Smoking foods is as old as the invention of fire, and where there’s fire, there’s smoke.
I can imagine our ancient forebears warmly huddled around a smoky fire in the shelter of a flame lit cave as they cooked and ate their food together. Perhaps, as the flames danced to the merriment of their abundance, the wood smoke casually drifted by to embrace and bestow the open larder of their nearby catch with an enhanced aromatic flavour.
At what point in history this illumination sparked the imagination to smoke food as a culinary preference, is as opaquely mysterious as the prehistoric smoke filled cave itself. To date, archaeological discovery suggests that our distant ancestors were enjoying smoked oysters at least 8,000 years ago. Since then, both commercial and artisan smoking of food produce has continued to grow apace, and with equally delicious results.
Smoking is a subtle form of gastronomy that packs in huge flavour by exposing the food to the smoke of a smouldering aromatic wood. In essence, smoking falls into two distinct categories of either hot or cold smoking. Hot smoking is performed at higher temperatures and smokes the food as it cooks. Cold smoking is performed at much lower temperatures and smokes the produce such as meat, fish, poultry, cheese, vegetables, nuts and fruit without actually cooking it.
Hot smoking is a simple and straightforward process and is performed for as long as it takes to cook the food, or as a smoke flavour finisher near the end of cooking, or afterwards when it rests. Since hot smoking is relatively simple, I’ve concentrated more of the emphasis in my recipes section on cold smoking and its preparation because of the added subtleties involved.
Cold smoking can be a more involved process with longer preparation and smoking times, but it is often classed as real smoking because it imparts a more delicate flavour to foods without appreciably changing their natural textures. Cold smoking also tends to have a finer and more complex flavour spectrum by absorbing higher concentrations of the spicy-sweet phenolic compounds which also help to reduce spoilage.
Although smoke has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties that help to preserve food, it does not indefinitely preserve it. The finished product should always be kept refrigerated and consumed within a safely edible expiration date. Before the advent of refrigeration, foods were primarily smoked to preserve them, but today it’s for flavour.
In combination with salt-curing, cold smoking is a very useful preservation method which acts to inhibit interior bacterial growth while coating the exterior surfaces with an extra layer of protection. The antioxidant properties of smoking delay surface fat rancidification which is especially useful for oily fish such as mackerel and salmon.
Cold smoked fish has a distinctly different texture and taste from fish that has been hot smoked. Cold smoked salmon for example, is in my view much more succulent and tastier than its hot smoked counterpart. For the finest smoked hams and bacon, slow cold smoking is also the preferred method used by many specialist charcutiers.
Hot and cold smoking is simply a process of infusing the food with the distinct characteristics of a particular wood smoke. However, cold smoked products are still essentially raw and while some can be eaten cold smoked au naturel, others will still have to be cooked before consumption.
Cold smoking of meat, fish and poultry is basically a two-step process, but like everything, preparation is crucial to achieve the desired result. The first step involves curing the food by dry salting or brining (immersing in a salt water solution) for the necessary length of time, before the second step of exposing it to a flow of clean burning quality wood smoke. The dry salt or brine cure not only condenses the potential flavour, but draws the water out of bacteria cells and effectively sterilises them, therefore animal proteins specifically need to be cured before cold smoking.
The three most important considerations of cold smoking are:
1. The quality and freshness of food
2. The preparation and cure
3. The quality of wood, it's smoking characteristics and performance, and its free flow and the internal temperature within the smoker housing
The quality of wood is crucial and must be derived from all natural wood that has been specifically processed for smoking in mind. Avoid the temptation to use sawdust from unverifiable sources such as sawmills and woodworking shops because the woods are often mixed, unseasoned, and the chainsaws and blades used to cut the woods are usually lubricated with oil, which subsequently imparts a somewhat toxic and unsavoury flavour to the food being smoked.
All Smoke Genies are wholly made with 100% pure untreated natural hardwoods from sustainable forests and are especially processed for delicatessen smoking. They do not contain any synthetics or sugars.
The Smoke Genie is also designed for the optimum generation of a cool, clean and consistent smoke at just the right temperature to release the pure aromatic smoke flavours necessary for the perfect result. In a properly fabricated smoker of the right volume, the Smoke Genie will not raise the internal temperature by more than two degrees above ambient. This is important, particularly with cold smoking as the temperature must not rise above 30° C as the food will semi cook and spoil. It will neither be cold smoked nor hot smoked, but in between and in a bland and unpleasant state.
Controlling the smoulder and temperature of your smoke is paramount when cold smoking, particularly when working with fresh fish. Although cold smoking can be performed as high as 30°C, I recommend cold smoking at ambient temperatures below 25°C, preferably lower if possible.
The decision to use dry salt or brine for cold smoking, plus herbaceous mixtures, sugars, spices, alcohols and seasonings is one of personal preference and adds to the artful creativity and rich diversity of cold smoking.
On my Recipes page I detail cures, recipes, recommended smoking times, and temperatures relative to the food being cold smoked.
To demystify some of the science of hot and cold smoking I have endeavoured to answer the most commonly asked questions in the FAQs section of my website. I will constantly update these as more questions are asked.
On my Blog I actively encourage further questions, constructive comment, recipes, suggestions and everything and anything to do with the wonder of food smoking. Whatever your interest is in smoking foods, it will transport you as much into the past as it will into the future.
The incredible art of food smoking is as much open to you as it is to me as there are so many permutations of flavours, cures, and smoking recipes for you to create your own delectable smoked food.
Welcome to the smoking revolution and fabulously delicious food.