The Evolution of technology used to smoke food
Smoking food is a tradition that we carry from ages back. It most likely started back in prehistory, and, of course, by accident. Our ancestors had already tamed fire and learned how to cook food, but preserving it was a problem. During the summer, the heat would make it spoil rather quickly, making it more difficult to survive the winters.
Still, living in cramped dwellings, storing food on the walls to prevent pests from reaching it, and handling fire inside it or just outside it created the perfect environment for smoke to have its way with the raw meat.
And this was good news for our early ancestors, as smoking food not only gives it a very good taste, but also cooks it and dries it much faster than just hanging it out to dry. With the discovery of salt and its preserving properties, they also started to use it to further help preserve smoked food. And, as time went on, newer and better ways to smoke food were developed, until smoking as a preservation technique became outdated with the invention of the refrigerator and the freezer.
Let’s see how those technologies evolved.
The smokehouses were some of the first of those technologies to be developed, in order to smoke tons of food at the same time. As populations everywhere started to grow considerably thanks to new technologies such as agriculture and animal taming, from it came also the need to feed more people, which also meant the need to preserve more food during colder seasons.
The smokehouse is a simple but very effective technology. As the name implies, it’s basically a house full of smoke. Food is hung from the ceiling and walls and fire is used in order to generate smoke. The smoked food was also normally stored there for the following months too.
With the advent of industrialization, industrial smokehouses also started to appear, being much bigger and controlling the atmosphere much better in order to optimize the results.
Picking wood to burn
Over time we also learned which types of wood work for smoking and which doesn’t, and why. Softwoods, for example, like pines and firs, don’t work very well. They tend to be full of resin, generating some very unpleasant soot when they’re burned, which of course gets stuck on the food during the process.
Instead, the smoking process should use hardwoods, such as alder, oak, maple and apple. When burned, the cellulose that composes it becomes a kind of caramel (as cellulose is pretty much compact sugar), giving the food a sweetish taste. The lignin, on the other hand, when burned produces compounds such as guaiacol (which gives the smoky taste), phenol (which is an antioxidant) as well as some antimicrobial substances like acetic acid (the main substance of vinegar).
Because in our times preserving properties from smoke isn’t as important anymore, smoking food is more about getting a good taste and doing it quickly instead of preparing food for storage, so some new technologies were developed in order to do that.
Simpler approaches consist of using some kind of drum in order to control the smoke’s path. This drum can both be horizontal (as with the offset smoker) or upright (like with the water smoker and propane smoker). As you can see, there are also different approaches to it: some smokers may use wood or charcoal, others may use gas, and there are even electric smokers. The water smoker also uses water in order to control humidity and temperature inside the chamber.
While smoking traditionally cooks the food, there are also cold smokers nowadays, which generate smoke at a lower temperature (20 to 30°C), such as some electric smokers. As they do not cook the food, they are good to add taste to food like cheese and nuts as well as to meat that has already been cured, in order to give it that smoky taste before putting it through some cooking process (like grilling and roasting). Bear in mind that it is not recommended to cold smoke meats at home as it can lead to the spread of microbes. On the other hand, to give the smoky taste after preparing food, there is also liquid smoke, which is basically a liquid made with the substances created by smoking that can be added to food like any other condiment.
And, of course, there are commercial smokehouses, which smoke food in large quantities using sawdust and controlling humidity and temperature using water spraying, to ensure the best results.
And future technological improvements are bound to make all this even easier.