Monday, March 4, 2013

Smoking Basics (The Hay River Transition Initiative Class Handout, with Some Additional Notes)

At the third Hay River Transition Initiative's Traditional and Green Skills Day, this past Saturday, I led a seminar on basic home smoking--"Low-Stress, Small Batch Smoking," I think I called it.  There was no pre-registration for the classes this  year, so I had no idea how many people would be attending my session.  Well, there were way more people than I expected, and so I had nowhere near enough handouts to go around.  So I'm posting the notes here, and will be getting word out through the various email lists that serve this beautiful area of Near North Wisconsin.  I'm sure there's info here that the general Trout Caviar readership can benefit from, too, though much of it has appeared here before.  I've added some notes that occurred to me after I put the handout together, as well. 

Smoking was once a common means of preserving food, and still is in many parts of the world. In modern America we smoke for flavor more than preservation, and we’ve mostly turned the job over to large, industrial producers. It’s worth relearning the basics of home smoking.

You will need:

      *  A covered barbecue grill (mine is a Meco, clamshell type, though a Weber is also fine)
     *   A smaller grill, preferably also covered, to hold hot coals to replenish the smoker
     *   Natural chunk charcoal, available at most larger grocery or hardware stores (& Menard’s)
     *   A chimney starter for the charcoal (no lighter fluid, please)
     *   Some fragrant wood, chips or chunks (I use oak and apple; in the past I’ve used maple and hickory bark)
     *   An instant-read meat thermometer, inserted in the top vent, is handy for monitoring temperature

This technique is hot smoking, as opposed to the cold smoking that produces lox and certain other delicacies. It involves cooking the pre-cured (salted or brined) meat or fish rather slowly with indirect heat in the presence of smoke.

Light a chimney starter full of charcoal. When it’s ready, dump half the charcoal in the main grill, half in the smaller. Move the coals in the main grill to one side. Add some fresh charcoal to the smaller grill, and put the lid on with the vents open just a tad, so those coals stay hot but don’t burn up too quickly.
Place some smoking wood—apple, oak, etc., a handful of chips or a chunk or two—on top of the coals in the main grill. Place the items to be smoked on the side of the grill grate away from the coals: it’s important that the food isn’t directly over the coals. Put the lid on with the vent about halfway closed. Place the instant-read thermometer in the vent opening. Adjust vent and coals to keep the temperature around 200 to 225 degrees. Replenish with coals from the smaller grill as needed. Add more smoking wood chips or chunks as needed.

Fish of up to a pound will be done in 1 ½ to 2 hours; bacon in chunks of 1 to 1 ½ pounds will be done in 2 to 3 hours. Turn the meat or fish over every 45 minutes or so. At temperatures this low (even though it’s called hot smoking), it’s hard to overcook the foods. If, after smoking for the times designated, you’re not sure the food is fully cooked, just place it in a 200-degree oven for another thirty minutes.

It’s as simple as that. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, there’s no end of resources—books, TV series, classes, etc.—to take you on myriad smoking adventures. (One book I really like is Peace, Love, and Barbecue by Mike Mills.)

Some notes:

     *   Many smoking recipes tell you to soak the smoking wood. I don’t. The point of the smoking wood is to produce smoke, not steam.
      *   Remove the lid from the smaller grill about ten minutes before you want to add fresh coals to the larger grill. This step allows air in to perk up those coals, which are merely smoldering.
     *   While the salting and smoking provide a certain amount of preservative qualities, the finished products of these recipes are not intended for long-term storage. The bacon can be frozen, but the fish should be eaten promptly.

Home-Smoked Trout

I usually smoke brown trout because that’s mostly what I catch. If you’re buying trout, it will probably be farmed rainbow trout. I’ve also used this brine and method on lake trout and herring.

In a medium saucepan, heat 4 cups water and add ½ cup salt and ½ cup brown sugar, stirring to dissolve.

Remove from heat and let cool. I have added cracked peppercorns and/or herbs to the brine.  Try different flavorings if you like.

A 12-to-14-inch fish is ideal for smoking, but smaller or larger ones can be smoked, too. Just brine and smoke for a longer or shorter time, depending on size.  Given those ideal 14-inch trout, brine them, refrigerated, overnight. Fish smaller than 12 inches can take up sufficient brine in 4 to 6 hours. A couple of hours before you plan to smoke, remove the fish from the brine, rinse in cold water, and set them on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Using wooden picks—first snip off the sharp ends so they don’t go right through the flesh—prop open the body cavity of the fish to allow them to smoke and cook evenly. Smoke at 200–220 degrees for 2 hours.

[Note:  I almost always smoke bone-in fish, but for this class I could only get butterflied rainbow trout--well, if I had planned ahead I could have order whole fish from either Star Prairie or Bullfrog "Eat My Fish" Trout Farm, but you know how things go sometimes.  I took the same approach with the butterflied fish as I would with bone-in fish, and...the results were not good.  Because the flesh of the boneless fish was more accessible to the brine, and had been cut up a bit in the boning process, the fish turned out much too salty--also, I left them in the brine too long when a round of errands kept me away from home longer than expected.  Since the final product was both  unpalatable and unattractive, I didn't even bring the fish to class--but I should have, to show that 1) even an experienced smoker can make mistakes, and 2) it's okay; it's just a couple of fish.  And, since the theme this year is "Charge ahead, fall down, get up, repeat," I turned lemons into lemonade, as it were, by turning my raggedy, too-salty trout into:

Delicious Smoked Trout Spread

1 smoked rainbow trout (it's okay if it's a bit too salty to eat on its own...(!))
Cream cheese
Hellmann's mayonnaise
1 scallion, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Remove the skin and any remaining fins and bones from the trout, and flake the fish into a bowl.  Add a couple of tablespoons of cream cheese, and mash the fish and cheese together until incorporated.  Add a generous tablespoon of mayonnaise and mix well.  Stir in the chopped scallion and pepper to taste.  Serve on crackers.

Moral of the story:  You can indeed smoke butterflied fish or fillets, but adjust the brining time accordingly.  Those butterflied trout of mine spent a good six to eight hours in the brine, but an hour on two would have done the trick.  These were small, thin-fleshed fish.  Another option for small, boneless fish or fillets would be to reduce the amount of salt in the brine, say to 1/3 or even 1/4 cup per quart of water, instead of 1/2 cup.]

 Home-Smoked Bacon

2 pounds pork belly
1/4 cup maple syrup or brown sugar
3 tablespoons salt

Rub the pork belly with the maple syrup, sprinkle salt on all sides, and let cure in the refrigerator for 24 hours, turning occasionally.  For the brown sugar cure, mix the sugar and salt and pat it evenly on all sides of the meat.
The next day, rinse off excess salt, pat dry, and smoke at 200–225 degrees for 2 to 3 hours. The bacon will be both smoked and fully cooked. If you are unsure about whether the bacon is cooked at this point, you can set your mind at ease by placing the bacon in a 200-degree oven for 30 minutes.  A meat thermometer inserted into the bacon should read 160 degrees. 
            I refrigerate my bacon wrapped in parchment paper, then placed in a small cotton sack, rather than in a plastic bag.  This allows air circulation and prevents mold and spoilage. [Note:  If  your bacon is properly cured and smoked, it will slowly continue to dry-cure when stored this way, turning into something rather like prosciutto or guanciale, the dry-cured Italian pork jowls; a few slices of this intensely flavored meat adds great depth to soups or stews, or can be thinly sliced and eaten on its own]  For freezing, use plastic zip bags.

[Note:  When I do demos like this I usually bring in pork belly in three different states of preparation:  raw, so folks can just see what the raw ingredient looks like; cured, having spent a day in a maple sugar and salt bath, because you can often see a change in the color and texture of cured meat from raw; and then I'll have a cured piece already in the smoker/grill so they can see the set-up.

When I get home with all these various meats, I'll usually freeze the raw belly, and the smoked piece becomes our in-use bacon, and then there's the cured but un-smoked piece left over.  Since by this time I've spent plenty of time having my person soaked in smoke, I usually turn that cured belly into roasted, smoke-free bacon--it's really a treat.

Pan Roasted Bacon simply involves cooking that cured belly slowly so that it has time to render a lot of fat and become tender, without burning the sugars from the maple syrup in the cure.  So, you just place the belly, fat side down, in a casserole or gratin dish, and roast it in a 300-degree oven for two to three hours, maybe more.  Turn it a couple of times while it roasts.  You should see a lot of fat rendering off, and the belly will turn a beautiful burnish golden brown.  After 2 hours it will be cooked, but you can let it go longer--depends on how tender you like it; I tend to cook it at least 3 hours.

And yesterday, since I'm mad for cooking on our new woodstove, I did a stovetop version that turned out great.  I placed the belly in a cast-iron skillet and let it sit most of the day on top of the stove, turning it from time to time.  I covered it at times, so it steamed a bit, and when the stove was too hot I set the skillet on a trivet.  At the end of the day we made Asian-style noodle soup with a broth made from the carcass of a smoked chicken (see below), with a couple of slices of that roasted belly on top, and we felt we were slurping in the best noodle shop around.]

[Note 2:  Since home-smoked bacon contains no unpleasant chemical ingredients, preservatives or colorings, the fat that accumulates when you cook it will be a lovely pure, creamy white, and full of flavor.  It's a great ingredient for cooking eggs or sauteing vegetables, or for using in place of shortening or oil in things like tortillas or biscuits.]


This is my own term for the process of grilling and roasting meats at somewhat higher temperatures than the hot smoked method described above.  I generally use it for pork—shoulder or country-style ribs—or chicken.  I have no specific recipes for this, because I tend to do it a little differently each time.  The basic method is this:
A few hours before you’re going to cook (or the night before), season the meat generously.  Salt is necessary, pepper is almost obligatory; I love thyme, so I’ll toss in a few sprigs of it most of the time—other herbs can also be used.  I may add a couple of crushed cloves of garlic, some sliced onion or shallot, sliced fresh or crushed dried chilies.  I’ll sometimes add spices like cumin, allspice, or fennel.  A spice blend that the French call quatre épices (“four spices,” though it often contains five or six) is excellent with pork or fowl.  Use it sparingly, as it can be overpowering.  This makes enough to last a good while:
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
 You can go for a dry rub, or more of a marinade, adding a bit of wine, beer, or cider, or just a little gloss of oil. 
            Prepare coals in your barbecue just as if you were going to grill, but spread the coals out over only half the grill.  Brown the meat well over direct heat, then move it to the area away from the coals.  Add some smoking wood to the coals, close the lid, and let the meat finish cooking in the smoky heat.  For either chicken pieces or country-style ribs, I’d give it at least 45 minutes, but a bit longer won’t hurt. 
            Sometimes at the end of the cooking I’ll boost the coals and crisp up the meat just prior to serving.  Smoke-roasted meats aren’t brined to the same extent as hot-smoked ones, and aren’t made for keeping.  Enjoy them hot from the grill, and use up any leftovers within a few days.

Smoked Venison “Pastrami”

2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons maple sugar or brown sugar
7 juniper berries, crushed
1 dried red chile, crumbled
¼ teaspoon powdered ginger
½ teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
½ thyme, fresh or dried
¼ dry mustard
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ - 2 pounds venison roast

Mix all the dry ingredients and rub them all over the roast.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days, turning a couple of time per day.  Smoke at 225 for 2 to 2 ½ hours.  I used wild black cherry wood when I made this, but any aromatic hardwood will work—apple, oak, maple.

Smoked Pork Shoulder Roast

1 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon white or brown sugar
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 – 2 to 2 ½ pound pork shoulder roast, with or without bone

Mix all the dry ingredients and rub the mixture evenly over the pork.  Refrigerate for at least 12 and up to 24 hours.  Smoke at 225 for 3 to 4 hours.  The internal temperature should be at least 160; finish in a low (250-275) oven if need be.

[Note:  This is excellent sliced thin and tucked into warm tortillas or Chinese steamed buns, with a fresh slaw and a bit of sauce or sour cream, depending on which ethnic direction you want to take it.  It's also wonderful served on a nice fresh roll, with perhaps a slick of mayo and some slices of dill pickle.

I prepared a small roast like this teh day before the class, to show and sample; it was the last preparation of the day, and well after dark by the time I got it going.  I smoked it for about 2 1/2 hours, then put it in the oven at 260 for an hour or so.  It turned out great.  I wouldn't call this dual-fuel method cheating, but rather, taking advantage of technologies both ancient and modern....  ]

Sichuan-Spiced Smoked Chicken

3 to 4 pounds chicken—you can use a whole, butterflied, or quartered chicken
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 dried red chile, crumbled
½-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
3 garlic cloves, minced

Mix all the seasonings and rub the mixture over the chicken.  Refrigerate for 24 hours, turning the chicken occasionally in the marinade.  Prior to smoking, remove the chicken from the marinade and let it drain on paper towels.  Smoke at 250 for 3 ½ to 4 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted at the thigh reads 165. (You can put it in a 250-275 oven for the final hour--in fact, until you gain some experience with smoking poultry, I would recommend this method.  Undercooked poultry is something to be strenuously avoided.)

[Note:  This turned out a wonderfully fragrant and succulent bird.  I love Asian flavors in smoked poultry, but you could use more neutral seasonings if you like--white or brown sugar or honey could be used instead of the maple syrup.  If you omit the soy, add another 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt.  In summer I'll grab handfuls of fresh herbs for the marinade.

We've used this as a filling for steamed Chinese buns, and in quesadillas.  Yesterday, while the pork belly pan-roasted on the woodstove (see above), I also simmered a pot of smoked chicken stock which made the basis for a delicious noodle soup supper.  The concept was a chicken broth with pho-style flavors.  I stripped the meat off the bones and set it aside.  In a 3-quart saucepan I placed the bones, wing-tips, and some of the skin that had fallen off, along with:

several slices of fresh ginger root,
a couple cloves of garlic, crushed,
half an onion, sliced,
half a carrot, chopped,
2 or 3 whole cloves,
3 points of a star anise,
a teaspoon of whole Sichuan peppercorns (hua jiao),
a dried red chile, broken in half,
a few black peppercorns,
8-10 dried black mushrooms

I covered all with 2 quarts of water (about).  It simmered very gently all day.  It was reducing too much at the start so I added a little more water and covered it with the pot lid just ajar.  At the end I poured the contents of the saucepan through a colander into a big mixing bowl to remove the large solids, washed my saucepan, and poured the broth back into the pan through a sieve lined with a piece of old dish towel--this makes an excellent cheesecloth substitute, a superior one, in fact.  From the solids in the colander I retrieved the mushrooms, sliced them and returned them to the broth.

We boiled up some thin Chinese noodles, blanched some sliced red cabbage and julienne carrots; warmed some of the smoked chicken meat and slices of pork belly in a skillet; divvied it all up and garnished with sliced scallions and ground roasted Sichuan pepper.  I made a dipping sauce for the meats from soy, Chinese dark vinegar, sugar, chile oil, a minced clove of garlic, more Sichuan pepper, and I thinned it with a little water.] 

Beef Jerky

1 pound lean beef, such as top round
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon sambal oelek chile paste  (or sriracha, or a few shakes of Tabasco sauce)
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Slice the meat against the grain into ¼-inch slices.  In a large bowl combine all the other ingredients.  Add the beef and mix well.  Refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours, stirring occasionally.
Lay the beef slices out on a metal cooling rack with a 1/2-inch or smaller grate.  It’s okay if they overlap a bit at the beginning, since they’ll shrink as they smoke, and you can spread them out partway through.  Place the rack on the grill grate in your grill/smoker.  Smoke at 225 for 2 hours, or until the jerky is done to your taste. You can finish it in a low oven to your desired chewiness.


Some material in this handout is quoted from Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager by Brett Laidlaw, copyright 2011, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press

All material copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw