DIY - Smoked Meat
Finished working smoke houses
The basic truths about smoking meat.
- Practically any type of meat can be smoked. From beef to fish and about everything in between.
- Nitrates for curing are highly recommended but not completely necessary.
- Temperature is key when it comes to smoking meat.
- Not all woods are created equal.
- Even seasoned veterans can mess up.
Now, when considering what meat to use for smoking also consider some commonsense. Start with a fresh piece of meat. You might think, why not just buy some ground beef at the grocery store. There are two problems there. One, you have no idea how old that ground beef is. And, two the fat content will be too high for smoking.
Let me explain the reasoning behind both if these problems. First, a nice aged steak might be delicious for dinner, but don't use aged meat for smoking. There is a friendly little pathogen called E. Coli that would like to make a home inside you and cause all sorts of problems. As the meat "ages" these germs have more chances to grow. Since smoked meat only just gets to 160° there is a change some may still survive. So fresh is safer. Don't worry about the aged beef you get at your top of the line restaurants. Those temperatures hit 400° really fast on the surface of the steak.
The other reason is that a higher fat content will also mean your smoked meat won't last as long. Fat is delicious don't get me wrong. Nothing adds more flavor to a good cut of meat. Think about the price of steaks, Porterhouse, Delmonico, or NY Strip. They all have a marbled fat in the center. That's what make them tender and expensive. After time fat in meat will get rancid. If you never smelled something that is rancid then consider yourself lucky. Since fat can get rancid quicker than your meat is going to spoil, the less fat in your meat the longer it will last. There are exceptions and I will explain some of those later.
You might be asking where is the best place to get meat for smoking. The absolute best place is, "in the woods". There is nothing better than a fresh piece of venison for your smoker. Maybe you don't hunt, or possibly you don't live anywhere it would be possible to hunt. The next best place is a well established and trusted butcher. Your mom and pop meat market who has been in business for 30 years. There is a reason they have stayed open that long with prices slightly higher prices than the grocer. It's because they base business on good honest service and quality products. Most of the time your butcher will be glad to help you get a good meat for your needs. Let them know what you are up to and I am sure they will lead you in the right direction.
Leave venison will make excellent jerky
What are Nitrates?
Nitrates or Potassium Nitrate is the chemical KNO3. It goes by another name, saltpeter. Its used as fertilizer, a component of fuel for rockets, and since the middle ages a meat preservative.
Many things can be used to preserve meat; sugar, salt, and smoke itself. But, Nitrates kill that nasty little thing called botulism. So here's the twist. There is a huge movement against nitrates because scientist 20 years ago tied nitrates to cancer. Whether those ties snapped or the scientists were snapped its hard to say. Take some time to read about nitrates and where they occur naturally. Don't listen to hype, look the answers yourself. You may be surprised by what you find.
My dad had a saying. If you eat any more of that you're going to turn into one. "THAT" was the "THING" we loved at the time. Green apples before they were ripe was a favorite of mine. And not so favorite if you know what I mean. My sister could eat a whole stick of butter. But that's just gross. Although, I thought my dad was just crazy he did have a point. Everything in moderation. If you eat hotdogs every meal every day you are going to get sick. One, because you aren't getting other nutrients you need and two, you will turn in to Job's wife and become a pillar of salt. So if all you eat is the meat you smoked with nitrates and nothing else. You will get sick. You might want to because it will taste so good, but hold off the urge.
I didn't tell you to use nitrates or not. Sorry, its up to you. I know I do and that's my choice. But, I'm not keen on botulism either.
You won't find the nitrate isle in the grocery store. You need too look for curing salt. Some stores have a hunters section with spices and you may find it there. Some stores carry it with the regular salt and other spices. Or, you can always ask the meat department. Just don't tell them you are going somewhere else for the meat. These items come in 2 ways. There is a quick cure that contains salt, sugar, and nitrites. This product is what I use in my recipes. And then there is curing salt that is just salt and nitrite which you would use at smaller amounts. It is tinted pink to help from getting these 2 two items mixed up.
Quick Cure - Salt, Sugar, Sodium Nitrite @ 0.65%
Curing Salt - Salt and Sodium Nitrite @ 6.25%
Recipes that have salt already in them would use the curing salt whereas recipes without salt will most likely use the quick cure.
Temperature is Key
There are a few temperatures you need to remember.
- 40°F - Store meat at this temperature or lower.
- 40°F-140°F - Bacteria grows best.
- 160°F - Meat at this temperature is considered "done".
- 190°F - 220°F - Ideal temperature to smoke meat.
- 275° - This temperature is for Barbequing and slow cooking meat.
Obviously, refrigerators hold hold temps below 45°, probably right around 38°,but bacteria still grows at those temperatures. True, but it is very slow. Around 80° is the best temp to grow bacteria if you really, really wanted to. You can keep meat that is ready to be smoked in the refrigerator for 30 hours max in my opinion.
Most recipes for cooking say preheat the oven. The same is true for your smoker. I start mine at 190° and then increase as time goes on.
To test your meat for doneness, use a good meat thermometer and test the center of the thickest part of the meat.
You can smoke and Barbeque at the same time. Ribs or pork shoulder are usually prepared that way.
All wood is not good.
In my part of the world the best wood for smoking is hickory or maple. I have used cherry and apple before but apple is hard to come by. People really don't like you to cut down their apple trees. Cherry and Maple have a mild smoke flavor where hickory is more intense. Mesquite is supposed to be very good but it doesn't grow around here.
Never use any kind of pine. Pine might smell nice burning but, it puts out a tar pitch that would be very nasty tasting. It might even make you sick. Fresh oak would do in a pinch. Sassafras and Birch impart a nice flavor to the meat. But I always stick to hickory. If you don't know what hickory looks like, you can tell by the smell. Fresh cut hickory smells like a wet horse. That might sound gross but the smoke is good, trust me.
Depending on how your smoker is heated will determine how to cut the wood. If you use a wood fired burner, then 2 x 2 x 10 inches pieces of split fresh wood would be ideal. The measurements are just a starting basis. Nice small uniform pieces are best. If you are using an electric smoker then damp wood chips are ideal. Either way fresh wood is best.
Shag Bark Hickory
Everyone makes mistakes
I have been smoking various kinds of meat for quite a few years and I just built this new smoker I have pictured above. I used it one day to make some beef jerky. It was horrible. I'm not sure what I did. I might have gotten a bad piece of wood by mistake made the temperature too hot. Either way it was nasty. So like I said everyone makes mistakes. I made the same kind of jerky in it about a month later and it was amazing.
I have a list of suggestions for beginners to make things more foolproof.
- Buy a smoke oven that requires electricity. You can control the temperature and time very accurately. This eliminate many pitfalls of a large fire heated smoker.
- Plan ahead, think about the time you need to make your end product. There is nothing more fun than sitting up at 2 am getting your meat out of the smoker when you know you have to go to work in a few hours.
- Make small batches to test your recipes. No use ruining large amounts of meat if you find you don't care for a certain recipe.
- Know enough of the basic rules to know which one can be broken or at least stretched a little.
Jerky, Snack Stick or What?
When making jerky you want to remove all the fat you can from the meat. The photo above of the venison loins shows very little fat. That is characteristic of that cut of venison. These are the kinds of meat you want to use for jerky. When you talk to your butcher ask him for the leanest cut of meat. Chances are it will be very reasonably priced. My butcher gets fresh cuts of eye of round for me when i need jerky meat. Eye of round is from the back leg. You have top round, eye of round and bottom round. The legs get a lot of work and the meat is tough mostly muscle. Ideal for jerky.
When we hunt and get a deer. We process the meat fast and get in the freezer. We either grind it then freeze it or freeze it in chunks depending what need it for later. I know I told you to use fresh meat but, if you killed, cleaned and froze the meat yourself, you know where its been. If you trust yourself that you've taken good care of the meat along the process then it will be very safe for use in jerky.
Snack sticks are something else we make. If you are not familiar with the term, think of a slim-jim with less fat, more meat and less preservatives. Remember the lean meat rule. Yeah, that's out the door in this product. I have made snack sticks with lean venison and although they have a good flavor, they feel like sawdust in your mouth.
The ratio is 8:2, I use 8 pounds venison to 2 pounds ground beef. Fresh ground beef that I grind or from the butcher. Not the grocery store. Again tell the butcher what you are planning. The ground beef needs to have fat in it to taste or "feel" right in your mouth. No more than 20 percent fat is good. Snack sticks need casings When you buy your casings from make sure they will take smoke and they are edible. Why take the trouble of smoking something if you are not getting smoke into it.
A lot of companies make sausage stuffers. The best I have found is one from a company called LEM. You can buy stuffers that have a lever that you press. It looks something like an old well pump. They don't work well at all. The meat slips past the plunger and the handle is much to hard to press. You can get an attachment for a kitchen-aid mixer. Although Kitchen-Aid is an excellent company, the stuffer attachment doesn't work well either. I will place a link for the LEM stuffer at the end of the article. You can certainly try others but you will eventually come back to this one.
LEM Sausage stuffer
- Sausage Stuffers - 5 lb. Stainless Steel Vertical Sausage Stuffer With Stainless Steel Stuffing Tube
5 lb. stuffer with stainless steel tubes! The 5 lb. vertical sausage stuffer has a stainless steel base, cylinder and all metal gears. Clamp the stuffer to a table or counter top and crank out perfect sausage every time. Comes with 3 stainless steel
CAN YOU DO IT?
After reading this article how more likely are you to try smoking your own meat?
Check out my next article coming soon.
I am preparing another article to follow this one which will contain more ideas for recipe and preparation.