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meat smoking Meat smoking is a method of preparing red meat, chicken, turkey and fish which originated in prehistory. Its purpose was preservation of these high protein meats, which would spoil quickly otherwise. There are two facets of this preservation: dehydration and the known antibacterial properties of absorbed smoke. In this day and age the enhanced flavor of smoked meats makes them a delicacy in many cultures.

The smoking of animal meats and fish is a practice that has been used for ages. It often may have been used during the dehydration of fish to keep away flies, but they found that the absorbed smoke acted as a preservative. Smoking is the process of flavoring, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to the smoke from burning or smoldering plant materials, most often hardwoods. In Europe, alder is the traditional smoking wood, but the use of oak is far more prevalent now, with beech to a lesser extent.

In North America, hickory, mesquite, oak, pecan, alder, maple, and fruit-tree woods, such as plum, apple and cherry, are also often used for smoking. Other fuels besides wood can also be put to use, sometimes with the addition of flavoring ingredients. Meats and fish are the most common of smoked foods, though cheeses, vegetables, and other ingredients used in making beverages such as beer, smoked beer and lapsang souchong tea are also smoked. Chinese tea-smoking uses a mixture of uncooked rice, sugar, and tea which is heated at the base of a wok.

meat smokingSmoked meats in the southern states of America, called barbecue or BBQ were developed in order to make use of the less expensive cuts of meats. The low temperature and slow cooking methods tenderized the connective tissues in the meat and made these cuts much more palatable. Usually prepared in a low temperature environment of about 200°F to 300°F or 93°C to 149°C, they generally require a significant amount of time to prepare. This method of cooking breaks down the connective tissues and collagens within the meat, and renders out much of the fat.

Barbcued meats have become a culinary art form with hundreds of competitions held every year across the United States. In the southeastern states, pulled pork and pork ribs are the most common smoked meat, while brisket, beef ribs and sausage are more popular in Texas and the southcentral states. Chicken and turkey have also been cooked on smokers throughout the entire country. Pork was also a popular meat for smoking since pigs were usually slaughtered in the fall and their meat could be preserved right on the farm to last through the entire winter. Smoked pork was also found in China as well as throughout Europe.

Some North American ham and bacon makers smoke their products over burning corncobs. Peat is also burned to dry and smoke the barley malt used to make whisky and some beers. In New Zealand, sawdust from the native Manuka (tea tree) is commonly used for smoking fish. In Iceland, dried sheep dung is used to cold-smoke fish, lamb, mutton and whale.

meat smokingHistorically, farms in the Western world usually had a small building, known as the smokehouse, where meats would be smoked and stored. This was generally located well separated from the other buildings due to the possible fire danger and because of the odor of the smoke emanations.

Smoking is a good meat preservative because smoke contains chemical compounds that retard the growth of harmful bacteria. More than three hundred components of smoke have been identified such as Carbonyl compounds in the smoke which contribute to the distinctive flavor and aroma of smoked meat, while carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide help produce the bright red colored pigment. Phenolic compounds in the smoke play a role in protecting the fat from oxidizing and turning rancid, which is no doubt a major reason why historically, fatty foods, such as herring or pork, were and still are, so often smoked.

The basic composition of smoke changes as the temperature of the fire gets higher, with the best quality smoke produced at a temperature of around 650° to 750°F. The control of the humidity in the smokehouse also plays a role since high humidity favors absorption of smoke on the surface of the food and enhances the flavor. High humidity also assists in the process of rendering fat from the meat.

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