Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Art of Smoking... food that is

The modern method of smoking foods evolved from its roots as a process for preserving. Long before refrigeration and chemical preservatives, smoke was used to extend the shelf life of most foods, especially meat. Wood smoke contains many of the chemicals (formaldehyde and acetic acid, among others) that slow the growth of microbes. In addition, the pH level of smoke is a very low 2.5, which is extremely friendly to microbes.

Today, smoking has become much more than an age-old technique for preserving, tenderizing, and adding flavor to food. Smoking has become an institution to festivals, clubs, organizations and above all, competitions. People are smoking cheeses, fruits, nuts, vegetables, salts, and anything else they can get their hands on.

This post, however, is about smoking meats. C'mon, its a Paleo blog, did you expect nothing less?

Meat to Use

First of all, you have to choose your meat and whenever someone ways the word "smoke" in reference to food, my first thought is pork. Pork offers some incredible cuts at a relatively inexpensive price, and those same cuts lend themselves extremely well to the smoking process. Some of the most common cuts used for smoking are any of the cuts from the loin as well as the motion muscles, which are Boston butt, shoulder picnic, and spare ribs from the belly. Beef brisket, beef ribs, and most other cuts from the cow also work well for the smoking process.

What I generally look for are cuts of meat that are generally tough with a lot of connective tissues and a fair amount of fat. These cuts actually benefit from the long cooking period than others because as the connective tissue dissolves, the meat becomes increasingly tender and the melting fat bastes and flavors the meat while absorbing the entire smoke flavor itself. Poultry and other lean cuts also do well from smoking; however it is necessary to brine such cuts.


Cuts of meat, especially from poultry and any cuts that are lean, tend to dry out during the smoking process. That is why is helpful, or necessary in some cases, to brine. A brine is a salted water solution containing anywhere from 3 to 5 percent salt by volume. The strength of your brine will depend on the cut of meat and what you hope to actually achieve by brining. A 3 percent solution, which is roughly 2 tablespoons of salt per gallon, will dissolve parts of the protein structures that maintain the contracting filaments. A 6 percent solution, which is around 4 tablespoons per quart, will moderately dissolve the actual filaments themselves. Depending on the cut and its thickness, they can be brined anywhere from 2 hours to 2 days.

Another fact to know about brining is that the interaction of salt and protein results in greater water holding capacity within the muscle cells. As a result, the weight of the brined meat will increase by 10 percent. The smoking process yields in a 20 percent loss in moisture of the meat, which is offset by the added weight that the brine creates, essentially cutting the loss of weight in half. Brines penetrate the meat from the outside to the center, unless you inject the brine into the center of the meat specifically, lending its greatest effects on the outer-most portions of the meat which are typically the first to show signs of overcooking and drying out. That is why even partial brine can make all the different in the world on any cut of meat that you smoke.

However, due to the brine, a major disadvantage is that the meat can become rather salty. To offset this, many people will add sweeteners, fruit juices, alcohols, and vinegars to provide a sweet and sour contracts that is to offset the strong flavor of the salt.

In addition to brines, which can impart an aromatic flavoring to your meat, dry rubs are also a great way for adding specific flavorings to your meat prior to smoking. When using a dry rub in addition to the brine, be sure to choose or make a rub that contains little to no extra salt/sodium content. A preferred method from brining and dry rubbing is to brine the meat, rub the meat down with mustard, and then use the dry rub. The mustard helps to create a glazing with the spices from rub within it without imparting added sweetness.

Wood Choices

Now, one of the most important choices in smoking is what wood you will use. However, choosing the correct wood can be a challenge, especially if you are unsure of what types of wood are available and how the wood's smoke will affect the flavor of the meat that you are smoking. Some of the best woods for smoking are listed below, as well as the types of meat that they work best with.

Alder: Natural sweetness and delicate flavor. Typically pairs well with fish, poultry, pork, and light meats. Commonly used in the Pacific Northwest to smoke salmon.

Apple: Sweet and fruity mild taste. Works best with ham, fish, and poultry.

Hickory: The king of woods used in the Southern BBQ belt. A strong and pungent wood with a smoky, almost bacon-like flavor. Best with ribs and red meat.

Maple: Sweet and light tasting, though it has a tendency to darken the color of the meat if presentation is important to you. Works well when balances with oak, apple, or alder. Use this wood for ham and poultry.

Mesquite: If you are not careful when using this wood to smoke with, the flavor of the smoke will overpower the meat. To stay safe, do not use this wood when smoking any cut of meat that requires a prolonged smoking time. This wood is oily in nature, meaning it tends to pop ember as well as burn hot and fast. Best used with other woods, especially near the end of the smoking process, for any type of meat that you wish to have that mesquite flavor.

Pecan: This wood belongs to the hickory family and is therefore rather similar in nature. This wood is pungent like hickory, but with a fruity flavor, so use sparingly. Pecan burns cooler than most woods, which makes it ideal for smoking meats that require a longer smoking time.

Oak: This wood is also excellent for smoking cuts of meat that require longer smoking times, especially the larger cuts. It produces a good strong smoke flavor that doesn't overpower. Ideal for beef briskets. Red oak has a sweeter flavor while white oak burns longer.

Cherry: This wood tens to turn meats a rich mahogany and is therefore perfect for beef and pork, especially when used with hickory, oak, pecan, or alder.

Grapevine Cuttings: These are perfect for smoking fish, poultry, and the lighter beef cuts. However, the effects of grapevine cuttings can also be achieved by soaking wood chips in an inexpensive wine.

Hot or Cold

There are 2 types of smoking: Hot and cold. Cold smoking is done at a low temperature and is not intended to actually cook the meat. The meat is held in an unheated chamber and smoke is funneled through it from a fire box. Wood dust or pellets works best for cold smoking, as they will smolder and smoke at lower temperatures better than thicker pieces of wood.

Hot smoking is a technique where the meat is help directly above or within the same enclosure as the wood, so that it cooks as it smoked. Hot smoked cuts tend to have a firmer, drier texture, making temperature, timing, and moisture content rather important. Optimal temperature for hot smoking is at 212 degrees. Remember, low heat and slow cooking are the keys to success, even when you are hot smoking. This temperature gives the smoke enough time to sink in and naturally tenderize the meal while slowly cooking the meat, which gives the natural fibers in meat time to break down and become tender.

Which Smoker to Use

Last but not least, it is time to decide on the type of smoker to smoke that cut of meat that you have decided which wood to use, to brine or not brine, and to dry rub or no. Now is when you have to determine which smoker will work best for you. While the capacity and portability are completely dependant on what you are cooking as well as where you doing the cooking, the type of fuel used is an important consideration when choosing your smoker.

Electric: These smokers have a rod that heats up electrically and ignites the wood pellets, which are used as both the heat source and for their smoking qualities. The pellets are fed into the firebox by an auger, which is controlled by a thermostat. Very must so the type of smoker that you start and forget about until it is finished.

Gas Fired: This style works much the same way as the eclectic smokers, but uses natural gas/propane to ignite the wood. What makes these types of smokers interesting is that they can often be used for both hot and cold smoking. They also generally contain some sort of water pan to help retain the moisture level of the smoked meats. This is my preferred smoker.

Barbeque Pit: If charcoal is used as fuel, as it often is with these types of smokers, it should be lit and left until there is a gray ash covering the coals, just as with grilling. The wood that provides the smoke should be soaked prior to the smoking and then placed on the charcoal with the food being placed on the racks. When the smoke begins to form, the smoker is closed and the food is left to cook. Alternatively, the wood can be used as the fuel to create the smoky flavor.

There are also barbeque pits that use propane gas for the lighting of the wood directly, as well as units that contain fireboxes off to the side for indirect and cold smoking.

Lastly, smoking can be done on the top of the stove by purchasing a stoke-top smoker pan or by making your own using a series of solid and perforated pans. Oven smoking also works rather well, but it does tend to ruin the oven for any other type of cooking since the flavor of the smoke tends to stay for a long time.

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