The Intriguing Science and History of Cold Smoked Meat
Smoking is back with a bang in the kitchens; or at least this is what the statistics say. According to Amazon, the sale of home smokers have spiked up 200 per cent while the Waitrose kitchenware shop has begun stocking woodchips to meet the new demand of the customers. Charles Spence, the Oxford University professor of Experimental Psychology collaborating with some of the best-known chefs says, “Evolutionarily speaking, fire and smoke signal meat roasting, so we may have been programmed to find them desirable in expectation of what is to come”. The science of smoke is quite an intriguing one, and more so in cooking now that the cold smoked meats have become such a craze.
The basic concept
Cold smoked meat can last for months on the shelf and it can do so without any refrigeration. In the farms of the western countries, there often exists a “smokehouse.” It is a special building which is dedicated to smoking meat and storing it. Cold smoking enhances the flavor of meat by smoldering wood at a slow fire with very low temperatures. This is called curing the meat. When the meat absorbs the smoke from the wood, it is seasoned with that distinctive smokey flavor that people are go crazy for. Curing also deepens the meat’s color make it all the more inviting. The meat is then hung in a dry environment.
The cured meat forms a pellicle, after which it is cold smoked. The smoking process takes several days and can even last a month. The temperatures are usually maintained between 70°F to 90°F. So, in cold smoking unlike in hot smoking the meat remains uncooked. The trick is to smoke the meat without producing much heat. This is achieved by placing the meat in an unheated chamber and pumping smoke into it from another chamber.
Therefore, cold smoking is strictly restricted to meats which have already been cured, salted or fermented. But before they are fit to be consumed cold-smoked meats should be cooked until their internal temperature rises to 160°F. They can be eaten grilled, baked, steamed, sautéed or even roasted.
Not a rocket science
Although The National Center for Home Food Preservation advises against cold smoking at home because of the inherent risks, it can still be achieved with the right methods and apparatus. Many experts suggest keeping the meat refrigerated before cold smoking. This gives the meat some delay time to reach 40° when it becomes prone to pathogen attacks. Plus, coating the meat with a thin mustard layer keeps it moistened.
On the other hand, maintaining an ice bowl when cold smoking in the warmer climates makes the process more effective and adds to safety. Charcoal grills are still thought to be more effective for cold smoking at home to keep the pellets lit. After the meat is cold smoked it immediately needs to be cooked at a high temperature or cooled to less than 40°.
In case of the latter, the meat can be zip locked and placed in an ice bath for 45 minutes or so to cool its core down to 37°, while checking the temperature of the bath at regular intervals to maintain the temperature below 40°. The meat then needs to refrigerated or frozen without delay.
If the steps are correctly followed, cold smoking results in a flavorful smoke infused meat. The method of cold smoking is an ancient technique dating back to the ages when it was used to preserve meat through the harsh winters when food became scarce. Cold smoking is a great way to make meats more flavorful right from chicken breasts and pork chops to beef and steaks.