Smoke Cooking is an Ancient Food Preservation Method but Today It’s All About Flavor.
The first foods to be successfully smoked were probably the result of a happy accident over a smoldering fire. In ancient times food never went to waste even if it looked burnt and overly done. Imagine the surprise of someone who tasted this first fail over a dwindling fire and discovered that the clouds of smoke actually imparted a good flavor that not only preserved the food but tenderized it as well.
Early efforts to manage the smoking style of cooking were simple setups that usually involved a small, improvised teepee of branches surrounded by bark with the fish or game suspended over a smoldering, smoky fire. This style of smoking is still done in primitive cultures and as a survival tactic in the wilderness.
Over time the methods and techniques were refined, and stone sheds were assembled to hold the heat and smoke and accommodate large cuts and quantities of meat and fish. This style evolved into what is now referred to as a smokehouse that was a standard fixture on many farms and homesteads.
The traditional smokehouse used a “cold-smoking” style of cooking. This involved a fire outside of the smokehouse with a chimney pipe running into the back of the smokehouse or underneath to direct smoke into the structure but diminish direct heat.
Large meat hooks were suspended from beams in the ceiling to support the larger cuts of meat and fish that a full-sized smokehouse could accommodate. This included whole hams, pork shoulders, whole turkeys and geese, slabs of pork belly, and whole salmon and carp.
Because of the low heat levels, foods were usually cooked for a longer duration in large smokehouses. The time could range from a couple of weeks up to a month. These durations also had the benefit of preserving meats and fish within the smokehouse especially during the summer months.
How Smoke Cooking Works
You probably have heard the phrase, “low and slow” and that’s what smoke cooking is all about. Low temperatures over a long duration effectively cooks meat and fish and the smoke has the added benefit of tenderizing and enhancing the flavor of foods with a distinctive smoke flavor.
What Can Be Smoked?
Anything can be cooked in a smoker, but certain foods lend themselves to smoke cooking better than others. While it’s true that fruits and vegetables can be smoked, meats, fish and shellfish have emerged as the favorite food source for smoke cooking.
These foods include all cuts of beef, pork, and poultry including chicken, turkey, duck, pheasant, quail, and geese. Fish like salmon, trout, pike, walleye, carp, sucker and bass. And even shellfish like crab, clams and oysters. We’ll cover the best approaches, prep, times and temperatures for all of these food types to help make sure your forays into smoke cooking are a success.
Types of Smokers
On a fundamental level the heat in any smoker is powered by charcoal, electricity or gas. Charcoal is the most primitive and the choice of many avid smokers, but electric and gas deliver very good results if managed properly.
As smoke cooking has developed the standard smokehouse has become a bit of a relic in the land of smoke cooking. Some people still swear by them, but they require a dedicated space; are complicated and expensive to build, and tend to be high maintenance during the smoking process due to the long durations requiring regular attention to both the fire and the wood providing the smoke.
2. Barrel Smoker
A barrel smoker is exactly what it sounds like. It’s essentially a barrel turned on its side with a small chimney emerging from the top of one side and a firebox attached to the other side. The firebox serves to separate the direct heat from the barrel much like the external fire next to a traditional smokehouse. Due to its large size it also has the benefit of accommodating larger cuts and a greater quantity of foods.
3. Bullet Smoker
This is another smoker with a name that defines the shape. It stands tall
like a bullet but has a secret inside. The secret is a water pan that is suspended above the heat. The heat source is typically charcoal but there are also electric and gas versions. The wood chunks or chips are soaked in water and tossed on the heat. The water pan serves to cause the water to evaporate and bond with the smoke molecules to tenderize, cook and impart the smoke flavor to the meat or fish. This is commonly referred to as a “hot smoker” or “wet smoker” due to this water pan.
While it can only accommodate meat and fish of a certain size, it can be used to smoke food up to the size of a turkey and can hold a larger quantity due to two tiers of smoking racks inside. We’ll cover more about this smoking method later in this article and some of the ways to manage the smoking process with this type of smoker.
4. Kettle Grill
A standard Kettle grill makes an excellent smoking option if set up properly.
The indirect method of cooking is used with the coals on one side of the kettle and a water pan on the other side. This water pan can easily be made from two sheets of heavy-duty foil and shaped into a large bowl half the size of the kettle. Water and some herbs can be added along with vinegar to enhance the flavor of the vapor that will rise from the pan.
This style of smoking needs to be managed from a temperature standpoint and we’ll cover that as well.
5. Wilderness Survival Smokers
The easiest way to improvise a smoker in the wild is to tent a wood frame made from branches with a piece of canvas. A hole needs to be made in the top to allow the smoke to vent to keep the fire going, and a gap needs to be made at the bottom to draw fresh air to create smoke circulation and feed the fire with oxygen. The canvas will be inundated with the aroma of smoke but in an emergency, it can be worth giving up a piece of canvas for smoked meals.
Cold Smoking Versus Hot Smoking
We’ve touched on these two smoking styles and both have advantages and disadvantages. As a reminder, Cold Smokers are typically configured as a smokehouse or barrel smoker without water pans, while Hot Smokers are configured as bullet smokers and kettle grills with a water pan inside.
Cold Smoking Advantages
- More intense smoke flavor
- Larger cuts can be smoked
- Larger quantity
- Longer preservation time for foods
Cold Smoking Disadvantages
- Requires longer duration to smoke-cook foods
- High maintenance of fire and wood chunks over long durations
- Needs large and dedicated space for location
Hot Smoking Advantages
- Short duration for smoke cooking
- Keeps food moist
- Ideal for fish and poultry
Hot Smoking Disadvantages
- Limited ability to accommodate larger quantity and larger foods
- Short duration but still requires maintenance while smoking
Ideal woods for smoking
In a pinch, any hardwood will do for smoke cooking. But like so many things, there are some variables you should consider in terms of ideal choices and choices to avoid. This applies no only to the type of food you are smoking, but as a general rule as well.
Hardwoods Versus Softwoods
The general rule when it comes to smoke cooking is to only use hardwoods on your heat source to produce smoke. Most softwoods are highly resinous, and the smoke will impart a bitterness to any food it comes in contact with.
Ideal Hardwoods for Smoking
Softwoods to Avoid
Ideal Woods by Food Type
- Beef – Mesquite, Hickory and Oak
- Pork – Hickory, Apple and Pecan
- Poultry – Hickory and Orange
- Fish and shellfish – Apple and Alder
Wood Size and Prep
Chip versus chunk
Whether you harvest your own hardwoods or buy them at the store you have two decisions to make: Chips or chunks.
Chips work well in kettle grills and bullet smokers given the relatively smaller heat sources and shorter smoking durations.
Chunks work better in smokehouses and in barrel smokers given the larger heat sources and longer durations. Chunks can also work in kettle grills and bullet smokers, but chips will not last long enough in a smokehouse or barrel smoker.
Chip Embedded Charcoal Briquets
A new option was developed a few years ago that features wood chips embedded into charcoal briquettes. These options usually include either hickory or mesquite. They work fine and because the woods chips are embedded through-and-through the briquette they will impart smoke and flavor as long as the briquet lasts. The smoke flavor is still apparent but not as prominent and they are more expensive than standard charcoal.
There is some advice out there that suggests lump charcoal is the best choice for smoke cooking. However, lump charcoal presents two problems for smoking. For one, it burns hotter than traditional briquets. Two, it burns faster than briquets.
High heat and fast burning contradict the value of low and slow. That’s why briquets are your best choice for your smoker if you are using charcoal as a heat source.
Whether you’re using chips or chunks the wood you use for your smoker should be soaked in water to prevent them from burning up too fast. 30 minutes is the standard recommendation but make sure you let them drain and dry a bit before placing them on charcoal or they could extinguish the fire or significantly reduce the heat. This is less of an issue with a gas or electric grills, but those grills also present some unique needs when it comes to wood for smoke, especially gas.
Because gas presents a constant and consistent open-flame, any wood that comes in direct contact with the flame will soon ignite.
The solution is to place the wood chunks or chips into a metal pan over the gas burner. There are pans you can buy at hardware stores and on the Internet specifically designed for this purpose or you can use an aluminum foil pan. The metal or foil will impart heat to the wood to produce the smoke without allowing the wood to burst into flame. Many people who use gas grills for smoking prefer wood chips over chunks, but over time even chunks will provide sufficient smoke.
Often, a second metal pan half-filled with water is placed next to the wood pan to create a wet-smoked environment. The grate on that side of the burner is used to support both pans. The gas burners on
Smoking Fails to Avoid
The Peek Penalty
It’s tempting to lift the lid on your smoker to take a peek at your progress. Don’t do it unless you notice diminished smoke emerging requiring the addition of more wood, or you suspect or verify the temperature has reduced requiring the addition of more charcoal. Those are the best times to take your peek. Every time you lift the lid you need to add 15 minutes to your total cooking time. Make sure your family or guests know the peek penalty as well. It’s very tempting for some people to lift the lid on anything to see what’s cooking.
- Never smoke indoors including a garage.
- Try to locate the smoker in a windless area.
- If you can’t find a windless area, make sure the vents on the top of a portable smoker are pointed downwind to draw air from the bottom vents over the fire, and draw the smoke up and over the meat or fish before it vents downwind.
When Too Much Creates Too Little
Adding too much charcoal midway through the smoking process will significantly reduce the temperature of the heat which will extend total cooking time. The same is true for adding too many wood chips or chunks, especially if they haven’t been drained of soaking water for a minute or two.
Adding 10 to 12 briquets at a time is about the limit. Adding enough chunks or chips to cover not more than half of the charcoal surface area is also a good guideline. You may want to add both charcoal and wood at the same time to avoid the peek penalty. That’s another reason why you want to manage how much you add to maintain steady heat and smoke.
Marinades, Brines and Cures
They’re similar but different. How and when you use them can make a significant difference in the preservation and taste of the food you are going to smoke. Most smoked foods don’t taste good without a preliminary brining, marinating or curing step, and can also dry out especially during cold smoking for a long duration. However, there is a point of diminishing returns if you overdo it.
The difference between a brine, a cure, a rub, a mop and a marinade
On a fundamental level brines and cures are marinades in the sense that they are exposed to a protein such as seafood, game or meats to flavor, tenderize and preserve them. But there are some variations and uses that set them apart.
A brine begins with water combined with salt that is dissolved into a solution. The recommended salt is Kosher salt, but sea salt also works. Avoid iodized salt. It adds an off flavor to the brine. The standard proportions for a brine is one cup of salt dissolved in two gallons of water.
It’s also important that a non-metallic container is used for brining. A ceramic crock is ideal but a glass baking dish or a new 5-gallon plastic bucket works just as well. You could also brine in a doubled up plastic bag, but it should all be done under refrigeration or with the addition of ice to the brine.
Brine is often used with fish and shellfish but works for all poultry and can be used with pork, beef or game.
Saturation and duration are also important considerations. Saturation is the amount of salt added to the water, and duration is the amount of time that food is allowed to soak in the brine. Here are some general durations:
- Fish and Shellfish. Brine for 1 hour per pound. For each additional pound add 30 minutes but don’t exceed 2 total hours of brining time.
- Poultry. Whole turkeys should be brined overnight but no more than 24 hours. The same goes for other larger birds like geese. All other poultry like chickens, ducks and pheasant should be brined for 4 hours but no more than 6.
- Beef and Pork. Brine for 2 hours per pound but no more than 4 hours total for any cut larger. If you are hoping to brine a whole beef or pork roast or ham or pork shoulder you might want to consider injection curing.
Once your meat or fish have been brined cured or marinated it’s time to wait for the pellicle to form. The pellicle is a dry, glistening sheen that appears on the meat after it has been brined or marinated. This allows the smoke to permeate the meat or fish. If you are going to glaze the food before smoking, wait until the pellicle forms before glazing. It typically takes 30 minutes for a pellicle to form when the meat or fish have been exposed to open air.
Cures are typically used as a prep step for smoked meats and there are 3 types of cures:
- Wet cures
- Dry cures
- Injection cures
1. Wet curing
Wet curing involves the addition of nitrites and to water and a long, chilled soak of the meat in the solution. You can buy nitrites on the Internet and at sporting goods stores that have a wild game cooking section. The brand of choice for many home smokers is “Prague Powder,” but you can also buy pre-mixed brines in a bag including nitrites.
2. Dry curing
Dry curing is basically a “rub” typically left on the meat overnight or for a number of days. Pork bellies are often dry cured this way before a light smoking to make raw bacon.
3. Injection Curing
Injection curing is used on large cuts of meat like hams and pork shoulders especially when smoked in a cold smoking environment. It involves the use of a large syringe that sometimes show up in turkey frying kits to allow you to inject a marinade into the bird. You can use it to injection cure your own meats but do your homework. You want to inject deep and consistently around the cut of meat. The reason injection curing is so important is because of certain bacteria that reside deep in meat.
A standard addition to injection cures are the nitrites. If you are planning to smoke large cuts like hams or pork shoulders, do some research so you get it right.
Rubs fall in the category of a dry cure although they don’t have the duration of days often used to cure meats with a dry cure. A rub is basically a combination of spices that are combined and rubbed over the meat or fish immediately before smoking. A rub creates a flavorful and crusty outer coating especially on pork. This is sometimes referred to as “bark” and delivers a salty/sweet savory flavor.
The biggest fail with rubs is using too much salt or combining too many varieties of salt. The result is food that is so salty it’s almost inedible. Here’s a standard rub used in Kansas City that works well with meat or fish on a smoker:
- ¼ cup of white or brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of paprika
- 1 tablespoon of seasoned salt
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon of onion powder
- 1 teaspoon of celery salt
- 2 tablespoons of black pepper
- 1 teaspoon of ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon of lemon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon of ground thyme
Combine all of the spices in a bowl and mix and then rub onto the outside of the meat or fish and place on the smoker.
This is different than a wet cure. Wet cures have the addition of nitrites and the meat is wet cured for a long duration. A web rub is similar to a dry rub in the sense that its rubbed on the meat or fish immediately before smoking and does not include nitrites.
A wet rub can be simple or a bit complex. Here’s a classic wet rub for salmon:
- ½ cup of Teriyaki sauce
- ½ cup of brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of mustard seeds
Mix all of the ingredients together and spoon and spread over the salmon before smoking.
A wet rub often used on meats has an olive base:
- ½ cup of green olives with red pimentos
- ½ cup of black olives
- ½ cup of Kalamata olives
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 teaspoon of grated orange peel
- 1 teaspoon of grated lemon peel
- 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
Add all of the ingredients to a food processor and process to a paste. Rub on the meat and place on the smoker.
A mop is a liquid like
- Apple cider vinegar
- Fruit juice
- Melted butter or oils
They are periodically slopped over the meat or fish with a small applicator that looks like a scaled down mop.
Mopping should take place on those occasions when you are adding charcoal; more woods for smoking or adding water to a water pan. This will help you to avoid the peek penalty.
Marinades infuse flavor into meat or fish by allowing them to soak over a period of time. Once again, a glass, plastic or ceramic container should be used to hold the marinade. You can also use a self-sealing plastic bag for smaller cuts or even a doubled-up garbage bag for larger cuts. Avoid steel and especially aluminum pots or containers. Any marinating should take place in a refrigerator or add lots of ice cubes to keep the meat or fish cold while marinating.
A basic marinade consists of a liquid, oils, seasonings and herbs, and the option of chopped fruits or vegetables. Here’s a classic marinade for beef, pork or poultry with some ingredient variations for fish or shellfish. You can scale this up or down proportionally for larger or smaller cuts.
- 1 twelve ounce can of beef or chicken stock
- 2 cups of water
- 1 tablespoon of seasoned salt
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- 1 tablespoon of cracked black pepper
- 2 oranges squeezed and chopped (For beef, pork and poultry)
- 1 lemon squeezed and chopped (For fish and shellfish)
- 1 teaspoon of mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon of pickling spice
- 2 cloves of garlic smashed (optional)
Mix all of the ingredients together and immerse the cuts of meat or fish. If need be you can hold the meat or fish down with a plate to ensure all parts are covered by the marinade. Place in the refrigerator or add ice cubes to keep chilled. Marinade for 1 hour for total weights under 1 pound. Add a half hour of marinating time for each additional pound.
BBQ Sauce for Smoking
Many smoked foods are well complemented by a barbecue sauce. Pork and chicken in particular are popular meats for any BBQ sauce. This is a curious spin on a classic barbecue sauce that uses a popular soft drink as a flavoring ingredient:
Cherry Coke Barbecue Sauce
- 1 ½ cups of ketchup
- 1 12 ounce can of Cherry Coke
- 1 onion finely diced
- 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire Sauce
- ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of molasses
- 2 teaspoons of powdered dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon of onion powder
- ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
Add all of the ingredients to a sauce pan and stir well. Simmer over very low heat for 20 minutes stirring frequently. Apply to smoked meats 15 to 20 minutes before the food is done smoking. If you apply the sauce too soon in the smoking process the sugars will carbonize and turn the meat black.
Managing the smoker
Key Things to Watch
1. Starting the Fire
Any fire used as a heat source should be made with charcoal briquets or in the case of a smoke house or barrel smoker, split hardwood. Make sure the vents are fully opened on a kettle grill, bullet smoker or barrel smoker when the fire is first getting established to make sure it gets off to a good start.
2. Adding the Hardwood Chunks or Chips
After you’ve soaked the chunks or chips in water and drained them, add them to the top of the fire but don’t exceed more than half of the heat source surface area with the smoking wood. Immediately reduce the size of the openings in any top vents to maintain the heat but sustain an environment that will cause the wood to generate smoke.
3. Water Pan 101
The water pan in a hot or “wet” smoker should be filled ¾ of the way with water at the start. You can add herbs, spices and vinegar if you want to sweeten the water vapor. Check the water pan periodically when you add more charcoal or wood chips to make sure all of the water has not evaporated.
4. Keeping the Smoke Sweet
This isn’t about sugar, but smoke can impart a muddy flavor to meats and fish if certain steps aren’t taken:
- Keep the heat constant and consistent. Not too hot and not too cold
- Maintain an ideal temperature between 200° F. and 275° F. throughout the smoking process. A built- in thermometer or an oven thermometer in the smoker can help you assess temperature. Failing that you can always drop a meat thermometer into one of the vent holes to get a quick read on internal temperature in the smoker.
- Use seasoned woods, not green wood for your heat source fire if you’re not using briquets or gas or electric. This is also important for the wood chunks or chips you are using for your smoke source.
- Hardwoods, hardwoods, hardwoods are the biggest key. Any softwood will impart a bitter flavor.
5. Smoke Signals
Ideally, you should see a consistent column of smoke emerging from any smoker. The amount of smoke isn’t critical but when there’s no smoke you need to either revitalize the fire or add more wood chunks or chips to get the smoke going again.
Checking for Doneness
There are general cooking times assuming you have kept the smoker in a temperature range of 200° F. to 275° F. but the best way to assess doneness is with a meat thermometer. Make sure the thermometer is in the center of the meat and not in contact with any bone.
Here are the ideal internal temperatures for various meats:
- Beef and Lamb. 140° F. for medium-rare. 155° F. for medium.
- Lean pork. 155° F.
- Whole chicken or turkey and other poultry. 180° F.
- Turkey Breast. 170° F.
- Fish varies by cut and size, so the general assessment is based on appearance and texture. If it looks done, give it a taste and see what you think.
If you feel the need to let the meat stand, do so for 10 minutes before slicing but remove it from the smoker when it is 5 degrees below the recommended temperature.
The Importance of Outside Temperatures
The ideal outside temperature for smoking is 60° F. Rain, snow and sleet can also affect smoking times and the internal temperature of the smoker. Wind can be a factor as well especially if the temperature is cold and wind chill factors come into play. Conversely, very high temperatures can also accelerate the process. It’s hard to estimate how weather will affect smoking times. That’s why you should use a meat thermometer to assure yourself that the food is sufficiently smoke cooked. As a general rule, follow the following times for smoking and measure the internal temperature of the food to confirm doneness.
Average time durations for doneness for various meats and fish
(Timings below assume the use of a hot or wet bullet smoker or kettle grill which are the most popular and most widely used. Timing also assumes a steady temperature range between 200° F. to 275° F.)
- Boneless rib eye or top loin steak – 1 lb. – 40 to 50 minutes
- Boneless rib eye roast – 4 lbs. – 3 to 3 ½ hours
- Boneless rump roast – 3 lbs. – 3 ¼ to 3 ½ hours
- Boneless sirloin steak – 1 lb. – 45 to 60 minutes
- Fresh brisket – 3 to 4 lbs. – 5 to 6 hours
- Rib roast – 4 lbs. – 3 to 3 ½ hours
- Back ribs – 3 to 4 lbs. – 2 ½ to 3 hours
- (The smoking times for beef also apply to wild game like venison, bear, elk, and other hoofed game.)
- Boneless leg tied and rolled – 3 pounds – 3 to 3 ¼ hours
- Boneless sirloin roast – 1 ½ to 3 lbs. – 2 to 2 ½ hours
- Lamb chop – 8 oz. – 1 hour
- Boneless top loin roast – 2 to 3 lbs. – 1 ½ to 2 hours
- Pork chop – 1 lb. – 1 ½ to 2 hours
- Loin rib roast – 3 lbs. – 2 ½ to 3 hours
- Country Style ribs – 2 to 4 lbs. – 3 to 4 hours
- Spareribs or baby back ribs – 2 to 4 lbs. – 3 to 3 ½ hours.
- Chicken cut up – 2 to 3 lbs. – 1 ½ to 2 hours
- Whole Chicken – 3 to 4 lbs. – 2 ½ to 3 hours; 5 to 7 lbs. – 3 ¼ to 4 hours
- Chicken breast – 1 lb. – 45 to 60 minutes
- Whole Turkey – 8 to 10 lbs. – 4 ½ to 5 hours
- Whole Turkey – 12 to 20 lbs. – 6 to 8 hours
- Turkey breast – 2 to 2 ½ lbs. – 2 to 2 ½ hours
- Turkey drumstick – 8 to 12 oz. – 2 to 2 ½ hours
FISH AND SEAFOOD
- Whole fish dressed – 8 to 10 oz. – 1 to ½ hours
- Whole fish dressed – 3 pounds – 2 ½ to 3 hours
- Fish fillet or steak – 12 to 16 oz. – 45 to 60 minutes
- Fish fillet or steak – 1 to 3 lbs. – 1 to 1 ½ hours
- Whole crab – 1 to 2 lbs. – 20 to 30 minutes
- Oysters on the half shell – 1 oz. – 10 minutes or to taste
Smoking times for smokehouses and barrel smokers take longer given the cold smoking nature of those cooking styles. There are books on cold smoking and information on the Internet that can give you a better and more accurate sense of timing and temperatures for those types of smokers given all of the variables that can surround them. In general, the internal meat temperatures for doneness are the same for any type of smoker, but smoking durations vary greatly for hot smokers versus cold smokers.
Appearance May Vary
How your meat or fish looks when it comes off or out of the smoker can vary from a caramelized brown to a disconcerting black. Don’t be alarmed. This blackening of the skin is common with smoked birds. The black coating usually affects poultry more than other types of meat or fish and the solution is as simple as removing the skin to reveal the smoked meat underneath.
If you’re a big fan of crispy poultry skin, bake it or fry it.
However, other cuts of meat like beef and pork don’t have the benefit of a protective skin to protect the meat. If you see blackening on these cuts it could be because you smoked too long, too hot, or you have creosote in your smoker especially in charcoal fired types. Give it a good internal cleaning everywhere inside if you want to minimize blackening from creosote.
Storage and shelf-life
As a general rule, smoked foods keep very well but all smoked foods should be stored refrigerated or frozen. Vacuum sealed smoked foods can keep for up to two months when refrigerated and up to a year when frozen. For smoked foods that are simply wrapped in plastic wrap, foil or stored in plastic bags those shelf-lives should be reduced by half to one month when refrigerated and 6 months when frozen.
It’s easier than you think
Smoking is essentially goof proof as long as you use a meat thermometer to check internal temperatures for doneness. As a cooking process it’s somewhat of a “prep it and forget it” approach to a certain point. The materials are basic and even a kettle grill makes for a great smoker. It’s also an inexpensive cooking style and can make even the toughest cuts of meat tender. If you’ve never tried it’s worth a weekend afternoon. In time it may become a regular cooking style for many of your meals.