Guide to Cold Smoking

When most people think of smoking foods their mind goes straight to firing up the smoker, throwing in some meat at 160℉ and letting it sit for 4 to 12 hours.  However, there is a completely different world to experiment with and it’s called cold smoking.  Just about anything imaginable can be smoked in one manner or another. But cold smoking greatly extends those boundaries.  

What is Cold Smoking?

The normal process of smoking involves moderately low temperatures and a long, slow cooking process.  However, cold smoked food is not cooked at all. In fact, cold smoked food is still raw. Consequently, it must be cooked prior to consuming. 

Because of the very low temperatures required for cold smoking, the smoke box is separated from the smoke chamber.  The temperatures in the smoke box are too high for cold smoking. Keep in mind that you are not trying to cook the food. The smoke is produced in a separate smoke box then piped into the smoking chamber which is not heated at all.   

Some foods are more amenable to this type of smoking process. Cheese, tofu, and some of the more delicate fishes do not do well with a long, slow cooking process. However, the do very well with a cold smoking process. During cold smoking the temperatures are kept below 75℉.  But, what this means is that cold smoked meat must be cured prior to smoking or cooked prior to consuming.  

What About Food Poisoning? Is cold smoking too risky? 

If you are just starting to smoke your own foods, I would not recommend cold smoking.  You are better off sticking to the easy things first.  Cold smoking is a completely different process.  In fact, some people recommend that you NEVER cold smoke your own foods because it is too dangerous. The risk of food poisoning is just too high.  

That said, you simply have to keep things in prospective. Many people become ill or are injured every year due to improper cooking processes. They do not pay attention to details and not follow recipes or standard safety precautions. Smoking food, in this case cold smoking, is a means of food preservation.  You absolutely must follow proven methods, recipes, and take safety precautions just as you would with any other food preservation process.  

The danger in cold smoking is that food is held at a low temperature for long periods of time. These temperatures are not sufficient to kill bacteria and it may in fact promote the growth of dangerous bacteria. Consequently, there is an increased risk of exposure to Listeria, E. coli, as well as other pathogens.  

People That Should Avoid Cold Smoked Foods?

Due to these risks, the following people should avoid consuming cold smoked foods: 

  • Pregnant women
  • Elderly people
  • Any one with a compromised immune system
  • Anyone undergoing medical therapy that could compromise your immune system
  • Anyone that is chronically ill

For further information read this USDA statement on  cold smoking.

Cold smoking foods has some inherent risks. This is why food must be cured in some manner prior to the cold smoking process. This prevents the invasion of potentially deadly bacteria. 

Foods to Try First

If you are new to cold smoking, stick to the less risky products first. Certain foods are easy to cold smoke with very little risk and will provide you with a means of perfecting your technique. Try these foods first:

  • Cheese
  • Nuts
  • Vegetables
  • Tofu
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Hard boiled eggs

Curing Before Cold Smoking is Vital

The cold smoking process involves keeping temperatures very low for a prolonged period of time. This environment is perfect for bacterial growth. Consequently, food must be cured in some manner prior to cold smoking to prevent the growth of bacteria. More than any one thing, curing has a drastic affect on the out come of your cold smoking process. 

The curing process most commonly involves using salt and/or sugar.  This creates an environment that prevents the growth of bacteria. Some curing processes create a thick outer layer on the meat that prevents the growth of bacteria. Other processes infuse salt into the meat which again inhibits the growth of pathogens. 

Drying curing is one possible method. However, it is a very long process. The process involves coating the meat  with a salt solution and aging for several weeks. After aging it is rinsed, dried, and smoked for weeks to months.  Drying curing takes up a lot of time and space. If  you are interested in dry curing then purchase a second smoker unit that is used specifically for this process. 

Wet curing is the same as brining meat for hot smoking. There are two types of wet curing, a salt solution and a sugar solution. Mix the salt or sugar with water to a specified concentration. Submerge the meat in the solution for a set amount of time. Larger cuts of meat will take several weeks to complete the curing process.  Once the curing is complete, rinse the meat well, dry it off as well as possible and it is ready for the smoker.

Summary of the Cold Smoking Process 

  • It is not necessary to cure vegetables and cheeses prior to smoking. Wash the veggies, pat dry, and cut into smaller pieces. 
  • Cure meats prior to cold smoking. After curing, rinse well and pat dry before placing in the smoker.
  • Use an off set smoke box. An inexpensive Weber grill is a good choice. Start the grill and then place a non-flammable flexible vent tubing over the air vent on the grill and connect it to the smoking chamber. This transfers the smoke to the food chamber without transferring heat.
  • Alternatively, use a smoking tube. It produces smoke and not a lot of heat. It is specifically used for cold smoking. 
  • Once you have good smoke, place your food in the smoking chamber. 
  • Place frozen water bottles in the food chamber to help control the temperature. 
  • Monitor frequently and keep the temperature between 50 to 75℉.
  • Smoke for a few hours to several days depending on the product. 

Tips for Successful Cold Smoking

  • Always cure the food prior to cold smoking. Remember that cold smoking does not cook or cure the food.  For the safest possible outcome, cure the meat prior to cold smoking. Cold smoke the meat. Cook it prior to consuming. If done correctly, this will help to avoid any possible food contamination.  
  • Use high quality meats. As with any home food processing method, only use the best quality meats. Putting time and effort into smoking and using poor quality meats means a poor outcome for all of your time and effort. 
  • Try cold smoking foods that do not require further cooking. Examples of this would include cheese, nuts, vegetables. 
  • Take advice from the experts and follow proven methods. Furthermore, not following tried and true methods for any food preservation process is a recipe for disaster. The same is true for cold smoking. NO SHORT CUTS!!
  • Follow proven recipes. I cook a lot and experiment with recipes all the time. But when it comes to home processing any food, I follow recipes to the letter.  I’ve been home processing food all my life and have yet to have a problem. 
  • Weigh the meat prior to smoking. This goes along with following a known recipe. Get the ratios correct for curing. Get the estimated times correct for smoking. 
  • Carefully measure all ingredients. Again, carefully follow a known recipe.

Final Words

Cold smoking is another means of food preservation. If you are new to smoking, I would recommend perfecting your smoking skills on something else first. Then, revisit cold smoking at a later date.  Similar to any other home food processing, stick to proven methods and recipes to ensure maximum food safety.

Related Posts of Interest

Guide to Purchasing a Smoker

Guide to Home Canning

Guide to Freezing Food

Guide to Pickling Vegetables

Guide to Dehydrating Foods


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