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Smoked Meats: Preserved in Flavor
The smoky, complex flavor of smoked meats is the result of an age-old process. Read on to learn more about the flavorful shroud that envelops your meal before it’s served.
Although their invention was evidently not recorded, an origin story for smoked meats isn’t difficult to dream up. The easiest way to preserve meats is to dry them, and, in a chimney-less cave or hut, why not hang them above the fire? While they dried, the smoke also would shoo off insects and, as it turned out, make the surface of the meat acidic enough to yank the welcome mat out from under microorganisms’ grimy feet. And then there’d be the flavor, surely a treasured luxury in a world before imported spices.
Although the technology has advanced, the principles of smoking meats remain the same today. Simply bathing meats in the smoke of flavorful hardwoods at temperatures of no higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit results in cold smoking. Cold smoking doesn’t actually cook food—it merely adds flavor to meats and authenticity to firefighter costumes. To keep temperatures low, the smoke must be generated in a chamber separate from the meat.
Hot smoking exposes meats to smoke directly from woods burning in a controlled environment over an extended period of time, usually at around 120–180 degrees Fahrenheit. This low-and-slow approach is an ideal way to prepare typically cheap and tough cuts of meat such as brisket or pork. The long heating process helps break down the fats and connective tissues in these cuts, and the lower temperatures keep moisture in the meat for a tender, succulent texture. Meats that won’t reach pasteurization temperature in the smoker, or won’t be finished via another cooking method, are generally prepared with pink salt (sodium nitrite) to ward off spores that might otherwise invade the relatively low-temperature, low-oxygen environment.