A Complete Guide to Smoking Food 

Explore the ins and outs of smoking food with info on types of smokers, smoking methods, and how to make smoked food taste delicious.
Smoking Food

Smoking is a cooking method that uses smoke and heat to enhance the flavor, texture, and aroma of meat, seafood, poultry, vegetables, cocktails, and other foods. 

In this guide, we explore how smoking food works as a cooking method, take a deep dive into different types of smokers, cover a wide variety of smoking techniques, and, most importantly, learn how to season smoked food, so it tastes delicious.

Smoking is a Traditional Cooking Method

Smoking is an ancient cooking method that traces its roots back to the time of the caves when our ancestors first started using fire to prepare their meals. 

These days smoking is a common method used by home cooks, restaurants, and food manufacturers to add flavor, texture, and aroma to an infinite list of meats, cheese, cocktails, and other types of foods and beverages. 

Traditionally, smoking was used as a preservation technique, especially for large cuts of meat, fish, poultry, and sausages. Preservation is still a common reason for smoking today but is less important with the advent of refrigeration. 

How Smoking Works

As a cooking method, smoking uses a combination of smoke and heat to enhance the flavor of food. There are several different types of smoking, with the most common being hot smoking and cold smoking.

The main difference between the two is the range of temperatures used during the smoking process. Cold smoking is primarily used to preserve food while keeping it uncooked. In contrast, hot smoking is used to cook food while it’s being smoked.

Smoking Wood Chips
The flames turn the wood chips into smoke

Smoking almost always involves using combustion to generate smoke that is applied to food in an enclosed space. The most common types of material used to generate smoke are hardwoods, such as oak, hickory, mesquite, and maple, that have been transformed into chunks, chips, pellets, or sawdust.

The choice of wood depends on the type of flavor desired, while the form of the wood depends on the type of smoker being used.

Fruitwoods such as apple and cherry are known for delivering pleasing fruity aromas and flavors. A few other plants commonly used to smoke food include tea leaves and herbs such as sage and rosemary.

As the smoke penetrates the food, the chemical compounds infuse it with distinct flavors. Depending on the type of smoker being used, the heat can also be used to roast the item being smoked. As long as the wood being used is all-natural, smoking has no deleterious health impacts.

The main difference between smoking and grilling is that smoking uses indirect heat for long periods of time, while grilling uses direct heat for short periods of time. 

Why Smoking Makes Food Taste So Good

There are a number of reasons why smoking has become such a popular cooking technique. The most important is that people love the deep smokey flavor that comes from cooking something low and slow that melts in their mouth.

The most popular cuts to smoke include beef brisket, baby back ribs, and pork shoulder, which are all large cuts that slowly break down during the cooking process, developing rich flavors and a succulent texture. 

They are also frequently served at barbecues, parties, and other gatherings with friends and family, helping to build an emotional connection to the food that is built on fun, positive memories. A good smoker fills the air with an aroma that can carry through a whole neighborhood, that starts people’s mouths watering, building anticipation.

Pork Loin In Smoker
The smoke infuses the pork loin with flavor while it cooks.

Using smoke gives the flavor in food an extra dimension, while the long cook times break down the fat and collagen in meat, giving it a sublime texture while keeping it moist and juicy. 

The chemical compounds in the wood infuse the smoke flavor and aroma into whatever is being smoked. The mix of compounds depends on the types of wood used, the amount of moisture in the wood, and the availability of oxygen.

Cooking meat in a smoker for a long time helps it develop a crisp bark on the outside. The bark is the dark and chewy, spicy and tart, crust-like texture on the outside of the meat. When chopped up or pulled and combined with the juicy inner parts of a cut, one gets the combination and contrast of the tangy, juicy, crispy bits that are a big part of why so many people deeply love delicious barbecue.

The phrase “melt in your mouth” is often used to describe pork and beef that has been smoked over low heat until the meat starts to pull away and fall off the bone. It’s one of the highest compliments that can be given to barbecue and delivers a soft subtle mouth feel to it. A great example are these Smoked Pork Ribs.

Smoked Pork Ribs
Smoked pork ribs are the pinnacle of great barbecue. The best ribs are tender and juicy with a nice crisp bark on the outside, have a deep smoke flavor that compliments a flavorful dry rub and uses a little barbecue sauce to highlight the pork’s natural flavors.
Check out this recipe
Smoked Pork Ribs

Smoking meat low-and-slow helps make sure the meat stays moist while cooking. This method also allows the connective tissue inside meat to slowly break down into something soft and supple. This Smoked Beef Roast shows how going low and slow turns what can be a tougher cut, soft and tender.

Smoked Beef Roast
Smoked beef roasts are the best way we’ve found to get the deep smokey flavor we love in roast beef. Smoking a roast over low heat develops the beef’s natural flavors while creating a tender roast that melts in your mouth.
Check out this recipe
Smoked Roast Beef Shareable

Tips for Smoking Meat, Cheese, Vegetables, and Other Delicious Things

Here are a few helpful tips for smoking food. Don’t use frozen meat. Only use fully-thawed meats that should be refrigerated until ready to use.

Whenever possible, go low and slow; cooking over heat that is too high dries food out, and the more it dries out, the tougher and chewier it is. 

It’s always a good idea to maintain a consistent temperature inside the smoke chamber. Using a consistent temperature helps the food to cook evenly and in a predictable way.

Sliced Smoked Beef Roast
Going low and slow can make tough cuts tender and juicy.

An ideal setup for a smoker uses two thermometers, one measuring the air temperature of the smoking chamber and another monitoring the internal temperature of the meat or other items being smoked.

Using a wireless thermometer makes it easy to monitor the smoker while the cook goes about their day.

It’s worth noting that some recipes call for a change in smoking temperature at the beginning or end of the cooking process. This is usually done to create a finishing effect, such as a crispier bark.  

Always use internal temperature to determine when something is done. There are many good guides for how long it takes to smoke beef, pork, chicken, etc, that are helpful for planning the amount of smoking time needed, but they should not be used by themselves to determine when something has finished cooking. All of the recipes linked in this guide include time estimates.

There are so many variables that affect smoke times, outside temperature, wind speed, how full the smoker is, where something is in the box, type of smoker, etc, that makes internal temperature the best guide for determining when something is done cooking.

Smoking Delicious Food

To develop delicious flavors in food that has been smoked, it’s important to find a balance between heat, humidity, smoke, and time.

There are a number of ways to add flavor to smoked foods, in addition to the flavor imparted from the smoke itself. Using a dry rub where herbs and spices are applied to the food being smoked before it goes in the smoker is the most common seasoning method.

This Smoked Chicken Rub recipe is a classic example of a good barbecue rub that uses brown sugar, smoked paprika, chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder along with salt and pepper to create sweet and savory flavors that are balanced with a touch of heat. It’s particularly delicious on Smoked Chicken Quarters and these Simple Smoked Chicken Legs.

Smoked Chicken Rub
This smoked chicken rub is a simple seasoning for smoking chicken that is packed with delicious flavors and has crispy skin on the outside.
Check out this recipe
Smoked Chicken Dry Rub

Marinating food going into a smoker is an excellent way to infuse a marinade’s flavor deep into the food being smoked. Marinades are sometimes paired with brining that uses salt and water to increase the moistness in the food being cooked.

Another common technique is to apply a barbecue or other sauce to the food being smoked. Using a sauce is a simple way to add bold flavor combinations. Applying a sauce is usually done towards the end of the smoking process to avoid creating a gummy texture that can happen when a sauce is applied too early. 

Sauce Being Applied To Ribs
Adding sauce at the end caramelizes it adding texture and flavor.

An easy way to carmelize the barbecue sauce at the end of the cooking process is to use the Flip, Fire, and Paint Technique which uses the high heat from a grill to crisp up the outside of the food while enhancing its flavor.

Smoking Methods

The two primary methods of smoking are hot smoking and cold smoking. The main difference between the two is the range of temperatures used and that with cold smoking, the food stays uncooked; while in hot smoking, the food is cooked while being smoked.

Cold smoking

Cold smoking is a method that uses smoke to add flavor to meat, fish, poultry, cheese, or other foods. The smoke is often produced using smoldering wood chips, chunks, or sawdust heated in a separate smokebox, with the smoke funneled into the smoking chamber with the food. This type of smoker is often called an offset smoker.

Cold smoking is done at temperatures under 100°F (38℃), with the most common temperatures used ranging between 68°F (20℃) to 86°F (30℉).

In addition to adding flavor, cold smoking is used to preserve meat and other foods while keeping them fresh. Some examples of cold smoked food include bacon, smoked gouda, smoked mozzarella, and some of the great hams of the world that are both lightly smoked and cured.

Cold smoked food is often cured by salting it, which reduces the moisture content and acts as a preservative. Adding salt to meat to preserve it is the basis for traditional charcuterie and can be done with or without smoke.

Hot smoking

Hot smoking uses smoke and heat to enhance the flavor and cook the food while it is being smoked. This cooking method uses a smoker, barbecue pit, oven, or grill. Hot smoking uses wood chips, chunks, or pellets to generate smoke that flavors the item being smoked while generating enough heat to also cook it. 

The temperature range for hot smoking is generally between 200°F (93℃) and 300°F (149℃), with most recipes calling for temps between 225°F (107℃) and 275°F (135℃) depending on the item being smoked and the amount of time available.

As a cooking method, the terms hot smoking and barbecue are often interchangeable in the United States, where barbecue usually refers to larger cuts of meat cooked with indirect heat and smoke for long periods of time. In some other parts of the world, the term barbecue refers to the direct application of heat and smoke. 

Hot smoking is occasionally referred to as smoke roasting, which is an apt description of how vertical roasters both smoke and roast food at the same time. A few of our favorite recipes that use smoke roasting include a tender Smoked Pork Loin, flavor-packed Smoked Chicken Wings, and a beautiful golden brown Smoked Turkey.

Smoked Pork Loin
This recipe for smoked pork loin has everything you’ll need to get the roast to turn out just right, including tips for getting the pork loin to turn out tender and juicy, a dynamite dry rub, time and temperature info along with some great side dishes to serve your guests.
Check out this recipe
Smoked Pork Loin Roast

Liquid Smoke

A third type of smoking uses liquid smoke to add a smoky flavor to foods. Liquid smoke provides an easy way to control the amount of flavor added to food and is often added directly to meat or vegetables before cooking.

It’s commonly used in chilis, stews, sauces, and marinades, where the cook wants a smoky flavor but doesn’t have the ability or want to take the time to smoke the ingredients.

One of our favorite recipes that uses liquid smoke is this simple Chili Recipe. Liquid smoke is a natural product made by condensing the smoke from wood. (Wikipedia)

Easy, Everyday Chili
Easy, everyday chili is a simple chili recipe designed to be something you can throw together with a few simple items from around the house. It's the type of chili that works well when you've been on the run all day, it's cold outside, and all you want to do is curl up and have something that tastes great and fills you up.
Check out this recipe
Easy, Everyday Chili

Types of Smokers

There is a wide range of smokers that run from small improvised homemade barrel smokers to large commercial smokers. The most common types of smokers used by home cooks include vertical smokers, gas & charcoal grills, pellet smokers, and offset smokers. Some less common types include stovetop smokers and smoke guns. 

Vertical Smoker

Vertical smokers are one of the most common types of smokers used by home cooks. This type of smoker is used for hot smoking and usually has a metal exterior with a heating element on the bottom, a tray above that holds the wood being burned to generate the smoke, followed by a water pan that helps to regulate the temperature and increase the humidity inside the smoker. 

Vertical Smoker In Action
Vertical smokers have a heating element on the bottom with a water pan above that adds moisture to keep things juicy.

Above the water pan are several racks where the food being smoked is placed or hung. Vertical smokers come in many sizes and shapes and encompass bullet smokers and upright drum smokers and can be powered by propane, charcoal, or electricity.

An advantage of this type of smoker is they require minimal maintenance and do not need much adjusting when using different ingredients.

Offset Smokers

Offset smokers have a separate firebox where the smoke is produced and channeled into the smoke chamber where the food is placed. Using a separate chamber to create the smoke allows the cook to control how much heat is transferred from the firebox into the smoking chamber with the food.

These smokers also have vents to let excess smoke off and are usually made out of steel or cast iron.

This type of smoker can be used for cold or hot smoking and is excellent for cooks who want a lot of control over the amount of smoke being used and the cooking temperature.

Gas or Charcoal Grills

Gas and charcoal grills can also be used for smoking. When using a grill to smoke, it helps to use a two-zone setup where the heat is produced on one part of the grill, and the food is placed on the other.

On a charcoal grill, half the charcoal should be placed on one side of the grill while the other half is left empty. Once the charcoal has been lit and is ready for cooking, wood chips can be added to it while the food is placed on the other side of the grill. 

To use a gas grill as a smoker, you’ll need a small smoker box or wrap wood chips in a packet of aluminum foil with holes punched in it.

The smoker box should be placed on the side where the burners are turned on. The food should be placed on the other side of the grill, and the lid should be closed, allowing indirect heat and smoke to cook the item.  

Stovetop Smokers

Stovetop or indoor smokers are modified roasting pans that use small wood chips to generate smoke using the heat from a stove, oven, grill, or campfire.

The most common use of stovetop smokers is to use heat from the stove and wood chips that have been turned into sawdust to generate smoke that flavors whatever is being cooked. This is done by placing the smoker on a burner.

Salmon Stovetop Smoker
Stovetop smokers are ideal for smoking salmon and more delicate items.

Indoor smokers use hot smoking to smoke food and are popular with fish, seafood, poultry, and other cuts that fit easily into the modified roasting pan. They can also smoke larger items, such as hams, chickens, and larger roasts, by tenting the outside of an item in aluminum foil. 

A few of our favorite stovetop smoker recipes include Hot Smoked Salmon and Smokehouse Chili.

Hot Smoked Salmon
This hot smoked salmon recipe uses a stove top smoker to gently smoke the salmon with alder wood, which gives it a rich, delicate flavor. Smoking salmon this way is meant to give the salmon lots of flavor and a nice soft texture, not to preserve it for a long time, like cold smoking can.
Check out this recipe
Hot Smoked Salmon

Smoke Guns

Smoke guns are a relatively recent innovation that uses a small propane torch to burn sawdust and direct the smoke through a small tube to whatever is being smoked. These guns often come with small domes that can be placed over the top of food to contain the smoke while it’s working its magic. 

In addition to meats, seafood, and other items, smoke guns are often used with cocktails, desserts, and other more delicate items.

For a comprehensive guide on what to smoke, read The Best Cuts of Meat to Smoke & How to Make them Taste Delicious. You can also check out our smoking food section for more delicious Smoker Recipes.

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