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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 unburnedwood means no smoke.
Now we know the basics, let's put that knowledge to use!
Now that we know how smokers work, let's start easy and keep the temperature low to cold smoke almonds. This easy snack can be customized any way you like to suit your tastes, and the almonds really accept the smoke flavor well.
Smoked almonds are easy to make, and a great starting point for learning to smoke since almonds don't require cooking and there's really no way to mess them up. Let's go!
Start with raw, unroasted, unsalted, and fresh almonds. You can eat them like this and you'll be fine, but they are bland and have a softer texture. By smoking them and using low heat to drive off moisture the nuts will have a smokey taste and a snappy bite.
There's really no wrong way to make smoked almonds, and almost any ratio of spices and liquids will work. Here's a basic recipe:
Smoked Almonds Recipe
The type of oil doesn't really matter here, you can even use butter instead if you like. Feel free to add more or less of any spices you like to your nut mix. In later batches I added chipotle powder, and a dash of spicy mustard powder.
Put all the ingredients into a large bowl and toss to coat all the nuts evenly.
Make sure your reservoir is inserted below your cooking racks and has a small amount of water in it before starting. We don't want the humidity to be too high inside the smoker for almonds, since we're looking to remove moisture from the nuts.
Start your smoker and let it get up to about 120°F (50°C), then add your nuts to a grilling basket so they don't fall through the grill. Spread the almonds around the basket to ensure maximum coverage.
Close up the smoker and monitor the temperature to ensure it stays around 110-120°F (40-50°C), and let smoke for 2 hours.
After a few hours open up your smoker and remove a few almonds, allow to cool and then taste. Are they crunchy? Do they taste smokey? You can easily add more wood to create more smoke and leave them in the smoker for longer until you get the taste you like. It's really tough to mess this recipe up, so experiment and have fun with it.
These smoked almonds are best enjoyed fresh, but can easily be stored in an airtight container for about a month.
Smoked almonds are a great introduction to how a smoker works, and operating at a low temperature. To boost our skills we'll try another cold smoking recipe: beef jerky.
Cold smoking is done at a low temperature (under 120°F (49°C)). Cold smoking meat is contentious because it doesn't raise the temperature above 140°F (60°C), the requirement for killing any surface bacteria that could be present on the meat. However, if done correctly, beef jerky can effectively be made on the smoker and will dry the meat completely.
Dehydrated food has it's moisture removed, and harmful bacteria can't efficiently contact or react with dry food.
Jerky is very lean with almost no fat, this is because fat will cause the jerky to spoil faster since it can't be dried as effectively as the meat.
You can make jerky out of any lean cut of beef, but flank steak that you find at your butcher is already prepared nice and thin, so that's what I use. I'd advise against pork and wild game jerky until you're comfortable with the process, since the risk of trichinosis is a thing.
Although flank steak is already a lean cut, there may be some fat on your steak, so use a sharp knife to remove as much fat as possible from each cutlet.
There's debate on whether to cut the steak strips with the grain or against it. Cuts with the grain will produce longer strips, but cuts against the grain are easier to chew. I suggest trying both to determine your personal preference.
You want a thin cut of steak with almost no fat. Next the beef needs to be cut into strips. It's up to you how wide to make the strips, but I would stay below 1/2" so you have smaller strips that can dry faster.
Before we can smoke the steak we'll need a marinade. As with the smoked almonds, there's no wrong way to mix up the ingredients, and it will depend on your personal tastes. Here's a basic jerky marinade:
Smoked Beef Jerky:
I find it easiest to add all the ingredients to a large resealable plastic bag with the cuts of meat, seal the bag up and coat the steaks with the mix. Place in refrigerator and leave to marinate overnight.
The next morning your steak strips have marinated for a few hours and are now ready for the smoker.
Ensure your smoker has plenty of wood chips loaded and a very small amount of water in the reservoir. Bring the smoker up to temperature at 120°F, lay the beef strips across the grill with space between each strip to allow smoke and air flow.
My strips were thin, so took only about three hours to turn from raw meat to jerky. The jerky is edible immediately, or can be stored in an airtight container for about a month. If there's any fatty pieces that you couldn't trim for whatever reason these will be the first to turn and go bad, so be mindful.
As we learned in Lesson 3: Cuts Of Meat the chuck is a cut from the neck area and is usually quite tough, however if we cook it slowly with low heat the toughness turns to tender goodness. This is the cut we'll be using for our smoked beef because it's inexpensive, a large cut, and accepts smoke perfectly.
Start with 3-6 lbs. (1-3 kg) of beef chuck. The butcher may have this in rolls or as large flat cuts - either is fine. Generously sprinkle the entire surface with Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper, then roll into a tight bundle and secure with butcher's twine.
Heat your smoker to around 280°F (140°C) with wood chips and smoke until the meat reaches an internal temperature of about 160°F (70°C). Use your probe thermometer to ensure accurate readings. Time will depend on your type of smoker and how large the chuck is that you are smoking - this can be anywhere from 2-6 hours.
Once you hit an internal temperature of 160°F (70°C), remove the meat from smoker and wrap in aluminium foil (shiny side in). Wrapping your smoked meat in foil is called the Texas Crutch - the idea here is to speed the cooking and decrease the total moisture loss of the chuck.
Once wrapped, place back on the smoker with the probe inserted and continue cooking.
We're looking to hit an internal temperature of around 230°F (110°C) and continue cooking for a few hours until meat is tender enough to fall apart when a fork is inserted (about 2-3 hours depending on size of chuck and type of smoker).
The last step is to finish the outside of the beef. Once you've held the target temperature for a few hours remove the foil and place the beef back on the smoker.
Like with stove top cooking, we're looking to have a nice crust to our beef to give it some texture and intense taste. When smoking, the outer layer is called bark.
Leave on smoker for about 20-40 minutes with a few fresh chunks of wood for added flavor depth.
Remove the meat from the smoker and cover in foil, then allow to rest until the internal temperature falls to around 160°F (70°C) before opening up and serving.
After resting unwrap and cut the twine, then pull the meat apart with tongs and a large fork to shred it. You'll know you've done it right when the beef falls apart and shreds easily. A hallmark of great smoking is the obvious crust layer, visibly defined by a dark contrast in color to the lighter interior.
You'll have a hard time keeping this delicious beef dish for long, so make sure you gobble some down quickly before the aroma draws the neighbors over!
Smoking meat does take some preparation and dedicated time to monitor the smoker, but the results are unlike anything else.
As with all skills, learning your particular smoker and refining the technique may take some trial and error, but it's really easy once you understand that the key to smoking is low and slow; if you do that you really can't go wrong!
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!
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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