Smoking is a very ancient way to conserve food. In the past, when most of the cooking was done on an open fire, the process of smoking was simple: after salting and/or drying, the fish (or gammon, or whatever) was hung in the rising smoke. In fact, since the place of food preparation could be very smoky (in primitive houses the cooking was done in the same room where one lived and slept, with just a hole in the roof instead of a chimney), almost everything tasted of smoke. When you could afford charcoal, which was more expensive than plain wood, you had less smoke.
Nowadays the fire is locked up in the kitchen-range, so giving your food a smoked flavour has become more of an undertaking. It is no use hanging your food under the range hood, because the 'smoke' that rises from the pots and pans is water vapour.
What to use for smoking food?
There are basically two methods of smoking food: on low temperature for a longer period of time, and for less time at a higher temperature. Whatever method you use, you need something that can produce smoke. Let's keep it simple to start with: wood produces smoke! (You didn't know that, did you!) However, you can't just use any piece of wood you can lay your hands on. Do not use the remains of an old decrepit chair to smoke food on, because the wood was probably treated with paint or varnish or other substances that cause unhealthy fumes. It is safest to use sawdust or woodchips that are especially produced for smoking food. They come in several kinds, like birchwood, oak, or beech.
The Chinese use another medium to smoke their food: a mixture of uncooked rice and black tea with spices. You get very tasty results with that (see recipe).
This process is more difficult than hot-smoking. The fish is smoked at a temperature of 30 dgC at the most (85 oF). It takes a long time to smoke the food (anything from 12 hours up to 4 days), and a constant eye has to kept on the temperature and the smoke. The result is conserved food with a delicious smokey taste. I have no experience with cold-smoking myself. Fish is not the only cold-smoked food, think about ham, bacon, sausages. Here is a recipe for smoked Roman sausages.
Since the purpose of cold-smoking is to conserve the food, it is not wise to cut it open to see if it is done. To know if the food is smoked enough you have to weigh it when it is fresh before salting it, and after smoking. During the curing fish loses 13 to 20% from its weight, meat and poultry can lose up to 25 %.
This is done at higher temperature, fish between 65 and 71 dgC (150-160 oF), meat is smoked at even higher temperature, 93 to 107 dgC (200 to 225 oF). The result is also clearly smoked, but the food has not been conserved, you'll have to treated it as cooked food (keep in the refrigerator, eat within a day or two). Depending on whether the food has already been cooked, the time needed to smoke your food varies between ten minutes up to several hours.
There are several ways to hot-smoke your food. I have described the process below for a small indoor smoker and a pan, you can find pictures on this page. For large smokers/grills, see the recipe for whole smoked chicken, for using a wok, see here.
My own indoor smoker is over twenty years old, I got it as a present in 1988. It has the size of a shoe-box. There are other models, some are flatter and wider. The model I have can smoke food in two layers. Pictures are here. The smoker consists of the box, a fitting cover, a dripping tray, and one or two gridirons. Most smokers are provided with a burner for meths or burning paste, but I often use the stove. Do not be impatient and open the smoker too soon just to take a look, because then the smoke will escape. When the smoking is done, open the smoker somewhere outside, or under the working range hood.
If you want to save yourself some cleaning work afterwards, line the bottom of the smoker with a piece of aluminium foil (shiny side up). On this foil you sprinkle some sawdust or very small woodchips especialy for use in a smoker. Then you put the dripping tray in the smoker. That is needed to collect the dripping fat and moisture, or the sawdust or woodchips won't smoke. The greased grid with the food you want to smoke is placed on tn the dripping tray, then you close the smoker.
You do not HAVE to buy a special smoker. You can get the same result using one of your ordinary pans. The only extras you need a lot of aluminium foil, and a grid that fits in the pan. Do NOT use aluminium pans or Teflon pans for this.
You start with two large sheets of alufoil which you use the cover the inside of the pan with. Arrange them crosswise, and shiny side up. The sheets must be so long that they hang over the side of pan. Now you sprinkle the woodchips on the bottom. place three small empty cans (for tomato purée) on the bottom, and on this a plate that functions as dripping tray. On the plate you place a grid. If you haven't one that fits, improvise one with bamboo skewers that have steeped in water for 30 minutes. Cover the lid of the pan also with alufoil.
Place the pan on a high burner. When the wood starts to smoke you set the grid with the food you want to smoke on the plate, and you close the pan with the lid. Krinkle the alufoil of pan and lid together. If you are using a pan for the first time, you can leave just one small opening so you can check whether there is enough smoke, but not too much.
To open the pan you go outside, or you open it under the working range hood. Take out the grid with the food. Because the pan was complete covered with alufoil, all you have to do now is fold the foil together and throw it away. Your pan is still clean!
Curing before smoking
Whatever method you use for smoking food, first you will have to prepare the food by curing it with fry salt or brine, or the result will disappoint you. When you are cold-smoking, curing is very important to ensure that the food is conserved in the proper way. When you are hot-smoking it is still necessary for a good flavour.
One of the methods is dry curing. The fish or other food is cured by placing it for a certain amount of time in a mixture of coarse sea-salt, sugar and maybe spices/herbs and citrus peel. Other methods are strong brine (water with 80 to 90% salt) and a weaker brine with les salt but the addition of sugar. Whatever method you use, timing is very important. When the food has not been salted sufficiently, the end-product will not be conserved well enough (when cold-smoking). Has it been salted too long, you end up with uneatable food. But you can vary the degrees of salting and smoking: lightly salted and heavily smoked food tastes different from heavily salted and lightly smoked food. Please consult tables in books for the exact timing and recipes for brine.
When the food has been salted, it needs to dry before smoking. First rinse excess salt off the food under running water, and pat it dry. Then the food has to air-dry. You can place it uncovered on a grid in the refrigerator for several hours. The Dutch climate is not suitable for drying foods outside in the wind (lots of wind, but also too much humidity in the air).
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