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Is Smoking Meat A Dying Art?

Once the man discovered that meat hung over a smoldering fire had a superior taste and flavor, smoking meat became a part of our heritage. Meat tasted better with salt and adding salt and spices became common. Then man discovered that certain salts would change meat's color to pink and although he could not care less about it, there was an extra bonus. When meat was pink it also tasted much better and lasted longer. That was the beginning of "curing" as we know it today and when followed by smoking it created our first preservation process.

We have not smoked meats because we liked to inhale smoke, we smoked them because we had to. They had to last as long as possible and salting, curing, smoking or air drying meat products was developed to the state of the art. The art of smoking developed in Northern Europe where the climate was (Germany, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia) harsh and cold and the growing seasons were short. In Southern Europe (Italy, Spain) there was a moderate climate with steady prevailing winds which was ideal for salt curing and air drying products and smoking was of lesser importance.

Those countries were continuously engaged in never ending wars that led to food shortages and famine. To be able to survive winter they needed some intelligent planning for the rest of the year and fruit preserves, tomato paste, sour kraut, pickles, wine, pickled and dried mushrooms or honey were processed in the summer leaving meats to be normally processed in the winter. This knowledge is slowly disappearing because:

1. Refrigeration has solved the problem of meat preservation: keep meats in a refrigerator and place in a freezer what you will eat later. The quality of smoked products started to suffer and the product had to be made:

a. Fast. No traditional curing or natural wood smoking was involved. That required too much time and labor, instead chemicals, flavor and color enhancers, cure accelerators and needle injectors became the standard.

b. Cheap. Emulsified meats of many kinds plus a lot of pumped in water, fillers and binders became widespread.

c. With long shelf life. More chemicals and modified atmosphere packing methods were introduced as supermarkets demanded products that will last long and look fresh.

The traditional curing and smoking had to go and machines were designed that could bypass the smoking process altogether. A modern smokehouse has become a sophisticated cooking unit with individual temperature, humidity and air flow controls. Liquid smoke is often added directly to meat or sprayed down from nozzles, even sausage casings are made pre-colored to create an impression that the sausage was smoked. All the operator has to do is to operate the unit according to the instructions given to him by his supervisor.

In the past a smoker was just a drum or a big masonry unit where a natural wood was burning at the bottom in a firebox or smoke was generated in a free standing firebox connected by a smoke delivery pipe with a smoking chamber. The success of the final product depended entirely on the knowledge and experience of the operator who controlled parameters such as: type of wood, dry or wet, length of smoking, smoke temperature, smoke density, draft, final color of the product, and others.

2. The second reason is that there are less and less people living today that have had an opportunity to taste a traditionally smoked product. New generations of young people are introduced into mass produced meat products and they believe that this is how they should taste. They have no point of reference and are not even aware of the fact that those products can taste better.

People like to assume that because an ingredient is approved by the United States Food And Drug Administration this product is of a great quality. The FDA does not care how the product will taste, they only certify that the ingredients used during manufacture are not dangerous to us. The meat plant has to walk a very finely balanced line, the product must be accepted by a supermarket yet inexpensive to manufacture. All that a supermarket wants is the customer’s acceptance and a long shelf life of the product in order to have time to sell it. And they will always sell anything as long as they use the magical words: save money, buy one get one for free. This is done when the expiration time on the product is about to expire and there is a renewed sense of urgency to get rid of it.

The sad truth is that today if you want to enjoy a superbly smoked meat piece you will have to make it yourself. The smoking meat art has all but disappeared from the commercial producers scene but will keep on living among those who really want to master it and to eat well.

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About The Author: Adam Marianski has co-authored two books on meat smoking and making sausages. He runs the web site Wedliny Domowe where you can find more about making quality meats at home.

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