by Jamie Henderson - Presented from Issue 92
In this article I will unlock the mysteries surrounding the secret to creating some of the best tasting smoked foods you could possibly achieve in your own backyard and which can often rival some of the best commercially produced products available.
Brining, Curing & Drying
The Brining or Curing process is without a doubt one of the key steps to the success of smoking just about any food; do not underestimate the importance of correct brining and how it affects the quality of the final product. This process can be approached in two different ways, either by dry Brining (or curing) or wet Brining.
A dry Brine or “cure” in its most basic form is simply an amount of salt spread over the fish or meat but can be as sophisticated as a commercial cure containing a complex mix of salt, curing salt, sugers, colours and Nitrate/Nitrites.
Wet Brining is a process that involves the immersion of meat or fish in a Brine solution of basically salt and water but can also contain forms of suger, herbs, spices and almost anything that may enhance the flavours of the end product.
In both forms it is an important process that involves the addition of Salt or a Curing agent to aid in the retardation of bacterial Growth but also has the added benefit of improving the flavour.
For the most part Wet Brining tends to be favoured for Fish and Poultry and Dry Brining tends to lend itself more toward Game Meats however it is often used for fish.
Meat and Salt are like two hands of the same body and all cooks and chefs understand the importance of salt for flavour enhancement however it has another purpose and that is to also prevent microbial growth. Dry Salt Curing has been done the same way for centuries and is the fastest method of curing as it rapidly removes water from inside the meat. The removal of water reduces the environment in which bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum can thrive and therefore increases the shelf life of the product, this aspect is no where near as important today as it once was which is why dry Brining and Curing is not done as often now. These days’ curing is done more for flavour enhancement then preservation and as such many recipes call for salt volumes much less than used in the past. There are many dry Brine recipes around with varying ratios of Salts, sugers, herbs and spices but when it comes to Brine mixes its not the time for guess work. When it comes to dry Brines and Cures its best to buy a commercial version as these will come with detailed instructions and precise measurements based on the weight of the meat and take all the guess work out of the equation.
Wet Brining is the soaking of meat or fish in a solution of water and salt where additional flavourings like sugar and spices can also be added, but it’s the salt that makes a brine a brine. This soaking causes meat and poultry to gain some saltiness and flavouring while plumping it up with water so that after cooking it still contains a lot of juices.
However as there is a higher salt concentration in the Brine water then in the meat the water will be drawn out of the product; “but that would dry it out..??” I hear you say…..well, when water flows out of the meat, salt flows in and begins to break down some of the proteins in the cells. In the broken down state, the molecules become more concentrated and the solute levels rise within the meat causing extra water to flow into the meat.
What the Brining process has caused is a state change in the cells so that they will draw and hold more water than before. As we cook the meat, the heated proteins will begin to draw in tighter and squeeze out water, but, hopefully, enough water will remain to produce a juicy, tender piece of meat.
In the case of Fish, which has a higher water content than meat and chicken, the salt solution will draw more of the water out reducing the moisture content of the flesh, in the case of fish this actually aids in the smoke molecules adhering to the surface to give the Smokey flavour, we will discuss this more in detail in the drying process.
Now normally at this point most people start to become very confused and overwhelmed by all the Brine recipes and instructions that you find in many books and on the internet as much of it is non specific and this is not the time to be guessing. Salts of different densities and weights are measured with different instruments such as spoons, cups, ounces pounds ect and many are different volumes in different countries so uniformity is difficult to achieve and it all becomes very confusing.
An easy way out is to use one of the many store bought Brine Mixes or Cures readily available on the market, High Mountain Seasonings make some great Fish Brine Mixes with easy to follow instructions and Bradley Smokers make a powder Cure that can be mixed with water as per directions.
However making up your own Brine is much more rewarding and provided you have the salt concentrations correct you can experiment with differing variations of added flavourings, herbs, spices and even fruit juices to further enhance the final product.
Here is where I aim to make the whole process as simple and logic as possible and by following a few basic rules and principles it becomes amazingly easy.
The first step is to work out the volume of Brine solution you might need and the basic rule of thumb is 50% of the weight of the meat or fish being smoked. That is for 2kg of meat or fish use 1kg of Brine solution and choose an appropriate container so that the product is completely emersed. If a larger volume of solution is needed to cover the meat or fish ensure the salt concentration of the brine stays the same and only increases in volume, do not just add more water as this will dramatically reduce the salt concentration therefore reducing the effectiveness of the brine.
Now the Brine strength you choose is totally up to you and really should be based on the amount of time you have to both brine, dry and smoke. The stronger the Brine the shorter the Brining times and the sooner you can smoke, however the weaker the Brine the longer the brining time will need to be but the added bonus is there will be much more depth pf flavour.
Ok….now to make the Brine, use only non-iodized salt (readily available from supermarkets), never table salt as there are too many impurities that can cause a bitter taste, and clean water, if time allows boil the water first to allow the salt to completely dissolve and refrigerate overnight before adding any fish or meat. Here we will use the Brine Table to calculate the amount of salt to be used in a litre of water to achieve differing strengths of salinity; this is measured in what’s called “Degrees of Brine”.
Now generally speaking most meats like a brine of around 70-75 degree, Poultry likes a weaker solution of around 20-25 and as Fish has a lot of water, approximately 80% water compared to meat and chicken which is around 60%, and an already unusually high concentration of bacteria an 80 degree brine solution is usually recommended. Fish can be done at lower concentrations to achieve a better and much more uniform salt penetration however brining time will increase to the likes of 12-24 hours.
During a lengthy Brining times it is important to carry out what is commonly referred to as overhauling. Overhauling is simply the process of rearranging the pieces of fish or meat in the brine solution to obtain the best curative and flavouring effect from brining. Overhauling is not generally necessary for brining periods of two hours or less however for longer periods overhaul occasionally to ensure all pieces of the fish or meat are freely exposed to the brine solution.
Feel free to add any other herbs, spices and flavourings to the brine mixture but only in small quantities, by adding too much dry ingredient you will dilute the strength of the salt therefore effecting the strength of the Brine, same goes for suger based liquids such as Apple Juice and Orange Juice, adjust the total liquid amount accordingly. For example if a 50 degree brine calls for 4 litres of water and 528 grams of salt you could substitute half of that for Apple Juice, 2litres of water and 2 litres of Apple Juice and the same amount of salt at 528 grams.
At the end of the brining period the fish or meat needs to be removed from the brine for the next step which is the drying process. A fish that is dried properly will acquire colour much faster and will also develop a better flavour.
After brining, the fish or meat needs to be rinsed lightly to remove the salt and other curing ingredients from the surface, if you do not rinse the finished product will be somewhat saltier, and allowed to dry in cool place. This can be done either by placing the pieces of fish or meat on some racks in a cool breezy place protected from flying insects but I much prefer to place them uncovered in the fridge as refrigerator air is very dry and speeds up the process.
This should be dried until a shiny, slightly tacky skin, referred to as the Pellicle, forms on the surface, this can take anywhere from an hour to overnight but can be easily identified by touching the outside of the product and making sure its slightly tacky or sticky. The pellicle serves several functions: it provides an ideal surface for the smoke molecules to adhere to developing the colour and flavour, it helps seal in the remaining moisture through the smoking process and it prevents the fats from rising to the surface and spoiling.
Now that you have the Brining and Drying process under control its time to smoke up your product, it being Fish, Chicken, Meat or whatever you have chosen.
Here you can decide on either Hot Smoking or Cold Smoking, the difference being that Hot Smoked foods are generally consumed quickly, although once brined will last for quite a while once refrigerated, and Cold Smoked foods are essentially “cooked” during the Brining/Curing process and require stronger Brines and longer brining Times and will be slightly more salty in taste with usually a much more prominent Smokey flavour. Fish and Cheese are some of the more popular foods that lend themselves well to Cold Smoking and Poultry, Game Meats, Vegetables and Fish are all well suited for Hot Smoking.
There are many types of wood and sawdust flavours on the market produced for smoking food, look for uniform sized chips and if possible kiln dried products. There is an old wives tale that suggests the use of wet sawdust or woodchips by soaking them in water before smoking as this produces more smoke…..this is just not true. The extra amount of smoke produced is purely and simply just steam mixed with the smoke and we have already discussed that we need a dry surface on the food for the smoke to adhere to. The extra moisture can make a small difference in Hot Smoking meats where short smoke times and high temperatures may dry out the meat however the effects are minimal and can be overcome by correct brining. Wet woodchips will generally dry out quite quickly anyway due to the heat being produced and then burst into flames causing temperature spikes and uneven cooking, this needs to be avoided if a good quality product is to be achieved.
Here is a list of commonly used wood types and what they are suited to smoking:
Alder & Maple: give a rich and distinct flavour commonly used with seafood, hams, and bacon.
Mesquite, Oak & Hickory: are a heavier smoke commonly used for smoking beef, game meat and pork products such as pork shoulders and beef brisket.
Apple & Cherry: impart a sweeter, milder smoke flavour, commonly used with poultry and wild game meat.
Hot Smoking is generally done at temperatures of 50°C and above and is essentially cooking the food. Most hot smoked foods, such as Fish and Poultry, can be eaten hot as soon as they are removed from the smoker however often a much better depth of flavour can be achieved by a short period of refrigeration.
As discussed in part one a much better smoked product will be produced if you have complete control over the temperature and smoke, a hot fire with blazing flames, little smoke and more complete combustion will actually burn off the volatile oils contained in the wood and reduce them to more tar type resins which give the food a nasty aftertaste, keep the fire down, cool and watch out for flare-ups. Obviously the more sophisticated the smoker the easier it is to achieve, a food smoker will produce a far superior tasting food if the temperature and smoke remain at a constant and controlled level.
With some foods it is also important to monitor the internal temperature of the meat as well as the smoker temperature. Poultry for example must be hot smoked for a time period that allows the internal temperature of the thickest part of the breast to reach 82°C, Red and Game meats need to reach 72°C to however you can take that much further to be cooked to a well done consistency and in the case of cuts such as Brisket (more of an American cut) they are taken to more than 90 degrees as this breaks down the gelatine in the tissue and causes the meat to become extremely tender and juicy.
I have found through trial and error that a temperature of around 90°C is good for most fish, especially Trout and Salmon, much higher and you get white fatty deposits on the surface of the fish, this is only the fat from the fish and will not be of any harm however it is unsightly.
Cold smoking is done at temperatures below 30°C and at no point should the temperature be allowed to exceed 34°C. It is predominantly Fish that is cold smoked and many of the smoked fish products you see in the supermarkets are in fact either cold smoked or are processed with “Liquid Smoke” which essentially is just a smoke flavoured cure that gives the taste and appearance of smoked fish. You can cold smoke other meats but much care is needed and the smoker temperature must be kept low so as not to start the cooking process, after 1-2 hours of cold smoking to impart some Smokey flavour to meats they will then need to be cooked as you would normally.
To effectively cold smoke and to create a consistent quality product you need to take great care in the Brining and Curing process and make sure you follow directions and Brine tables precisely. Generally brine times will be longer than that of hot smoking and Brine strengths will be higher as this process essentially “cooks” the product instead of the heat. Cold Smoking will produce a much better Fish product with more depth of flavour than hot smoking however you do need to be able to control the temperature of the smoker quite precisely as well.
A typical Cold Smoke Fish could take anywhere from a few hours up to 12 hours or more depending on the type of fish, brine strength and density of the flesh. Cold Smoked Fish is essentially raw and will be saltier to taste than that of hot smoked, this is why only thin slices and small amounts are usually served with other condiments rather than a large piece on a plate.
Always keep plenty of notes; I have an exercise book that I jot down recipes, brine mixtures, cook times, temperatures, comments on the final product and even things I have done wrong as they are just as important. Everybody’s tastes are different and what you consider to be a good result might not suit some one else so when you do produce something is considered to be outstanding you will need to know how to replicate it and detailed notes will help to no end. As I stated earlier do not overlook the brining process as it is very important and will make a significant difference to your final product, if you are worried about the brine strength it can be measured using a hygrometer available from hardware stores or from home brew shop.
Once you have mastered smoking foods at home you will be the envy of all your friends, your back yard BBQ’s will take on a whole new twist and when guests ask you where you bought the smoked fish you will know you have done well.
Don’t underestimate your own abilities, with a little bit of practise and by controlling as many of the elements as possible you will be churning out some smoked goods equal to anything store bought in no time……..Happy Smoking