The Basics of Smoking Food
Are you ready to dive into the world of smoking food? If you have ever tasted mouth-watering smoked fish, pork, cheese, or any other smoked delicacy, you have probably discovered how absolutely delicious food is when prepared this way. And since you've found your way here, you're probably ready to learn more about smoking food yourself. To a beginner, the idea of smoking food at home may seem like a tedious task requiring a lot of complicated and expensive equipment, but it is actually a relatively straightforward and inexpensive way to make delicious food. By understanding the fundamentals, just about anyone can operate a smoker at home to prepare their own food without investing a lot of time or money. So let's get started by covering some of the basics.
The Basics of Food Smoking
Smoking is the process of cooking and flavoring food at low heat, over a long period of time, over smoke from wood coals. Before chemical food preservatives, refrigerators, and freezers, smoking (along with curing) was the most common way to preserve food so it could be stored over long periods of time without spoiling, so that was its primary purpose. In the days when smoking was a necessity more than a hobby, most houses had a separate smokehouse or "smoke holes" in their fireplace chimneys where meat could be hung to process. Over time, as food preservation and technology advanced, smoking became an unnecessary part of everyday life and was only practiced by the few who truly appreciated the flavor and quality of home smoked food. While it is still great for preservation, modern day food smoking is so much more. It adds wonderful flavor to all types of foods - cheeses, nuts, vegetables, and, most commonly, meat. Smoking can turn substandard cuts of meat into delicious, tender dishes and it adds a flavor that just can't be duplicated with artificial flavorings.
All that is required to smoke food is smoke from smoldering hardwoods and a way to suspend the food above the smoke. That means a smoker can be as simple as sticks over a campfire or as elaborate as a large modern-day smokehouse where food can be hung to slowly process over several days or weeks. Smoking over and open fire is usually reserved for camping trips and is not really practical for home. It does, however, make delicious meals while out in the wilderness.
There are two primary types of smoking - hot smoking and cold smoking. While the specific temperatures of each may vary depending on what recipe or source you read, the primary difference is that with hot smoking the temperatures are high enough to cook the food while flavoring it. With cold smoking, the smoke only flavors the food without cooking it. Cold smoking can be anything below 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, while hot smoking is usually achieved at temperatures between 120 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. When cold smoked, the food will need to be cooked separately either before or after it is put in the smoker. Hot smoking offers the convenience of cooking while smoking, eliminating the need to cook the food separately. The method you choose will purely depend on personal preference, as both methods work very well for flavoring food.
If you are ready to have a smoking setup at home, there are an abundance of options to get started. Many do-it-yourself types have had great success building their own smokers with nothing more than a garbage barrel or old refrigerator. Others have built homemade smokehouses similar in appearance and function to the old fashioned variety. If you are the do-it-yourself type and want to try to construct your own smoker, a quick internet search will yield an abundance of plans and ideas from others that have had success going this route.
If building a homemade smoker isn't something you want to attempt, there are many great options available for purchase. Smokers have risen in popularity in recent years, making them widely available and at price points to fit just about every budget. Overall they are easy to use and a great option for beginners. These smokers are much simpler to operate than varieties that require constant tending of a fire to regulate temperatures and are a great way to learn the art of smoking and get comfortable with the techniques.
Home Smoking Equipment Components
All smokers, whether purchased or homemade, need four basic components to properly prepare food:
- a smoke box to contain the smoke. This could be the container portion of a smoker you purchase, a barrel or old refrigerator in a homemade smoker, or the larger interior of a smoke house.
- a heat source to keep the fuel (wood) hot and smoldering. In an electric smoker, the heat source is a heating element at the base of the unit that gets hot enough to help cook the food while keeping the wood hot enough to smolder and create smoke.
- a fuel source. Most often, hardwoods are used for fuels. Hardwoods are from deciduous trees rather than evergreen trees, which are poor fuel choices for smoking. Some of the most popular hardwoods used for smoking food are from fruit trees - cherry, apple, pear, etc. Hickory, ash, oak, birch, maple, and walnut are others that are commonly used.
- food racks, trays, and/or hooks to suspend the food above the smoke source.
The style and complexity of smokers varies widely. A very simple homemade smoker in a barrel can work just as well as the most expensive smoker on the market with temperature controls, viewing windows, and other built in gadgets. The smoker you choose to use will depend solely on your personal preference.
Best Home Smokers
If you choose to purchase a smoker, there are three types you will most often see available for home use: electric smokers, propane smokers, and charcoal smokers. The difference between each of these options is the method by which the fuel is heated. If you are a beginner or if ease of use is an important factor in your purchase decision, electric smokers and propane smokers are probably your best bet. Electric smokers are especially fool-proof, offering everything you need to get started in one unit and "set it and forget it" temperature adjustments. All you need to operate and electric smoker is a power outlet - no charcoal or gas required.
While these different types of smokers all have common characteristics, there are options and features available for every budget and every experience level. No matter which model you choose, we are sure you will love being able to prepare your own delicious smoked food at home.
- Editor's Note: Shannon is a work-at-home mom blogger and graphic designer. She writes for a variety of niche blogs, including Electric Smoker Reviews. At Electric Smoker Reviews, they've gathered extensive information on the best home smokers available to buy. Be sure to check out the reviews for the most popular home smokers on the market today and see what purchasers are saying about them!