How to Cold Smoke at Home
Winter is an ideal time to learn the art of cold-smoking. If you’ve barbecued ribs, brisket, or pork shoulder, you are well-acquainted with hot-smoking—low and slow barbecue accomplished at temperatures between 225 and 275 degrees.
But there’s another type of smoking without which we wouldn’t have Virginia ham, Nova Scotia-style salmon (lox), hard-cooked eggs, or smoked cheeses. That technique is cold-smoking, which uses smoke to flavor food, but not actually cook it.
As the name suggests, cold-smoking is done at temperatures no higher than 100 degrees, and more often between 65 and 85 degrees. The smoking time can be only a few minutes in duration, as in the case of smoked mozzarella, or several days (or even weeks or months) in the case of hams. Sometimes, both cold-smoking and hot-smoking are combined the achieve the desired result.
How did cold-smoking develop? We imagine our prehistoric forebears gathered around primeval campfires. Someone observed that smoke from the fire repelled pests such as flies and mosquitoes. Someone else had the idea to hang strips of meat (a hard-won prize in those days) near the fire on sticks or wooden racks to dry and preserve them. Not only did the meat acquire a pleasant smoky flavor, but it was more portable and didn’t spoil as quickly.
Many proteins, such as cold-smoked salmon or bacon, are brined or cured with salt before cold-smoking, a technique that further extends their edibility. Curing is especially important when working with highly-perishable foods as they are essentially raw when cold-smoked.
How to Cold-Smoke at Home
There are several ways to smoke at lower temperatures, some relatively inexpensive.
1. Distance the fire from the smoke chamber.
That is, burn the wood or other fuel at a distance from the food, channeling the smoke via a tube (such as ducting), pipe, or underground trench. Perhaps you have seen this arrangement: a kettle grill with a small wood-enhanced fire connected to a second unlit grill (or even sealed cardboard box) with dryer duct to direct the smoke to the food.
2. Use a handheld smoker.
If you’ve watched Steven’s shows, Project Smoke or Project Fire on American Public Television or attended Barbecue University, you’ve likely seen him use a handheld smoker like the Smoking Gun to smoke cream, ice cream, mayonnaise, or even cocktails. There are several models on the market; most cost less than $100 and will add a fun twist to your smoking repertoire.
3. Use a commercial cold-smoker.
Several companies—such as Bradley and Masterbuilt—sell aftermarket kits and adapters to turn their electric smokers into cold smokers. Traeger also manufactures a cold-smoker attachment for several models of its pellet grills.
4. Use a smoke generator.
5. Use a smoking tube or maze.
Both devices have been on the market for a few years. Fill them with hardwood pellets or sawdust, then light them with a small torch. They lay directly on the grill grate (there is no need to light the grill or smoker) and smoke escapes through the device’s perforated sides, perfuming the food. Check on it periodically to ensure it’s still smoldering.
6. Smoke the food over and/or sandwiched between pans of ice.
This is an excellent and inexpensive way to cold-smoke on a conventional lidded charcoal grill. Bottles of frozen water can also be used to keep the firebox cooler. It works especially well with cheese.
7. Smoke the food in a refrigerated smoke chamber.
This is the technology used by commercial cold-smoker manufacturers like Enviro-Pak. But many resourceful people have repurposed old but functioning refrigerators (or even filing cabinets). Not pretty, but they get the job done!
8. Improvise a cold-smoker using kitchen equipment.
Celebrity chef Will Horowitz (of watermelon “ham” fame) smokes all manner of items in his professional kitchen using metal hotel pans and half pans. He puts smoldering sawdust toward one end of the hotel pan, then inserts two half pans outfitted with racks. The food goes on the racks, then a lid goes over all. (If smoke begins to escape, he seals the pan with foil.) Mushrooms, herbs, mayonnaise and other condiments—all can be smoked using this technique. Find hotel pans and half pans at restaurant supply houses.
After cold-smoking, it’s important to refrigerate the food and let it rest. This develops and mellows the smoke flavors and generally improves the texture, too.
How do you know when cold-smoked foods are ready to eat?
- The food will have a handsome brown patina of wood smoke.
- The surface will feel leathery.
- The internal texture will be semi-soft and velvety, not squishy and raw.
- Cold Smoked Scallops with Smoked Tomatoes and Jicama Salsa
- Whiskey-Cured Cold Smoked Salmon
- Hay-Smoked Burgers with Rauchbier Cheese Sauce
- Hay-Smoked Mozzarella (Smoked Caprese Salad)