What is smoking?
Smoking food has played an important part in cooking cultures around the world for thousands of years. In the past, smoking, combined with curing, was a means to preserve food, so it was a useful way of keeping scarce provisions for longer. Today, however, the technique is primarily prized for the unique way it changes the way food tastes. Smoking gives food an extra dimension of flavour. There are many techniques used, ranging from hot smoking to cold smoking, warm smoking and liquid smoking, and there is a huge range of sophisticated gear available today to do the job. Having said that, it’s surprisingly easy to have a go at smoking yourself and get some great results with a small amount of knowhow and some fairly basic equipment.
Types of smoked food (and drink)
Everyday examples that everyone will be familiar with include smoked salmon, bacon and ham; while kippers, Arbroath smokies and pastrami are also classic smoked delicacies. Beyond meat and fish, however, are products as varied as scotch whisky (which uses peat smoke to dry the barley), lapsang souchong tea, smoked cheese, smoked garlic, smoked paprika, chipotle chillies and smoked salts – all of which can utilise the smoking process to transform their appearances, textures and flavours.
Different smoking methods
The two most common techniques are hot and cold smoking. Hot smoking (think pastrami, arbroath smokies) involves simultaneously cooking and smoking raw food; while cold smoking (cheese, garlic, smoked salmon) is done at a much lower temperature so the food is not cooked, just smoked. Hot smoking usually involves a heat source such as charcoal or a gas stove to cook the food, coupled with burning wood to provide the smoke. Cold smoking does not use a heat source, but instead just uses the smoke from wood (usually burned separately and piped into a cold-smoking chamber) to impart flavour.
You don’t need expensive kit to start smoking. You can begin experimenting with hot smoking with just a regular kettle barbecue (if you don’t have one already, you can pick one up from around £20), some charcoal and wood chips. An especially handy piece of extra kit is a metal smoker box (we like the one available from hotsmoked.co.uk). Simply put the wood chips into the box and put it directly on top of or alongside the hot coals – the box heats up, scorching the wood chips, which then release their smoke through a vent to circulate inside the lidded barbecue.
Which wood to use for smoking
Different woods produce different flavour profiles and, as such, some woods are better suited to particular types of food than others. Some woods, including oak, hickory and mesquite, give off strong, pungent smokes; others, such as beech and alder, provide a much lighter, more delicate smoke; the likes of apple, cherry and maple would be considered medium smoking woods but each has a distinct flavour profile. It’s good to experiment with how different woods go with different foods, particularly meats, but classic combos include hickory with brisket, oak with salmon and apple with cheese. Our two beginner recipes use cherry wood with chicken wings and oak with a rack of pork ribs, but the possible combinations are almost limitless – it’s all about experimenting with what works and discovering your personal favourites. There are plenty of specialist websites that deliver wood chips specifically for smoking, including hotsmoked.co.uk, bbqworld.co.uk and smokewoodshack.com.
Home smoking tips
• When hot smoking in a kettle barbecue, keep the temperature inside the lid relatively low (somewhere between 120-130C if you have a temperature gauge on the barbecue; if not, you can buy a barbecue temperature gauge for less than £5) – you want the meat to cook low and slow to give the smoke a chance to flavour the surface of the food without it over-cooking and drying out.
• When lighting the barbecue, open all the vents to allow the airflow to really build up the heat. Once the charcoal has turned white, bank it to one side and cook the meat on the other side – this will prevent it from cooking too quickly, before the smoke has a chance to flavour the food. If using a metal smoker box, put the box directly under the meat so the smoke gets as close to it as possible. Close the vent on the barbecue lid once the meat is on so the heat and smoke can circulate without escaping.
• Filling a spray bottle with apple juice and a few dashes of apple cider vinegar, and regularly dousing the meat will help the smoke cling to the surface. Plus, the sugars in the juice will also caramelise, adding a lovely sweeter note to the smokiness.
• You can over-smoke food, leading to an unpleasant burnt flavour – for slower-cooking meats, it’s best to smoke for just the first half of cooking time. With the pork ribs recipe, for example, you may want to remove the wood chips after two hours (or stop adding them if scattering directly on to the coals) as you’ll have enough smoky flavour for most tastes by then.
How to prepare a kettle barbecue for hot smoking
• Light the barbecue an hour before cooking, keeping the vents open to provide the fire with plenty of oxygen.
• Once the charcoal has turned white, bank it to one side. If using a metal smoker box, fill it with a few handfuls of the wood chips, and put the box on the other side of the barbecue, with a few pieces of hot charcoal alongside to help heat the box. If you’re not using a box, wait until you begin to cook before adding the wood chips directly onto the coals. Put the grill on to heat up and put the lid on, with the vents closed.
• Once the temperature inside reaches 120-130C (if your barbecue has a thermometer on the lid), lift the lid and put the food directly above the smoker box, away from the coals. If you are not using a smoker box, scatter the chips directly onto the coals. Replace the lid to keep the heat and smoke inside.
Put your new smoking skills to good use!
Try our oak-smoked rack of pork ribs recipe, or our cherry-smoked chicken wings recipe.
Listen to us chatting about how to smoke your own food on our podcast here