How To Cold Smoke -The Complete Guide (Meat, Fish, Cheese)

When I started cold smoking, I thought it would be hard. It’s not, it just follows a process. For some reason, it’s perceived by people as being really confusing.

My local library has 5 books on cold smoking, so I have diligently gone through and picked out the best practices having met a few Artisan butchers, they have been helpful in showing some tips and tricks too.

With some basic equipment and knowledge, cold smoking can be incredibly satisfying.

In contrast, it has been used for thousands of years successfully. Nowadays, you can find commercial and artisan cold-smoked goods everywhere. I have tried quite a few cold smoking techniques.

How To Cold Smoke

cold smoked bacon
Cold Smoked Apple Wood Bacon, about 15-20 hours, based on a Pancetta spice blend -perfect salt content.
  1. Fully salt cure the meat, not applicable if non-meat
  2. Setup a reliable cold smoking device
  3. Cold Smoke food
  4. Monitor the cold smoking regularly
  5. Refrigerate and continue the following day if needed

What is Cold Smoking?

Cold Smoking technically is done below 30°C/86°F, the meat must be fully dry salt cured or brined properly. Above this temperature and if your cold smoking meat, it will start to cook.

European guidelines (which are more advanced than many other countries) suggest cold smoke should be applied below 72°F/22°C

Some German meat smoking books I have read suggest under 65°F/18°C.

That’s why I like to cold smoke between 50-68°F/10-20°C personally. Either on cool winter days or a night time with a reliable smoking device.

It takes 1 day to 6 weeks depending on the meat recipe. It is done primarily for preserving and flavoring the meat.

How to Cold Smoke, Black Forest Ham
German Cold Smoked Black
(Schwarz) Forest Ham

The Principles of Cold Smoking

For meat, these are the most important points I can give to you from what I have learned:

  • Make sure you have fresh good quality meat
  • Weighting before curing and work out finished weight
  • Make use of effective refrigeration when processing meat
  • Accurately salt cure or salt wet brine the meat
  • Choose wood that won’t be too strong
  • Have a reliable smoke generator device that isn’t high maintenance

If you aren’t smoking meat, then it’s a really straightforward process. I love to smoke cheese and nuts. You will find this a great way to start cold smoking, for more info on this I wrote about it below.

Most of the time, I use cold smoking for glorious bacon or fish, you can do this over multiple sessions and refrigerate over night. Sometimes I will do this over 2 to 3 days.

The Importance of Weight Loss for Meat – The Craft

It seems to vary between meats, especially fish like trout & salmon. As soon as fish are out of the water they start losing weight so the weigh loss you want to achieve varies.

Since cold smoking is just another form of drying.

For fish I aim for atleast 15% less then before curing. Many commercial smoke houses aim for 30% weight loss.

For Cold Smoked Bacon, I aim for 25% weight loss at least. 20-30% is a guide generally I have seen in books.

I have been cold smoking for about 15 years, the smoked meats I’ve done come out great nowadays!. It did help to learn some techniques from a Dutch butcher I knew.

I read an old 1977 book still seen as an authority (Home Smoking & Curing by Keith Erlandson’s) about curing meats at home. This book introduced the idea of humidity, and the effect this had on the drawing and cold smoking process.

Basically, when the humidity is high the cold smoking will take a lot longer but unless you’re using commercial equipment, weighing the meat is the next best thing to work out how effective and how long the cold smoking should be for.

This book covers all the aspects of cold smoking and hot smoking. So the idea of thinking about humidity more came from this book.

Cold Smoking Food Safety

Not sure if certain regulatory officals have got there head around cold smoking, if you have been to most European food markets, you will find a massive range of cold smoked meats and foods.

The most important aspect in my opinion, is fuly & properly curing the meat. When this is done right, a large chunk of the risks are mitigated.

This USDA site is often talking about, the ‘danger zone’ of meat temperature, this does not take into account salt curing effects on the meat and how they help remove bacteria and spoilage.

https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/danger-zone-40-f-140-f/CT_Index

There are chemicals in smoke that possess anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties, which are reasons why the smoke has a preservative function. This is why it began being used on the bronze age of mankind.

European regulators are much more advanced, since cold smoked goods are part of many cultures, it has developed and been refined over hundreds and thousands of years.

I’ve heard something like 60% of sausages are smoked in Germany for instance.

Cold Smoking Each Step in Detail

So here is each step broken down to hopefully explain the complete process. THere isn’t that much to it, it just take some time, I will use bacon as an example but these rules can apply to all the wonderful fish, red meat or chicken that you can cold smoke.

Salt curing is only applicable for meat, it is not needed for dairy products like cheese.

1. Fully Cure the Food

Quality of the Meat

Just a reminder you wan’t fresh meat, ideally it even has a good story behind it about it’s tractability. Locally harvested or bought locally often means best flavor and best outcomes.

Definitely do not want aged meat for instance for the local butcher.

I have used frozen pork belly for bacon which did turn out great. The quality of and the traceability I knew well.

Accurate Curing Process

Since submerging meat into a brine liquid will cover and penetrate, it does cure more effectively.

Dry salt curing involves covering the meat with salt and letting the process occur with contact on the meat. Making sure all areas of the meat have salt rubbed into it is really important.

This is where brining can be easier, since it will have a deeper penetrating effect then salt dry curing.

Salt Wet Brining – Simple Recipe

For example, Bacon – pork belly slab of 11 pounds /5kg (can be scaled to suit)

  • 1 Gallon or 4 Liters of Water
  • 250 grams of sea salt
  • 125 grams (max of sugar)
  • 80 grams Pink Curing Salt No. 1

Heat to dissolve in a pan and leave to cool to room temperature before brining.

Salt Dry Curing – Simple Recipe

2+% sea salt to the total weight of meat

2. Setup a Reliable Cold Smoking Device

I’ve seen online a few people trying to use charcoal smokers or another form of hot smoker to cold smoke food. Most kettle charcoal smokers will not be under 30°C/86°F; some have used bowls of ice to keep the temperature down. For hot smoked food it’s okay, just won’t be able to cold smoke.

But with fire in the same chamber is just doesn’t work. You need to be pumping ‘cold’ smoke into the chamber, or have a fire small enough, so minimal heat is generated (like the pellet & maze smokers).

In my opinion, you are using the wrong tool for the job. Considering you can easily and cheaply acquire a maze or pellet tube smoker. This would be a better option for cold smoking.

The actual smoke process is much simpler with cold smoking compared to hot smoked in some ways. I think it’s really straightforward, if you have your basic factors which are:

  • cold smoke generation
  • enclosed area where the meat or food is
  • Under 86°F or 30°C

Cold Smoking Devices – Many Options

You can really easily make a cold smoker box, wine barrel, cabinet or smoke house, there are heaps of options available. Attaching a smoker generator to it, is a simple process.

Will elaborate on what I have seen and smokehouse designs at the end of the post.

Cold Smoke devices are available to create the smoke or accessories to existing BBQ smokers are available, will talk about the equipment later on.

Choosing the Wood

Lighter hardwoods like apple & cherry are my preference when it comes to cold smoking. Heavier or strong woods like mesquite will create a deeper stronger flavor, ideally, I like to mix them. I like to use a 80:20 ratio of light to stronger wood sometimes.

For more wood selection, I wrote easy universal woods in this post.

3. Cold Smoke the Food

Pellicle formation or drying the meat out before cold smoking can be done, I often do it. Since you are going to be cold smoking for long sessions, it isn’t really necessary so much. The meat should start drying out in the cold smoker also.

However, my preference is still to do it the same way as hot smoking pellicle formation. After curing, placing in the fridge uncovered overnight.

It’s pretty straight forward once you have the smoke entering the food area. You can use a thermometers to make sure the temperature is under 25°C or 86°F. If I’m using an electric cold smoker attachment or smoke generator I don’t normally bother. I just wait until the temperature outside is under 25°C / 77°F.

If you have fully cured the meat and it’s is cool/winter or maybe night time, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Keep Your Cold Smoking out of the Sun

The sun can really heat things up, I always try and find a shady spot to the do the cold smoking on the porch. The sun will swing around across the sky, so keep this in mind where you position your cold smoking session.

Hanging & Racks

Cold-Smoking-Salami

It really does come down to the design, traditionally fish fillets and salami’s are hung. But if you have racks in the smoker it can work this away also.

I read in a book that if you are hanging meat, the salt is drawn down through the meat.

One advantage of being hung is smoke can more easily surround the meat as well.

Don’t place food directly in front of where the smoke is entering the smoke area. I have learn’t from experience, it can make the food bitter being to direct onto the meat.

4. Monitor the Cold Smoking Regularly

Set & Forget is great if you are using a electric smoke generator, all you need to do is top up the wood.

When is comes to smoke houses with offset smoking areas or smoke generators. I do find myself checking every hour or two to make sure the smoke is still being generated. Sometimes a smoke generator will go out and need igniting again.

Since you are generally cold smoking for days, it’s just nice to have a look everyone now and then.

5. Refrigerate and Continue the Following Day

It’s a long process, but at the same time. You want to take breaks, usually you can wrap it up and put it in the fridge for the next session.

When you refrigerate cold or hot smoked food, I always find the smoke flavor gets more intense. It is even the case when you cook/smoke a sausage and leave it in the fridge overnight.

I find it sometimes hard to put it in the fridge, it gets devoured too quickly!

Equipment For Cold Smoking

Here is a review of the Smokai I did, it’s the best thing around.

  • Cold Smoking Device
  • Food
  • Salt

That’s about it when it comes to cold smoking; the equipment need is simple and straightforward. I guess this is why is done so widely across many European countries.

You want to make sure the meat is refrigerated before cold smoking will give the best outcomes. 

Also, full salt curing the meat is essential.

The are many ways to cold smoke; here is a selection that I am familiar with. You need to generate smoke and make sure the smoking area is well under 30 cel. From that old smoking book, I read called Home Smoking & Curing by Keith Erlandson. It mentions meat starts to cook above 30°C, hence why cold smoking occurs below this temperature.

DIY Smoker Options & Designs

Will cover off on the simplest of smoking devices, and then below you will find traditional designs I have found in books and online about structures and smoke houses.

Most designs I have seen have 2 chambers.

  1. area where wood is smoking & smoldering
  2. food or meat area where hung or on racks

A pipe or some connection is made so the smoke can travel to the smoking food area. Because the fire/wood is in a different area, this keeps the temperature below the all-important 30°C or 86°F, generally speaking.

I came across one Dutch butcher many years ago, he just had an incredibly large metal storage tank with double doors. He would make a large pile of sawdust below the meat. With a blow torch he would just light it. Because it was 6 foot below where the meat was hung and it was winter, the temperature always remained low.

For inside a smoking area the below devices can be used dependent on dimensions.

Pellet Tube & Maze Style Smoke Devices

You will find these work very similar to each other. You light one end and it starts smoking, pretty simple. However, because it isn’t a controlled form of burning. It can be a little hit and miss, for example sometimes I find the pellets will stop burning.

Keeping an eye on this method is key. You also must remember fire needs oxygen, so how you set these devices up need to take this factor into account.

I use a pellet tube on the gas grill either to enhance what I’m cooking. Like, steaks or eggplant. Alternatively, I just leave the gas grill heat off and use the enclosed area to cold smoke some food.

If you want some recommendations for some I use, please find details here.

For a smokehouse or larger cabinet, a pellet tube or maze might not generate enough smoke to fill the space. I guess it really does dependent on the design.

Smoke Generator (Venturi Effect)

The big point this has over many electric smoker accessories or the above maze or tube smokers. Is that is has a variable controllers, therefore you control how much smoke is generated and how it burns.

Depending on the wood you use, this means you have more control over the cold smoking project.

These can come in a range of sizes; I find they can really create a good amount of smoke. I’ve played around with pumping smoke into my gas grill BBQ, portable smoker & kettle BBQ.

Some can handle larger chips and chunks of wood. Other smoke generators are more suited to pellet wood fuels. I’ve tried to use the ‘un-recommended’ wood sizes a few times, it becomes annoying because you have to relight or clean out the tubes often. I would avoid this experimental behaviour if I was you.

This is really a cool (cold smoke) invention, it’s one that I have been using for many years. My smoke generator came with a drill bit, you can then make a whole and use a nut and thread to mount the smoker in many different locations.

A small air pump, uses the venturi effect to pull or suck the smoke from the burning chamber.

Also, there are really interesting charcoal pellets for smoking, this can be used for flavor or if your hot smoking (low & slow), you can use this for a more effective smoke ring. Here’s a link to a bunch available on Amazon.

The key to smoke generators working effectively, is to use good wood that’s really dry and right sized for the device. Some generators prefer chunker size woods, some prefer some dimensions or pellets.

If your looking for the 'ducks nuts' (that means a very good bit of equipment). A smoke generator can be used as a cold smoker, or adding smoke to indirect cooking which equates to a form of 'low & slow' bbq or making smoked ham and some much more.

The inventor of smoke generators was Smokai, it's a simple device that uses the venturi effect and a variable air pump to control the amount of smoke you are pumping.

I have a range of cold smoking options, and the Smokai is my favorite.

 

By far the smokai is the most efficient cold smoker I've come across because you have control. 

It also burns very clean, which flavors the food exceptionally well. I've been using smoke generators for over 10 years, and this one is the ducks nuts.

Check out this review I did of the Smokai Smoke Generator here.

Here is a picture of my very basic kettle style charcoal grill with the smoke generator attached to it.

Smoking duck, salt & eggplant

Cold Smoke Accessories to BBQ Smokers

Depending on if you have a certain brand of BBQ Smoker you can get the additional smoker unit. They are essentially an offset area which will burn and smoulder the wood. You leave the BBQ (hot) smoker off and just run the cold smoker.

If you have a BBQ Smoker currently, you can potentially modify it by attaching a smoke generator to it. This can also be done on any barbecue grill with some modification. ie. drill a hole

Temperature Under 30/86°F is crucial (I know I have mentioned this often, it’s in case anymore skips through this post).

All the major brands of gas grill BBQ seems to have some form of attachment, so there are some electric options available depending on your grill type.

Cold Smoking to Preserve Meat

What Does Cold Smoking do to the Meat?

Here are reasons why cold smoking have been used for thousands of years, well before the fridge was invented.

Below in the books I have read about cold smoking, it mentions how cold smoking is another form of drying meat. Dry meat leads to preservation of the meat.

They say there is more weight loss during cold smoking then there is with hot smoking. Will have to get my scales out next time a do a cold smoking session.

  • The growth of bacteria is slowed down, hence why it preserves meat for a longer period of time
  • As opposed to hot smoking, cold smoking means fully pentrating the meat with smoke (and fully salt curing the meat). Hot smoking generally means the surface is only smoked.
  • Changes the flavor considerably, smoke flavor whilst also intensifying it. I think this is due to the moisture reduction
  • Changes the color, often takes on a golden hue color, which I find very appealing
  • The meat becomes quite firm due to the moisture loss during the curing & smoking

Traditional Designs & Smokehouses

Tunnel pipes are a simple form of getting the smoke cooled and into a smoking area. This is one of the main designs that has evolved for the cold smoker.

Wooden Cold Smoker

A cabinet or box can be designed in many ways, having a hanging system designed into the structure is really important.

You don’t want any tin in this type of design, it could effect the temperatures.

Wooded smoker kiln maybe 6-7 foot high, seems to be very common. You have plenty of room to hang all sorts of treats.

Masonry Cold Smoker

A much more permanent fixture, but bricks can make a great smoker that will last a very long time.

DIY Broken Refrigerator Cold Smoker Conversions

Having some form of distance between a smouldering smoke box and the smoking area can be done many ways.

Using chimney materials or some form of DIY heat proof piping is what many people use.

Easy Foods to Cold Smoke

Cold Smoked Cheese & Dairy

Cold Smoked Vegetables
Cold Smoked Vegetables – Favorites – Beetroot & Eggplant

My advice here is to start with the sample non-cured foods and then once you know the cold smoking process. You can add in the curing and experience with some meats.

Cheese is a no brainer, you can stick cheese straight in a cold smoker to give it some flavor.

Nuts are also very easy to cold smoke, and can provide a whole new angle to your taste buds.

Cold Smoked Smoked Nuts

Another great beginners project, when I have friends that want to try cold smoking this is also something I point them too. Smoked almonds or pecans give an extra dimension.

Cold Smoked Chocolate

Found this in a book called Smoked by Jeremy Schmid. I am not a sweet tooth person. But he recommends cherry wood. 1-hour smoking seems to be enough for most non-meat cold smoking sessions.

Cold Smoked Salt & Spices

This is another great idea for filling up space in the smoker, I tend to use the same bowl because it will get some coloring from the smoke. Putting in some rock salt can produce another superb condiment.

In Jeremy’s book above he also has a guide for smoker butter, smoked cream, quark, mascarpone & even raw eggs.

Meat Cold Smoking Projects

My goal of writing about cold smoking is to hopefully demystify a process.

When I first cold smoked bacon for a hunting trip with friend it came out beautifully. Since we always have a few fine bottles of single malt whisky, I used whisky as flavor for one of the styles of bacon.

That’s what is all about for me, finding a angle that brings some novelty and can be enjoyed by others.

Cold smoked bacon is actually what most people are familiar with, since you are cooking the bacon after the cold smoking process. When I cold smoke bacon, I like to do 1-3, 6+ hour sessions. This leads to decent apple wood smoked bacon flavor.

I cold smoke oily fish I catch and wild turkey quite often. If you use a brine you get a full salt cured penetration.

As mentioned, you probably want to start with something non-meat, like cheese. That’s nice and simple, actually a lot of dairy can be cold smoked, believe or not even chocolate!

This can just help make sure you have a environment conducive to cold smoking.

  • Under 30 degrees temperature at all times, (ideally 10-20)
  • Enclosed area with an exhaust for the smoke
  • reliable smoke generation

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Related Questions

What Does it Mean to Cold Smoke?

Cold smoking is a form of drying meat or flavoring vegetables or other foods. If cold smoking meat, it is first cured then dried & smoked. Cold smoke has antibacterial properties and preservation aspect to it. The purpose of cold smoking is to flavor as well as preserve

Can you Cold Smoke in an Electric Smoker?

An electric smoker is designed for hot smoking, that is to cook whilst adding smoke flavor. Certain models of electric smokers can have accessories attached to introduce cold smoke into the electric smoker whilst it is turned off.

Comments

    1. I love your site I built a new smoke house and plan to use a lot of your records thanks Steve B from Missouri. Have you ever cold smoked a chicken?

      1. Author

        Heya,
        Nope – but as long as the meat is fresh (chicken seems to develop unwanted bacteria faster than red meats. As part of the charcuterie whole muscle online video course I’m doing, I’, going to be included a cold smoking ebook (currently writing it). Trying to go in-depth as much as possible. I’ll also make the cold smoke ebook available separately, I’ll be emailing out when its done to all emails on this page.

        Cheers
        Tom

  1. Hello Tom!

    I,ve made my own Venturi type smoker. For generating a lot of smoke it´s very effective and the smoke is also cold and that is good because I want to cold smoke. However the smoke is thick and white and the food I´ve smoked so far tastes terribly bitter. The Wood I´ve used is Cherry and it makes the food taste great in my hot smoker. What is your experience of Venturi type smokers, can you get them generating any other smoke than thick White? I´ve looked at a lot of clips when people use them and they all seem to make only thick White smoke.

    All the best Patrick.

    1. Author

      Nice Patrick! Yeah the theory behind cold smoking is ‘light’ with good airflow and high humidity. So fo me, I always just have a whisper of smoke.
      My venturi smoker has a variable airflow pump (fish tank air pump basically). This allows me to choose the smoke amount!
      I learned many years ago less smoke is better than. Open up the chamber/area more and go slow on that smoke! I’m going to have a cold smoking ebook as part of the online dry cured course coming out in a few months, here that link. Cheers Tom

      1. Thanks Tom! I have smoking chamber with minimal airflow and a lot of smoke from my smoker. So now I have some things to start fixing. Graet tips, looking forward trying them out!

        I´ll look into the course and ebook to, sounds great!

  2. nice article Tom im going to cold smoke a twice smoked ham for xmas my 1st go at cold smoking if i cold smoke cheese or peppers at the same time does it affect the flavor or should they be done separate thanks keith

  3. Hi Tom, a lot ofGood information here. I am planning on getting your book it is sure to help me has just this article long did. I do have a question: I want to cold smoke Loma, I wish for it to hang for approximately 14 days give or take. It will have a dry rub with curing salt and regular salt to create equilibrium. My question is, how many days should I put this in a cold smoker to smoke and then remove it, to finish the drying process in a 70% humid 50 degree Environment inside the house, that will not be smoking? I want to get some good smoke flavoring but I live in Michigan and it’s pretty cold out so I think cold smoking for a few days?? And then hang inside? Not sure if you’ve had any experience with this but you may have with your years of knowledge please share. Thank you the time you took to write extensively to be honest.

    1. Author

      I share my cold smoked bacon recipe in the online course, I like 6-8 hours for a lighter smoke. You could try 4-6 hours, let it rest overnight. Of course, it depends on the thickness of the smoke vapor, airflow etc… it just takes experience with this craft! 😉 Many of bought the ebook and are happy with the content, Cheers T – Like dry curing, there is much more then just a recipe to follow!

  4. Pingback: How to Make the Best Bacon – (Calculator & Guide) | Eat Cured Meat

  5. Hi, loved the article and the site, congratulations! I’m making homemade pastrami (it’s curing in my fridge right now) and I plan to finish it off in the slow cooker and cold smoke it to add flavor (I live indoors, so I’m using a smoke gun). Should I do it while it’s cooking or only afterwards? Or maybe both?

    1. Author

      Hey there, to be honest I haven’t used a smoke gun. I’m using other methods involved with combustion!
      If it was me, using this infusion method – I would be doing it after cooking. Seems the infusion of smoke is lost if done before cooking. After smoking, you should ‘rest’ in a container/bag/cookware overnight. This may enhance the smoke flavor and let it permeate. Cheers Tom

  6. Hello, do you think I can use the same cold smoker for Fish and Meat? Do I risk getting the fish taste or flavors pass onto the meat?
    Regards

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