What Is Cold Smoking And What Is It Used For?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  March 19, 2022

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For the uninitiated, cold smoking is a form of food preservation after the meat is cured. The process adds a distinct smoky aroma to your meat or veggies.

How does this differ from hot smoking, and more importantly, how does the cold smoking process improve the flavor of your favorite foods?

The good news is that we’ve done all the research for you so that you can quickly find the answers that you seek.

What Is Cold Smoking And What Is It Used For

Today, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about cold smoking.

We’re going to cover what cold smoking is, as well as what cold smoking is used for.

So let’s get stuck in with everything you need to know about the cold smoking process, and how you can implement this yourself using a cold smoke generator!

What Is Cold Smoking?

Whereas other methods of smoking make use of a hot smoking chamber, cold smoking involves placing your food inside a smoky chamber away from the usual source of heat that you would find on a standard grill or barbecue.

Hot smoking requires you to place the food in the same place as the burning wood chips or heating element depending on how your smoker is built. This basically heats the food and as it absorbs the smoke it develops that unique flavor. So, hot smoking cooks and smokes the food at the same time.

On the other hand, a cold smoker separates the food from the firebox or heating element. So the part of the device that produces smoke is kept separate from the part of the unit where the food is stored.

That’s why food in a cold smoker absorbs the smoke without heating up which means you can smoke food that’s already cooked or even raw without heating it up.

Cold smoking can be a delicious alternative to hot-smoked BBQ, and even the best cold smokers are surprisingly affordable.

These days, most can be used as an accessory for your existing grill, are compact, and durable.

All the options covered here would make excellent options to enjoy your overnight camping, BBQ parties, family reunions, and other fun events.

It tends to be meat that is most often used for the cold smoking process.

The meat will often be cured first to kill off any harmful bacteria as well as remove any unwanted moisture.

This cut of meat is then placed in a cold smoking chamber where it can be exposed to the smoke.

This cold smoking method often takes place over an extended period of time, as it exposes the food to the smoke, without actually cooking it.

This is the secret behind the cold smoking method, hence the name “cold” smoking.

It uses minimal heat so that only smoke is produced to flavor your food.

Cold smoking cheese is also a popular choice, as cold smoking cheese can add a certain complex flavor to the dairy products.

Unlike other smoking methods, cold smoking relies on the smoke chamber being kept to a specific temperature so as to not cook the meat you are trying to imbue with a smoky flavor.

The curing process and the whole process of cold smoking meat serves to prevent bacterial growth, too, so you can rest assured that your cold smoked meat will last you for even longer.

Similar to hot smoking, you can use a range of different wood chips to give your meat a range of smoke flavors.

Cold smokers are just as versatile as hot smokers, as you can use them to smoke all types of food.

It is typically used to smoke cuts of meat, but you can also use this method for cold smoking fish, as well as other foods such as cheese.

How Does Cold Smoking Preserve Meat?

So now that we know cold smoking works a bit differently to hot smoking, as it doesn’t actually cook the food you are trying to smoke, you may be wondering how does cold smoking preserve meat?

It does this by using forms of curing before the meat or types of food are smoked.

By using either a wet brine or salt cure to cure the meat beforehand, this helps to make the cold smoking techniques help to preserve the meat for as long as possible.

When you use salt curing before you cold smoke your meat, this helps to cut down on the moisture inside the meat itself.

This reduction in moisture allows the cold smoking process to better preserve the meat you are trying to smoke.

The cold smoke helps to preserve the meat because of certain chemical compounds in the smoke itself.

What Foods Are Good Cold Smoked?

The possibilities are endless when it comes to cold smoking. The most common foods to cold smoke include red meat, fish, as well as cheese.

However, you can also cold smoke things like vegetables if you want to give them added smoky flavor.

Some of the best foods to cold smoke include certain cuts of beef, sausages, bacon, a joint of ham, salmon, oysters, cheddar cheese, as well as a range of fresh vegetables such as tomatoes.

Ultimately, you can cold smoke whatever foods you want to.

Why not experiment with your cold smoker and flavor different types of food and compare them all to find your favorite combinations?

How To Cold Smoke

The key to cold smoking your favorite foods from the comfort of your own home is to not let the smoking chamber get to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The most common temperature range that is used to cold smoke food is roughly around 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remember that you will need to cure any meat that you want to cold smoke first before you place it in the cold smoker.

This will lessen the likelihood of bacteria growing on your food, and also extract any moisture.

Then you will need to place your food in an unheated chamber, ideally with the smoke being pumped into this.

It’s also recommended to double check how long you will need to cold smoke your chosen food item before you get started.

How Long Should You Cold Smoke Meat?

The amount of time you need to cold smoke your meat will depend on several factors: ultimately, how smoky you want the overall flavor, as well as the type of meat you are trying to cold smoke.

For bacon for example, it can take anywhere between 6 to 5 hours for a light smoking, and anywhere from 25 to 50 hours for a heavy smoking.

It is always best to err on the side of caution and try not to use too much smoke, as this can leave you with bitter tasting meat that isn’t all that tasty at all.

When it comes to smoking fish such as salmon, you should use this general rule of thumb: cold smoke your salmon for between 4 to 6 hours for a light smoking, and 12 to 24 hours for a heavy smoking.

What’s The Difference Between Hot Smoking And Cold Smoking?

First and foremost, the key difference is the temperature the meat is smoked in.

When it comes to hot smoking, as the name implies, it takes place in a higher temperature (usually within the range of 225-250 degrees F).

Such temperature kills all pathogens, which means you don’t have to worry about any problems or the risk of poisoning and diseases.

For that reason it is not necessary to cure the meat for hot smoking as well.

You may use marinade, but it’s only there to enrich the flavor and aroma.

Hot smoking is much easier than cold smoking, it’s easier to provide adequate conditions.

You don’t need precise equipment, you can actually even use the simplest charcoal grill. A kettle grill from weber for example, but to get the best results I recommend a dedicated smoker.

The main difference between hot smoking and cold smoking is of course that hot smoking uses hot smoke to cook the foods that you are trying to smoke.

A hot smoker will cook the food that you place in it while it flavors this food.

A hot smoker will also take a lot less time than a cold smoker, as it tends to only take a handful of hours to hot smoke your favorite foods.

It will also depend on the type of smoker that you choose to use, with electric smokers being better suited to hot smoking.

Pellet tubes are best used for cold smoking, as this allows you to keep the cold smoke from cooking your food.

Why is cold smoking dangerous

What kind of danger am I talking about? I mean different types of pathogens that pose a very huge threat to your health. Especially for people with lower immunity, pregnant women, children, elders etc.

The risk of poisoning is different depending on the type of pathogen, in certain cases it is pretty high. It’s the worst for ground meat, or sausage. Meat that has been exposed to different tools is at a much higher risk of pollutions and microorganisms.

In case of hot cooking, they all die at high temperature, but with cold smoking the situation is quite the opposite.

You can learn more in detail on safety and risks in the amazing ribs article.

What is the Best Wood for Cold Smoking?

Wood produces smoke no matter what type it is, but this doesn’t mean that you should use any and all types of wood for cold smoking. For instance, while evergreen wood catches smoke quickly it also expels certain resins in the process which might completely ruin the flavor of your food.

That’s why pitmasters prefer “clean” burning wood such as mesquite, beech, cherry, apple, and oak. The type of wood you choose will depend on your flavor preferences and you can even combine different types of wood to get the perfect smoky flavor that you like.

However, the key to successful cold smoking is to generate more smoke than you are generating heat. That means you need to slowly smolder the wood instead of lighting it up to burn fast. Wood pellets and wood dust work particularly well for this purpose but you should never use chips because that could spoil the whole thing. That’s because chips are really small and they’re designed for hot smoking instead of cold applications so they burn hot and long.

Is Cold Smoke Bad for You?

Cold smokers are relatively safe and easy to use at home and they produce delicious results. With that said, it can be dangerous when done by someone who doesn’t have the skills and tools needed to safely operate a cold smoke generator.

In Summary

So there you have it!

You now know exactly what cold smoking is, how to use this smoking method yourself, as well as how it differs from hot smoking.

You also now know which foods taste best when cold smoked, including bacon, sausages, salmon, and cheese.

Cold smoking is a wonderfully versatile method for adding smoky flavors to your food, but it typically takes a much longer time than cold smoking.

It is also used to flavor your food rather than cook it.

It will always be important to properly cure your meat before you smoke it so as to avoid any unwanted bacteria.

Why not give cold smoking a go and try to smoke a variety of different foods?

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.