People have been enjoying smoked foods for thousands of years, though the reason we eat them today is quite different from the reasons our ancestors did. Today we enjoy the subtle flavours that the smoking process brings to our meat, cheese and fish, while in days gone by, it was a necessity to try to preserve foods for longer. The process was probably discovered by accident as way back in history, leaving fresh meat laying around was simply inviting scavengers and often dangerous carnivores to come and have a filling meal. The meats were taken into smoky caves and in due course people learnt that smoking the meat preserved it for longer than it would do naturally, with the extra flavour it provided, merely being an additional but welcome benefit.
Refrigeration Nearly Stopped it Happening
The invention of refrigeration suddenly became a much faster and simpler way of reliably preserving foods, making the smoking process no longer a necessity, and the art in many places began to become much less commonly practiced. Thankfully the flavour provided gave sufficient reason for some people to continue the time honoured tradition and smoked foods were still available. Today, smoked foods are making quite a comeback, as more and more people appreciate the wondrous effects that skilled smoking can have on food.
The Smoking Processes
There are essentially two different processes utilised by a smoked food company, where food is smoked, being “hot smoking” and “cold smoking.” Hot smoking involves the food to be smoked, being inside the same chamber as the smoking fire and involves temperatures between just over fifty degrees Celsius up to around eighty. Food cooked within these ranges is moist, full of flavour and fully cooked. Above the top end will see food shrinking in size as both fat and moisture are cooked away and the yield will drop significantly. Hot smoked foods are fully cooked and can be eaten without any further preparation. Cold smoking involves much lower temperatures of twenty to thirty degrees Celsius and the food is in a different chamber from the heat source, with the smoke pumped through. This is a potentially very dangerous process which has the potential for bacteria growth, and the food itself remains uncooked and will require further preparation before being consumed.
What the Smoke Does
Wood smoke contains a number of compounds which act as preservatives, such as phenol and phenolic compounds, which are antioxidants and slow animal fats from turning rancid, as well as antimicrobials which slow the onset of bacterial growth. Wood smoke has a low pH value due to other antimicrobials such as acetic acid and formaldehyde. Different woods produce different flavours and the temperature at which they burn also important, with a relatively low temperature seeing them smouldering, which is achieved by either restricting the availability of oxygen, or using very moist woods. There is a very fine art in keeping the temperature absolutely correct throughout the smoking process, going so far as to involve the size of the pieces of wood being burned.
If you are fortunate enough to have an operational Smokery in your area, it is definitely worth a visit to find out more and to sample those awesome smoky flavours which enhance foods taste so well.