What is Meat Smoking?
Meat smoking is the process of surrounding a piece of meat in a smokey chamber while cooking it at a low temperature for an extended period of time - low and slow. The prolonged exposure to smoke allows the meat to take on a smokey flavor, giving it a tasted that can’t be matched any other way. Meat smokers generally shoot for a temperature range between 200º-225º, depending on the type of meat you are smoking. Also, according to Wikipedia, smoking meat also assists in preserving meats. “There are two mechanisms for this preservation: dehydration and the antibacterial properties of absorbed smoke.” Also see Wikipedia’s general smoking page for more information.
Does it cook the meat, or just add smoked flavor to already cooked meat?
The smoke itself does not cook the meat. This was a misunderstanding of mine as I was first getting into meat smoking. The heat of the fire or heating element are what actually cook the meat.
Is it safe to eat all the time, or is there a health risk to regular consumption?
This is a tricky one. Anything smoked or cured you buy at the grocery store contains nitrates as a preservative, and if the label says “smoked”, it is done with chemicals or flavorings like liquid smoke. By smoking meats at home, you eliminate the need for all of these preservatives. The same goes for most foods you cook at home when compared versus any pre-made or packaged food. Other than undercooked meat (not reaching the appropriate internal temperature), and the concerns about preservatives that aren’t present in home smoked meat, the only concern I have read about health risks and smoked meat have to do with carcinogens. Still, I find that most articles talk more about grilling (cooking at higher temperatures) than they do meat smoking (where the temperature is typically 200º-225º). To learn a bit more about the details, check out this article on Livestrong.com. Additionally, eating too much meat in any form can be problematic of course, but that is a completely different issue.
How long does it take to smoke meat?
The time it takes to smoke meat varies greatly based on the cut of meat, its size, and how done you want it. I’ve smoked a rib eye roast in about 4 hours, and have smoked a pork butt in 22. Both came out amazing. One phrase that has stuck with me (and proven true), is that when smoking, “its done when its done”. This chart is a great resource to estimate how long things will take. I reference this chart every time I switch from one type of meat to another, or if I am planning for company. It is worth bookmarking. You’ll also find that your setup will yield a certain set of results. Start with the chart as a guide, but begin building your own list of times based on your experiences with your equipment coupled with your preferences.
Also keep in mind that, depending on the type of smoker you use, weather conditions can impact how long things take as well. I use both an electric unit that is extremely well insulated, and a propane unit that isn’t very insulated at all. The insulated unit provides more consistent results regardless of the outside temperature and wind conditions, while the propane unit has more variation to it. Considering the weather conditions of your area is very helpful. There are some units that simply do not do an adequate job in my area where there can be high winds, and the temperature ranges from 17º to 115º depending on the season.
What is different between old school meat smoking and modern meat smoking?
Historically, meat smoking was used as a preservation technique. Refrigeration and the easy access to meat in our culture have made meat smoking less about necessity, and more about taste.
Can I smoke things other than meat?
You sure can. I’ve successfully smoked potatoes, and plan to smoke corn in the near future, but you can smoke just about any vegetable. With a few modifications, you can cold smoke using your smoker as well. That opens up cheeses, salts, and nuts.