How to Master Smoking, Salt-Curing and Brining
Smoking, curing and brining are ancient techniques used in preserving food. Today, foods such as hams, corned beef and smoked salmon are salt-cured, brined or smoked primarily for flavor. Cured meats have a characteristic pink color which is caused by the reaction of sodium nitrite, which is added during processing, with the naturally occurring myoglobin protein in the meat.
Salt-curing is the process of surrounding a food with salt or a mixture of salt, sugar, nitrite based curing salt, herbs and spices. Salt-curing dehydrates the food, inhibiting bacterial growth and adding flavor. It is most often used with pork products and fish. Salt-curing is not a quick procedure and does take a bit of time to complete. As an example, country-style hams are salt-cured. Proper curing requires about one and a half days per 450g (1lb) of ham, which means three weeks for the average ham!
Some salt-cured hams such as smithfield and prosciutto are not actually cooked. The curing process preserves the meat and makes it safe to consume raw.
Gravlax is a well-known salmon dish prepared by salt-curing salmon fillets with a mixture of salt, sugar, pepper and dill.
A brine is actually a very salty marinade. Most brines have approx. 20% salinity, which is equivalent to 450g (1 lbs) of salt per 4 L (1 gal.) of water.
A brine has approx. 450g (1 Lbs) of salt per 4L (1 Gal) of water
As with dry-salt cures, brines can also contain sugar, nitrites, herbs and spices. Brining is sometimes called pickling.
Today, most cured meats are prepared in large production facilities where the brine is injected into the meat for rapid and uniform distribution. Commercially brined corned beef is cured by this process, as are most common hams. After brining, hams are further processed by smoking.
Smoking meats has a lot of information associated with it, but it results in one of the most satisfying and widely-used processing methods.
There are two basic methods of smoking foods:
- Cold smoking
- Hot smoking
The principle differences between the two is that hot smoking actually cooks the food while cold smoking does not.
Both are done in a smoker specifically designed for this purpose. Smokers can be gas or electric and they vary greatly in size and operation. But they have several things in common.
All consist of a chamber that holds the food being smoked, a means of burning woods to produce smoke and a heating element.
Types of Wood for Smoking
Different types of wood can be used to smoke food. Specific woods are selected to impart specific flavors.
- Hickory — Often used for pork products
- Alder — Great for smoked salmon
- And many more
It is important to avoid resinous woods that give food a bitter flavor such pine. Tea and aromatic herb stems may be used in smoking as well.
Cold smoking is the process of exposing foods to smoke at temperatures of 10’C – 29’C (50’F – 85’F).
Meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, cheese, nuts and even vegetables can be cold-smoked successfully. Most cold-smoked meats are generally salt-cured or brined first. Salt-curing or brining adds flavor, allows the nitrites (which give ham, bacon and other smoked meats their distinctive pink color) to penetrate the flesh and, most important, extracts moisture from the food, allowing the smoke to penetrate more easily.
Most cold-smoked meats are generally salt-cured or brined first.
Cold-smoked foods are actually still raw. Some, like smoked salmon (lox), are eaten without further cooking. Others, such as bacon and hams, must be cooked before eating.
Hot smoking is the process of exposing foods to smoke at temperatures of 93’C to 121’C (200’F to 250’F). As with cold smoking, a great variety of foods can be prepared by hot smoking. Meats, poultry, game, fish and shellfish that are hot-smoked also benefit from salt-curing or brining. Although most smoked foods are fully cooked when removed from the smoker, many are used in other recipes that call for further cooking.
While most smoking requires specialized equipment, two affordable options exist for imparting a smoked flavor to foods. A stove top smoker, which resembles a hotel pan with a tight fitting lid, can be used to hot-smoke small cuts of meat, fish, poultry or vegetables. Wood chips are scattered inside the bottom of the pan. Foods to be smoked sit on top of a mesh rack inside the box. The heat of the stove top ignites the wood chips, permeating the food with a smoky flavor.
Foods smoked in this manner must reach a proper internal cooking temperature to be served without additional cooking.
Liquid smoke is a flavoring made from smoke, which has been condensed from the burning of wood chips. When used judiciously it can impart a pleasant smoky taste to BBQ sauces and marinades.