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.
Smoking is an ancient cooking technique 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 meats and sausages. Preservation is still a common reason for smoking today but is less important with the advent of refrigeration.
For a comprehensive guide on what to make, read The Best Cuts of Meat to Smoke & How to Make them Taste Delicious.
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 and that cold smoking is primarily used to preserve food while keeping it uncooked. In contrast, hot smoking is used for cooking food while it is being smoked.
All types of smoking involve 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 fruity flavor. A few other plants commonly used include tea leaves and herbs such as sage and rosemary.
As the smoke penetrates the food, the chemical compounds infuse the food with a distinct flavor. 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 while grilling uses direct heat for short periods.
What Makes Smoking So Special
There are several reasons why smoking has become such a popular cooking technique. The first and the most important is that so many people love the deep smokey flavor that only comes from cooking something low and slow with good wood over low heat.
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 their 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 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 fall off the bone. It's one of the highest compliments that can be given to barbecue and has a soft subtle mouth feel to it. A great example of this is Smoked Pork Ribs.
Smoking meat low-and-slows 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. This Smoked Beef Roast shows how going low and slow turns what can be a tougher cut, soft and tender.
Tips for Smoking Meat, Cheese, Vegetables, and Other Delicious Things
Here are a few tips for smoking food. Don't use frozen meat. Only fully-thawed meats should be used, and they 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.
An ideal setup for a smoker uses two thermometers, one measuring the air temperature of the smoke chamber and another monitoring the internal temperature of the meat. We often use an oven thermometer placed inside the smokebox to measure air temperature and a wireless thermometer to measure the internal temperature of whatever is being smoked. It's always a good idea to maintain a consistent temperature.
Always use internal temperature when determining 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 out the smoking time needed but should not be used to determine when something has finished cooking.
There are many variables that affect smoke times, outside temperature, wind speed, how full the smoker is, where something is in the box, etc. That makes internal temperature the best guide for determining when something is done cooking.
To get a balanced smoke taste, it's important to learn how to find a balance between heat, humidity, smoke, and time.
Methods For Smoking
The two primary smoking techniques are hot smoking and cold smoking. The primary difference between the two is the range of temperatures used and that with cold smoking, the food stays uncooked, while in hot smoking, the item is cooked while being smoked.
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 chamber with the food. This type of smoker is often called an offset smoker.
Cold smoking is done at temperatures under 100°F, with the most common temperatures used ranging between 68°F to 86°F.
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 is the basis for traditional charcuterie and can be done with or without smoke.
Hot smoking uses smoke and heat to enhance the flavor and cook 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 the item.
The temperature range for hot smoking is generally between 200°F and 300°F, with most recipes calling for temps between 225°F and 275°F 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.
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 this technique include a tender Smoked Pork Loin, flavor packed Smoked Chicken Wings, and a beautiful golden brown Smoked Turkey.
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.
Its 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 some of 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)
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 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 that has a heating element on the bottom, with 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.
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 have a separate firebox where the smoke is produced and channeled into the smoke chamber where the food being smoked is placed. They also have vents to let excess smoke off. Offset smokers 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 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, allowing the indirect heat and smoke to cook the item.
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 turned into sawdust to generate smoke that flavors whatever is being cooked. This is done by placing the smoker on a burner.
Indoor smokers use hot smoking to smoke food and are popular with fish, seafood, poultry, and other cuts that fit easily into the smoker. 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.
Smoke guns are a relatively recent innovation that uses a small propane torch to burn sawdust to direct 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.
Smoked Food Recipes
The following include Umami's best smoked food recipes, how-to articles, and products from our Market.