The history of smoking meat goes back ages, and is a very unique cooking art form which used to be one of the basic processes of preserving food before refrigeration was invented. Today, we’re able to appreciate it more for its charms than its usefulness, as we all own refrigerators. Although, we can’t deny that the sweet yet sour flavor, with a faint recognition of smoke and wood, leaves our mouths watering.
The real question is, how did humans come to the idea of smoking meat? And even more than that, how did the tradition continue, and do some cultures still do it to this day?
It’s important to look back on our roots once in a while, especially when it’s concerning something we don’t think about daily because it reminds of our shared past and ambitions.
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Where did smoking meat originate from?
It is believed that this process has its roots in the ancient times when man was prehistoric. Soon after he discovered fire, man realized he could bring it into his cave and stay warm. The problem was that caves had no chimneys or other outlets which would let the smoke out, so they were often filled with smoke.
After hunting, the prehistoric man would hang the meat in his cave to dry, and that’s how he gradually and accidentally discovered that the smoke changes the meat’s taste.
Later he started applying salt to the meat before smoking it (which we do today) to preserve it from spoiling.
The process was passed down generation to generation, and that’s how we know of it today.
In the later part of history, in Medieval Europe, smokehouses were becoming a thing. This means that there were specialized houses for smoking meat. The purpose of smoking remained the same- for preservation. Smokehouses were reserved for the rich though; the poorer people had to settle for hanging the meat in the corner of their rooms above a fire.
Today, this might be considered a unique and creative method of cooking meat which delivers a flavor no other method can, but it’s viewed as a highly appraised cultural tradition in many countries.
Types of Smoking
It would be logical that smoking could only be done in one certain way, and that that’s how the tradition was preserved in so many countries today. Contrary to that assumption, there are actually three methods of smoking meat which give vaguely different results, but all the while delicious. The type of meat usually smoked stays consistent, though- ham, pork and beef ribs, corn beef, salmon, chicken, turkey, pork roast, trout, brisket, and lobster.
Hot Smoking is the first type we’ll mention because it just might be the easiest to execute. This method involves exposing the meat to smoke and heat in a controlled environment. After you’ve smoked it, it can last for a while before eating, and it’s advisable to reheat it before consumption. Though, even if you don’t reheat it, it will be safe to eat. What would be characterized as hot smoking is anything between 52 and 80 °C (126 to 176 °F). This is the temperature where food is fully cooked and exceptionally flavorful. Hot smoking is achieved in a smoker and there are various types you can choose from in order to smoke meat. The difference is in the way they’re powered. Another thing that you can pay attention to while hot smoking is the type of wood you use with your smoker. Different types of wood will infuse different flavors in the meat.
Cold Smoking would be the type of smoking our ancestors first discovered. This type of smoking requires temperatures from 20 to 30˚ C (68 to 86 °F). Those are the temperatures in today’s smokehouses, too. This is the perfect temperature for the food to take on a smoky flavor but stay moist. The process of cold smoking requires a few steps before the actual smoking begins, so as to ensure the meat is healthy. First, the meat has to be dried for a few days. This is important so the extra moisture doesn’t create the ground for bacteria. It’s doubtful our ancestors knew just how important it was that their meat was dry before it was smoked, but in any case, it’s good they did.
Since it would take ages for the moisture to come out by itself, curing is applied. Here we can see just how delicate and important that process is, as well as why it became directly tied to meat smoking.
It’s advisable here for the smoke to be cold are at least slightly warm when it reaches the meat because that gives the best results. This isn’t a problem in today’s conditions due to the numerous machines we have, it’s here that we can once again conclude how lucky our ancestors were. Their smoke probably
lost its temperature by the time it reached the meat, and voila!
Smoke Roasting is a method popular in Northern America, and it’s more widely known as “pit roasting” The matter of the fact is that smoke roasting is the most versatile method of the three, because it can be done in different ways. It can be done as barbecuing, pit roasting, pit baking, or even in your traditional oven at home. This might be the simplest process of the three, as it allows for many experiments with positive results. In any of the aforementioned of achieving smoke roasting, it’s essential that the meat be put in cooking bags or brown paper so that it’s properly smoked. If it’s smoked in the oven, the pot and tinfoil above will provide the necessary “bag” and the air will circulate freely, thoroughly smoking the meat. Here, you can even add certain hardwood chips which enhance the flavor.
All this time there has been word of smoking different types of meat, but fish is almost never mentioned. Is smoking fish really all that different from smoking meat?
Well, no, but the meat is somewhat more delicate and people have handled it differently from other meat types over the course of history.
For instance, Native Americans who lived on the East Coast and the Caribbean used to smoke fish by stretching it over a cane or wooden racks stacked in rows over a slow fire which was infused with various herbs and spices.
Discoveries of large fish smoking plants have also been made around the world. These plants used to smoke fish for the entire population, which is where we can see just how popular smoked fish was. IT also gives us a sense of community we tend to think our ancestors lack.
This all points to show that fish was actually the easiest meat to smoke, maybe even because of it was so much more tender than other meat. A proof of this thesis would be that in the time when houses had no chimney, it was firstly (and mainly) fish which was gutted and hung to be smoked. This was possible due to the thick layers of smoke those houses had.
Today, smoking fish is done thanks to liquid smoke which enhances the flavor. Let’s not forget that we do need to dry the fish beforehand, due to the same reasons as with drying other types of meat.
To fully understand the process of smoking meat, we have to understand the process very closely related to it. So closely, in fact, that it needed to be done before actual smoking for better results.
As it was mentioned above, curing the meat involves rubbing a salt mixture onto its surface.
In early Mesopotamia, they used to do this to preserve all sorts of meat, including fish, before they cooked it. We can see here that the process in Mesopotamia didn’t have much to do with smoking meat, it was just generally used as a method of preservation.
Later, in Greece, however, the two- curing and smoking- become tied together and salt was harvested almost exclusively for the purpose of smoking. Though, it was most typically used with fish. Then Romans learned the uses of salt from the Greeks and expended it to various types of meat.
Fast forward even further, and we’re in the medieval times where it was common to treat meat this way before smoking it. As the aforementioned text says, it’s in this period where smoking meat became the most popular, and where the smoking houses originated.
There you have it- the brief history and tradition of smoked meat. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed traveling through the ages while reading this text and further acquainting yourself with this wonderfully unique process. It’s articles like these which teach us something new about our shared history.
What’s more, you’ve probably realized that smoking meat today is even easier than it used to be, thanks to all the technological advances we have, so that could even be a creative idea of what to pack for your next trip, or what to whip up for your next get together.
Whatever you decide, it’s sure to be fun and memorable.