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by Jamie Henderson - Presented from Issue 91

In my younger days I guess I never really understood the true significance of smoke flavoured food and smoked products. I ate Bacon and Ham readily without a single thought of how that magical taste was produced, as I grew older smoked onion soup, smoked Trout and Salmon and various other smoked goods found their place upon my plate. All the while I was enjoying the flavours and taste of the products but not really thinking too hard about how it was made.

The art of successfully smoking food has always been shrouded with much mystique and secrecy; many home recipes have been handed down through generations of families and closely guarded by those who practice it regularly, commercial producers guard their proprietary recipes with the law……serious business this smoking sometimes.

Smoking is one of the oldest methods of preserving a lot of fish, meat and game. Long before there was any technology such as refrigerators and freezers, people learned to use a combination of salt and smoke to keep fish and meat from forming harmful bacteria and spoiling. This was not endemic to any particular region, race or country and people from cultures all over the world have relied on the smoke-curing of fish and meat products for longterm storage.

How many of you have even been slipped a piece of fish or meat from the old guy down the road every now and then that tastes just magnificent and wondered how he manages to make it taste so great, or a mates mate who turns up at a back yard BBQ with some smoked foods that end up being the main conversation topic as many a alcoholic beverage is consumed.

For many years now I have practiced, experimented, failed dismally and sometimes produced some fantastic smoked foods and found the hardest aspect of the whole process is consistency…….constantly producing a product that’s is good is never an easy task and requires complete control of many aspects.

Hopefully in the article that follows I can dispel some myths, offer some facts and science and guide you to being able to produce some great smoked foods and impress your families and mates with some tasty morsels.

The History of Smoking

In more modern times smoking is no longer considered a necessary process for retardation of food spoilage however it remains popular for the complex and tantalising flavours it gives to many different foods. During the mid 1800s the industrial revolution influenced much of the food world and in particular the sea-fishing industry. Transportation of fresh fish produce was a hugely difficult task but with the advent of rapid transportation for foodstuffs a long shelf-life was no longer so essential. As this became more widespread so did the availability of fresh fish, the popularity of heavily salted, heavily smoked products of the past then began to decline.

This is where the smoked fish products we now regard as traditional came into being; these are mildly smoked and dried and contain minimum salt content compared to the heavily salted fish of before.

During the mid to late 1900s the market for smoked fish underwent a major change yet the actual technology of smoking fish remained much the same as it had been for centuries. What we do see more of now is commercial cures that colour and flavour the products to please a huge consumer market and less of the traditional smoked produce based on these age old processes.

Ideally, smoked fish should get its flavour and mahogany colour from the smoke, but many cheaper smoked fish have smoke flavour added, and some varieties, like some hot-smoked and garishly coloured ‘kippered’ salmon, use artificial food colour as well. In fact, some of the brightly coloured cured fish sold in supermarkets are not smoked at all, simply flavoured with a cure that includes smoke flavouring.

There are two main reasons to smoke food, one is for preservation and the other is for texture and flavour, with food preservation not nearly as important as it once was the western world smoking today is used mainly to impart a pleasant mild smoky flavour.

What we can Smoke

What can’t you Smoke...!! This is basically up to your imagination and personal tastes, Fish, Meat (Beef, Pork, Chicken, Turkey), Game (Venison, Wallaby, Duck), Vegetables, Cheese, Eggs even Salt…..if you can eat it fair bet you can probably smoke it, not sure how smoked Apple would go though…?? I am sure at one stage or another just about every type of food has probably been experimented with to see if it can be smoked. As the old saying goes though….

‘You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’ But you can probably eat the sows ear when it’s smoked, but that’s another story.

You can’t make a first class smoked product from second rate food, if your smoking the fish you catch treat it well right from the start, straight on ice and remove all gills and gut contents, same with your meat if you hunt yourself, slaughter quickly, look after it well and treat it with respect and the final product will be well worth the extra effort. If your buying products use reputable butchers and fish processors, go for the best quality produce and when it comes to poultry always buy organically raised birds…..trust me it makes all the difference.

Some people are often under the impression that smoking can cover up mouldy or stale fish and meat off-flavours, this is completely untrue and any unpleasant odours or flavours will be readily apparent very quickly.

Types of Smokers and Woodchips

Smokers come in all shapes and sizes and all types of styles, you can purchase them from many tackle stores and camping shops and you can even make one at home from many thing, most of you would be very familiar with the small box shaped galvanised or Stainless Steel smokers, what I term the “lunch box” smokers of which I am sure a lot of people have done much of their smoking in. These come in a range of shapes, sizes and brands, are simple to use requiring only a bottle of methylated spirits for the burner or burners and a bag of sawdust. They do however only provide a hot smoke product and are not recommended for any foods other than fish as there is little if any control over the temperature or smoke quality, any attempt at cold smoking will require a much more sophisticated set up.

Smokers can be as simple or as complicated as you want them to be, a simple smoker is a hooded BBQ or small ‘Webber’ style BBQ and use some smoking woodchips while you are cooking. This is usually done by placing flavoured chips in a small vented box, placing it on the heat source and closing your lid, essentially smoking your food lightly as it cooks. Bradley Smokers create a perfect product for making this process even easier, the Bradley Smoker Bisquettes that are produced and designed for use with the Bradley Electric Smokers can also be used in any other style of hot smoker and also directly on the BBQ hotplate, no need for the vented box or any type of holder. Just get your BBQ plate or grill nice and hot, place a bisquettes directly on the plate, wait until there is plenty of smoke then cook your food with the hood down…..very easy and will work with any food you can cook on your BBQ.

There are quite a few Electric and Gas smokers on the market today that become more and more expensive as you go but will generally offer great control over temperature and smoke, this will allow you to smoke a wide range of foods very easily. Brands such as Masterbuilt make a digitally controlled Electric smoker that will hot smoke and has an internal box to place the smoking chips, as does Hark which is an almost identical design.

Hark also do a Gas smoker that is reasonably inexpensive but once again you can only hot smoke with these set ups. All of these smokers allow you to use your own sawdust or woodchips or any commercially produced wood chip product but this does have its draw backs. If not tended to constantly by the user to regularly change the smoking chips or sawdust when burnt they run the risk of burning the wood down to an ash and creating too much internal heat in the wood.

When smoking chips and sawdust burns, the smoke flavour is produced in the initial minutes of the burn; if burnt for too long they will impart a distinct after-taste to smoked food. The flavour would also be affected by fluctuating high temperatures, gases and resins and uneven burnt sawdust will produce fluctuating temperatures very easily.

The Bradley Smokers have what is in my opinion one of the best systems for smoking foods and is the only model on the market that allows you to both hot smoke (above 30 degrees C) and more importantly cold smoke (below 30 degrees C). They offer complete digital control of smoke time, cook time and cook temperatures and use an ingenious system of Bradley Smoker Bisquettes on an automated heating pad that smokes each bisquette for 20 minutes before pushing it off the heating pad into a dish of water to extinguish it and slides a new one into its place. What this does is produce high quality, constant smoke for up to 8 hours continuously with no input from the user…..just set and forget.

A simple home made Hot-Smoker can be an old fridge, a barrel, one of the old clothes drying cabinets your grandmother had or any other similar object can work reasonably well; just make sure what you are using is clean.

The basic design will involve some sort of container or pit for the fire, connected via a covered channel or straight up through a hole in the base and into the main smoking chamber. Here you should have a plate or box for the smoking sawdust or chips, a baffle plate to disperse the smoke evenly, some racks or hooks to secure the Fish or Meat, a door for access and some type of vent to create the ‘natural draft’ that is needed with hot smoking. There are many designs and a quick look through some smoking books or on the internet will have you drawing up some plans very quickly.

Just as the old saying goes… ‘Oils ain’t Oils’ ‘Woodchips ain’t Woodchips’ What type of smoking wood you use can at times be the topic of hot debate.

Never use chip-board, particle board, pressed board, or any other kind of processed or treated wood or any wood that is held together with glues or other chemicals. The glue and chemicals will leach out of the pressed wood and taint the meat, this can cause you to be poisoned and make you very sick.

Basically it is just like the food products you wish to smoke; poor quality wood will produce poor quality smoke. Many people will suggest just grabbing any old sawdust or shavings from the Sawmill or after someone has cut a tree or log with a chainsaw but this is not advisable. Sawmills generally don’t just mill one type of wood at a time and very few would care enough to separate woodchips for you so whatever pile you are picking from may well have quite a mixture of woods and may contain some that are not suited to smoking at all.

Good clean and dry sawdust of a fairly uniform size is what you are looking for. If you can find it kiln dried woodchips or sawdust are about as good as it gets but not something you will come across every day. Most tackle stores will sell bags of commercially produced sawdust and smoking chips, look for the bags that contain the most uniform cut chips and not too much dust as this will burn too easily. As the wood chips or coarse sawdust burn right from the ignition point to complete ash they will generate heat, the finer the sawdust the faster this will happen. There is a point where wood becomes self-consuming or will burn without any heat source; it’s at this point that it’s producing far too much heat. This is when there is very little smoke produced and the temperature within the smoker is out of control. A far superior tasting food will be produced if you can manage to keep the temperature and smoke at a constant and controlled level. It is often suggested to soak the wood in water to aid in smoke production and lower the ignition point however all this does is produce more moisture in the smoker. The food being smoked and the smoker environment needs to be as dry as possible in order to promote smoke absorption, if the food product is wet or moist in any way it will have less smoke flavour.

How We Smoke

There are two main processes to producing quality smoked foods, the Brining and Drying portion and the Smoking itself; these two processes need to be considered both equally important in their own right as controlling one does not necessarily mean controlling the other.

As already pointed out Smoking methods can vary, but are based on a few common principles. Firstly the fish is treated with salt, either in immersing in some form of strong liquid brine or by a surface coating of dry salt commonly referred to as a dry brine. This is essentially the curing stage which can last anywhere from a few minutes to many hours depending on the size and density of the fish or meat and strength of the brine. During this curing or brining process a two-way exchange takes place, with much of the moisture drawn out of the fish and some salt soaking in. This combination of reduced moisture and salt addition inhibits the growth of spoilage bacteria; this is the basic principle of all cured meats. But the addition of salt in this curing and brining stage also helps develop what is just as important as microbial retardation, and that is flavour.

As discussed earlier the smoke should be produced from a smouldering, coarse saw-dust or woodchip fire. Wood smoke is composed of millions of microscopic particles which rise like a fog, and by vapours. The fog is mostly water, carbon and trace solids and the vapour contains what we need, volatile oils. As the oils are released from the wood impart and furnish the characteristic Smokey flavours and preservative qualities that we are aiming for.

At this stage I bring part one of this article to a close, in the next edition of Tas Fishing and Boating news I will discuss in great detail the Brining/ Curing, Drying and Smoking stages including the differences in and processes needed to both Hot and Cold Smoke. I will also supply a few basic brine and smoke recipes for both Meat and Fish to help you start your journey into the addictive world of Smoking Food.

Only use hardwood from deciduous trees for smoking and avoid soft woods from evergreen trees as they are loaded with pitch and resin that will create a very unpleasant flavour.

Jamie Henderson - St Helens Bait and Tackle