Meat Class
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Lesson 6: Smoking Meats
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Introduction: Smoking Meats

Meat smoking is a long game, but it's worth it.

The most important thing to know when smoking meat is patience; once it's inside the smoker resist the urge to open the unit for an inspection. Opening the smoking chamber will drop the temperature immediately and release all the smoke, thereby defeating the point of smoking and causing your smoking to take even longer.

Here's what we'll need for this lesson:

There are 2 types of smoking: cold and hot smoking.

Cold Smoking

Cold smoking does not cook while being smoked because it's performed below 120°F (49°C). This type of smoking can be done with almost any type of smoker that has a temperature control. If you recall back to Meat Cooking Basics, you'll see there's a risk with this type of smoking as it doesn't raise the temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria (bacteria isn't effectively eliminated until 140°F (60°C)). Cold smoking is great for foods that are already cooked, or don't require cooking.

Even though it's generally not a good idea to cold smoke meats it's one way to make beef jerky, which we'll make in this lesson along with smoked almonds that don't require any cooking.

Hot Smoking

Hot smoking is generally accepted to be over 165°F (74°C). Hot smoking is great because fat begins to render at around 140°F (60°C) which will make your meat moist and tender.

In this lesson we'll explore both styles of smoking.


Types of Smokers

There's loads of smokers on the market but they all operate similarly, using indirect heat to cook food while burning wood chips to create smoke which imparts flavor.

There are endless debates on which type of smoker is best, and people are very polarized on which heat source should be used (wood, charcoal, propane, electric). For the sake of this class, all that really matters for any smoker is that your heat source be adjustable (either through a thermostat or vents) and that you use real wood to generate smoke.

What Kind Of Smoker Should I Get?

Honestly, if you're new to smoking there's no reason to get a really expensive smoker.

Purists will argue that charcoal and wood fires produce a more complex flavor profile, and they are probably right, but charcoal has the drawback of needing attention to ensure it stays fueled for the duration of the smoking. What propane and electric smokers may lack in flavor complexity, they more than make up for in ease of use for the beginner smoker. The bullet style electric smoker I use in this lesson was $80 (US dollars), has 2 smoking racks, and works just fine for backyard shenanigans.

Your own palette, and your dedication to this craft, will determine which kind of smoker you prefer most. Yet, regardless of the smoker style, they all generally work the same.

What's Going On Inside?

The heat source will be doing double duty, providing the temperature required to cook the food and burning the wood chips to create the smoke. Since heat and smoke rises, the heat source will always be located lower than the cooking racks. Whatever heat source you use you need to ensure contact between the heat and your wood chips so that they burn.

The wood chips used for smokers are generally a hardwood and will burn for a long time. These wood chips will need direct contact with the heat source, either in a chip tray, wrapped in foil, or directly on top of the source.

The reservoir provides much needed moisture to the cooking chamber. As the smoker gets hot the water will evaporate and keep your food moist while it smokes, it also acts to evenly dissipate the heat and eliminate any hot spots from your heat source. It will also catch any drippings while smoking.

The racks are located above everything else and are where your meat will sit while smoking.

Chances are that you will need to replenish the wood and possibly the reservoir while you are smoking if you plan to have a long smoke, if your smoker has an access hatch it is usually to address one of these items and is located near the bottom of the smoker, near the chip tray and reservoir.

That's basically all there is to it. There are more complicated set-ups around, but smoking really is simple.


Reservoir

Knowing that the reservoir will be evaporated while smoking you need to ensure you have enough liquid for the duration. Most smokers will have a large reservoir, so fill it up with hot or warm water about 3/4 of the way so that the smoker can reach temperature faster.

You can easily add beer, vinegar, and a host of other liquids to the reservoir, but ordinary water is just fine. Besides, most of the evaporated liquid won't have a significant impact on the final flavor, that really comes from the spices rubbed on the meat. If you really feel the need to add something to the water try orange peels, they smell nice and don't leave a sticky residue in the reservoir at cleanup.


Temperature

Smoking isn't difficult, but does require specific temperatures to get results. Almost all smokers will come with a temperature gauge somewhere on the unit. Don't trust it, it only tells lies!

Invest in an in-grill thermometer. It doesn't matter what kind, the most important thing is for it to have a probe that can be placed on the grill/smoker grate (not on the dome) and give you an instant read out. I take my grilling and smoking seriously, so I got one that has 2 probes: one for the chamber temperature that stays inside the unit, and one that is placed inside the meat you are smoking to give an internal temperature.

With an accurate readout, you'll know when your smoker is at temperature, if it's losing heat, and most importantly the temperature of your meat.


What Type of Wood to Use?

Not all wood is created equal. For meat smoking you want to use hardwood that's been properly seasoned (kiln dried). They sell spiced wood, which has exotic spices added and smells nice when burning, but I find it's best to keep it simple and let your meat rub add the flavors you want.

So what wood should you use?

Here's a handy chart that lines up your wood with meat selection:

BeefPorkLambChickenTurkeyFish
Alder

Applewood

Cherry

Hickory

Maple

Mesquite

Pecan

The above matrix will yield great results, but there's no rules other than your own tastes when it comes to food. So feel free to match up however you like, even mixing different types, to get the smokey taste you like best.

To Soak, Or Not To Soak

The thinking behind soaking wood chips in water before adding them to the heat is that they will burn for longer and produce more smoke. I believe that while the first is true, the second isn't. Here's why:
Wet wood will produce steam as it hits the heat, and then smoke when it's dried out and begins to burn. The reason this is unnecessary is that we already have a water reservoir in the smoker providing moisture, and no additional smoke is created from wet wood. Also, wet wood will decrease the temperature of the heat source dramatically, causing a wait before heat is back to temperature and can start smoking.

Personal preference will dictate which method you prefer, but largely I think soaking is unnecessary.


Chip Burning

To get that smokey flavor that everyone loves, you need to use wood chips. It might seem obvious, but your chips need to be burning in order to produce smoke. For this to happen your chips need to be in direct contact with your heat source.

No matter if you're using coal or electric heat, your wood chips need to be placed so combustion can occur. You can wrap your chips in foil, or keep them in a metal dish, but the foil or dish must make good contact with the heat source, otherwise you'll have hot wood that won't burn, and wood that's not burned means no smoke.


Smoking meat does take some preparation and dedicated time to monitor the smoker, but the results are unlike anything else. There are endless recipes for both cold and hot smoking. However, no matter the style of smoking there is a cardinal rule that always applies when smoking: low and slow.

All smoking takes time, by keeping the temperature low and taking it slow you'll get great results every time. Invest in a good instant-read digital thermometer and you'll remove any guesswork with your meats.

Share your smokey, slow cooked things in the comments below. I want to see all the delicious things you make, and will try on my smoker, too! Find your favorite recipe and get smoking!


We've covered quite a bit of knowledge already, but now we're moving onto the pinnacle of all beef aficionados: aged beef. The complex flavor profile mixed with the mysterious timing it requires to make have made this something usually only found high end restaurants. However, we're going to smash that myth and make the most incredible aged beef right at home. Let's go!

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