Cold smoking meat is the process in which the food is bathed in smoke at a very low, below 100 degrees temperature. It usually takes longer than traditional hot smoking and it can be considerably more dangerous.
Cold smoking works in relation to but not in absence of other preservation methods, primarily curing and salting. Food such as bacon present less of a danger due to the fact that bacon is hard cooked before being eaten and thus, the chance of microbial contamination is significantly reduced. Cold smoking meats is not for the faint of heart and is something that only experienced smokers should attempt.
Why To Not Cold Smoke
Most food scientists and nutritionists, highly recommend that people do not cold smoke meat. This can be especially important for people with compromised immune disorders, the young, elderly and more. The reasoning is simple, cold smoking meat does not prevent harmful bacteria from growing to a significant level inside the meat and consumption of said meat will most likely cause gastrointestinal distress or worse. This is not necessarily a simple case of food poisoning, as the bacteria that can be found in meat can be extremely dangerous and deadly to some individuals. Therefore, it is highly and sternly recommended that you do not cold smoke meat and do not consume cold smoked meat.
Exceptions To Every Rule
While it is still recommended to not cold smoke meat, there are ways to help reduce or eliminate the bacterial concern. Meat that is cured or highly salted before smoking can be usually consumed with no issue. Also, meat that is hard cooked, such as bacon, can be consumed because the bacteria is typically removed below dangerous levels by the cooking process. However, certain fish and oysters should be never cold smoked because even with hard cooking, the level of bacteria and other pathogens are not sufficiently reduced by typical cooking methodology. Overall, consuming cold smoked food is an “eat at your own risk” proposition.
Performing Cold Smoke
While you can use a charcoal or gas smoker, cold smoking is usually better performed with an electric smoker. This is because the temperature can usually be set extremely low and many have digital meat probes to manage the internal temperature. If you insist on cold smoking, you must use highly accurate thermometers in order to monitor the meat. The cold smoke temp is the minimum allowable for smoke production to occur, typically between 85 and 145 degrees. Importantly, cold smoking takes between 10 to 12 hours to accomplish and thus, the meat timer should be set for that amount of time. Some sourced recommend a temperature of less than 70 degrees and some electric smokers can not go that low. The point is to circumvent bacterial growth by keeping the temperature below the growth threshold.
Key Safety Points
If you plan on cold smoking, there are some points to consider. Be sure to allow sufficient distance from each of the meat products to allow for good smoke to flow between. This also prevents possible bacterial cross contamination from occurring. Cold smoking performs better when the outdoor temperature is in the 60’s as it makes temperature adjustments easier to fine tune. Be sure to use a smoker that separates the smoke box and fire box to prevent accidental temperature increases. Also, the quality of wood has a direct effect on the meat in both terms of smoke production and preventing chemical contamination of the meat.
The Right Wood
Cold smoking should be performed with hardwood sawdust or chunks as soft wood like pine have naturally occurring chemicals that can infuse with the meat. You want the wood to be free from as many contaminates as possible including not contaminated with dirt or other foreign objects. It is also generally a good idea to use stainless steel grates and tools for cold smoking so any residual bacteria that is growing in the smoker does not contaminate the food. Also, hardwoods tend to produce the most robust of smoky flavors.
Refrigerate After Smoking
Another important consideration is to refrigerate the food for at least 24 hours before consumption. This also helps reduce any potential bacterial growth. Also, the meat should be consumed at lower than room temperature and do not let the meat warm to room temperature. Again, you can hard-cook the meat but the internal temperature must be brought up to the standard cooking level for that cut of meat.
While it is highly recommended that people do not use cold smoke to prepare meat, it has been used in the past and some cuts of meat are only cold smoked. By taking the correct precautions and using the right recipe, it can be safe but should be done sparingly. Be sure to research the topic fully before engaging in cold smoking and make sure to understand all the intricacies involved.