Once upon a time, every home had a smokehouse out back. Before refrigeration, smoke curing was the only way to safely preserve meat. Besides making the meat last longer, the time it spent inside the smokehouse gave it an extremely pleasing flavor.
Today, while refrigerators and freezers make long-term meat storage easier, the flavor imparted by a stint in a smokehouse can’t be copied through any other method. Commercially produced smoked meats such as ham and bacon are often pumped full of chemical cures and artificial smoke flavoring to speed the process and reduce costs.
How do you go about capturing that smoky goodness without consuming possibly harmful chemicals?
Simple: Do what our forefathers did—build your own smokehouse.
Smokehouses don’t have to be large or elaborate to smoke meat well. A footprint as small as 3 feet square is sufficient for the vast majority of people. Height can vary, but 6 to 9 feet is usually more than enough.
While a smaller smokehouse will hold a surprising amount of ham, bacon or sausage, larger designs allow for a bit more control when lower temperatures are desired. If the area near the smoke entry point is too warm for the project at hand, a larger smokehouse allows you to move the meat farther away to a cooler area.
Build Your Base
A smokehouse base needs to be easy to clean—and nonflammable. Gravel works, but concrete is the best base material. Concrete is stable, allowing walls to be built directly on it with no fear of movement. It won’t catch fire if an errant spark lands on it, and it is relatively easy to clean. A base pad of up to 5 feet square is easy for you to pour from bagged concrete mix.
Begin by spreading gravel to form the base for the concrete; then form the basic shape of the pad with 2×4 lumber. To make sure your form is square, measure from corner to corner diagonally across the form. When the two cross measurements match, the form is square.
Drive stakes into the ground on the outside of the form to hold the boards in place. Check for level. Once the form is in the proper position, simply follow the mixing and pouring directions on the back of the concrete bag. Finish the top of the concrete with a hand trowel before the concrete hardens.
After the base has hardened and cured for a few days, the next step is to form the bottom section of wall for your smokehouse. While many smokehouses are constructed completely of wood, block and stone can be used to form the bottom 2 feet of the smokehouse walls.
This helps cut down on any fire risk should a spark make it into the smoking chamber. As the block or stone gets placed, be sure to leave a space for the fluepipe from the firebox to enter the smokehouse.
Wood is a popular wall material choice for home smokehouses, both for framing and for outer covering. Use untreated pine, cedar or poplar for framing purposes. Pressure-treated lumber should be avoided to prevent any possible chemical contamination as the wood heats during the smoking process. For the outer siding, pine, cedar, poplar or hardwood are all popular choices. Precision is key, so be sure to take proper measurements and then use a power tool like a table saw to cut the wood.
Metal can also be used as an outer covering, but avoid galvanized material, because it can emit toxic fumes when heated.
Roof and Door
Roof material can be metal or framed lumber and wooden shingles. Temperatures at the top of a smokehouse should never get hot enough to cause fire concerns, regardless of the roof material used. Metal siding and wood shingles are both popular choices for smokehouse roofing.
Don’t be concerned with closing every crack and crevice along the top, because the smoke needs a way to escape. A small smokestack through the roof of the smoking chamber allows the smoke to exit and keeps the meat from becoming bitter from too much smoke contact.
Frame the door to be large enough to allow easy entry into the smoking chamber. And, a tight-fitting seam around the door and a locking latch will go a long way in preventing pests from entering the smokehouse.
Hooking the Meat
To hold the meat inside the smokehouse, a series of racks or hooks should be located at various heights and depths of the interior. Having offset racks at different heights allows meat to be hung throughout the smokehouse, ensuring that they are in the most appropriate spot for the temperature and amount of smoke each piece requires. Hook and rack material should be stainless steel, cast iron or carbon steel.
As with the metal siding, care should be taken to avoid galvanized metal in any situation where food and heat are involved and noxious fumes from the hot galvanized metal might come into contact with edible products.
While a simple smokehouse can be built by using a hotplate and an iron skillet full of wood chips placed directly under the hanging meat as the smoke source, most smokehouses have external fireboxes to prevent high temperatures in the smoking chamber.
Fireboxes can be constructed of concrete block or natural stone, with a metal door to allow additional firewood to be added. Old wood-burning stoves also make excellent smokehouse fireboxes and are easier to install than concrete block versions. Smokehouse fireboxes don’t have to be large. The goal is a slow-burning, smoky fire more than heat, so even small, cabin-sized stoves are more than sufficient.
Connect the firebox to the smokehouse with a fireplace-style fluepipe. The greater the distance between the two, the more heat that dissipates before the smoke enters the firebox—an important factor if smoking in warmer temperatures. The fluepipe from the firebox should enter the smokehouse near the base of the structure, allowing the smoke to rise and surround the hanging meat.
Wood Choices for Smoking Meat
Once the smokehouse is complete, the choice of wood to use for smoking comes into play. Hickory is the traditional choice. Fruitwoods such as apple, pear or peach emit a sweeter smoke that pairs nicely with pork, bacon or ham. Oak is another good choice, particularly with beef.
When smoking fish, most enjoy the milder smoke flavor emitted by alder or fruit woods. Wood size is more or less dictated by the size of your firebox. Anything from logs down to chips can be burned with excellent results.
Keep the airflow to the smokebox pinched down to keep the fire and heat level low. If the heat level gets too high, adding sawdust from a comparable smoking wood helps tamp the flame down and lower the temperature while still adding good smoke to the smoking chamber. Check with local firewood sellers or outdoors stores for wood sources.
After your smokehouse is complete, what can you do with it?
The list is long: Smoke cured pork belly for real bacon that makes the mass-produced stuff pale by comparison. Cure and smoke your own hams and sausage. Smoke your own salmon or other fish or make jerky the old-fashioned way.
Here are three basic recipes to put your smokehouse to the test
Start with a fresh pork belly from your butcher shop or Asian market. Cure the belly for seven to nine days in either a large ziptop bag or a plastic or glass tub. Weigh your belly carefully to get the correct amount of pink salt (try Instacure #1 or Prague powder, available online or at many butcher shops) per pound of meat.
The following recipe will cure a 10-pound belly.
- One fresh pork belly,
- 10-pound range
For the cure mixture:
- 2 level teaspoons Instacure #1 (pink salt)
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
- 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
- 1 cup sorghum molasses, honey or real maple syrup
Mix all dry ingredients of the cure recipe. Place the meat in an extra-large ziptop bag or a plastic container. Coat the pork belly and sides well with the cure mixture. Most pork bellies come from the market with skin on and can be smoked with the skin either attached or removed. Many people smoke with the skin on and then remove it before slicing. If your belly has the skin removed, rub the cure over both sides of the meat.
After applying the cure, pour the sorghum, honey or syrup over the belly. Cover the container and refrigerate. Flip the belly once a day for seven to nine days. Start testing at the end of seven days. Slice a small sliver of bacon from the side of the belly, rinse it well and fry it to check the flavor. If the flavor meets your approval, the curing time is finished.
If it needs a bit more time, leave it in the cure for another day or two. Remember that the edges of the belly will always be saltier than the interior.
Once the belly has cured, remove it from the container and rinse it well under clean, running water. Place the belly on a metal drying rack overnight to allow a sticky pellicle to form on the outer surface. Begin the smoking process by hanging the belly in the smoking chamber.
Build a small fire and maintain an internal smokehouse temperature of 125 degrees (F) or lower for at least six hours or as long as 24 hours, depending on how much smoke you desire.
Smoked breakfast sausage is a delicacy not often seen today. That is a shame, because it makes for an outstanding breakfast. Why not make and smoke your own?
- 6 pounds pork butt, ground
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons dried sage
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- ½ tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Instacure #1 dissolved in 1 cup cold water
Mix the dry seasoning ingredients together and then add it to the ground pork. Add the water/Instacure #1 mixture and mix into the meat thoroughly. Stuff the sausage mixture into cloth casings and secure them tightly with metal hog rings. Hang the sausage in the smokehouse and smoke at 160 degrees (F) for three to four hours.
Refrigerate the sausage after smoking and consume within two weeks or vacuum seal and freeze it for long-term storage.
Traditionally, it’s best to use high-fat fish such as salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel and mullet. However, don’t overlook fish such as gar and Asian carp, because they can be great smoked, too.
I like to smoke fish with the skin on. Smaller fish such as mullet and trout can be smoked whole; larger fish should be cut into sections.
Begin the process with a brine. Soak the fish in the brine for eight hours before transferring the fish to a wire rack to dry completely. Instead of the traditional hooks for hanging meat in a smokehouse, wire racks work better for smoking fish.
- 8–10 pounds fish filets
For the brine:
- 8 cups water
- 2 cups soy sauce
- 1½ cups brown sugar
- ½ cup kosher salt
- 1½ tablespoons granulated garlic
Place fish in a large plastic tub. Mix brine ingredients and pour the brine over the fish, making sure the fish is completely covered. Cover container and refrigerate for eight hours or overnight. Smoke the fish at 150 degrees (F) for six to eight hours.
Having your own smokehouse will help you preserve meat for darker days, but it will also provide you with the joy of tasting various meats and discovering new smoking recipes. Our ancestors used this preservation method to survive days of scarcity, but nowadays smoking meat has become a hobby. Regardless of your reasons for building a smoke, I can tell you from personal experience that having the option to smoke your own meat is a real delight.
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