It all started off innocently enough with an invite to a friend's house one afternoon for a “smoke”. I should have known better. All the warning signs were there, he even told me beforehand it would be good “craic”.
Just Say No!
I soon become quite an addict. I'm not talking hard drugs here, instead home smoking food. This first foray has now become an annual event dubbed the “smoke-a-thon”. Initially it was with a sense of trepidation I agreed to attend. I had this terrible thought in the back of my mind that as I'm a chef and my friend is not there may have to be an element of blowing smoke up his backside required to excuse the pun. It all turned out well in the end and the food was indeed delicious. Well seasoned and smoked to perfection.
The offering that day included hot smoked fish featuring sea trout, dabs, salmon, and herring. There was also some rather nice pork belly, the whole lot consumed with generous portions of “sauce” a.k.a. my home brewed beer ( A guide for another day perhaps). As I sat enjoying all these home hot smoked delights I decided that when I get home I was going to have a go at building a cold smoker, to indulge my taste for more expensive and even finer fayre.
Cold Smoking at Home
So off I went trawling the net with my friend Google to find help with plans and guides some of which I will add links for later. YouTube as usual has a bewildering array of all of the aforementioned material.
So the principles of home smoking are in essence extremely simple. You need a heat source to create the smoke flavour which is then cooled and channelled to a smoke box containing your food. Chuck in some preparation, patience and perseverence and you will be blown away by your results. Here are my tips and how I approached the process.
The fire or heat source has to be contained in a box. My version used an old key safe procured from the local estate office and is indeed no more than a plain metal box with two holes drilled in the bottom of the door to allow the passage of air through the fire box. All the fixtures and fittings have been removed, and a hole cut in the top of the box for the scaffold pole I use as a route for the smoke to cool and flow from the fire box to the smoke box where my salmon will be waiting for the magic to happen.
My smoke box is made from wood with a hinged door. You don't need to worry if there are a few gaps in the smoking box as this will help with creating draw from fire to food. I've also heard of people using fridges as smoke boxes but remember that you will need to drill an exhaust vent again for the purpose of drawing smoke through the system.
So there you have it the key being to have a long enough pipe to allow the smoke to cool before it get's to the food otherwise you will be hot smoking not cold.
Fuel and Flavouring for Cold Smoking
A few key tips here. You need a smouldering fire that has burned down, creating mainly heat not flames! I personally start by lighting a hardwood fire as soft wood has too much sap which will give your end product an acrid and bitter flavour. My personal preference is Beech but there are an abundance of good alternatives with Oak, Hickory, Alder, Apple-wood, Plum and Birch all working well.
Once your fire is well established and most of the flames have died down it's time to put on the smoking chips which will be the main flavour provider. Again, there is an abundance of choices, my own preference is to use a mix of 75% Hickory to 25% Oak. The Hickory gives your end product a slight smoked bacon taste and as every chef will know that is no bad thing, and the Oak I add as a nod to the traditionalist in me as it imparts that classic creamy smoked flavour. Most importantly your chips need to be damp not soaking wet or dry. Dry wood chips will burn too fast and a soaking wet chip will simply put the fire out!
Preparing Your Food
This is my recipe for preparing one side of Salmon. It is important here to be patient and plan well ahead as to do this properly does take a long time. I generally don't measure too rigidly, as a rule of thumb I generously season with salt and rub with a mix of 75ml of Speyside whisky (I find the Islays malts are too medicinal) and three tablespoons of brown sugar. Crack 10 coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar and sprinkle them over. Now let nature take its course and let the salt draw the moisture from the fish, this curing will take from 3 – 4 hours.
After curing, wash the fish in cold water to remove any remaining traces of salt and pat dry. The fish should be left to air dry for 8-12 hours before smoking. Drying is a very important part of the process as it develops a layer on the outside of the fillet which assists in the absorption of smoke flavour.
Now for the magic! Into the smoker it goes, I like to give my salmon 12 hours. If you prefer a heavy smoke try a little longer and vice versa for a lighter smoke. So after all this effort, and remember you only have to build a smoker once, I promise barring any major disasters you will have a smoked salmon that is unique and more than likely a country mile better than any commercially smoked salmon you can buy. After you master your techniques the possibilities are endless. Why not try smoking some cheese, butter, sausages, or a braised ox tongue just for starters.
A couple of useful links:
And of course check out YouTube as well. Please leave any comments or questions below.