Dick and James Strawbridge, Firefly Books 2012. Buy this book from our store: Curing and Smoking.