Cold Smoking is a process that when combined with preserves and curing, adds a distinctive smokey flavour to the meat.
Not all food products need to be cold smoked like meat does. Cold smoked products can last up to months without being refrigerated.
The basic method of cold smoking meat is as follows:
- Cure the meat to extract the moisture and prevent bacterial growth.
- The cured meat is exposed to smoke, which is the cause of the smokey flavour. This process could take days, depending on the product.
The tip here is to not allow the meat to get too hot, whilst exposing it to smoke. To keep the meat under the recommended 90F, keep the meat in an unheated chamber, whilst smoke for a separate chamber is pumped in.
Cold smoking goes back a long way to western culture, where farms created ‘smokehouses’ with the single purpose of smoking and storing meat, with the intention of preserving meat through the winter when food was scarce.
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Hot smoking vs Cold smoking
Frequent visitors to our website will already be familiar with hot smoking. Hot smoking consists of the smoke from the fire coming at considerably higher heats, usually around 225 to 250F.
Hot smoking tends to be held in the same chamber as the burning heat and fuel and is eaten immediately after being smoked.
Because hot smoked meat is cooked at temperatures above the danger zone of 140F, the meat does not have to be cured as the heat will kill all bacteria that make you sick.
Of course, curing meat provides flavour benefits.
Hot smoking can take up to a day, or several hours, depending on the size and cut of brisket.
Best Types of Food for Cold Smoking
Salami or smoked salmon tend to be the first port of call when we think of cold-smoked food, but there is actually a wide variety of foods, for example, cheese.
Cheese is a good first food to cold smoke as its very low risk, leave higher risk foods like salami to the professionals, allowing you to master the technique without the safety risks.
Other low-risk foods to cold smoke include:
- hard boiled eggs
- olive oil
Meat like bacon that is cooked before serving is also low risk, as it helps to cook off any bacteria.
Sausage and fish (e.g. smoked salmon) are popular cold smoking options, however, they provide the right conditions for botulism to grow if not handled properly and are at highest risk of causing illness.
Steven Lamb wrote a great book on all things curing and smoking which you can find below.
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The Dangers of Cold Smoking
Cold Smoking information tends to fit into two categories:
- Cold smoking will kill all your family and friends with botulism
- Cold smoking is easy and anyone can do it
Both of these are myths to a certain extent. Information either skims over the inherent dangers or focuses on the health dangers so much it terrifies anyone considering it.
We plan on explaining every risk and helping to decide if smoking is for you.
Why is cold smoking riskier than hot smoking?
Whilst cold smoking any kind of meat is risky, smoking sausages and fish are particularly risky. This is because cold smoking creates the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, without the cooking to kill the bacteria.
If you cure the meat beforehand (something you definitely should do) the salt will slow the growth of bacteria but not kill it, however, the exact temperature for cooking will encourage bacteria growth if not closely watched.
You may be thinking about how the successful history of smoking meant that if it was so dangerous it would’ve been scrapped.
Well, people definitely have died before, and still, do as a result of eating meat that wasn’t properly cooked. In fact, modern production methods have increased the risk of dangerous bacteria ending up in our food. Botulism and listeria are commonly known ones.
Botulism is less common than listeria but more dangerous. Listeria can potentially be deadly.
It also worth noting that ground meats have a particularly high risk of infection as the bacteria from the gut of the animal is distributed evenly when ground up.
Certain People Should Always Avoid Cold Smoked Meats
Those who are immunocompromised, e.g. the elderly, pregnant women, should steer well clear of eating cold-smoked fish products, even those manufactured commercially.
This is because the shelf life of commercially produced smoked fish products is only around two weeks due to the high risk of listeria contamination.
Cold smoked fish also carries the risk of parasite infections, e.g tapeworms, and whereas cooking would usually kill these infections, cold smoking does not.
Summing up the Risks
- Cold smoked food is not cooked and is actually kept in the ‘danger zone’ whilst being smoked, essentially making it a bacterial breeding ground.
- Parasites present in the meat are not have been killed by smoking.
- The risk of infections like listeria or botulism is particularly high in fish or sausages
- People who are immunocompromised are advised against consuming such cold smoked products.
So there are a lot of risks, but if you’re still reading you must still be interested.
DIY Cold Smoker Setup
We need to use alternative methods to create our smoke than normal combustion, namely an external firebox that pumps smoke in through pipes to the main chamber.
It is a good idea to vent the firebox to control smoke production and heat.
The food you plan to smoke should be in a separate smoking chamber, with a vent to control the temperature and airflow. Installing racks is a good idea, even if your smoking chamber is as simple as a plastic cooler or wooden barrel.
Some people place ice blocks at the bottom of the smoking chamber to prevent the temperature reaching dangerous levels for bacteria breeding.
Whilst creating a DIY setup can be a little daunting, there are a variety of products to purchase that make the setup easier.
Cold Smoking in a Weber Smokey Mountain
This can be done by keeping the food and fire in the same chamber, however, this makes it difficult to keep the heat under 140F.
The solution is to use the Weber Smokey Mountain as the smoking chamber and pump smoke in from a different source.
A cheap, and simple option is to use an electrical cooker in a cardboard box and place some wood chunks on some skillets and a small computer fan in the box. Create some vents in the box and run some foil ducting into the Weber Smokey Mountain.
As the wood smokes, the smoke is pumped into the Weber Smokey Mountain. You should invest in a very accurate thermometer to monitor this heat.
Use a Pellet Tube Smoker add on
This smoke generator is specifically designed for cold smoking and can be placed right into your cooker without generating too much heat.
Fill the smoke generator with pellets, use a torch to light them, and hold the flame to them until they burn. Allow them to burn until they’re glowing hot and blow them out. Place the smoker in your cooker and you’re ready to go.
This add-on uses just pellets or sawdust and is light-weight and portable.
The unit claims to provide somewhere between four to six hours of smoke. However we have heard the unit falls short on this claim, but it does, however, depend on the type of pellet you use among a variety of other factors.
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Cold Smoking Cheese
If the looming threat of botulism leaves you not wanting to cold smoke meat, there are still options for you. Cold smoking cheese provides delicious results in only 2-4 hours, and without the risks associated with cold smoking meat.
If you keep the temperature below 90F, the cheese should stay solid and won’t melt, so remain vigilant.
If you pick a cool day to cold smoke, the temperature will be easier to control. However, if you have an urgent need to cold smoke during the summer months, pick the cooler time such as morning or evenings to help control the temperature.
The smokey flavour will only penetrate the surface areas of the cheese, so cutting the cheese into smaller chunks will provide a more even coverage, allowing the smoke to reach all angles of the cheese.
Another tip is to bring the cheese up to room temperature before you begin smoking as this prevents any condensation forming on the surface of the cheese.
Once your cheese is done, wrap it up in plastic and leave it to refrigerate for a few days to develop a more intense flavour. One of the best videos on this comes from HowtoBBQRight.
Tips for Cold Smoking Safely
Cold smoking doesn’t suit everyone. It requires a certain level of precision and patience, and you have to invest a lot of time and money in ensuring you have the correct setup. If you still want to give cold smoking a go, try these safety tips.
Whilst someone you know may claim to be some kind of a cold-smoking-expert, their word isn’t enough when the lives of your friends and family are at stake. Follow the words of the bona fide experts that will keep you safe.
- Only use the highest quality of meat or fish from your local butcher – We’ve already looked at the potential infections and parasites fish can carry, like tapeworm, so find a fishmonger that you trust that can tell you exactly where the fish was sourced from.
- Combine cold smoking with salting – you must cure the meat yourself, as just cold smoking it does not cure it. The national centre for home food preservation states that ‘only those meat products that have been fermented, salted or cured should be smoked’. So follow the expert advice.
- Follow cold smoking with another method of cooking
You can apply this advice in a couple of ways, the safest way is to cure the meat, cold smoke it, and then cook it before eating. The national centre for home food preservation also states that ‘most cold smoked products should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160F before being eaten’
Another friendly reminder that cold smoking doesn’t cook or cure your meat in any way whatsoever.
You could also smoke your meat while it is still raw, ensuring it doesn’t reach dangerous temperatures. Then cook the meat immediately after the smoking progress, and this should impart a smoky flavour before cooking it.
Wrapping it up
We hope our guide to smoking was useful to you. Whilst cold smoking is a little out of a lot of people’s comfort zones and does carry quite a few risks, it can yield delicious rewards when executed properly and safely. With the correct equipment and proper understanding, you may be ready to take on this new challenge of smoking.
If you have any more questions that weren’t covered in this post, or you tried cold smoking yourself, leave a comment below!