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Last Updated on October 12, 2021
Before I begin telling you how to do it, it needs to be hammered in that cold smoking is in some ways “dangerous”. While you’re unlikely to injure yourself or anything like that (though it always pays to be careful any time you’re dealing with fire), meats that are cold smoked can sometimes be a hotbed for bacteria, and you should use an abundance of caution to avoid this; the bacteria that cause botulism and listeria thrive in the environments created by cold smoking, and can be deadly.
In general, meat needs to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit to be considered fully safe to consume, and the below 90 degrees Fahrenheit temperature required for cold smoking are well within the ”danger zone” that professional cooks need to be so wary of; those hot dogs you see in convenience stores aren’t kept hot just to make them more enjoyable to eat, it’s to help keep bacteria from forming in the already cooked meat.
Still, with the proper precautions you shouldn’t need to worry too much about this. Just ensure you do it right (which hopefully this article will help with), and if you’re at all nervous, stick with cold smoking things like cheese, which are significantly safer, and avoid cold smoking ground meats, which are the most dangerous to undercook in any capacity: even something like a medium rare hamburger can be a risk, particularly for those who are immunocompromised.
If you’re especially worried about the health risks of cold smoked food, keep in mind that many (such as cold smoked hams) can be cooked after cold smoking; the cold smoking process is just done to add flavor to the meat. In this case, the risks are obviated. The main risk in cold smoked foods comes from things like lox (cold smoked salmon) or salami which are designed to be eaten as-is, and are dangerous if prepared improperly.
Now that we have that out of the way though, let’s go over the process.
1. Deciding Your Setup
There are a number of ways to go about preparing for cold smoke, some of them more involved or more expensive than others.
Electric Cold Smoking
By far the easiest method is to use an electric smoker. High quality electric smokers have a cold smoking setting (or a conversion kit that is easy to install), which makes the process extraordinarily simple; set it and forget it until it’s done, easy as pie. The drawbacks? Electric smokers, particularly ones with multiple heat settings that go into the cold smoking range can be quite expensive, especially if you’re needing to buy an extra cold smoking attachment to go along with it.
Included in this method is the idea of using a smoke generator; it achieves much the same result, though with significantly less smoke longevity. As a bonus, these are compatible with pretty much any smoker whether you use gas or pellet.
DIY Cold Smoking Rig
The more common and affordable option would be to simply make your own cold smoker, in a way. You can simply take two fireboxes (a small kettle grill and a drum smoker work well together for this purpose), and connect them via a pipe or hose; simple heat resistant hose (like duct hose, the same as you’d use for your dryer) can be purchased for surprisingly cheap from a lot of hardware stores.
You can build a small fire in the smaller grill, and find some way to fan it through the hose into your larger smoking setup; something like a computer fan works, or a specially made grill fan (many automatic temperature controllers could perform the job).
This setup has quite a few extra drawbacks compared to simply using a premade cold smoker, however.
The first is that it’s a bit of a fire hazard. You’ll need to keep an extra close eye on it to make sure nothing catches fire. This is especially important if you’re using an even jankier setup (such as a fire pit or box instead of a grill for the smoke box).
The second is of course its inherently jury-rigged nature. This is not a stable setup, and will be a pain each and every time you try to use it.
While by far the least expensive option here, it’s one I’d only recommend if you’re just trying to get a feel for cold smoking before jumping into the deep end. This is not a long term viable setup if you plan to cold smoke regularly.
In a lot of ways, this is my favorite option. A smoking tube is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fairly long tube of metal, about a foot long on average, with a number of perforations in it.
You simply add wood pellets to one end, light them, and then blow out the fire. It produces smoke (enough for somewhere between 3 and 6 hours of smoking on one fill), and you can simply stick it in your unlit grill.
Easy smoking with no muss or fuss.
What’s the drawback? Honestly, not really any. This is a quick, cheap, and effective method of cold smoking. The only thing I might be able to pinpoint as a con is that it needs to be closely monitored to ensure it’s still smoldering, as these can be unreliable in some ways, but it’s a fairly small chore in the grand scheme, and one most other setups besides the electric smoker option will fall afoul of.
There are around 10 to 15 different ways to prepare a cold smoking setup, but most are relatively ineffective, hard to pull off, or are limited in usage (for example, smoking with ice is great for cheese but not much else).
In the long run, using one of these other three options is going to be by far the most practical solution available to you.
2. Cold Smoking Basics
Getting your work station setup for cold smoking is by far the most complex process here. The rest is simple: you choose what you’re going to smoke, and then rigorously monitor the temperature.
As mentioned, cold smoking requires that you keep the temperature below 90 degrees Fahrenheit for however long you’re cooking. The only thing that is typically going to vary for different foods is cooking time, rather than anything to do with the temperature.
Cheese is an excellent choice of food to smoke on your first try. Cheese carries minimal risks even if you botch the process; the worst possible outcome is that your cheese melts and the dish is ruined.
To smoke cheese (or anything else), the setup is simple. Bring your cold smoking setup of choice up to heat, and then add the cheese to the environment.
For cheese, you’ll be wanting to smoke for between 2 and 4 hours, depending on how “smoky” you want it to be. This can also vary a bit depending on the different types of cheese and wood you use; if you’re using a very strongly flavored wood, you might want to cut the time down a little bit to ensure the cheese isn’t absolutely overwhelmed by the smoke flavor. I’ve eaten a lot of smoked cheese, and the worst ones are always the ones that taste like you’ve bitten into a particularly soft piece of cedar wood or something rather than a nice cheddar.
As an extra little tip: bring your cheese up to room temperature before adding it to the grill. This reduces condensation, which can increase flavor and help with the temperature regulation inside the grill or smoker you’re using.
This is, really, all there is to it. The process is simple, and you can do it with almost anything (cheese, fruit, fish, cured meats, even vegetables if they’re fairly sturdy), so have fun and experiment!
Cold smoking is a simple and rewarding process anybody can do at home, with a plethora of ways to both set up your work area and what ingredients to choose to smoke in the first place.
However, this simplicity doesn’t mean the process is EASY. It requires extremely close monitoring to ensure the temperature stays exactly how you want it for hours on end, hence it best to do a dry run or run the smoker with a forgiving food (like cheese) before moving onto the more finicky options like cold smoked salami or lox.
Improperly cold smoked food can make you ill, or even kill you, so don’t take chances with your own health or that of your family or friends; make sure you have the process down and know full well what you’re doing before diving too deep into the wide world of cold smoking.