Apr 20 2013

Smoking of foods for long term preservation.

Smoking happened when the sun first got serious competition in the heating industry. It’s doing the same thing as sun-drying or fire-drying but it’s not just the heat we’re after, it’s the smoke itself too. It’s faster than sun drying plus if you use the right woods it leaves a really appealing flavor particularly in meats, fish and cheeses. Cheeeeeeeeses. With the heat cranked up to about 120-140 °F, not a lot of micronasties can survive so the food actually approaches something close to the modern definition of sanitary.

Smoking dehydrates the outside layers of meat to form a kind of barrier on the outside so you don’t have to totally overcook things. The inside of meat is basically sterile until it’s in advanced decomposition and literally permeated by micro-nasties. With some woods like manzanita and pine, the pitch itself is a deterrent to microbials.

Nowadays they do all the commercial smoking of meats in smokehouses. In the old days, people used to just smoke meat in smokehouses. Often it was the same house known in other parts of the year as the “sugar shack”, which, contrary to contemporary belief, was not a house of lust and sin but rather a place where you boiled down maple sap to make syrup and maple sugar. It was typically a small structure which was designed to accommodate fire on the floor 24×7 and not burn down so the floors were generally stone. They were basically hearths, fireplaces that you stood inside of with the fire and the chimney was a hole in the roof. I’m really not thinking OSHA would approve of this working environment so just tell the building inspector it’s a children’s play house. The kids will agree, little animals that they are. There are few set global standards for how dry or what internal temperature should be achieved in smoking.

Smoking and drying racks.

A basic smoke house.

But before there were smoke houses there were much simpler and handier ways of smoking or drying and that’s a simple rack you fashion out of branches and saplings. You can tie them together with twine you make out of willow, hickory bark, the fibers from our Agave plants here in the desert or my favorite trick of running to the hardware store for a ball of twine. There’s no real official way to make a smoking rack, just get the meat over the heat.

Longer term storage of dried and smoked meats.

People these days will tell you it just can’t or shouldn’t be done. Hooey. Dried and smoked meats can do very well in root cellars but humidity can be a problem there. In the case of larger pieces of meats, mold is allowed to grow on the outer surface, and cuts are taken deeper, and the freshly exposed meat surface just grows more mold. The interior of the meat, the meat on the inside is, I suspect, essentially sterile. I believe this is why we have such a long tradition transporting and storing meat as the whole carcass rather than vacu-packing final cuts for sale in supermarkets as we do today. Getting back to the focus, some meats can do well in dry shade, and “shade houses” used to be common in the Southwest. It’s a trick we picked up from the natives. These are above-ground structures that provide semi-shade. They work well in low-humidity environments. In general, if your smoked or dried meat starts rehydrating or even worse, moisture begins to condense on their surfaces, then you are starting to become concerned about too much moisture in that storage environment.