Cold or hot smoking – which method is best?


Smoking is the process of flavouring, browning, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning or smoldering material, most often wood. How exactly is it done and what equipment will you need? Which method is best - cold or hot smoking?

Kaltes und heißes Rauchen


Smoking is the process of flavouring, browning, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning or smoldering material, most often wood. How exactly is it done and what equipment will you need? Which method is best – cold or hot smoking?

Smoking – a traditional cooking method

Smoking is a classic way of preserving food. With this method, food products are exposed to smoke.

During the smoking process, the food is heat-treated and additionally saturated with chemical compounds that influence the taste, smell and shelf life of the food. Meat, fish or other food will be dried and preserved during smoking. Smoke may have bactericidal and fungicidal properties.

You can achieve different results depending on the wood used and also the temperature. So what is the difference between cold, warm and hot smoking?

Cold smoking vs hot smoking?

Cold or hot smoking – which method is the best for beginners? Using a higher temperature is generally easier.

This is due to the fact that hot smoking of meat or fish is relatively faster, and the entire process can be completed within a few hours. However, bear in mind that a shorter smoking process will mean that the food will not be so saturated with the smoke’s ingredients, which mainly accumulate in the outer layer. Moreover, the shelf life of food after hot smoking will be relatively short, ranging from several days to several weeks. This is a good method if you want to give the meat or fish the specific flavour of smoked food in a short time.

Smoking at higher temperatures may take place at a lower air humidity compared to cold smoking, at a level of 70-90%. The procedure itself can be divided into three phases: The first is to dry the products at a temperature of 25-45 degrees Celsius. The second stage is smoking, at a temperature oscillating around 50 degrees Celsius. The meat or fish can then be roasted at a temperature in the range of 80-90 degrees Celsius.

How to cold smoke: cold smoking temperature

Smoking with cold smoke is a more time-consuming method, as food needs to be exposed to smoke for up to a dozen or so days. You will, however, often achieve better results compared to hot smoking, especially in terms of flavour, as the smoke penetrates deep into the food.

Food dries evenly with this method, and meat or fish can lose up to 20% of its original weight. However, the food will have a consistent texture throughout and will be very well preserved.

Cold smoking takes place at a temperature of 16-25 degrees Celsius, with air humidity exceeding 90 percent. If you are going to try this method with an outdoor smoker, you will get cold smoke more easily in winter or early spring. In summer it will be more difficult to control the temperature and make sure the stove is cool.

With the cold smoking method it is recommended to stoke the smoke during the day, while at night you should extinguish the fire and let the products “air out”. This procedure is repeated daily until the desired smoking effect is obtained.

Which wood is best for smoking?

The first important thing to keep in mind when choosing wood for cold and hot smoking is that you should avoid conifers such as pine, redwood, fir, spruce, cypress, or cedar. These trees contain high levels of sap and terpenes, and can make people sick. Coniferous wood also gives an unpleasant taste. The only exception is juniper, although it is used as an additive at the end of smoking.

The wood most recommended for cold smoking is oak, and beech and alder are recommended for hot smoking. The mentioned types of wood provide a lot of smoke and burn easily. Fruit trees are also popular, because they give food a specific flavour and smell. Apple wood gives smoked food a distinct sweet flavour, while cherry wood will make it slightly bitter.

The size of the pieces of wood and their level of moisture are also important factors in cold and hot smoking. Larger pieces are rather used to start the fire. The smoke, in turn, is thickened using smoking wood chips and shavings. At the initial stage of smoking, i.e. drying, it is best to use dry wood. For the main smoking stage you can add slightly more moist wood, which will help maintain humidity in the smoking chamber.

How to smoke meat?

Cold or hot smoking of meat is best preceded by curing. What is curing? This process helps to preserve ham, pork loin or bacon, which will prevent the meat from going off.

A popular method of curing before cold or hot smoking is soaking in a solution prepared from water with the addition of rock salt, pickling salt or a mixture of the latter two ingredients. The meat should be kept in the refrigerator for several days and turned over daily. After the curing is complete but before being put into the smoker, the ham, bacon or other meat you are going to prepare must drain off. After taking it out of the refrigerator, you can rinse it and let it dry, then wipe it dry with a cloth.

After cold or hot smoking, the meat can be additionally scalded in water with spices to add extra flavour. Another way to extend the shelf life is steaming.

Smoking fish – what do you need to remember?

Fish also needs to be properly prepared before smoking. Fish can be smoked steaks or fillets, or whole after removing the eyes and gills. It should be washed and soaked in brine, but for shorter than meat, from half an hour to three hours, depending on the size. If smoked in steaks, try to divide the fish into equal pieces, so that particular pieces will not become too salty.

As in the case of ham or bacon, after brining it is rinsed in water and then dried. The pieces of fish should not touch each other during smoking. When they are ready, you can let them cool down to reach the temperature at which they will be stored, and wrap them in parchment paper.

A smokehouse and additional food smoking equipment – what will you need for smoking?

To smoke meat or fish you will first of all need a smokehouse. You can build a cheap version in your garden.

A basic smokehouse can be prepared from a barrel. Just cut out the bottom and put it on bricks, which will serve as the furnace. This type of smokehouse is mainly suitable for hot smoking, while cold smoking may require building a brick smokehouse.

You can make a smoking chamber from fireclay bricks, which are resistant to high temperatures. For cold smoking, it will need to locate the furnace a few metres from the smoker. The fire source connects to the chamber with a smoke channel, which can be made of a pipe, concrete rings or bricks.

A small garden smokehouse can also be made of wood. You could make it yourself or buy a ready-made version. Regardless of whether you decide to choose a brick, wooden or other type of chamber, a smoke generator will come in handy. This simple solution will also let you smoke using a grill or grate, and it helps to evenly distribute smoke, which improves the process of hot and cold smoking.

It may also be a good idea to have some fish and meat smoking hooks. These are used to hang the food you want to smoke and you can easily turn or change the position of the food in the smoker. Hooks can be a more convenient solution than using a wire rack or mesh, because they are reusable and are often also dishwasher safe.

If smoking is to be done by a restaurant chef, the restaurant could use an electric food smoker. Electric food smokers have the advantage that you can set the exact temperature and duration of smoking. You will also have more control over the process and this type of equipment is universal, suitable for cold, warm and hot smoking.

In addition, electric smoking ovens can be equipped with functions such as a wood refilling drawer that can be pulled out without opening the door, and grease collecting shelves. Stainless steel food smokers are practical, as they are easy to keep clean. This a good solution not only in commercial kitchens, but also at home. If you do not have enough space in your garden to build a classic smokehouse, you could opt for an electric one, which you could keep in your pantry or basement.

Cold and hot smoking – summary

Cold or hot smoking ham, salmon or bacon is an effective way to add flavour and preserve food. Smoked meat or fish can also be an interesting addition to restaurant menus, and can be served as a side dish or a main course. Good wines for serving with smoked food include heavier and expressive white wines, and mild wines with a fruity body.

When smoking, make sure you control the temperature . If you don’t have much experience, hot smoking will be easier to get used to before you have enough practice to attempt cold smoking.

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