I’ve started smoking

In my review of 2012, I mentioned that I wanted to try to stay more narrowly focused on a few projects this year instead of dabbling in many and becoming an expert in none, as I am inclined to do. Well, I went ahead and started a new hobby anyway. I’ve had the itch to start exploring the art of smoking foods for some time. More importantly though, procuring a serviceable smokehouse is a prerequisite to what I hope ends up being a deep exploration and survey into the craft of charcuterie. I will write more about this project in some future post, but for now lets talk about smoke.

Smoke is used as a seasoning and should be viewed separately from cooking, which involves applying heat. People don’t always make this distinction, but if you are serious about this you will quickly learn that it is important to be able to control smoke and heat independently of one another. The simplest way to produce smoke is of course by burning wood, but as you know burning wood also produces quite a bit of heat. There are times when you only wish to impart smokiness without rendering fat, such as with smoked salmon, or other cured meats. This is called cold smoking, which typically occurs under 90F.

bradley electric smoker

bradley electric smoker

Smoker

Since I wanted the ability to cold smoke, I decided to go with an electric smoker. Current is much easier to control than fire, and I love the precision that electricity affords me. For non-commercial use, the industry standard and cheapest means of cold smoking is the Bradley Electric Smoker. These start at around $350.00 new for the non-digital version, so they aren’t exactly cheap. However, I was able to find a few failed hobbyists online and convinced one of them to part with his 5-6 year old unit for 100 bucks. This wasn’t in great shape and the motor wasn’t working initially, but after a bit of work I have it running like new.

Buying the smoker is sufficient for most people, and you should probably just stop there. I of course didn’t. I am the guy who leased a two bedroom apartment for just myself so that I could have a spare bedroom to store brewing equipment. Can you make beer with a few stock pots and a spoon? Of course you can, but why bother? To me, if you are going to pursue such a thing, it is more interesting to dissect and attempt to master every part of the process. This requires persistence, and time, and tons of research and learning. These three things are hard to sustain, which is why I usually have trouble seeing things through.

Auber Dual Probe PID

Auber Dual Probe PID

Controller

I am off track though. Clearly, in order to precisely engineer smoke and meat, I need the ability to exactly control the smoker. There is quite a bit of fun to be had in this space. Solutions range from complicated micro-controller setups with a series of thermocouplers and fans that turn on and off to regulate heat, to more simple pre-built all-in-one controllers. I ended up going with an Auber Instruments dual probe controller that is custom-built and calibrated for the Bradley smoker. It was important to me to go with dual probe instead of single. With the single, you can simply control the smoker temperature within one degree of precision. This is probably sufficient for most people, and you should probably just stop there. With the dual probe, however, I can control the smoker temperature with respect to either time, or internal meat temperature. So for example, when I was smoking sausage last weekend, I was able to program the controller as follows:

1.  Raise the smoker temperature to 155 for 2 hours, and apply smoke.

2.  After 2 hours, raise the smoker temperature to 175, until the internal sausage temperature reaches 152. Do not apply smoke.

3.  After the internal temperature reaches 152, drop the smoker temperature to 152, and hold it there for another 2 hours. Do not apply smoke.

I hope you can see how great this is. With this controller I can completely automate the cooking and smoking, executing detailed instructions with exact precision that I couldn’t hope to achieve if I were doing this by hand, blowing on coals. All that is left for me to do is sit back and wait for dinner to be ready.

Here is the smoker and controller all hooked up and hard at work:

 

Other Equipment

A large part of a smoker’s repertoire should of course include sausage making. For this, I needed a few more things. The first thing was a suitable meat grinder. Shannon and I were given a 575 watt KitchenAid mixer for Christmas. This thing is great. It is essentially just a giant electric motor, and is perfectly suited for the task. I passed on the cheaper KitchenAid brand grinder attachment though, since it is has plastic all over the place which many people have unsurprisingly reported begins to crack over time. I felt more comfortable with something that was all stainless steel and food-grade.
Stainless Steel Meat Grinder

The last piece of equipment I needed for sausage making was a sausage stuffer. These are annoyingly expensive given how simple of a machine they are. Yes, you can just use a KitchenAid for this as well. This is probably sufficient for most people, and you should just stop right there. But I was concerned with using the grinder for this purpose as well, since passing the meat through it an additional time may yield unfavorable results, and would take longer. LEM make a great 5 pound stainless steel vertical sausage stuffer that is well constructed and can fill casings quickly.

Results

There have been a lot of words so far, so if you’ve made it this far I suppose you would like to see some results. The first thing I made with my new toy was some smoked salmon. Fish is a bit less forgiving than other meats, so I probably should have started with something a bit easier, such as a pork shoulder. I made a basic cure using pickling salt, garlic powder, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, and teriyaki sauce.

It cured for 14 hours, and looked like this:

I let the fish dry in the fridge for another 36 hours to develop pellicle, a think, sticky surface that develops that the smoke adheres to. I didn’t technically cold smoke this fish, since at this point I didn’t yet have my temperature controller setup. I used Alder, which is a subtle wood that is commonly used with fish. It produces a smoke that has a bit of sweetness and isn’t overpowering. Even though I didn’t technically cold smoke this, I still never let the internal temperature get above 120F, which left the fish quite rare and really showcased the delicate flavors of the smoke and the fish. I was very happy with how this turned out.

The next step was to try my hand at some smoked sausage. I elected for a Slim Jim style spicy beef snack stick, based on this recipe: Spicy Stick Recipe. As it turns out, I live about a two-minute walk from a famous meat market, the Paulina Meat Market. The butchers there are super helpful and experienced and really helped get me on the right track. I bought 4.5 pounds of chuck, and they gave me a few pounds of pure fat at no charge to get my ratio up to the 25% fat ratio I desired.

I spent the next hour frustrated, wondering why my grinder was unable to grind the chuck and fat. Apparently it helps if you assemble it correctly. Like a chump, I mounted the blade backwards which resulted in quite a mess. This mess didn’t quite compare though to when I tried to mix in the seasoning (pink salt, black pepper, red chili pepper, garlic salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, crushed red pepper) in my KitchenAid with bowl that was too full, and had to clean meat off of my walls and drawers. Clearly I am a novice in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the market doesn’t carry collagen or sheep casings in stock. In a pinch I had to use bratwurst sized casings, which were too large for the 1/4 inch stuffing attachment I was using. As a result, the sausages look a bit sloppy, but the defect is purely cosmetic.

The sausages smoked at the schedule described previously, with oak, reaching an internal temperature of 152. I let it sit at 152 for a few extra hours to dry it out more than a traditional sausage would.

It isn’t much to look at, but the flavor is great. I would have liked more heat and will up that next time. They have a fantastic snap to them with each bite. If you are ever considering using synthetic casings, don’t. The smoke took too them really nicely too, and the result is a rich and delicious snack.

Future

The bradley smoker is a fantastic machine that should serve me well for years to come for a range of projects. But it isn’t perfect. I consider it a bit under-powered  It has a single 500 watt heating element, so getting the unit up to temperature in a reasonable amount of time is sometimes troublesome. I haven’t tried yet, but I have doubts that I will be able to get it over 200F. I may have to finish certain meats in the oven. Also, like a traditional oven, the heat is not uniform throughout the cabinet. This requires occasional rotation of the racks when smoking multiple things at once, and opening the smoker causes significant heat loss which again, takes time to recover from.

I put a few bricks wrapped in foil in my smoker to attempt to retain heat better as a temporary measure, but I have a few future projects in mind. A few people have successfully installed an additional 500 watt heating element which obviously drastically improves heat times and max temperatures. Also, I think I can install a simple circulation fan to try to even out the temperature throughout the smoker. I will probably take these projects on once I have a bit more free time.

In the meantime, I am still having a lot of fun. I’ve been hacking and tinkering most of my life. The difference is that I now get to eat my creations.

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