Smoke has been intentionally applied to foods since it was first recognized that holding meats and other provisions off the ground near the smoky fires did more than dry them more quickly or prevent animals from getting to them. The hanging foods, treated to a smokebath, took on new and enticing flavors.
Today we enjoy smoked foods for their special flavors. By manipulating the smoking process, it is possible to create a range of products, both traditional and nontraditional. Besides such perennial favorites as smoked salmon, hams, bacon, and sausages, many unique smoked products are being featured on contemporary menus: smoked chicken salad, smoked tomato broth, even smoked cheeses, fruits, and vegetables.
Several types of smokers are available. The basic features shared by each type of smoker are a smoke source, a smoke chamber where the food is exposed, circulation, and ventilation.
Hardwoods such as hickory, oak, cherry, walnut, chestnut, apple, alder, mesquite, and wood from citrus trees, are good choices for smoking. They produce a rich, aromatic smoke with proportionately few of the particles that make smoked foods taste sooty or bitter. Soft woods, such as pine, burn hot and fast with too much tar, making them unsuitable for smoking foods. In addition to various hardwoods, other flammable materials can be used. Teas, herb stems, whole spices, grapevine clippings, corn husks, fruit peels (such as orange and apple), and peanut shells can be added to the smoker to give a special flavor.
Wood for smoking can be purchased in chunks, chips, or sawdust. If you use a wood-burning oven to create smoke-roasted specialties, you can use larger pieces of wood, available for purchase by the bundle, truckload, or cord. Make the effort to purchase woods from a reputable source. You should be certain that the wood is free of contaminants such as oil or chemicals. Never use pressure-treated wood under any circumstances—it is deadly poisonous.
Next Page: Pellicle Formation and Cold Smoking>>
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.
Hot smoking exposes foods to smoke and heat in a controlled environment. Although we often reheat or cook foods that have been hot smoked, they are typically safe to eat without any further cooking. Hams and ham hocks are fully cooked once they have been properly smoked.
Hot smoking occurs within the range of 165°F / 74°C to 185°F / 85°C. Within this temperature range, foods are fully cooked, moist, and flavorful. If the smoker is allowed to get hotter than 185°F / 85°C, smoked foods will shrink excessively, buckle, or even split. Smoking at high temperatures will also reduce the yield, since both moisture and fat will be “cooked” away.
Smoke-roasting refers to any process that has the attributes of both roasting and smoking. This smoking method is sometimes referred to as barbecuing or pit-roasting. It may be done in a smoke-roaster, closed wood-fired oven or barbecue pit, any smoker that can reach above 250°F / 121°C, or in a conventional oven (one you don’t mind having smoky all the time) by placing a pan filled with hardwood chips on the floor of the oven so that the chips can smolder and produce a smokebath.
It is possible to produce smoked foods even if you don’t have a smoker or smokehouse. Pan-smoking is a simple and inexpensive method to give a smoke-enhanced flavor to foods in a relatively quick time. Pan-smoking requires two disposable aluminum pans, a rack, and some sawdust. The drawback of pan-smoking is that it is hard to control the smoke and products tend to get a flavor that is too intense and may be bitter.
Reprinted by permission from The Culinary Institute of America, “Garde Manger: The Art of Craft and the Cold Kitchen” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2008).