I’m sure there are many people out there in the same situation as me. Raising two boys, my husband and I were immersed in their lives by being Boy Scout leaders, taking them hunting, helping with homework, making family dinners every night, etc. Now that they’re older, one starting college and the other a junior in high school, I find myself with more “me time.” Join me in my quest to discover new interests and hobbies. My hopes are to inspire you to try something new.
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Since I hunt and usually freeze or can my venison, I wanted to try something new. My research showed many different opinions on the smoking process reflecting personal preferences and safety. Historically, it’s an interesting subject. Well before the invention of refrigeration, people preserved their meats with salt, drying and smoke. The smoking process dries the meat and emits acids that cling to the meat, forming an outside layer. This acid preserves the meat by slowing down the growth of bacteria and preventing mold from forming. Smoking also improves the flavor and color of meat, making it more appealing.
Making Meat Last
There are two different methods for smoking meat. Cold smoking (sometimes called hard smoking) does not cook the food. It is required when the meat is being smoked for preservation without refrigeration, something early hunters did to extend the length of time meat could be eaten after the hunt. It is dried rather than cooked and includes curing the meat. This process is similar to dehydration but uses salt, spices and smoke. Through my research I discovered cold smoking is truly done in temperatures at or below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, over the course of several days to several weeks. Since these temperatures are in the rapid-microbial-growth range of 40 to 140 degrees, cold smoking is not recommended as a home process.
According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, “Most food scientists cannot recommend cold-smoking methods because of the inherent risks.” Perhaps our ancestors had stronger stomachs or maybe that’s why they died younger. Leave the cold smoking up to the professionals. If industrially cured, smoked and stored properly, this meat will keep indefinitely, although it should be eaten within a year. The other method, hot smoking, cooks the meat gently and slowly. This method is usually done at temperatures of 150 to 225 degrees and used for tastier flavor and richer color. It will need to be eaten, refrigerated and stored in the same timely manner as any cooked meat.
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Curing meat is an important step in the smoking process. It is done with either a dry cure or a wet cure (brine). When preparing meats with a dry cure, the salt, sugar and spices are sprinkled directly on the meat and refrigerated for a minimum amount of time. A brine cure has the salt, sugar and spices mixed into water. Whether using a wet or dry cure, it’s important to use a container made of glass, plastic or enamel, never metal.
Just as there are many different processes and recipes for smoking meats, there are numerous smokers on the market. Some are electric or gas, while others use charcoal or wood. They may use wood chips, bisquettes, chunks, powder, pellets and so on, depending on the smoker you purchase. I chose the Bradley Digital Food Smoker. It’s electric, has 12 flavors of wood bisquettes and is super easy to use. Remember, I’m trying to experience new things. Why work harder when I can work smarter?
Fish & Game
Making smoked jerky is a relatively simple process. Using the leanest cuts of meat, remove all visible fat. Slice the meat evenly, no more than a ¼-inch thick. Slice across the grain for tender bites, or with the grain for tough, chewier bites.
Purchasing a ready-made cure was the way I prepared my meat. There are many different brands out there with numerous flavors available. The sodium nitrate it contains is primarily used to prevent botulism, but it also adds flavor and extends shelf life. I used the dry method to cure the meat, and stored it for 24 hours in the refrigerator per the manufacturers suggestion. This amount may vary depending on the cure you use, the amount of salt it contains and the thickness of the meat.
With the curing process compete, I set my electric smoker for 150 degrees and inserted enough smoking bisquettes for two hours of smoke. There is a fine balance for the amount of smoke you want in the meat. For the most part it’s trial and error, a matter of taste. Since drying is the process that makes jerky, I didn’t add water to the drip bowl. Once the two hours were done, I increased the temperature to 180 degrees and continued cooking (about four more hours) until I liked the consistency of the meat’s dryness. This part could also have been done in my oven, since the smoking was complete. Again, there are many different recipes with various temperatures and times. It’s just a matter of finding the process that you like best.
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Smoking fish has long been used as a way of temporary preservation. Again, as with meat, the only safe way is to use the hot-smoked method with a brine. Although fish preparation varies by species, there are principles that apply to all types. Always use quality fish. Smell it, touch it and look at it. Thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator or fresh water. Keep it cool until you’re ready to smoke. And be sure to cut fish in uniform pieces for equal salting.
Salting fish should be done in a non-metallic bowl with a brine that is one part table salt to seven parts water, for at least one hour of refrigeration. Once completed, rinse the fish surface and allow it to air dry in a cool place. Now comes the smoking. Once your smoker reaches 100 degrees, add your oiled racks of fish and set the temperature to 225 degrees. Once the thickest part of the fish reaches 150 degrees, it should be held for 30 minutes. I only smoked my fish for the first three hours.
Smoked fish can be stored in the refrigerator for almost a month. Properly wrapped, it will last in the freezer for one year, which brings me to smoking for the flavor. There are many different woods that can be used for smoking. It is suggested that chicken and fish are better with apple, pecan, cherry and alder wood, while pork and beef are complemented with hickory, mesquite or oak. With all the choices in wood, meat and spices, there is an infinite number of flavors that can be created when smoking meats. However, there are a few things to keep in mind during the process.
Since you want the meat to stay moist, be sure to maintain water in your drip pan. This will add moisture to your smoker throughout the process. Wrap meat in aluminum foil and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes after smoking to allow the juices to re-distribute before carving. To retain moisture, brine chicken, turkey and other lean meats overnight in the refrigerator before smoking. Other cuts of meat, beef, ribs and chops can be rubbed with spices or mopped. When smoking for flavor, the temperature of the smoker should be between 200 to 300 degrees, and always make sure your meat is cooked to the proper internal temperature for safety.
Smoking meats is an enjoyable process with fantastic smells and delicious results. Do your research, decide what smoking process will work best for you and find some recipes. Get going and start smoking!
Secrets of Smoking Success
- Before slicing meat, put it in the freezer until firm (30 minutes to two hours).
- Weigh your meat after you trim it to know exactly how much seasoning and cure you will need.
- The longer the smoking time, the greater the loss of moisture, resulting in a higher proportion of salt. The product becomes drier and saltier, but it will have a longer shelf life.
- The higher the temperature, the shorter the smoking time and the shorter its shelf life.
- Jerky that is done perfectly should be able to bend without it breaking in half.
- Avoid opening your smoker and peeking.
- Only apply sauces during the last 20 to 30 minutes of smoking. Earlier application may cause the sauce to burn and brown quickly, creating a burnt flavor.
A Smoking-Good Cookbook
The Bradley Smoker Cookbook: Tips, Tricks, and Recipes from Bradley Smoker’s Pro Staff takes the art of smoking, a process that can be intimidating to the beginner, and demonstrates just how accessible it truly is. It promises to be an essential recipe book for hunters and anglers who want to turn their outdoor triumphs into delicious meals and snacks.
Order your copy of The Bradley Smoker Cookbook: Tips, Tricks, and Recipes from Bradley Smoker’s Pro Staff (ISBN: 978-1-63220-715-9) for $19.99 at skyhorsepublishing.com.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.