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For a technique that’s almost as old as humanity itself, smoking sure can seem intimidating. Maybe it’s because we associate the woody, chest-burning smell with whole-hog spits or the complex flavor of bright salmon slabs behind glass barriers of deli counters. Or it could be the hours and hours of cook time. Or maybe the overwhelming variety of hardwoods and flavor combinations?
From mozzarella and ham hocks to salmon and bell peppers, there’s no shortage of foods that a little bit of heat and a heavy dose of smoke can’t improve. But not all smoking is the same, ranging from subtle to robust. One method, cold smoking, flavors food in a 50 to 85°F range, drying and saturating it in smoke but not cooking it. The process involves pumping smoke from an external firebox into an unheated chamber, and can take days to complete. Because it's important to keep low temperatures, cold smoking is usually done in the fall. Cold-smoked foods tend to be drier and saltier than hot smoked counterparts, and the method is primarily used with ingredients that either don't need to be cooked, like butter or lox, or will be cooked later, like bacon.
“Wood smoke contains hundreds of components that coat the exposed surfaces and gently penetrate an ingredient, creating an impermeable tarry outer layer, which seals the ingredient and acts as a barrier to pests and bacteria,” Pike says. While smoking doesn't completely preserve food, ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Northern Ireland, and China used this method to keep fish and meats eatable in lean months.
Meanwhile, hot smoking, which takes place between 140 and 220°F, imparts smoky flavor by fully or partially cooking ingredients. This is the easiest and fastest way to smoke, says Pike, although you’ll probably want to cook it a little further to improve crispiness or render fat.
Whether you’re hot or cold smoking, you can flavor ingredients with both hardwoods like apple, oak, maple, or mesquite, or a variety of non-woods, like charcoal, rice, sugar, seaweed, or tea. Creating your own mixes is a great way to experiment, Pike says. As long as you’re willing to accept the pungency in flavor, smoke whichever material you like.
Want to give it a go? Here are some smoky recipes, both hot and cold, for you to try:
What's your favorite way to smoke? Any flavor combos we should know about? Tell us below!