Smoking food for preservation | How & why it works

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  March 27, 2022

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I’m sure you’ve tried smoked ham or smoked ribs before. Compared to grilled foods, the smoke flavor is pretty intense, right?

Smoking is becoming increasingly popular but it takes a long period compared to grilling and other cooking methods.

Smoking food for preservation | How & why it works

The process of smoking food to preserve it has been around for a long time. Not only is this a good method to prevent food from spoiling, but smoking with wood infuses the meat and other foods with delicious smoky flavors.

You’re probably wondering what is the process, how does it work, and what foods can you smoke?

Find out in this guide about smoking food for the purpose of preservation.

What is smoking and what does it do?

Smoking food is the process of flavoring, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning or smoldering material.

The type of wood used for smoking affects the flavor of the food.

Smoking is often used to preserve meats, fish, and cheeses, but it can be used on other foods like fruits and vegetables as well.

The main reason for smoking is to preserve the food for a longer period, although many people these days just want a really flavorful BBQ.

Food can be cold smoked or hot smoked and these bring the food to a different internal temperature.

How does smoking preserve food?

Smoking food preserves it by killing bacteria that can cause food to spoil.

The smoke from the fire penetrates the food, destroying the bacteria and preventing them from growing.

How does it work?

The smoke from the burning wood helps to create a barrier on the surface of the food that prevents oxygen and bacteria from getting in.

This, combined with the heat from the smoking process, helps to preserve the food.

Here’s what happens: the heat from the smoke kills any microbes. Smoke contains chemicals called formaldehyde and alcohol which act as preservatives.

Basically, smoking is a method of drying out the food. Once moisture is removed, the bacteria and mold cannot grow on it and so it doesn’t spoil.

But, the smoking process also adds a pleasant smoky flavor. The smoke is what keeps away insects and bacteria while the food dries.

History of smoking food for preservation

Smoking food to preserve it has been around for a long time. The process of smoking meats and fish is thought to have originated when people still lived in caves.

The Indigenous peoples of North America popularized this method because they used to smoke salmon and other fish. They would hang the fish in smoky huts to preserve them.

Scandinavians and Asians used to smoke fish like trout and herring thousands of years ago.

In Medieval Europe, pork was smoked to preserve it during the winter and it was also turned into sausages (like kielbasa) which were also smoked.

In the past, smokers were often large barrels or pits that were lined with wood-smoked flavor.

The food was placed on racks in the smoker and slowly cooked over smoldering wood chips.

Today, there are many different ways to smoke food. You can buy a smoker, or you can even make your own.

Smokers come in all shapes and sizes, from small stovetop units to large free-standing smokers. You can also find smokers that attach to your grill.

Indoor electric smokers are also popular because you can make smoke foods without sitting by the smoker all day.

So whether you smoke for a short period or longer periods, you no longer need to wait around all day.

Modern features like Bluetooth and WIFI allow you to set and leave the smoker.

Top benefits of smoking food

The traditional smoking method is used for food preservation. Not only does smoking add flavor to the food, but it can also increase the shelf life.

Some of the top benefits of smoking food include:

  • Smoked food lasts longer than fresh food
  • Smoking can add flavor to otherwise bland food
  • Smoking can tenderize tough cuts of meat

If you’re interested in trying your hand at smoking food, there are a few things you should know about the process.

What foods can you smoke?

Now you’re probably curious what can be preserved by smoking? It’s not just sausages or fish. Many kinds of food can be smoked!

You can smoke most types of food, but some foods are better suited for smoking than others. Tougher cuts of meat, like brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs, benefit from the long smoking process because it breaks down the tough connective tissue.

Fish is also a popular choice for smoking. Salmon, trout, and herring are all common types of fish that are smoked.

Cheese is another food that can be smoked. The smoke penetrates the cheese and adds flavor.

Vegetables can also be smoked, but they will need to be blanched first. This is because vegetables have high water content and need to be cooked before smoking.

However, there are some vegetables you can smoke directly like asparagus and Brussels sprouts – just be sure to smoke them in aluminum foil to maintain a nice texture.

You can even smoke nuts, which taste very delicious. You can smoke almonds, walnuts, or whatever nuts you like.

Place the nut mix in a roasting pan and place them on the smoker rack. Generally, you should smoke at 250 degrees F. This gives the nuts a tasty savory flavor.

Smoking times and temperatures

The type of food you’re smoking will determine the smoking time and temperature.

You’re likely wondering how long do you smoke meat to preserve it?

For meats, the ideal temperature is between 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoking time will vary depending on the type of meat and the size of the cut.

A whole chicken, for example, will take longer to smoke than chicken breasts. A general rule of thumb is to smoke meats for 30 minutes per pound.

Fish is best smoked at a lower temperature, between 140-180 degrees Fahrenheit.

The smoking time will also vary depending on the type and size of fish. A whole salmon, for example, will take longer to smoke than salmon fillets.

Vegetables should be smoked at a temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoking time will vary depending on the type and size of the vegetable.

Smoking cheese is a bit different. The ideal temperature is between 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the smoking time should be around 2 hours.

Getting the temperature right is important because smoking meat too cold can be dangerous

Hot smoking vs cold smoking

There are two main ways to smoke food products – hot smoking and cold smoking.

Hot smoking is when the food is cooked in the smoker. The food is usually pre-cooked before being smoked, but it can also be smoked while it’s still raw.

Cold smoking is when the food is smoked at a low temperature without cooking it. This is the traditional way of smoking food.

The main difference between hot and cold smoking is that hot smoking cooks the food, whereas cold smoking does not.


What do you need for smoking?

Having wood chips, a smoker, and cutting implements are required for smoking meat.

Salt and spices can also be included in the list, depending on the recipe and the length of time the meat needs to be preserved.

But what you really need is your food (meat, veggies, cheese, nuts, etc), your smoker, and the wood of your choice. These add smoke flavor and that makes the food super tasty.

Smoked meat is easy to make if you follow the smoking times and temperatures.

Even if your smoker has a built-in thermometer, it won’t display the internal temperature of the food. You will need a separate smoking thermometer for that.

For a full guide of all the essential accessories & tools for smoking check my complete list here.

Can you freeze smoked meat and other smoked foods?

Yes, you can store smoked foods in the freezer for a while.

You should place the smoked meat, smoked fish, or other foods in vacuum-sealed bags. Then, you can keep the food in the freezer for about 3 months at least.

Alternatively, smoked meat can be placed in the fridge for about 3 or 4 days before it goes bad. If you want to preserve the smoked food, it needs to be sealed in airtight bags for storage.

Smoking vs curing: what’s the difference?

Both smoking and curing are ways of preserving meat and other foods.

People mistakenly think that smoking and curing are the same things.

However, the smoking method is not the same as curing.

When smoking meat or other foods, you use low heat to cook meat over a long period.

The curing process is when you use salt to preserve the food. The cured meat is then also immune to harmful bacterial growth.


Smoked foods are great because they tend to be higher in umami flavors, thanks to the smoking process.

There are a lot of reasons to smoke food for preservation. The first reason is that it’s an incredibly effective way to keep food from spoiling.

Smoking also balances the pH levels of preserved food, which helps to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.

Additionally, the smoking process adds flavor and texture to food that can’t be achieved through other preservation methods.

I think it’s time to pull out the smoker and start smoking some sausages!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.