Discover everything you need to know about this age-old venison preservation and flavoring process. Then put the techniques to work creating your own smoked meats.
Hunters and harvesters have been smoking meat for thousands of years. This age-old preservation technique traces its roots back to North America’s native hunter-gatherers, as well as ancient Europeans, who fine-tuned the practice in medieval times and brought it with them to the New World.
Deer hunters and home butchers still harken to traditional times by smoking venison creations. From sausages of every description to jerky and even roasts, ribs, flanks, shoulders, barbecue and other ready-to-serve meats, smoking is a fine and fun way to cure, cook and flavor venison.
HISTORY OF SMOKING
Native American hunter-gatherers smoked both venison and fish. The tribes of the Northwest were especially adept at smoking the salmon they netted or speared in the region’s rivers. The fish were split in half and placed on racks above carefully tended outdoor fires.
In the woodlands of the North and East, some tribes took meat-smoking a step further, capturing smoke inside a tipi structure made of skins, or within a lean-to or other enclosure made of branches, bark and brush.
Across the Atlantic, meat-smoking techniques were refined during medieval times. Scandinavian peoples were especially adept at smoking. Artwork from 15th century France shows workers soaking meats (probably pork) in brine tubs outside what appear to be smoke- house structures. Lords and dukes enjoyed smokehouses on their estates. Rank-and-file folks merely hung meats on the side of their hearths to dry and absorb the smoke. In the New World, smoking became more egalitarian. Plantations had smokehouses, but so did many family farms as the land was cleared for agriculture and settlers moved west. Pork and fowl were smoked, but venison found its way in as well.
COLD-SMOKING AND HOT-SMOKING
There are two kinds of smoking: cold-smoking and hot-smoking. Cold-smoking adds flavor to meat that is otherwise cured with salt and or sugar, and a curing agent such as sodium nitrate or nitrite. Those additives remove moisture from the meat to prevent bacterial growth and make sure the resulting is safe. Cold-smoked meats are usually brought to a temperature of 100 to 120 F. smoke is pumped into an unheated chamber.
Examples of commonly cold-smoked meats include sausages — summer sausage, salami, brats, snack sticks, Polish, kielbasa and brats — as well as ham and bacon. Jerky can be cold-smoked, too. The key idea behind cold-smoking is the meat gets its food-safe properties elsewhere — from the curing agents mentioned — and not the smoke or heat. But pre-cooking and post-cooking the meat are also options.
Hot-smoking performs both cooking and smoking functions to meat, and takes the product’s internal temperature up to at least a foodsafe 160 F. The meat resides in the same chamber as the wood and heat. No curing agents are required for hot-smoked meats, but they are often brined, marinated, sauced or spiced for extra flavor. Examples of hot-smoked venison creations included briskets, ribs, roasts and pulled or shredded meat. The key behind hot-smoking is it gets its foodsafe properties from heating the meat to that specific 160 F temperature or above.
Several choices exist for styles of smokers. The differences revolve around how heat is generated to produce smoke from the wood chips, and in the case of hot-smoking, for cooking the meat.
Electric — An electric smoker is a good choice for home, or a modern camp. Electric smokers produce plenty of heat for both cold- and hot-smoking, and they don’t require you to worry if you have enough fuel. The only drawback is a potential electric- ity or generator outage.
Propane — Propane smokers are excellent. They operate off standard propane tanks, and produce plenty of steady and consistent heat for any smoking purpose. You just set the temperature and go. Fuel usage rates will fluctuate with the temperature you set. Always keep a spare propane tank around should the main one run out of fuel.
Charcoal — Hands down, charcoal smokers produce the best and most natural flavor. But these units are trickiest to operate. The settings are only as good as the operator managing the charcoal and the fire. It takes a lot of experience to juggle the art of using a charcoal smoker. If you’re serious about smoking and can swing it budget-wise, having a char- coal smoker for hot-smoking meals (such as briskets, shoulders or ribs) and a propane or electric smoker for cold-smoking sausages, jerky and other products, is ideal.
Pellets — Pellet smokers use an auger system to feed wood pellets that burn to create both the heat for the unit, and the smoke. Cost-wise, these units are most expensive.
When home butchers ask me what kind of smoker to get, I say you can’t go wrong with any style but if you held my feet to the fire, I’d start with a propane unit for the favorable pricing, unit size options available, ease of use and versatility.
No matter what kind of unit you purchase, look for these features to make your smoking successful.
Temperature Control Gauge — A good smoker lets you set the temper- ature and control the process: 200 to 250 F is a common temperature setting for cold-smoking, to bring the meat up to the 100 to 120 F range. Higher settings (such as 250 to 300) are appropriate for hot-smoking and getting the meat to that 160 F range or above.
Thick Metal — The thicker the metal on your unit, the better. Heat will retain better, and smoking will be more efficient.
Quality Insulation, Seals and Welds — These features assure that the unit will leak less, as well as be more predictable and steady in generating smoke and heat.
Easy Access to Smoking Chamber — Checking your meat too often isn’t good, because heat and smoke escape the unit and you’re always “starting over again.” But when you do need to take a look, you want to be able to get in and out fast. Keep this in mind when considering units.
Pan for Liquid — Good smokers offer a way to add liquid to the cham- ber, which will “steam” up and add moisture when you’re hot-smoking.
Drip Pan — You want a drip pan to catch fat, grease and other drippings that come out of the meat.
Easy-to-Use Shelving, Rack or Hanging System — Make sure the unit is easy to use when you’re adding or removing meat, or doing the rare check-in. Side-access units are best for access. I once had an old electric unit that was top-access, and that’s about as poor an approach as you can get.
Season It First — With any smoker, you should always season it before its first use. Just fire it up while empty and heat it to 200 F to burn off any residues before smoking your first creations.
Here is a good, basic formula for a venison brine to use when hot-smoking a leg, large roast, rack of venison ribs or other cut of venison.
1 gallon water
1⁄2 cup soy sauce
3⁄4 cup kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
1⁄2 cup Worcestershire sauce Other spices to taste
Submerge and soak the meat in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours before smoking. Set the unit at 250 to 300 F. It will take about an hour per pound of meat to hot-smoke it to a foodsafe 160 F.
When you cold-smoke, the meat doesn’t reach a food-safe temperature. That means one of two things: either you cook the meat later to finish it off, or you cure it outright before smoking. Curing is also known as salting the meat — basically, adding a salt or sugar, and either sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate in a compound that does the curing work for you.
Many commercial curing agents are available. Always check the ingredient list to assure that sodium nitrite or nitrate is part of the compound. Some meats (such as jerky) can be soaked or brined in a solution made with the curing agent. But with sausage type products to be cold- smoked, the curing agent is mixed right in with the ground meat. Morton Tender Quick is a well-known brand name product that does a great curing job on game of all kinds.
Choosing the right wood for your smoking project is critical. Different species of wood imbibe different flavors into the final meat product. The first rule is easy: Hardwoods only! Softwoods (such as pines, cedars, firs and hemlocks) give off oily resins, pitch and tar that just taste horrible. Softwood smoke makes meat taste like turpentine, at best. It’s hard to select a poor hardwood to use, but different woods offer different qualities.
Mild-and-Sweet — Fruit woods are great for imparting a gentle, sweet and pleasurable flavor to meats. Apple, peach, cherry, crabapple and pear are excellent choices. Apricot is rare, but wonderful.
Classic Tastes — Several kinds of wood are considered “middle of the road” on the flavor scale. Oak, hickory maple, beech, alder and birch all fall into this category. Birch trends toward the mild-and-sweet end of the spectrum, oak the strong end.
Strong Flavor — One kind of wood is tops for giving meat a strong, Western flavor: mesquite. Acacia is closely related. Cottonwood offers a unique enough flavor to be classified as Western and strong.
Use these concepts when smoking meats, and you’ll end up with better results.
• When cold-smoking, always cure the meat with nitrates or nitrites. It’s tempting to try and use more cure than less, but don’t do it. Follow pack- age directions! It doesn’t take much for these compounds to do their work, and too much of them could be unhealthy.
• When hot-smoking, soak the meat in a brine solution for 12 to 24 hours before smoking.
• Resist the urge to peak constantly as you smoke any meat. Every time you peek and check things out, the environment inside the unit cools down. Set only a conservative check-in schedule and stick to it.
• Remember that white smoke is good, black smoke is bad. Black smoke means something is burning — probably your meat, or grease from it — because the fire is too strong.
• Soak wood chips in water for an hour before using them. This helps them produce more flavorful smoke, longer.
• Place the smoker on a level surface, away from buildings or combustible material.
Thank goodness, way back when, some ancient hunter figured out that smoke can help cure meat while also imparting wonderful flavor. Put these smoker secrets to work on some of the venison from your next whitetail, and taste the great outdoors with every bite.