The Ultimate Guide To Cold Smoking

Written in 2024
by Adam

    Cold Smoking is a really good way to bring some smokey, rich flavour to your meat, and to bring yourself a step up as a chef. You don't need to cold smoke everything, but it will work wonders for the meat you use. Cold smoked products can last up to months without being refrigerated.

    The basic method of cold smoking meat is just roughly to:

    1. Cure the meat to extract the moisture and prevent bacterial growth.
    2. The cured meat is exposed to smoke, which is the cause of the smokey flavour. This process could take days, depending on the product.

    The tip here is to not allow the meat to get too hot, whilst exposing it to smoke. To keep the meat under the recommended 90F, keep the meat in an unheated chamber, whilst smoke for a separate chamber is pumped in.

    Cold smoking goes back a long way to western culture, where farms created ‘smokehouses’ with the single purpose of smoking and storing meat, with the intention of preserving meat through the winter when food was scarce.


    Hot smoking vs Cold smoking

    Frequent visitors to our website will already be familiar with hot smoking. Hot smoking consists of the smoke from the fire coming at considerably higher heats, usually around 225 to 250F.

    Hot smoking tends to be held in the same chamber as the burning heat and fuel and is eaten immediately after being smoked.

    Because hot smoked meat is cooked at temperatures above the danger zone of 140F, the meat does not have to be cured as the heat will kill all bacteria that make you sick.

    Of course, curing meat provides flavour benefits.

    Hot smoking can take up to a day, or several hours, depending on the size and cut of brisket.


    Best Types of Food for Cold Smoking

    Salami or smoked salmon tend to be the first port of call when we think of cold-smoked food, but there is actually a wide variety of foods, for example, cheese.

    Cheese is a good first food to cold smoke as its very low risk, leave higher risk foods like salami to the professionals, allowing you to master the technique without the safety risks.

    Other low-risk foods to cold smoke include:

    •  tofu
    • nuts
    • vegetables
    • hard boiled eggs
    • olive oil
    • garlic

    Meat like bacon that is cooked before serving is also low risk, as it helps to cook off any bacteria.

    Sausage and fish (e.g. smoked salmon) are popular cold smoking options, however, they provide the right conditions for botulism to grow if not handled properly and are at highest risk of causing illness.

    Steven Lamb wrote a great book on all things curing and smoking which you can find below.

    Curing & Smoking: River Cottage Handbook No.13
    1,240 Reviews
    Curing & Smoking: River Cottage Handbook No.13
    • Amazon Kindle Edition
    • Lamb, Steven (Author)
    • English (Publication Language)


    The Dangers of Cold Smoking

    Whilst cold smoking has been deemed as safe for the last few thousand years, there are people that argue that there is certain risks to it as well. There isn't a large amount of science to support it, but some people would tell you that modern farming has created some more dangerous bacteria that require very specific heats to kill, but its a largely rejected idea.


    Why is cold smoking riskier than hot smoking?

    Whilst cold smoking any kind of meat is risky, smoking sausages and fish are particularly risky. This is because cold smoking creates the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, without the cooking to kill the bacteria.

    If you cure the meat beforehand (something you definitely should do) the salt will slow the growth of bacteria but not kill it, however, the exact temperature for cooking will encourage bacteria growth if not closely watched.

    You may be thinking about how the successful history of smoking meant that if it was so dangerous it would’ve been scrapped.

    Well, people definitely have died before, and still, do as a result of eating meat that wasn't properly cooked. In fact, modern production methods have increased the risk of dangerous bacteria ending up in our food. Botulism and listeria are commonly known ones.

    Botulism is less common than listeria but more dangerous. Listeria can potentially be deadly.

    It also worth noting that ground meats have a particularly high risk of infection as the bacteria from the gut of the animal is distributed evenly when ground up.


    When Should I Avoid Cold Smoked Meats?

    Those who are immunocompromised, e.g. the elderly, pregnant women, should steer well clear of eating cold-smoked fish products, even just to be on the safe side, and especially avoid cold smoked meats that are mass produced.

    This is because the shelf life of mass produced smoked meat products is only around two weeks due to the high risk of listeria contamination.

    Cold smoked meat also carries the risk of parasite infections, e.g tapeworms, and whereas cooking would usually kill these infections, cold smoking does not.


    Summing up the Risks

    1. Cold smoked food is not cooked and is actually kept in the ‘danger zone’ whilst being smoked, essentially making it a bacterial breeding ground.
    2. Parasites present in the meat are not have been killed by smoking.
    3. The risk of infections like listeria or botulism is particularly high in fish or sausages
    4. People who are immunocompromised are advised against consuming such cold smoked products.

    So there are a lot of risks, but if you're still reading you must still be interested.


    DIY Cold Smoker Setup

    We need to use alternative methods to create our smoke than normal combustion, namely an external firebox that pumps smoke in through pipes to the main chamber.

    It is a good idea to vent the firebox to control smoke production and heat.

    The food you plan to smoke should be in a separate smoking chamber, with a vent to control the temperature and airflow. Installing racks is a good idea, even if your smoking chamber is as simple as a plastic cooler or wooden barrel.

    Some people place ice blocks at the bottom of the smoking chamber to prevent the temperature reaching dangerous levels for bacteria breeding.

    Whilst creating a DIY setup can be a little daunting, there are a variety of products to purchase that make the setup easier.


    Cold Smoking in a Weber Smokey Mountain

    This can be done by keeping the food and fire in the same chamber, however, this makes it difficult to keep the heat under 140F.

    The solution is to use the Weber Smokey Mountain as the smoking chamber and pump smoke in from a different source.

    A cheap, and simple option is to use an electrical cooker in a cardboard box and place some wood chunks on some skillets and a small computer fan in the box. Create some vents in the box and run some foil ducting into the Weber Smokey Mountain.

    As the wood smokes, the smoke is pumped into the Weber Smokey Mountain. You should invest in a very accurate thermometer to monitor this heat.


    Use a Pellet Tube Smoker add on

    This smoke generator is specifically designed for cold smoking and can be placed right into your cooker without generating too much heat.

    Fill the smoke generator with pellets, use a torch to light them, and hold the flame to them until they burn. Allow them to burn until they’re glowing hot and blow them out. Place the smoker in your cooker and you're ready to go.

    This add-on uses just pellets or sawdust and is light-weight and portable. 

    The unit claims to provide somewhere between four to six hours of smoke. However we have heard the unit falls short on this claim, but it does, however, depend on the type of pellet you use among a variety of other factors.

    No products found.

    Cold Smoking Cheese

    If the looming threat of botulism leaves you not wanting to cold smoke meat, there are still options for you. Cold smoking cheese provides delicious results in only 2-4 hours, and without the risks associated with cold smoking meat.

    If you keep the temperature below 90F, the cheese should stay solid and won’t melt, so remain vigilant.

    If you pick a cool day to cold smoke, the temperature will be easier to control. However, if you have an urgent need to cold smoke during the summer months, pick the cooler time such as morning or evenings to help control the temperature.

    The smokey flavour will only penetrate the surface areas of the cheese, so cutting the cheese into smaller chunks will provide a more even coverage, allowing the smoke to reach all angles of the cheese.

    Another tip is to bring the cheese up to room temperature before you begin smoking as this prevents any condensation forming on the surface of the cheese.

    Once your cheese is done, wrap it up in plastic and leave it to refrigerate for a few days to develop a more intense flavour. One of the best videos on this comes from HowtoBBQRight. 


    Tips for Cold Smoking Safely

    Cold smoking doesn't suit everyone. It requires a certain level of precision and patience, and you have to invest a lot of time and money in ensuring you have the correct setup. If you still want to give cold smoking a go, try these safety tips. 

    Whilst someone you know may claim to be some kind of a cold-smoking-expert, their word isn't enough when the lives of your friends and family are at stake. Follow the words of the bona fide experts that will keep you safe.

    1. Only use the highest quality of meat or fish from your local butcher - We’ve already looked at the potential infections and parasites fish can carry, like tapeworm, so find a fishmonger that you trust that can tell you exactly where the fish was sourced from.
    2. Combine cold smoking with salting - you must cure the meat yourself, as just cold smoking it does not cure it. The national centre for home food preservation states that ‘only those meat products that have been fermented, salted or cured should be smoked’. So follow the expert advice.
    3. Follow cold smoking with another method of cooking

    You can apply this advice in a couple of ways, the safest way is to cure the meat, cold smoke it, and then cook it before eating. The national centre for home food preservation also states that ‘most cold smoked products should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160F before being eaten’

    Another friendly reminder that cold smoking doesn't cook or cure your meat in any way whatsoever.

    You could also smoke your meat while it is still raw, ensuring it doesn't reach dangerous temperatures. Then cook the meat immediately after the smoking progress, and this should impart a smoky flavour before cooking it.

    What's Best to Pair with Cold Smoked Meats

    Now you know how to cold smoke your meats, what can you serve alongside it? Here are our three favourites of many that you can pair with your main.

    1. Grilled Potato Skins

    They sound a little complicated and can seem a little overwhelming at first, but they're a relatively easy dish to make, and is tried and tested to work well alongside some cold smoked meats. If they come out nice and crispy, you know you've done the right thing.

         2. Baked Carrots with Cheddar Cheese

    Be careful here not to mistake this for a healthy side, its rich and indulgent, that will pair perfectly alongside some smoked meat, and not extremely common in itself, it'll be sure to amaze your dinner guests.

        3.  Boston Baked Beans

    A nice take on a classic, they'll serve perfectly alongside a bit of meat, without overpowering the main dish you've been so excited to serve.

    Find any of these recipes above at BBQ Focus

    Wrapping it up

    We hope our guide to smoking was useful to you. Whilst cold smoking is a little out of a lot of people's comfort zones and does carry quite a few risks, it can yield delicious rewards when executed properly and safely. With the correct equipment and proper understanding, you may be ready to take on this new challenge of smoking.

    If you have any more questions that weren't covered in this post, or you tried cold smoking yourself, leave a comment below!

    Last update on 2023-10-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

    Written by Adam

    Adam is the creator of the SmokeGuys website, running it since 2016. Hater of coriander, lover of all things meat... Adam currently works in marketing with a dream of being able to make food his full-time 'job' in the longer term.

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