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Cold Smoking vs. Hot Smoking: What's the Difference?

Cold Smoking vs. Hot Smoking: What's the Difference?

When you think of the cooking method of smoking, the view that immediately springs to mind is slowly cooked, succulent meats spending hours in a low and slow cooking smoker until peak tenderness and flavor is reached.

And you would be right. People have been smoking meat of all kinds with heat for ages—both to preserve foods and to add the savory flavors that are infused into meats. But you might be surprised to learn that there is also a technique known as “cold smoking” that has also been in practice for a very long time. And make no mistake, the two methods are vastly different is several ways.

Here, we’re going to take a quick look at how you can enjoy these contrasting smoking methods, as well as some of the more precarious aspects of cold smoking as opposed to traditional smoking …

HOT SMOKING

hot smoking

In the past, we’ve covered several different aspects of the art of smoking from recipe Mouth-Watering Smoker Recipes for Beginners, the differences between Grilling vs. Barbecuing vs. Smoking, our 10 Tips for Smoking Food, and our selection of The Best BBQ Smokers of 2021. But let’s go over the basics of traditional “hot” smoking anyway, since it’s the far more popular smoking process.

With smoking, foodstuffs—everything from brisket, pork butt, turkey, or fish such as salmon—are slowly heated by smoke delivered by smoldering chunks or chips of various woods such as hickory, mesquite, cherry, or apple, all of which can add a uniquely succulent savor to foods. This is done at very low temperatures—typically from 150°F to 250°F depending on the cut of meat or type of seafood. And it can take a quite long period of cooking time, even up to 24 hours. This style of cooking can be quite intricate and exacting, which is why veteran smokers are revered for their experience and skills.

There are different levels of smoking foods for you to experiment with. If you want the efficiency of grilling but would like to dabble with some distinctive woody tastes, many charcoal, gas, and electric grills are equipped with smoker boxes—small, integrated containers you can load with wood chips to easily add a luscious flavor to your meats. But if you want to get serious about your smoking ambitions, then a single-purpose smoker would be the right choice for you. Like our lineup of standard outdoor grills, they come in a wide variety of sizes and configurations to fit your needs.

COLD SMOKING

cold smoking

Cold smoking also has a long history, as it has been used for centuries to keep foods edible over the winter. Many farms and households would often have their own smokehouse for preparing and storing meats.

In basic terms, cold smoking adds a smokey flavor to a variety of foods at a much lower temperature than hot smoking. But the biggest difference between the two methods is that with cold smoking, the food being smoked is NOT being cooked per se. There is no actual direct heat being applied. With cold smoking, the temperature of smoking chamber is kept below 100 degrees, far too low to cook anything effectively even at close range.

The most important point to remember is that the addition of smoke is used exclusively to both preserve foods and add flavor. Properly cold smoked foods can last months if kept in cool, consistent conditions. This means you must be particularly careful with how you approach different foods that have been cold smoked. Because when cold smoking, there’s more to be concerned with than flavoring. It’s an actual matter of health.

cold smoking

When you cold smoke meats—which can include ham, turkey, and beef among many others—there is a specific process to be followed to maintain proper sanitary conditions. First, you must cure the meat. Curing is a process by which meats are preserved by salting or aging to extract moisture and lower bacterial growth. However, it does not eliminate such growth completely. This is best accomplished when the meat is cooked. Think cured bacon versus cooked cured bacon, and you’ll get the idea.

The reason for this is, again, the low temperature at which the meat is being smoked. If not carefully monitored, it may actually encourage bacterial growth, which can be especially prevalent when smoking sausages or fish. So, before you embark on cold smoking these kinds of food products, do you research online for your exact food type and what precautions are necessary. Unless you know very well what you’re doing, you might want to leave cold smoking meats or fish to those who have the experience to keep things safe and sanitary.

cold smoking

But wait!!! Don’t get discouraged so quickly. There are still several foods you can cold smoke to your heart’s content, even if you’re only starting to experiment with the genre. They key to these foods is that they are already safe to eat before smoking, with the smoking process purely to add flavor. These foods include:

  • Cheese
  • Nuts
  • Hard Boiled Eggs
  • Vegetables
  • Beans
  • Garlic

One of the simplest cold smoking subjects is cheese (hard cheeses in particular). It’s a great beginner food for cold smoking that carries minimal risk, and lets you sample results much faster—typically within a few hours.

A basic technique for cold smoking cheeses is to keep the temperature extra low in the smoking chamber to prevent any melting. It also helps if the outside temperatures are relatively cool. You want smoke, not heat. As for the cheese itself, it’s a good idea to let it sit until it reaches around room temperature beforehand to prevent condensation forming on it in the smoking process.

Since smoking as a rule infuses the surfaces of foods with its essence, you should cut the cheese into smaller pieces so each morsel can absorb whatever smoky goodness you’re adding. When smoked to your taste (this may take some trial and error) remove, wrap in plastic wrap, and let sit in the refrigerator for a day or two to augment the flavor.

CONCLUSION

There you have the differences between hot and cold smoking. Hot smoking is itself a craft that take time and trial and experience to master, and cold smoking, while not as common, can also be rewarding. The most important thing is that you do it safely, following recipes correctly, and making sure any uncooked smoked food is properly prepared before consumption. But perhaps you have experience with either technique you would like to share? If so, please share what you’ve learned. We’d be happy to hear about it.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

RELATED QUESTIONS

Is buying a smoker worth it?

Buying a smoker is worth it if you truly enjoy cooking outdoors and want to expand your culinary horizons. Smoking is an entirely different method from grilling. It takes time and patience. But when you taste the results, you’ll know it was worth it.

What should I look for when buying a smoker?

When buying a smoker, you should look for the basic benefits you would look for in any appliance such as dependability, durability brand reputation, price, features, etc. Your smoker should have what you want within your price range without skimping on the tools needed to help you achieve what you want to with a smoker. It’s your choice, so know what you’re looking for before shopping.

What are the best meats to smoke?

The best meats to smoke are those with a higher fat content such as brisket, pork, and ribs as they won’t dry out during the process. But don't limit yourself! There's a smoker recipe out there for virtually any food,