I don’t know too many people who don’t enjoy smoked meats and cheeses. Some smoked salmon or smoked cheddar makes for a wonderful flavor in your dishes or even as a stand alone meal or snack. What blows me away is how incredibly easy it really is to smoke up your own tasty food! I used to think it was difficult, complicated, and a specialized education was needed to be able to successfully craft such delectable and highly sought after food. I was very, very wrong. Smoking foods comes from the time before modern refrigerators. It was used as a way to preserve meat primarily, but it also serves to add flavor and tenderize. These days, it has evolved more into a culinary art but there are still many people (myself now included) who smoke and then jar up the food for shelf-stable food preservation. Smoked salmon is a great example of that.
Here in rural Alaska (and the Pacific Northwest), smoking and canning up fish is a normal way of life for many people. In this article, we will unravel the mystery about smoking meats and cheeses by first looking at what you are really doing when you smoke food (the science of it), to what you need to have a greater chance of success as a newbie, and then I will touch on the basics for smoking fish and cheese.
The Science of Smoking Food
There are two different kinds of smoking: hot and cold. A hot smoke has temperatures that will actually cook the food and are generally 160 degrees Fahrenheit and up. The important thing to note here is the temperature for red meats and fish should be above 145 degrees and any poultry should have a center temperature above 165 degrees to ensure any bacteria cannot grow and it is safe for consumption. Not only does a hot smoke cook the food, the smoke itself dries out the outer layers of the meat a bit which makes it harder for bacteria to grow.
Cold smoking is done to give flavor and tenderize meats. It is not meant to cook food and additional processing is required unless it is something like cheese. Any meat that has been cold smoked must be further processed to ensure it is safe to eat. Cold smoking only affects the outside layers of the food and does not make it to the middle. Now that we have a good understanding of how and why it works, we move on to the process and equipment.
The Equipment and Process
When we find the house we want, we will build a proper, full sized smoker that you can walk into. For now, while we live in an apartment, we have a Big Chief Front Load Smoker that we can set up out in the parking lot and use. It was a little more than we wanted to spend at the time but looking back, the thing paid for itself the first fishing season from the neighbors using it alone! We knew we would need the larger one not only because we end up with a lot of fish, I prefer to have full batches of food in the pressure canner.
In fact, this last weekend, we ended up with a total of 16 pints (one full canner batch!) of smoked and jarred salmon that was not really expected but because we are going hunting, I needed to make room in the freezer. Smoking and then canning the fish helps to preserve it without anything going to waste, not to mention it is now shelf stable and does not require refrigeration until opened. Win-Win!
The kind of chips people use to smoke their food is as varied as individual tastes are. We personally prefer using alder chips for smoking meats and cheeses (especially salmon!). Hickory is also nice but I have read about people using stuff like corn cobs and other plant-type material to infuse their food with a savory smokey flavor. The one constant no-no is pine. Pine has far too much sap in it and ends up leaving a bitter, acrid taste on the food. It won’t kill you but if you have alder around, use that instead. Just make sure you strip all the bark off of it before chipping it for smoking purposes because the bark will also make the food taste bitter and unpleasant.
Smoking Meats and Fish
Generally speaking, most people use some kind of brine, marinade, or dry rub to add spices and flavoring to their meat and fish before they smoke it. The smoke adds its own flavor but more importantly, seals it all in! Most meats are smoked long and low to tenderize it and allow the flavors to reach deep into the core. Brisket, roasts, barbequed anything all seems to taste better when you smoke the meat, too. Even vegetables taste fantastic when smoked! Think smoked corn on the cob and please forgive me while I grab a towel to wipe the drool off my keyboard…perhaps I shouldn’t have started this article before dinner haha! 😉
Times can vary from smoker to smoker and what kind of meat, the thickness, etc. All of these factors play a part in determining how long, how hot, etc. A front load smoker tends to make temperature regulation easier to manage, at least in my opinion. Just move the door out a little and you will cool things down without losing all of the smoke. In ours, a pan of chips will last about 35-45 minutes depending how much wind there is. When doing a hot smoke, most people will leave a good amount of time between refreshing the chip pan to let the heat build up and permeate the meat, cooking it. How many times you fill the chip pan is different for everyone.
Some prefer a hint of smoke flavor while others cannot get enough and keep things smoking the whole time. While that may sound good to you, consider that the meat will be pretty dry if you smoke it the whole time. If you are only going for some flavor, a cold smoke with 1-2 pans of chips should do the trick.
The short and skinny of smoking meat: Get your meat and brine/marinade/dry rub your spices, letting it sit as you see fit. Keep in mind that smoking meat and canning afterward intensifies the flavor so you may want to go light until you have some practice. Once ready, put it into your smoker and process to your personal preferences. Be sure to read the instructions for your smoker to ensure you are using it as safely as possible. Take it slow and make adjustments if needed. If you are canning the meat, do a lighter smoke and make sure it does not overly ‘cook’ in there. Once it makes it into the jars for pressure canning, it will turn into either mush or dark, hard meat nuggets from the meat and yes, that is personal experience talking! Be sure to give yourself all day for processing. It is 100% worth it (and it can make you feel like a rockstar!).
Smoked meats and cheeses is a gift that is well received at any time of the year!
This is one of the things I really love to do! This last weekend, I smoked up 16 pounds of cheese for a friend’s wedding reception. No, I did not make the cheese myself: they bought it from the store. Smoking cheese is a prime example of cold smoking. You are going for flavor and you really do not want to melt the cheese. This is where a front loading smoker comes in extremely handy, as I mentioned above. A cooler day (60 degrees or less) with a little breeze is about perfect. If it is too warm outside, you will end up with a gooey mess. It may still taste good but for presentation, not so much. I prefer a strong smoke flavor on my cheeses so I end up running about 4 pans of chips through so the whole process takes about 3 hours per batch. I can smoke 4 pounds at a time but never, ever fill the whole smoker. You want to keep the cheese high up and away from the heat source!
It is important to rotate and flip the cheese when changing out the chip pan for an even smoking which also helps keep it from melting. Even in the 50 degree weather with a steady breeze and rain, I had to keep the front door propped open toward the end of the smoking cycle on the batches because it simply got too warm inside. By letting the front door rest on the ground, it leaves a 3 inch gap at the top which still funnels smoke over the food but lowers the temperature.
The short and skinny of smoking cheese: Line a cake pan with some foil. If you have a 2 pound block of cheese, cut into half or thirds. Place into the cake pan so they are laying tall, not length wise. I prefer to also line the middle of another rack with tinfoil and have it placed closer to the bottom. This serves to shield the cheese from heat but still allow smoke to come up the sides. Let the pan of chips completely smoke out. Rotate the cheese blocks and repeat the process until you are satisfied. Here are a couple side pointers for smoking cheese, too:
- Keep your cheese in the fridge until you are ready to put it into the smoker. You can also freeze the cheese if you find a good sale until you are ready to smoke a batch up.
- The cheese will eventually ‘sweat’ some oils out. This is perfectly normal and a good indication of the temperature of the cheese. If you see sweat after the first pan of chips, consider leaving the smoker open a bit to cut down on the heat.
- Make sure you rotate the cheese not only around but also side to side. I tend to run four pans of chips so on the second one, I will rotate the cake pan 180 degrees. On the 3rd pan of chips, I turn the blocks of cheese over to get the ‘bottom’ of the block smoked. On the last pan of chips, I will rotate the cake pan 180 degrees again.
- If you notice your cheese is starting to lean to the side, it is getting warm. Prop open the door in a way so the smoke will still waft over the food but will also allow for some of the heat to escape.
- You will notice a darkening of outer layers of the cheese and maybe a thickening as well. This is how it should be and personally, I strive for the perfect color and texture.
- If your cheese melts it is truly not the end of the world. Yeah, it can be a gooey mess but with a little creativity, you can make it even better! Instead of slices of smoked cheese, make a cheese dip out of it or cut the mass into cubes. Truly, unless a person is some high society snob, they are not going to complain because your smoked cheese is not grocery store perfect in shape.
- As soon as you done with the smoking process, get that cheese into the fridge! You want it to cool down so it stops the process and helps to dry up some of the oils.
Whew! This was a long post and I really hope it serves to take some of the mystery out of how to smoke food. As with many homesteading projects, smoking food isn’t ‘hard’ so much as time consuming. The upside with this is you can set it and leave it to work on other projects simultaneously. It only requires you to check in every so often (1-2 hours depending on what you are processing) and make some adjustments. One side benefit: You will be the absolute star of the party if you roll up in there with a tray of various smoked cheeses. Don’t be surprised if you are approached by others to either hire you to smoke foods up for them or teach them how to do it, too.
Do YOU smoke up any foods? Which smoked meats and cheeses (or general smoked treats) are you favorite to eat? Give us a comment below and share the knowledge with your friends! You never know who you might inspire!