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 “Introduction to Cold Smoking” covers cold smoking basics.
Cold smoking is a means not of cooking but of preserving food, and if kept in cool conditions, cold-smoked products should last for many months. The name, of course, says it all, and it is important to use as little heat as possible. Therein lies the challenge: we all know that there is “no smoke without fire,” but we need smoke and we don’t want any heat. It sounds tricky, but cold smoking is surprisingly easy and delivers delicious results.
How Cold Smoking Works
Food (more specifically meat) is usually cured before smoking, as the curing process draws out the moisture that bacteria need in order to grow, and this promotes the absorption of the wood smoke. We are after this smoke flavor, but the penetration of the smoke into the food also creates a barrier to pests and bacteria. Very little hardening of the outside surface of the meat or casing occurs in cold smoking, so the smoke penetrates the food easily and completely. For our easy cured bacon recipe, check out Learning to Make Bacon at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR. — MOTHER
• Choose a cool day.
• Monitor the temperature of your smoke.
• Make sure you leave sufficient space around the food for the smoke to circulate.
• Leave smoked food in the fridge for at least 24 hours before eating (wrap it well).
• Make sure your sawdust or wood chippings have not been contaminated by unwanted types of wood.
• Put your food in the smoker when it is operational and producing lots of smoke.
The Right Temperature
Cold smoking is a bit trickier than hot smoking, because it’s important that the smoking temperature is under 68 degrees Fahrenheit. With a little care this is achievable, but it usually means that any heat source used to get the wood product to smoulder must be kept separate from the smoking chamber. If you get this wrong, the food can start to cook and will lose its preserving qualities. Higher temperatures will also provide exactly the conditions in which bacteria thrive.
It may seem self-evident, but different types of wood will give you different flavors. There are some woods to avoid, specifically softwoods such as pine or fir, as their high resin and tar content will spoil the taste of your food. As a rule of thumb, temperate hardwoods are what you need.
Sourcing Your Wood
You have to be careful when sourcing your wood — it’s not quite as simple as visiting a local carpenter or joiner who makes lovely wooden furniture and getting an endless supply of shavings and sawdust. Many workshops use a variety of different materials, and a bag of shavings contaminated by softwood or the dust from MDF will render your food inedible and dangerous. So make sure you explain exactly what you need. Of course, you can also collect your own wood and pass it through a chipper. Autumn and winter are probably the best times to do this, when there is less sap in the wood.
How you arrange your wood in your smoker will determine how long it will burn, the density of the smoke and the heat, all of which are important to control.
We start by laying a trail of sawdust in the bottom of our oil-drum smoker, making a horse-shoe shape — about 6 inches high and wide — up against the wall of the drum. We use sawdust as it does not burst into flames as easily as wood shavings; that said, it can be difficult to light. We use a blowtorch, held in place for about 30 seconds or until there is a glowing ember, to light one end of the trail and then allow the sawdust to burn around the ring. You can expect a trail of sawdust that reaches halfway around the drum to burn for about 8 hours. Three-quarters of the drum circumference should last 12 hours, so it will burn through the night. The burning time will be shorter if there are significant drafts or if you use a light sawdust like ash.
If you have a separate smoke box you can use wood shavings or chippings, which tend to burn at a higher temperature than sawdust. The shavings can ignite if you are not careful, which will greatly reduce the smoking time and smoke density. The more compacted the shavings are, the slower they will burn.
Using Your Cold-Smoker
Your cold-smoker will hold a significant amount of product, and you should use it to its full capacity whenever possible. When your fill the smoker, make sure to leave space for the smoke to circulate. To keep different products in the smoker from tainting each other, you also need to make sure that they are far enough apart — you don’t want your cheese to be affected by a fish in close proximity to it.
When you are smoking meat or fish it is important that the temperature you keep the food at is out of the range that is ideal for bacterial growth. The really dangerous area is near our body temperature, as that is when bacteria thrive and grow very quickly. As a rule of thumb, never cook food in temperatures between 75-140 degrees Fahrenheit.
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Used with permission from Curing and Smoking: Made at Home, by Dick and James Strawbridge, Firefly Books 2012.