How to Smoke Meat
Culinary Institute of America
Before cured foods are smoked, they should be allowed to air-dry long enough to form a tacky skin, known as a pellicle. The pellicle plays a key role in producing excellent smoked items. It acts as a kind of protective barrier for the food, and also plays an important role in capturing the smoke’s flavor and color.
Most foods can be properly dried by placing them on racks or by hanging them on hooks or sticks. It is important that air be able to flow around all sides. They should be air-dried uncovered, in the refrigerator or a cool room. To encourage pellicle formation, you can place the foods so that a fan blows air over them. The exterior of the item must be sufficiently dry if the smoke is to adhere.
Some of the basic criteria used to determine which foods are suitable for cold smoking include the type and duration of the cure and whether or not the food will be air-dried after smoking. Smithfield hams, for example, are allowed to cold smoke for one week; after that, they are air-dried for six months to a year. But cold smoking need not be reserved just for hams that will be air-dried or salmon that has been rendered safe by virtue of the salt-cure. It can also be used to prepare foods that will be cooked by another means before they are served.
Cold smoking can be used as a flavor enhancer for items such as pork chops, beef steaks, chicken breasts, or scallops. The item can be cold smoked for a short period of time, just enough to give a touch of flavor. They are ready to be finished to order by such cooking methods as grilling, sautéing, baking, or roasting, or they may be hot smoked to the appropriate doneness for an even deeper smoked flavor.
Cheeses, vegetables, and fruits can be cold smoked for an extra, unique flavor. Typically a very small measure of smoke is best for these foods, just enough to produce a subtle change in the food’s color and flavor.
Smokehouse temperatures for cold smoking should be maintained below 100°F / 38°C. (Some processors keep their smokehouses below 40°F / 4°C to keep foods safely out of the danger zone.) In this temperature range, foods take on a rich smoky flavor, develop a deep mahogany color, and tend to retain a relatively moist texture. They are not cooked as a result of the smoking process, however.
Keeping the smokehouse temperature below 100°F / 38°C prevents the protein structure of meats, fish, or poultry from denaturing. At higher temperatures, proteins change and take on a more crumbly texture. The difference is easy to imagine: think of the difference in texture between smoked and baked salmon fillets.