Smoking food is back in fashion! This ancient method of preserving food has been around since cavemen learned to make fire. In this article we look at the differences between cold smoking and hot smoking.
The main difference is obvious. Its all about heat. Hot smoking uses temperatures of between 170 to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Food is hot smoked for 4 to 20 hours. Heat is used to cook the meat and the smoke adds delicious BBQ flavor and aroma. Cold smoking requires low temperatures around 85 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes between one and thirty days. Cold smoking preserves food but does not cook it.
Both methods need the food to be cured. Normally this is by salting or pickling in a brine solution. Hot smoked food does not need to be fully cured as the cooking also helps preserve it. The food does need to be fully cured before it is cold smoked. Cold smoking is more difficult that hot smoking. It requires more skill and expertise.
Both hot and cold smoking are easy to master at home. There is a plethora of equipment available. We will explore some of this equipment and different methods of smoking below.
How to Cold Smoke Food
Cold smoking requires low temperatures and number of days. Firstly, the food should be fully cured. This is normally by dry curing it with salt or wet curing with a brine solution. The food is then hung or placed on racks in the smokehouse or smoking chamber. Smoke is then fed into the chamber and allowed to flow around the food. The smoke should not be hot. Often the smoke is made in a separate smoke box or fire chamber. The source of the smoke is wood lumps, chips, or pellets. The heat used to create the smoke is wood lump fire, charcoal, gas, wood pellets or electric element. Maintaining a good density of smoke and a low temperature is vital.
The first main advantage to cold smoking is the wider variety of food types that can be smoked. The most common cold smoked foods include:
- Kippers (salted and smoked herring from England)
- Smoked Bacon
- Dry cured smoked salami
The idea of cold smoking is to preserve food. The smoke forms an anti-bacterial layer on the food.
It takes a long time. You need to maintain a small fire and source of smoke consistently for several days. It is not uncommon to take the meat out of the smokehouse or chamber and refrigerate it overnight. The process is then restarted the following day. The food remains raw and is either eaten raw (like smoked salmon) or is cooked (like smoked bacon). Once smoked the food still needs to be stored carefully. For example, smoked kippers are now normally vacuum packed. They used to be hung in covered racks somewhere cold.
Cold smoking is an advanced method of food preservation. The budding enthusiast should first master hot smoking before advancing to cold smoking. The US National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends that cold smoking meat is not done at home. This is due to the risk of food poisoning. This still leaves all the other smoked foods like cheese, fish, nuts, and eggs etc.
What equipment do you need?
You need a source of smoke. The smoke comes from burning wood lumps, chips, or pellets. Charcoal, gas, or electricity may be used to help burn the wood. You need a large amount of the wood and fuel to last the duration of the smoking.
You also need something to hold the smoke close to the food. This could be a massive Alaskan style smokehouse or a tabletop dome chamber like those supplied with a home smoking kit.
Check out some of our recommended items for home cold smoking below.
This is a simple device you fill with wood chips or pellets. You light the end with a brulee or blow torch and let it burn for a few minutes. Blow out the flames and place it in the smoke chamber with the food. Leave it for four or five hours to work its smoky magic. If the wood chips or pellets are the right size, they will slowly smolder. They provide a thin smoke that is ideal for cold smoking. A kettle grill or similar metal container can be used as a smoking chamber. Some people have even used an old cardboard box!
A smoke generator burns wood in a fire chamber so you can feed it into your smoke chamber. This version by Smoke Daddy is ingenious. It uses a small electric pump to blow the smoke from the top of the vertical fire chamber into a tube. You connect the tube to your smoke chamber. One filling of the Smoke Daddy’s fire chamber gives about two and a half hours of smoke. You can use your kettle barbeque or other suitable metal contain for the smoke chamber.
If you have an electric hot smoker you may be able to find an add on to turn it into a cold smoker. These kits remove the heat source from the smoking chamber. They create the smoke in a separate firebox. The smoke is then piped into the smoke chamber of your existing smoker.
How to Hot Smoke Food
Hot smoking food uses a heat source to slowly cook the food. It also uses burning wood to provide a fantastic smoky flavor. It is considerably quicker than cold smoking. The temperature is hot enough to cook the food. It takes significantly less time to smoke food at these temperatures. After smoking the food is ready to eat and needs no other cooking. Hot smoked food can be reheated to serve later but it is best served fresh out of the smoker.
The heat is created by either burning wood, charcoal, wood pellets, or gas. Some smokers use electric elements. The smoke is produced by burning wood lumps, chips, pellets, or sawdust.
First the food is partially or fully cured. This is to add salt to the food and draw out some moisture and intensify the flavors. Curing is by marinating, dry salting, or brining.
The smoker is lit or turned on and bought up to temperature. The wood is added to create smoke. If the smoker has a water pan, then this is also filled.
The food is then added to the smoker and the smoker is sealed. Smoking takes several hours depending on the recipe. During this time, the smoker needs to be watched to ensure the heat and smoke levels remain constant. You may need to add more fuel and wood. Any water pan may need refilling.
Once the food is smoked, it is removed from the smoker and can be served immediately.
Hot smoking is ideal for the tougher cuts of meat like brisket and pork shoulder. It gives meat an amazing flavor and cooks it perfectly. Modern gas and electric smokers have thermostats and timers. They need much less looking after than the older charcoal and wood smokers. Hot smoking is much faster than cold smoking. The food comes out of the smoker cooked and ready to eat.
Even though hot smoking is faster than cold smoking, it still can take a long time. Several hours are needed to produce a great low and slow smoked brisket. It takes a day to smoke a whole turkey.
Hot smoking is not suitable for certain food like cheese or bacon. These need to be cold smoked so they are not also cooked at the same time.
What equipment do you need?
To successfully hot smoke you need a dedicated smoker. You also need fuel (wood, charcoal, pellets, gas, or electricity) and a source of smoke (wood lumps, chips, sawdust, or pellets).
The smoker may be a simple kettle grill that doubles as a smoker or a behemoth of a cylinder offset stick burner. It may cost less than $100 or more than $2000. As with anything in life, you get what you pay for. You can find out more about the different types of hot smoker here.
Let us have a look at some of the items available for the budding home hot smoker.
This is the ideal entry level smoker for the budding beginner. It is easy to use and maintain. It uses electricity for heat and wood pellets to make the smoke. The pellets are automatically fed from a cylinder hopper. Temperature and smoking time can be set and controlled automatically. You can load the smoker up, switch it on, kick back and open a bottle of wine. Just remember to check the pellets every hour or so.
The Pit Boss Gas Smoker gives the same convenience as the electric smoker. It also does not need to be plugged into the mains electricity. The Pit Boss uses two liquid propane burners. One produces the heat for the smoking, the other is used to burn the wood chips to make smoke. It is easily controlled with one simple dial. It is lit by a built-in igniter.
This model is really upping the game. It doubles up as a grill and smoker giving more utility and flexibility. It uses charcoal as the heat source and any form of wood for the smoke. It has a massive smoking chamber allowing lots of meat to be smoked. The separate “offset” fire box allows you to add more fuel and wood. You do not lose the heat and smoke from the smoking chamber. It takes more looking after than the electric or gas smokers.
Summary – To Cold Smoke or To Hot Smoke? That is the Question!
And the answer is… Both. Both kinds of smoking have their unique uses. You cannot hot smoke bacon or cheese. You cannot cold smoke beef brisket or a whole turkey. You need to be aware of the pros and the cons of both types of smoking. Hopefully, this article has built your knowledge and will help you make the right decisions.
Personally, I love low and slow hot smoked chunks of delicious meat served straight from the smoker. Being somewhat old school, I would go for the offset charcoal smoker any day of the week. I simply do not have the patience for days and days of cold smoking.
Which one are you going for?