A large slab of seasoned meat roasting on a vertical spit, showcasing a crispy and golden-brown exterior, with the difference being its flavor enhanced by cold smoking.

What is the Difference Between Hot Smoking and Cold Smoking?

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Writer / Enthusiast / Meat Curer / Forager / Harvester | About Tom

For decades, immersed in studying, working, learning, and teaching in the craft of meat curing, now sharing his passion with you through eat cured meat online resource.

Smoking meat in general seems to get confusing especially hot and cold smoking. Seeing a lot of artisan smokers and practicing it myself – I thought it would be helpful to clarify the difference.

There is one fundamental difference between hot and cold smoking that I will explain in detail. It is to do with temperature.

I will attempt to apply my scientific brain also, and I hope to help you learn more about the superb world of smoking meat.

And it’s not that hard either. The results can mean amazing home-smoked delicacies.

What is the Difference Between Hot Smoking and Cold Smoking?

Hot Smoking is performed at temperatures that cook the meat whilst flavoring the meat with smoke, the heat being indirect similar to baking. Cold Smoking at a temperature below 30°C/86°F which can be performed on fresh meat, cured meat, spices, vegetables, fungi, fruit, salt and spices.

There are many delicious aspects of smoking meat and it has been used for millennia. The caveman supposedly was the first to discover that smoking could flavor or preserve, potentially both.

Both hot and cold smoking involves firstly curing the meat with either a dry salt cure or wet brine. Since hot smoking is cooking with smoke, it doesn’t need to be fully penetrated/cured with salt. With cold smoking, it most definitely does need this important step.

I will try and define both hot and cold smoking in detail to inspire and give some idea of what you need. I will highlight how you can easily smoke meat at home. Also, I will mention some examples of smoking and talk about the books I have read on the subject.

Definition – The Hot Smoking Process  

Whether you call it ‘low & slow’ or hot smoking, it’s the same process. But with different results for different purposes sometimes. This is also just a development from the European styles of warm and hot smoking indirectly.

Since the meat has been cured, the salt that is in the meat retains some of the moisture, which is why it doesn’t or shouldn’t dry out when you are hot smoking.

But the key to hot smoking is, that you are using a cooking temperature to cook the meat, whilst adding smoke flavor, from a smoke source.

I have come across a lot of variation when it comes to recipes, styles, and techniques, hopefully, you can pick up some tricks & tips.

But in essence, the process is the same. You want to maintain approx. 100° -140°C / 212°-280°F cooking temperature. Using hardwood / deciduous wood depending on the technique – wood dust, pellets, chips or chunks of wood may be used.

Anything sappy or ‘soft wood’, does not work for smoking meat due to the tar & toxins.

I have found the most popular hot smoking to be fillets of fish such as trout or salmon.

Hot Smoked Fish, made in a portable smoker – took about 4 hours of brining and 15 minutes of cooking (fish pate in foreground)

Tip If you want universal woods apple, grape, or cherry wood seems to be mild and sweet which will go with most meat flavors. You can’t go wrong with Applewood for most meat-smoking projects in my experiences

What do I Need to Hot Smoke at Home?    

Depending on the method you may be using sawdust, pellets, wood chips, or wood chunks – wood is a topic in itself. I have made an easy guide here.  

Some styles of hot smoking are indirect, with heat surrounding the food. Also, the smoke is in an enclosed area with the food. Ideally, well insulated and controlled airflow. However, it can also be done on a normal BBQ or using a wok/pot.

There are also some direct heating hot smoking options, especially great for smoking less dense meats like fish.

Tea Smoking

You can smoke in a normal kitchen with a wok. This can work using a tea mixture of tea, spices, and sugar. I have read it is a traditional Chinese method. The wok stovetop tea method involves a direct heat source. It favors smaller meat or other types of food.

It does create a reasonable amount of smoke from my experience. Potentially it could get a bit difficult for some people. Extraction fans can only do so much, it’s likely some smoke detectors will go off – please be careful.

Or an outside area and a heat source (propane) with a smoking device.

There are many options available to you.

Portable Smoker

There are many types I use, the portable smokers are a quick and easy way to hot smoke from a direct heat source. BBQ or propane burner for instance. These smokers can be great if you want to smoke something in the backyard, beach, river, or camping.

Sawdust, pellets, or small wood chips work well. Deciduous hardwood (trees that drop leaves at some part during the year) will work best – more info about wood here.

You really don’t need a lot for the smoker, half a handful is plenty for a quick fish fillet smoking in s portable smoker.

They run either on a gas heat source or denatured Alcohol (methylated spirits) burners.

BBQ Gas Grill Hot Smoking

A heap of options to create smoke and indirectly cook on the BBQ, whether it’s hot smoked bacon, hot smoked turkey, or delicious smokey pastrami. This can all be done on a BBQ.

Have had some good success using a BBQ with a smoking device. I wrote about the many methods in this link. Just remember, you have to have a gap in the hood so the heat doesn’t build up too much. This is by design to make the BBQ safe.

Propane / Electric Smoker

If you want the ‘professional home’ method, then this is it. There is a huge range of smokers available.

Electric Smoker

I have analyzed quite a few, so here are some guides on electric smokers:

  • A thermostat can make smoking alot easier
  • Some have specific ‘smoking’ biscuits, which are convenient and auto feed – but an ongoing product you need to buy ( I don’t like the restriction)
  • Water pan either built-in or you can add helps with ‘slow n low’ style hot smoking

Propane Smoker

I have found a learning curve to get the gas temperature right, but once you have this worked out. It will become easy to smoke whatever you want.

Charcoal Heating Source Smoking

Charcoal Hot Smoked Salmon

Definitely some skills and experience help in this category. I focus on gas grilling, so I can’t add too much information to this.

I think being able to throw wood, spices, or fresh herbs onto the charcoal does allow a lot of creativity in this category.

Examples of Hot Smoking

Anything that is cooked whilst smoking is hot smoking so ‘low and slow’ falls into this category as well.

  • Hot Smoked Salmon
  • Hot Smoked Bacon
  • Hot Smoked Pastrami
  • Hot Smoked Turkey

Low & Slow Texas BBQ is Hot Smoking

Texas-style barbecue is a classic way of smoking meat. It is based on indirect heat and provides a good-quality flow of smoke. Generally, low and slow over an extended period of time.

It’s about 2-20 hours of consistent heat and smoke.

History of Texas BBQ   

It’s quite interesting that the early European Czech & German settlers actually introduced smoking meat for the benefit of preservation and to ward off bacteria.

Definition – The Cold Smoking Process

Fully salt-curing the meat with a dry cure or salt brine is the first step and is incredibly important.

Cold smoking is for more experienced meat curers, you will want to master hot smoking first.

It’s a very long process from 1 to 14 days. The key is temperature, it has to be done under 80° F / 25° C. The smoke actually dries the meat, and removes a lot of moisture, intensifying the flavor.

It is performing a long-term preserving effect. Which has been used for thousands of years.

I will often put the meat in the fridge overnight and continue the cold smoking the next day.

Examples of Cold Smoking

Here are some classics

  • Cold smoked salmon (fish)
  • Famous cold smoked kipper (UK)
  • Cold smoked bacon (real bacon some say)
  • Cold smoked dry cured salami

What I Need to Cold Smoke at Home

There are simple way or easily purchased ways, here are a few that I have analyzed and what I think of them.

Here are the key factors:

  • Cool environment
  • wood
  • Cold smoking device
  • Salt
  • Meat

If you want an easy guide on cold smoking, please find a post here I wrote.

  • Making sure the meat is 100% cured is the most important point
  • Quality of the meat is also very important
  • Having ‘thin’ consistent smoke, you do not want heavy intense smoke

Homemade Smoker

I have seen a lot of designs, basically the smoke is produced in one area and sent into another area where the meat (or food) is hanging. This keeps the temperature low (under 80 F / 25 C).

I knew a Dutch butcher with a large steel double-door ‘wardrobe’ container. He had a huge pile of sawdust and once this was lit, he just left it for the day to smolder. Then put the meat back in the fridge overnight and did it all over again the next day.

Because the large steel smoker was huge and it was winter, it was always cool enough to cold smoke.

Pellet Tube Smoker

Time gadget, using a decent propane torch to get this going, you can smoke in many different objects i.e.. BBQ, kettle BBQ etc..

There is a huge range of pellets out there also. I prefer a flat side on the tube, it doesn’t roll around when sitting on the grill in the BBQ.

6 and 12-inch variety. I get about 8 hours from a 12-inch tube, which is plenty for a full cold smoking day.

Wood dust / Pellet Tube or Maze Smoker

Wood dust or pellets can be used with these, these are great too like the pellet tube. With a similar application.

Burn time varies based on wood and size, normally 6-9 hours is what I get from these devices.

Smoker Generator

Interesting inventions, I ordered one from New Zealand (here are some top NZ commercial producers I wrote about). Used it & attached it to various things, bbq’s, fridge,s etc…

It works on certain size wood chips which can be harder to get. But it does work really well with normal smoking pellets, which you can get from many stores.

It uses the venturi effect of pulling the smoke through from the smoking area. Hard to explain, but I can tell you this is quite a neat contraption.

It does need power though and uses a small pump to create the venturi effect.

If you want to read more, there are a few around on the market, please find a page on them here.

Electric Smoker – Extensions

Since most electric smokers are designed to cook and hot smoke, certain suppliers other a modification to create external cold smoking in the main unit.

Electric cold smokers are the easiest to use since you don’t have to do much in terms of managing the temperature. All you need is cool weather, it’s really an easy plug-and-play option.

Here are a few reviews I have done on electric smokers.

Related Questions

What is the Best Temperature for Cold Smoking?

Under 77° Fahrenheit or 25° Celsius is the ideal temperature, meat begins to cook at 86° Fahrenheit or 30° Celsius. Depending on what is being smoked, it can take 1 to 14 days to cold smoke through to completion.

How long does it take to Cold Smoke Bacon?

Depends on the volume and size of the meat. A minimum of 15 hours of cold smoking at low temperature of 77°F / 25°C. This happens after the pork is completely salt-cured.

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  1. Thank you Tom,I learned a ton. I ;live in East Africa where it rarley drops below 25 degrees so hot smoking it is.

    1. Author

      Hey Glenn thanks for stopping by!
      Nice and warm! Not sure what resources you can get your hands on, you could try running a cold smoke into a fridge that has a thermostat controller to cycle it to around 10-20 Deg Cel? Depending on the fridge, may need a humidifier a bit as well. Did you want to cold smoke? Cheers Tom

      1. Author

        Depends on what I’m cold smoking. Generally, cold smoking is just drying with cold smoke around. If you are full salt curing the meat. So for a salt dry-cured salami that is cold smoke, I cold smoke then, of course, dry to at least 35% weight oss.
        But here is the pickle that doesn’t make the rule universal, salt dry-cured bacon, I do like 20% weight loss and under 8 hours cold smoking, so it just hangs around until it hits about this. This is because I will cook it, so 35% is not needed!
        Red meat vs say fish also is a pickle/confusion since you can achieve a slow down of Water Activity (which is what unwanted bacteria need) before 35% weight loss. ie. salmon I have dried/cold smoked is like 25% weight loss.

  2. My question is, is the color of the salami any different between hot or cold smoked? I’m making hard German salami about 1 1/2” diameter casings, once cold smoked so you hang to dry or refrigerate?

    1. Author

      Hey, hot is cooked and cold smoke. I guess by hard salami you are drying until weightloss achieved? Cold smoke is then used for protecting the drying via antibacterial and antifungal aspects.
      My cooked/hot smoked salami, depending on ingredients and meat. If mainly pork it’s pink (cooked ham look).
      For dry-cured salami is often darker, especially if I cold smoke.
      For a Hungarian dry-cured salami I make alot, I cold smoke for 3x 6 hours sessions, then hang to dry for 35% weightloss


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