My family has been smoking meat ever since I can remember and their teachings have been passed on from one generation to another. If you are the type of person that hunts or have a small homestead which provides you with all the meat your family needs, smoking meat may be a useful hobby for you.
Smoking meat will help you preserve your meat supplies for a long time and it’s a good alternative to canning or freezing. There are many different opinions regarding the smoking habits of people and historically, the topic is quite interesting.
Our ancestors used to preserve their meats with salt, drying and smoke long before the invention of the refrigerator. Smoking meat may seem like a basic process, but it’s more to it than it looks. The smoking process creates two actions: it dries the meat and emits acids that cover the meat, forming a protective layer. This acid helps to preserve the meat by slowing down the growth of bacteria and preventing mold from forming. Depending on the technique used, smoking is also known to preserve the flavor and color of the meat.
Methods for smoking meat
There are two different techniques for smoking meat and these techniques have been used for centuries. There is the cold smoking (or hard smoking) method and the hot smoking technique, which is probably the most used one.
This method does not cook the food and it was being used by the early hunters in order to extend the length of time meat could be eaten after the hunt. The meat is dried rather than cooked and curing the meat is required for this technique. Some may say that this process is similar to dehydration, but the meat is not only dried. Salt, spices and smoke is required for this method to work. Cold smoking is usually done in temperatures at or below 100 degrees Fahrenheit and this can become a problem.
Most food scientists agree that cold smoking has some inherent risks since the temperatures tolerated by rapid microbial growth range between 40 to 140 degrees. It is also true that our ancestors had a different immune system, but on the other hand maybe that’s why they died younger. Cold smoking is usually done at an industrial scale, where the meat can be cured, smoked and stored in proper conditions.
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This is the most used method of smoking meat. It works better than cold smoking because it cooks the meat gently and slowly, preserving the color and flavor. For the method to work, a constant temperature is required, that may range from 150 to 220 degrees. Curing meat is also an important step for hot smoking and you can opt for a dry cure or a wet cure (brine). Dry curing implies sprinkling the salt, sugar and spices directly on the meat and refrigerate it for a minimum amount of time. For a brine cure, one should mix salt, sugar and spices into water. One thing I’ve learned from my mother is that you should never use a metal container for your cure, regardless if it’s wet or dry.
Smoking meat using the proper smoker
There are numerous smokers on the market and one should choose the most appropriate one for his or her needs. There are electric or gas smokers, some use charcoal or wood, pellets and so on. If you are new to this, you should buy a smoker that it’s easy to use and provides you with various options. I’m currently using the Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker and I can honestly say that it is a joy to use. Once you get the right smoker for you, it’s time to decide on what cure to use. You can try the various recipes you can find online to make your own homemade cure or you can buy a pre-made one.
There are various brands and flavors available and the good part is that they all contain sodium nitrate to prevent botulism and extend the shelf life. You can use different woods for smoking meat. Over the years I’ve learned that chicken and fish are better with apple, pecan, alder and cherry wood. Pork and beet work well with hickory, oak or mesquite. There is an infinite number of flavors you can create and it’s basically a trial and error process. When you smoke for flavor, the temperature of your smoker should be between 200 and 300 degrees.
Smoking Fish & Game
Making smoked jerky is not rocket since and the process becomes simpler as you get the hang of it. You should use the leanest cuts of meat and remove all visible fat. The meat should be sliced evenly, no more than a ¼ inch thick. Slice across the grain for tender bites, or with the grain for tough, chewier bites. Cure the meat based on your choice and set your electric smoker for 150 degrees and insert enough smoking briquettes for two hours of smoke. After those two hours, you can increase the temperature to 180 degrees and continue the cooking process. You can let the meat cook for four more hours if you wish, depending on the consistency of the meat’s dryness that you like.
Smoking fish is not complicated and there are principles that apply to all types of fish. The main rule is to always use quality fish. You should keep the fish in the refrigerator or in fresh water until you’re ready to smoke it. You will need to cut the fish in uniform pieces for equal salting. Use one part table salt to seven parts water for at least one hour of refrigeration. Once completed, rinse the fish surface and allow it to air dry in a cool place. Start your smoker and once it reaches 100 degrees, you are ready to add your racks of fish and set temperature to 220 degrees. Once the thickest part of the fish reaches 150 degrees, it should be held for 20 to 30 minutes. Smoke the fish for up to three hours, once again, depending on the meat’s dryness you like.
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For both cases, if you want your meat to stay moist, you will need to maintain water in your drip pan. You can also brine chicken, turkey and other lean meats overnight in the refrigerator before smoking.
Smoking meat safety guide
Your working area should be sanitized by using a mixture of chlorine bleach and warm water (1 tablespoon bleach to a gallon of water). Your work surfaces, utensils and equipment shouldn’t be contaminated by cooked foods or dirty surfaces.
Keep an eye on the temperature as microbial growth thrives between 40 to 140 degrees. Temperature negligence can cause food poisoning and spoilage.
It is imperative that when cooking meats, the internal temperature should reach 160 degrees to destroy bacteria that can cause food-born illnesses.
Always use fresh meat as aging is not required for smoking. Thaw meat in the refrigerator.
If you are new to smoking meat, use commercial curing rather than experiencing with online recipes. Follow the instructions labeled on the package.
Before smoking meat, you should do a check-up and make sure your smoker is in proper working order. Smoking should be started only after the recommended smoker temperature has been reached.
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How to avoid failure when smoking meat
- Before you slice the meat, it is advised to put it in the freezer for at least 30 minutes (up to 2 hours) until firm.
- Meat should be weighted after you trim it to know exactly how much seasoning and cure it is needed.
- Perfect jerky should be able to bend without breaking in half. If that’s not the case you did something wrong.
- Avoid opening your smoker and picking. This is a rookie mistake and it will compromise the quality of your meat.
- If you want to apply sauce on the meat, do so during the last 20 or 30 minutes of smoking. If you do that earlier, the sauce will burn and brown quickly. Your meat will develop a burnt flavor.
- For a longer shelf life, the smoking time needs to be longer as it will cause a greater loss of moisture. This will result in a higher salt proportion and even if the meat becomes drier and saltier, you can store it for a longer time.
- If you keep a higher temperature in a smoker, it will decrease the smoking time considerably, but it will also shorter the shelf life of the meat.
Smoking meat is a reliable food preservation method as long as you follow the rules and pay attention to what you’re doing. It was used by your grandparents with great success and it’s still being used today on a large scale in many parts of the world. If you’re interested in preserving meat for a long time, you should give smoking a chance!
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