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The Ancient Art and History of Smoked Food

Smoking food has been used for preserving and flavoring food since ancient times. It is both a culinary art and science as besides preserving food, it adds a flavor and an appeal to certain foods by imparting a rich brown color.

Smoked salmon
Smoked salmon
In this article, we explore the history of smoked food and its increasing popularity from restaurants to home barbecues, as creative chefs and recreational cooks continue with the ancient art of cooking to create some delightful dining experiences.

A Brief Introduction to Smoked Food

Smoking is a method of processing food for the purpose of preserving or improving its flavor by exposing it to smoke, most often from burning wood. The drying action of the smoke and the different phenol compounds present in wood smoke helps to preserve the protein-rich foods such as fish and meat.

Barbecue pit sketch by Horace Bradley published in 1887
Barbecue pit sketch by Horace Bradley published in 1887
Smoking of fish and meat has been done for ages and its origins date back to prehistory, but during the course of its evolution, it has become an important culinary tradition and culture in many regions around the world, due to its ability to enhance the food flavors, besides preserving it.

Smoking is one of the oldest food preservation methods and though its use had briefly declined during the mid-20th century owing to the popularity of chemical preservatives, it has yet again become an important culinary practice in many cultures with more creative methods of production.

An European smoke house diagram printed in 1849
An European smoke house diagram printed in 1849
Smoking of fish in Scandinavia and Pacific Northwest America and production of smoked hams and sausages in Europe and United States are just a few examples of the large scale use of smoking foods and the sophistication of modern smoking processes.

Types of Smoking Processes

There are three major types of smoking processes depending on the the smoking temperature and exposure of the food to smoke and heat which influences the cooking process and also determines the final flavor.

Cold smoking

Cold smoking is used to preserve food for an extended period of time and to enhance the flavors of the food. Cold smoked meats may be smoked for up to several hours or even days to preserve the meat.

When the cold smoking process is used to enhance flavors, the food is smoked at temperatures between 25 to 46 °C (77 to 115 °F) depending on the type of food—it does not cook the food but adds a smoked flavor to it without losing a lot of moisture.

This process can be used as a flavor enhancer for foods like beef, chicken breasts, pork chops, salmon, steak and cheese. The food item is first air dyed to form a protein coating known as pellicle, which besides absorbing the smoke flavors acts as a protective barrier for the food during smoking. The smoking period varies and is usually just long enough to obtain a good smoked flavor. Some cold smoked foods are baked, grilled, steamed or sautéed before eating.

Since cold smoking does not cook the food, the meat must be fully cured before smoking. Some food items can be kept safely for months or even years without refrigeration. Bacon, ham, salami and smoked sausage are some examples of cold smoked meats.

Hot smoking

In hot smoking the food is exposed to both heat and smoke in a controlled environment. Hot smoking occurs within the range of 60 to 85 °C (140 to 185 °F) depending on the type of food, which ensures that the food is cooked besides the addition of flavor. Higher temperatures and longer duration can result in excessive loss of moisture and loss of flavors from the fat content hence the process needs a controlled environment.

Similar to cold smoking, the food item is first air dyed to form a protein coating known as pellicle, before hot smoking. Additionally, the meat is typically seasoned with salt, sugar, and various herbs and spices to add flavor.

In hot smoking the food can be served immediately after smoking but some food may be re-heated or cooked. Sometimes the meat may be shredded, sliced, or pulled and then simmered in sauce, as in the case of pulled pork.


Smoke-roasting process combines the attributes of smoking and roasting and is more commonly referred to as barbecuing or pit-roasting.

It may be done in a smoke roaster, closed wood-fired brick oven or barbecue pit, any smoker that can reach above 185 °F (85 °C), or in a conventional oven by placing a pan filled with hardwood chips on the floor of the oven so that the chips can burn slowly with smoke but not flames.

The Ancient Art of Smoking Food

Though technology has introduced more sophisticated machines and gadgets for smoking, the art and processes of creating flavorful food from smoking are still the same, as from the ancient times. The following are the some of the most important elements of creating delicious smoked food.

Smoked meat sandwich
Smoked meat sandwich
  1. A brine which consists of either salt mixed in water or plain dry salt (dry brine) is an important per-requisite of smoking. Seasonings may also be added to the brine for flavoring. During brining, the salt water enters the cells of the proteins of the meat or fish, hydrating them and resulting in a juicier protein.

    The salt and any spices that have been added to the brine also get absorbed by the proteins due to the breakdown of muscle proteins by the salt, hence resulting in tender, seasoned meat. Brining time can vary from 8-16 hours, depending on the size and thickness of the meat.

    Wet brine results in the smoked meat being more juicer due to the absorption of the liquid during brining while a dry brine will have a better flavor and texture.
  2. Drying the meat or fish in open air for 1-3 hours before smoking, creates a protein coating known as pellicle, which besides evenly absorbing the smoke flavors acts as a protective barrier for the food during smoking.
  3. Selection of the wood is an important element of smoking as different types of wood add different flavors to the meat or fish, besides having different flavor strength. It must also be noted that smoke flavor is influenced by the climate and soil in which the wood is grown besides the wood species.

    Hickory is the most popular wood used for smoking which adds a smoky pungent flavor to meats. Hickory along with oak, maple and pecan are known to give a medium to delicate smoke flavor to the meats while mesquite provides the strongest flavor. Alder is considered the best wood for smoking salmon as it adds a smooth mild flavor while oak is a favorite among many for smoking beef and pork.
  4. Heat, time and smoke are the holy trinity of smoking food. Different foods have different requirements for heat and time. Higher temperatures and longer duration can result in excessive loss of moisture and loss of flavors from the fat content, besides over-smoking can overpower the flavors of the food.

    The key to smoking is to allow the meat treated with brine and spices to slowly cook while taking in the smoke flavors, to develop a very tender and flavorful taste.

Some Common Smoked Foods

Smoked food cooking practices and traditions can be found in many countries around the world. In this article we will explore some common meat, fish and cheese smoked foods.


Barbacoa is a form of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean with the Taíno people, an indigenous group, from the Caribbean islands. They are known to have marinated their foods in tropical herbs and spices and cooked them over a wood fire, which made their food flavorful while also preserving it for long periods.

The Taínos called their preparations 'barabicu', or 'sacred fire pit', that over time became known as 'barbecue'.

The barbacoa style of cooking can also be found in Mexico where it refers to meats slow-roasted or steamed over an open fire, or more traditionally, cooked in a fire pit, using a large pot that contains the meat wrapped with maguey (agave) leaves, along with other ingredients including herbs and spices. The meat is cooked for several hours during which it develops a flavorful taste and a tender moist texture.

Cooking methods for barbacoa can vary across different regions but the end product is the same—tender, easily shredded delicious meat.

Southern BBQ

Smoke meats from the southern United States famously knows as Southern BBQ or Barbecue were developed to use the cheaper and tough cuts of meats, such as from wild pigs or cows driven across the country by cowboys as in Texas. These meats when cooked over a high temperature for short duration were almost inedible due to their firm and strong texture but when cooked over a longer period of time using low heat tasted delicious and tender.

The terms 'low' and 'slow' are the important elements of barbecuing as the process allows the meat soaked in brine and spices to slowly cook while taking in the smoke flavors to develop a very tender and flavorful taste.

Barbecue sandwich with pickled cucumber
Barbecue sandwich with pickled cucumber
The sauces and methods of barbecue preparation varies across different Southern regions. Carolina and Memphis are known for their pork and represent the oldest styles of barbecuing. In Carolina, the pork is served mostly pulled, shredded, or chopped while Memphis barbecue is known for its pork ribs.

Texas and Kansas City use both beef and pork. Texas has 4 different regional styles based on the way the meat is seasoned and smoked. The spices and sauces used in the preparation differ as well as the choice of wood used for smoking. These regional styles are grouped as East Texas, Central Texas, South Texas, and West Texas.

Kansas City barbecue uses a wide variety of meat and is known for its sweet tomato-based sauce served with the dry-rub seasoned smoked meat.

Santa Maria-style barbecue which dates back to the mid-19th century is a culinary tradition in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County on the Central Coast of California. It uses beef cut from the bottom sirloin region of the animal which is considered lean and tough, and uses a seasoning rub made of salt, pepper and garlic salt. The meat is grilled using 'red oak' wood which gives the meat a delicious flavor from the combination of the seasoning and the low heat cooking.

Montreal Smoked Meat

Montreal smoked meat found in Montreal Canada is a meat product made by salting and seasoning beef brisket with herbs and spices before smoking. Smoked meat has been a popular part of the city's cuisine since the nineteenth century and over the years it has become its important culinary symbol.

Montreal smoked meat at Schwartz's deli
Montreal smoked meat at Schwartz's deli
The flavors from some of the best Montreal smoked meats and its tenderness comes from its long marination using a blend of herbs and spices, for 8-10 days and the slow smoke-cooked process.

When serving warm Montreal smoked meat, it is always sliced by hand, instead of a using a meat slicer, so the tender meat can keep its form. In the restaurants the whole briskets are kept steaming to maintain their temperature and sliced up on demand when ordered.

Montreal smoked meat can be found in many delis and fast food restaurants throughout Montreal. Most of these traditional delis or restaurants have their origins to Jewish immigrants from Romania and Eastern Europe.


Pastrami is a meat product usually made from beef and sometimes from pork or turkey by salting and seasoning with herbs and spices before smoking. The beef typically comes from the belly section, the cut next to the brisket, though brisket may also be used.

Just like the Montreal smoked meat the flavors of the pastrami comes from the seasoning with herbs and spices. The use of spices in the brine or before smoking may vary across preparations. Some preparations may also use additional chemicals or preservatives and hence offer a lower quality experience.

Pastrami is said to have been introduced to the United States by Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia, and Romania in the second half of the 19th century.

Sussman Volk an immigrant from Lithuania is credited for creating the first pastrami on rye sandwich at his deli in New York City in 1888 after having received the recipe from a Romanian friend. Today, pastrami on rye is a popular sandwich in many delis in the United States and considered as a classic food symbol of New York, Jewish delis.

The word 'pastrami' comes from Romanian 'pastramă' which has its origins to the Turkish 'pastırma' (basturma) a well seasoned, air-dried cured beef that is part of the cuisines of countries from the Balkans to the Levant.

Basturma from Armenia
Basturma from Armenia
Wind-dried beef has been made in Anatolia for centuries and the first recorded mention of basturma can be found in Armenia where air-drying of meats was developed to preserve basturma being traded from Armenia to the ancient kingdoms of India and China.

Smoked Salmon

Smoked Salmon is prepared typically from a fillet that has been cured and then hot or cold smoked. The origin of smoked salmon came from the necessity of preserving the fish for longer duration of time in the days when refrigeration was not an available option.

Smoked salmon
Smoked salmon
When salmon is cold smoked, it does not cook the fish but gives it a smoky flavor. Smoking styles vary and therefore the texture also varies from tender to dried. Hot smoking cooks the salmon making it less moist and firmer, with a less delicate taste. In either of these methods, it is important to brine the salmon and air-dry the skin to form a protein coating known as pellicle, before smoking, as this ensures that the fish is able to retain its delicate flavor while absorbing the flavors from the smoke.

Slices of smoked salmon are a popular appetizer in Europe, usually served with some kind of bread. In Germany they are eaten on toast or black bread and in the United Kingdom they are typically eaten with brown bread and a squeeze of lemon. In North America, smoked salmon is mostly served with cream cheese or with sliced red onion, lemon and capers. Smoked salmon is also a popular ingredient in canapés, often combined with cream cheese and lemon juice.

Smoked Cheese

Smoked cheese is any cheese that has been smoked and as a result has a yellowish-brown outer coating and a smoke flavor.

Smoked gouda
Smoked Gouda
Cold smoking at very low temperatures is generally used to give the cheese a smoky flavor. Some examples are smoked Cheddar, smoke Gruyère and smoked Gouda.


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Article Category:
Food History

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