Get ready to dive into the world of cold smoking! Cheeses, salmon, swordfish, or steak, there are a ton of delicious cold smoking recipes for meat lovers and vegetarians alike. An ordinary charcoal grill or your own self-made smokehouse, along with some basic equipment is all you need to get started, but the process itself may actually have you scratching your head.
There are risks associated with cold smoking meat. Preparation during the curing process is absolutely critical, which is why this guide is your best friend. Follow the directions below to learn the best method for cold smoking meat safely.
What Is Cold Smoking?
Cold smoking is both a cooking process that adds a distinct smoked flavor to dishes that are served cold, or unheated. They are cured to preserve their flavor and can last for months without refrigeration.
While you may already be familiar with cold smoked meats, there are other foods that can be cured and smoked. Not all smoked food products need to be cured, however. Typically, the food is cooked before being cold smoked, but not in all cases.
Food Products That Can Be Cold Smoked
- Fish (salmon), Scallops
- Quality cuts of Beef (brisket, steak)
- Chicken Breast
- Hams, Bacon, Sausages, Pork Chops
- Hard Boiled Eggs
- Fruits (lime, lemon, oranges, grapes)
- Nuts, Tofu
Cold Smoking Meat Process
Believe it or not, cold smoking isn’t as difficult as it sounds and not that much different from hot smoking. The key difference is the cooking temperature and time, specifically when it comes to smoking meat.
Cold smoking can be broken into 3 basic steps.
- Curing: Meat is dried to remove moisture and prevent bacterial growth.
- Next, the meat is exposed to smoke at low temperatures to absorb the distinct smoked wood flavor and aroma. Depending on the food (meat, nuts, fruit, etc) the smoking process can take several hours or even days.
- Using a smokehouse or chamber, the food is preserved at a low temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Smoke produced in one chamber, and then pumped into the unheated chamber where the meat is stored.
If you’re using a Masterbuilt, Traeger, Camp Chef or other quality smoker, place the cured and dried meat on an ice tray and load it into your electric smoker. Set the temperature anywhere between 90 - 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Known to chefs as the danger zone, bacteria and food parasites can still survive at these temperatures, but they are killed off given sufficient time.
They key difference between hot and cold smoked food is that the food isn’t cooked by convection heat during the process. Through the curing process, the meat is made flavorful and appetizing, and is cooked very slowly to allow the smoke to properly absorb.
Essential Tools For Cold Smoking
Having the right tools is critical to the success of your cold smoked recipe. For this reason, a smokehouse is useful for keeping the meat separate from the smoking chamber, where the heat is generated.
- Pellet Grill or Smoker: Required to generate smoke.
- Wood: Wood chips, pellets, chunks. You can even enrich the flavor of your food with different types of wood such as mesquite, cherry, apple or hickory.
- Instant Read Thermometer: A digital meat thermometer calibrated for precision so you can test the internal temperature of your meat for readiness. You’ll also need it to ensure the storage temperature is precise. Eating meat that isn’t properly cooked can be a serious health risk.
- Digital Scale: Precise measurements of salt are needed for the curing process to prevent harmful bacterial growth, especially in your meat
- Smokebox: Either a self-made smoke box or chamber to keep the smoke and heat separate from the food. Smoke should appear light in color and burn slowly over several hours. Should be ventilated to allow smoke to escape and uninsulated.
- Salt Box: Ideal for curing large or small cuts of meat thoroughly and quickly with less mess
- Cold Smoking Kit or Attachment: Can be used in conjunction with your grill or electric smoker to provide hours of smoke under low heat.
Do I Need A Smokehouse for Cold Smoking?
If you really want the full experience, then yes, you need a smokehouse to properly cold smoke meat or any other type of food. The food needs to be kept separate from the smoking source, where the higher temperatures will result in cooking your meat.
A conventional smokehouse has two chambers connected by a pipe. One chamber generates the smoke, while the other preserves the food in an environment below 140 degrees fahrenheit, as recommended by the FDA .
Can you still cold smoke without a smokehouse? Yes! There are in fact some amazing BBQ devices that can be used with your existing Masterbuilt, Traeger, Camp Chef or Weber smoker or grill. You can even make your own device or smoke box.
Cold smoking cheese, tofu, and nuts at home are relatively low risk. Bacon is not high risk because it is cooked hard before serving, but I still do not recommend cold smoking meats at home, especially for beginners.
Cold Smoker Set Up
Cold smoking meat isn’t for beginners! Setting up your smoke box requires ensuring a steady flow of smoke from one chamber to the next. It also means maintaining a steady low temperature in the storage chamber, to allow your food to absorb the smoke.
Unlike a smoked brisket, for example, you can’t just set it and forget it when it comes to cold smoking meat. You need the proper set up, sufficient time, and you need to monitor your progress over a long period of time.
Here’s an example from YouTube of how to make and set up your very own Cold Smoker:
Curing Meat Methods For Cold Smoking
Dry Curing Cold Meat Method
The most important step is the curing process, where bacteria is eliminated and excess moisture is removed. You’ll need to allow adequate time for the curing process and prepare a smoke box for storing the meat during the cold smoking process.
Dry curing meat requires the use of salt and/or sugar to prevent bacterial and microbial growth. When dry curing meat, avoid table salt and use curing salts only . The salt solution, or brine, is then rubbed or layered onto the meat and stored at room temperature for several weeks.
At this point, the cured meat is then rinsed, dried and cold smoked, which can take as long as six months! Even after the meat is dry cured and cold smoked, however, the food is still raw. Remember to cook it before serving.
Wet Curing Cold Meat Method
Wet curing, or brining is a process you may already be familiar with, and is popular as a method of preparing a wide range of meats. First, the meat (beef, poultry, fish or game) is submerged in a brine solution or flavored sauce that includes spices and at least 10% salt. A basic salt cure for steaks, for example, is essentially salt and water. Sugar can also be used.
For wet curing large cuts of meat such as a 12 pound brisket or 20 pound whole turkey, allow up to 6 weeks. After the alloted period, rinse the brine off completely and dry the meat. Hanging on a hook or rack is best, allowing gravity to extract the remaining brine.
4 Risks Of Cold Smoking Meat
1. THE DANGER ZONE: Meat needs to be cooked slowly at a low temperature that is still habitable for harmful bacteria. This extended exposure to bacteria poses a risk that varies with the type of food and quality of the curing process.
The risk of contracting harmful pathogens such as botulism or listeria is particularly high when consuming cold smoked meat. According to the FDA, the acceptable temperature for cooking meat is as follows:
- Meat: Cook beef, pork, veal, and lamb roasts, steaks, and chops to at least 145° F (63° C), with a 3 minute rest time.
- Ground Meat: Cook ground beef, veal, lamb, and pork to at least 160° F (71° C). Cook ground poultry to 165° F (74° C).
- Poultry: Cook all poultry to minimal safe internal temperature of 165° F (74° C) or higher.
2. PARASITES: Harmful parasites are not eliminated during the smoking or curing process. Always cook your cold smoked dish before serving.
3. BACTERIA: E. Coli and Listeria are the two main hazards that pose a risk when eating cold smoked fish or sausages. The key is to properly cure your food well in advance of the cold smoking.
4. IMPAIRED IMMUNE SYSTEMS: Anyone with a compromised immune system should avoid cold smoked meat or food unless expressly permitted by their doctor. Even under the best of circumstances, the risk of contamination is considerably higher with cold smoked food than hot. Modern cold cuts and meat, in particular, are extremely high in carcinogens byproducts as well as other chemicals.
Ground meats and sausages are also higher risk for contamination than other food products that can be cold-smoked . In cuts of beef or pork, for example, bacteria may be confined to those portions exposed to contaminated tables, gloves, knives and other sources. In the case of ground meat, the contaminated areas are ground, distributing the bacteria throughout.
While the dangerous pathogens are typically killed off during extreme cooking temperatures, the low temperatures for cold smoking are much less effective. The meat at the center may not get enough heat exposure to completely kill off the bacteria.
Within the range of between 40°F and 130°F are in "the danger zone", harmful microbes can reproduce rapidly, even doubling their rate every 20 minutes. Slow cooking at 130 - 155 degrees Fahrenheit provides bacteria with a comfortable environment for reproducing. So you can see why, even at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you need to cold smoke your meat for as long as possible.
Cold Smoking Safety Tips
1. When cold smoking raw meat (fish, salmon, tuna, scallops, sausages, etc):
- Dry cure is best to reduce the risk of bacteria.
- Do not leave it exposed at unsafe temperatures for long periods of time (ie outside your fridge)
- Once removed from storage, cook it immediately until it is thoroughly cooked to the desired internal temperature for serving.
2. Cold smoking meat cured with salting or a brine (eg salmon, ham, pepperoni):
- Stay close to the recipe provided.
- The curing process requires several weeks or months.
- Smoking process takes several hours.
- Wash thoroughly after curing to remove bacteria
- Keep stored in the freezer or fridge after curing.
- Cook before serving to kill off remaining bacteria
3. Cold smoking followed by pan frying, roasted or braising:
- If you plan to cold smoke a pork butt for example, you could then roast it in the oven afterwards and top it off with a light BBQ braise.
- Reserve this method for larger cuts of meat such as brisket or pork butt.
- Lighter meats such as white fish can also be enhanced with smoky flavor this way.
4. Cold smoking non-meat foods (smoked cheese, smoked nuts, etc.)
- Soak nuts, fruits and vegetables in water before smoking. The added moisture will cause the smoky flavor to absorb more easily.
- Be careful of melting your cheeses. Adding ice cubes to the smoke chamber can help reduce the risk, but it also adds moisture to the chamber. Cold smoking cheese is best done outdoors in cold weather, where the external temperatures and ventilation provide more ideal conditions.
How To Cold Smoke Cheese And Salmon
Cold smoking meat or any food requires patience and precision, but the results can be incredibly rewarding. A cold smoking kit can be easily attached to your existing smoker or grill, but the curing process is the most important step. Properly cured, your meat will be less at risk of contamination by harmful pathogens and microbes that cause illness.
Cheese, salmon, turkey or bacon, the choice is yours! Enjoy your cold smoking experience and share some of your tips below. We’d love to hear your ideas!