As long as humans have been building campfires and seasoning food, they have been harnessing the power of smoke and salt to dehydrate, flavor and—most importantly—preserve that food.
Smoking and curing are food preservation techniques with roots stretching back to ancient times, when refrigerators had yet to be invented but people still needed a reliable way to preserve food, and meat products in particular.
Without preservation, foods are prone to being overrun by harmful bacteria, some of which (such as botulinum toxin) can be downright deadly if consumed.
When used the right way, curing—either by itself or in combination with smoking—can help keep these bacteria at bay while adding an increase lifespan and flavor profile to some of your favorite foods.
The basics of curing meats
You hear a lot in the media about the dangers of consuming cured meats these days, mostly because of the many ingredients used in commercial, large-scale curing operations.
If you’ve ever bought a packet of bacon at a supermarket and taken a look at the ingredient list, the number of items in that list can be staggering for a product that is essentially supposed to contain meat, cure, and spices.
However, cured meat doesn’t have to be unhealthy, and when you cure your own meat, you know exactly what’s gone into it—no mystery ingredients with dubious purposes. In its most basic form, curing meat is simply treating the meat with salt in order to draw out liquids and thus, extend the life span of the meat (while adding a nice flavor).
Curing may be either “dry” or “wet,” and cured meat may be kept as-is or further processed in a smokehouse for added taste and preservation.
Dry curing meats involves treating the flesh of the animal by rubbing it with salt, with or without a combination of other spices or curing agents (such as sodium nitrite or potassium nitrate, also called “saltpeter”).
Note: There are South and Central American varieties of saltpeter which are sodium nitrate, not potassium nitrate.
Please be aware when procuring your curing supplies and use the appropriate amounts of each ingredient.
When you dry cure, you will want to find a tried-and-true recipe and stick to it in order to ensure food safety. Be particularly careful with dry cures that avoid use of nitrites or nitrates, as the use of nitrites and nitrates is a part of the meat curing process that can keep botulism at bay.
Meats can be cured without saltpeter or sodium nitrite (also known as “pink curing salt”), using only sea salt or table salt (sodium chloride), but the risk of botulinum toxin contamination rises when nitrites and nitrates are avoided.
Be sure to avoid adding more or less of the curing agents—be they salt, saltpeter, or pink curing salt—than a recipe calls for, and be sure to use only recipes that are labeled “generally recognized as safe.”
Brining or “wet curing”
Anyone who has brined a turkey or made corned beef has already tried their hand at “wet curing,” whether they know it or not!
Brining—steeping a meat in a mixture of salt water and/or other spices—is a form of meat curing that doesn’t involve out-and-out dehydration of the meat. Rather, brining infuses the meat with a salty water solution, helping to stave off bacteria while adding a great, salty-licious taste to the finished product.
As with dry curing, be careful when choosing and following recipes for wet curing, as failure to brine the flesh properly can leave the meat more prone to bacterial contamination and shorten the lifespan of the finished product unnecessarily.
The basics of smoking food for preservation
Plenty of foods—including meats both cured and uncured—can be smoked for preservation (and sometimes just for that awesome smoke flavor).
Smoking foods involves containing the smoke from a fire within a vessel or smokehouse in which meat, fish or other foods (such as eggs, peppers, spices, and cheeses) are placed in order to retain the smoke in an outer ring called the “smoke barrier,” and can be used to preserve some raw foods to be consumed immediately or at a later time or cook foods to a delicious tenderness for immediate consumption—and in either case, impart a distinctive and bold, smoky flavor to all.
Smokehouses can be built for large-scale smoking, and smaller smokers can be built (or bought) to take care of smaller-scale needs.
Hot smoking is a process that involves smoking foods at high temperatures (anything above 105 degrees Fahrenheit is considered hot smoking) for short periods of time.
This type of smoking results in cooked or partially cooked foods, and is considered ideal for maintaining moisture while imparting that characteristic smoky taste to the food being smoked.
This is often the ideal way to smoke food that is going to be consumed rather soon, and it is done for anywhere from a half an hour to two hours before the process is complete.
Hot smoking is great for meats that are going to be eaten right up—a quick-smoked ham at the holidays, for example.
Cold smoking is, in a way, the opposite of hot smoking: the food is smoked for a long time (anywhere from one day to two or more weeks) at a low temperature—below 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cold smoking is performed incrementally, with smoking sessions followed by breaks from the smoking process, and is suitable for some fish and sausages (although curing may be necessary beforehand in some instances).
A cold smoking vessel can be purchased online or built by hand using an old refrigerator, a wood-burning stove, and a piece of tubing.
Warm smoking captures the best of both the cold smoking and hot smoking worlds: you get a moist, delicious end product with a longer lifespan than the hot-smoked alternatives.
Warm smoking involves keeping foods in a smoking vessel or smokehouse at temperatures between 73 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of time ranging from three or four hours to three or four days.
This type of smoking, like hot smoking, is done with continuous smoke output and no breaks, unlike cold smoking which involves smoke sessions and break sessions.
Dry smoking vs. wet smoking
Dry smoking is the traditional way to smoke foods like meat and fish, but is not always practical in hotter climates.
Wet smoking (using wood or wood chips soaked in water prior to being lit ablaze) is practical for people who reside in drier, warmer climates—as smoking in old times was often done in the winter months, when snow (and thus, moisture and cold) abounded.
Choose the type of smoking that is right for your needs.
Safety tips for curing and smoking food
There’s no point in preserving food if the resulting product only serves to make you ill or even kill you. Bear in mind these safety tips to ensure that your cured or smoked foods are as safe to eat as they are savory:
- Follow cure and smoke recipe instructions to the letter
- Be discerning when choosing recipes
- Store preserved food properly, and throw away any food you suspect may have become contaminated during storage
- Always cook cured or smoked foods as advised—do not consume raw foods that were meant to be consumed only when cooked (such as bacon)