How to Form a Pellicle on Smoked Meat (Salmon & Bacon)

Pellicle Formed – Salmon Ready for Charcoal ‘Snake Method’

Here is a quick guide about the pellicle, and why it helps when smoking meat. I’ve been meat smoking for decades and have always been looking for helpful traditional & new techniques. I love smoking all kinds of meat, including store-bought, farmed & wild meat.

I have learned how important a pellicle is for smoked meat. This easy guide will explain why, how and put you on the right track.

How to Form a Pellicle on Smoked Meat?

Before smoking, meat is when the pellicle drying process is done. Depending on conditions it will take 20 minutes to 8 hours. The two key factors are a cool area and airflow. Once complete, the meat will have a dry sticky layer. A pellicle allows smoke to flavor the meat.

Its all about sealing in moisture and flavor, and if this is done right, you will be feasting on delicious smoky delights. There are many different types of meat to smoke, this easy guide below will cover all the basics of the pellicle:

Different Meat, Pellicle Time 

If you think in terms of how dense the meat is, then this will give you a rule of thumb about how long it will take from my experiences:

MeatMinimum TimeIdeal Time
Pancetta/Bacon Pork Belly1-4 hoursOvernight
Trout / Salmon Fillet30-60 mins1-4 hours
Chicken/Turkey Breast2-4 hours3-6 hours
Seafood30-60 mins2-4 hours
Seafood – mussels/scallops30-60 mins1-3 hours
Whole Fish (under 6lb/3kg)2-4 hoursOvernight

Note, whole fish style hot and cold smoking is another topic in itself.

Air Flow & Cool Area = Pellicle

Pellicle on Pork - Ready for Smoker!
Pellicle on Pork – Ready for Smoker!

The smoke flavor phenol will attach to the fat, again there is something to watch out for.

If there is too much fat, the flavors will not be able to diffuse. Trimming down fatty chunks of beef/pork can be a good idea. Like any type of cooking use your senses, poke it and see if it sticks a little to your finger on touching it.

Common sense will help guide you. I have found on fish fillets can form a pellicle very quickly in the fridge.

The flavor compounds from the wood won’t stick until the protein is dry enough to form that tacky pellicle. Maybe your fridge has great airflow (maybe not) or maybe its winter and you can use a shed or cellar area – lots of options.

You can also just point a fan onto the meat, whilst in a coolish environment.

These factors will all vary the time, again using some common sense and observing is all you need to do.

Top Tips

  • As a rough guide, keeping the temperature under 65°F/15°C when forming a pellicle will do, a bit hotter is fine from my experiences (Commercial fish smokers work in much higher temps).
  • The salt in the meat will preserve it, so it won’t spoil if left it in a non-refrigerated shed/basement.
  • If you do leave it too long (multiple days) – it may become leathery & flavor compounds won’t stick. (I’ve been there) As with anything keep an eye on it, touch it / feel it!
  • Cover the meat if it’s in the open with muslin so bugs can’t get to it
  • When forming the pellicle, don’t sit it on a flat bottom pan, make sure there is a rack (wooden skewers work on a concave dish) or it’s hung so it has surrounding airflow.
  • Previously frozen fish will produce very little pellicle from my experiences.

The smoke flavor phenols will attach to the fat, again there is something to watch out for. If there is too much fat, the flavors will not be able to diffuse.

Trimming down fatty chunks of beef/pork can be a good idea.

Color and flavor of smoked meat vary depending on the gases, it’s not specifically about the visual smoke. That’s why you hear the term ‘thin’ blue smoke because the wood combusts efficient and just a transparent blue smoke can be seen (or other colors, I get yellow thin smoke too).

Lots of friends and myself included when I started, didn’t have enough airflow or over smoked. Less is definitely better for either indirect or direct smoking (portable smoker).

Thin smoke from my portable smoker:

Portable Smoker Thin Blue Smoke
My Portable Smoker Thin Blue Smoke

They say the resins join together with the sugars, starches, and protein on the surface of the meat to form the pellicle.

This hot-smoked fish was only in the smoker for 15 minutes, it had a well-formed pellicle and you can see the color it took on from the wood.

Hot Smoked Fish
Hot Smoked Fish – Portable Smoker 15 minutes on the BBQ Gas Grill

How the color and flavor of smoked meat vary all depends on the gases, it’s not specifically about the visual smoke. They say the resins join together with the sugars, starches, and proteins on the surface of the meat to form the pellicle.

Advantages of a Pellicle

  • More smoky flavor
  • Antibacterial skin to protect
  • Seals in moisture
  • Foreign bodies like soot, don’t stick to the meat when smoking as much
  • Better overall smoky color

What Does A Pellicle Look like?

Pellicle on Fish
Pellicle Formed on Fish – gloss/sticky – brined for 4 hours prior (yes a messy fillet job on a oily fish!

Does Smoking Meat Prevent the Formation of the Pellicle?

No, BBQ bark & pellicle is the proof of this. However, the smoking time is over a long period, generally over 6 hours.

Furthermore, low & slow bark is a combination of spices, sugar and salt. It is rubbed over the meat prior to smoking. It’s a sugar crust that hardens on the outside of the meat, this occurs over the long Low & Slow smoking session over several hours.

Because Southern Style BBQ is such a big topic, I will have to elaborate on this in a different post.

But in short:

A smoker is generally a dry environment, when Low & Slow smoking for a longer time (6 hours to multiple days), a pellicle can/will form in the smoker under the rub. But if the pellicle forms too much then it will harden (polymerizing into a hard skin, so it says in the BBQ cookbooks).

It’s a balancing act, some like to use water pans to keep the humidity higher inside the smoker.

Hence, why BBQ enthusiasts have a spray bottle of liquid, often apple juice – to stop them drying the meat out (note, this takes practice!). The Low & Slow Southern Style! (Generally due to the sweet sugary rub, it’s a very sweet outcome but everyone loves it).

So, it seems the pellicle will form and the smoke will adhere to it.

Thin blue smoke, of course, is best (at the bottom of this post, I mention the quality of smoke).

Purpose of Pellicle

From what I have been reading, the pellicle is a thin layer of tissue, it comprises of protein and some other components.

It’s to protect the meat in a way.

Because you can smoke any meat, hard cheese, vegetable, seafood, sausage or nut.

The pellicle is a meat thing that will help create that smoky flavor.  The woods and the food you can use is endless, we just seem to focus on meat for some reason.

Smoking has some preserving properties in the form of phenols, this limits the formation of bacteria that makes meat inedible.

There are some that don’t think it matters, and in certain scenarios – say BBQ Southern style, it doesn’t because of long smoke times. The pellicle will develop during the smoking process I think. This is just a glimpse of the entire diverse world of the smoking food world.

List of Different Ways to Create a Pellicle

  • Put it in the oven, or just turn on a fan, to create the airflow (no heat)
  • In the fridge on a rack/hanging or on bamboo skewers (airflow!)
  • In a cool breezy shed or garage (ideally protected by muslin)
  • If the temperature is under 60°F/15°C and you have airflow in the smoker. Then you can use the smoker before heat is turned on
  • In a smoking box/fridge/house with airflow

Interested in meat curing (here’s something about the equipment) to make dry-cured meat like pancetta, lonza or braesola? Here is a post I wrote on all of that.

Tip If it’s in the open you might need to wrap in muslin to keep bugs off.

For instance, I have left fish fillets hanging in a small shed for 6 hours. Not in direct sun, to keep it cool – worked a treat.

Smoking Salmon – Forming a Pellicle

hot smoked salmon
Smoked Salmon – It’s Awesome

The color and texture you can have from smoking salmon are sublime.

When you do it at home – it just doesn’t compare to anything bought, unless it’s a true artisan or done with a passion I find.

My personal preference is overnight using a dry cure in the fridge. I’m looking for balance so once the pellicle is formed. I will use lighter wood flavors to compliment the salmon, like applewood (here is a guide to smoking wood).

The tacky glow of a well-formed pellicle on salmon can be visually seen, it has a look like jelly.

The pellicle forming is a choice, and it becomes more effective on shorter smoking runs like hot smoking.

In longer forms of meat smoking, the dry nature of the smoking area means the pellicle can form during the process (ie 1-7 days). All in all, if you want smoky flavor – this step is important.

A Shorter time is needed since salmon isn’t dense. And of course, it comes down to how smoky you want it, I like balance and look to complement the fish.

Also whether you are hot or cold smoking the salmon is important.

You want more info on how I smoke salmon, both hot and cold smoking, please find a post I wrote here.

Most folks will be hot smoking, so forming the pellicle is more important since the salmon will only be in the smoker for a short period of time.

So the same applies to smoking cheese, garlic or tofu

My brother is a keen trout smoker, his preference is straight in a hot smoker – he wanted to really taste a fine trout in excellent condition.

 

I'm completely fascinated with making dry-cured meat and sharing the amazing flavors you can create at home.

After curing for nearly 20 years, with a focus on dry-curing classic Italian and exotic ideas also. I've got a charcuterie course covering what you need, how to do it, and some insider tips.

Start today making your own delicious pancetta, braesola, or dry-cured bacon with this course the 50% of does end at the end of April 2021 also.

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How Long to Form Pellicle on Bacon?

To form the pellicle, overnight in the fridge with airflow around the meat is ideal. Depending on temperature and airflow, the bacon can form the pellicle within 4 hours. For hot smoked bacon, pellicle formation is very important.

Bacon – Hot or Cold Smoking

Again it comes down to hot or cold smoking bacon, my advice is the same – if you are hot smoking. You will get the benefits from forming the pellicle overnight.

Cold Smoking bacon will take 1 to 7 days, so the cold smoker will be drying out the bacon during the process.

If we are talking Italian pancetta – then lighter smoking would be the way. Let not get into the differences of Pancetta & Bacon here..

For triple cold smoked bacon – automation is key (20 hours+). To have the setup for this generally means some kind of automatic or thermostat-controlled smoker – set and forget setups are ideal for this. You can read more of this post. Wireless or inbuilt thermometers are a blessing also and it means you don’t micromanage what’s going on.

I’ve seen traditional dutch butchers with piles of darker flavored wood chips on the ground. They just let it smoulder for days. With cured meat it doesn’t have to be complicated, but this gentleman had 40 years experience with dutch style smoked goods, respect.

If you want to read a summary blog of meat curing at home, I wrote a decent size post here.

Can I Form a Pellicle at Room Temperature?

If the room temperature is cool and below 68°F/20°C you can form a pellicle. For fish or less dense meat it will form faster in approximately 30 minutes to one hour. Using a fan to create air circulation can speed up the time is takes.

Comments

  1. I am experimenting with smoking mackerel in the tropics (I lie in Bali).
    We can cure it in local sea salt and coconut palm sugar and smoke over coffee wood, which is how we smoke bacon here. I am concerned about the pellicle step though because the ambient temperature is so high, I am afraid the fish will go off if at room temp for any length of time. The fridge has no fan. Could we use an air conditioned room with a fan?

    1. Author

      Heya, I guess that would be the gamefish type mackeral instead of the cold water oily variety around the UK.
      You probably know fish deteriorates pretty fast when it isn’t on ice or at fridge temp. Fridge temperature would be way better. I’m presuming you cooking/smoking it.
      It can take just 1-2 hours to get a pellicle going, especially with airflow. So maybe try a small piece, not a whole fillet, I know they are big!

  2. I have smoked coral trout here in the tropics in fnq Australia. I used a wet brine of water,salt,brown sugar,soy sauce,chilli etc,in the fridge over night. Fillet your fish, leave skin on. When ready to smoke pat it dry with towel, do not wipe it. Then hot smoke for around 15 minutes

    1. Author

      Cool mate, nice one my mum is retired to Cairns, I’ve lived that part of the world for 6 years prior. Had an epic 4wd adventure to Bamaga!
      Mud crabs are my no. 1 favorite meat!

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

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