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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
For thousands of years, humans have been flavoring and preserving meat, fish, and cheese through the process of smoking.
Nowadays, most people use specialist boxes, containers, and grills to smoke various food products for friends and family at barbecues and tailgates. This unique cooking method infuses the food with a rich, delightfully smoky taste to add an extra flavor dimension to your barbecue dishes.
However, it’s crucial to be aware of how to smoke food sustainably and responsibly. If you hot smoke meat too quickly or brine your turkey joint before cooking it, you can create an unhealthy result. Luckily, there are several simple tips to follow that allow you to smoke meat and cheese healthily.
1. What is Smoked Food and Why Do People Eat It?
The smoking process exposes meat, cheese, fish, or vegetables to smoke from a burning fuel source like wood or charcoal. This method helps to preserve food and infuse it with a distinctive barbecue flavor.
There are several types of smoking: hot smoking, cold smoking, smoke roasting, and liquid smoke. During the hot smoking process, you slow cook your food while smoking it, creating a delicious result with bittersweet flavoring. Cold smoking is when you concentrate on smoking the food rather than cooking it. The aim is to intensify the product’s flavor, and often this method is used to improve the taste of foods like cheese, nuts, and various fish. Typically, cold smoking requires you to cure the food before adding it to the smoker.
If you barbecue your meat in a wood-fired smoker or smoking box, you’re smoke roasting this food. You can also baste or spray your chicken breasts with liquid smoke to impart intense flavors into the meat.
Whatever type of smoking method you choose to use, you’ll create food that’s mouthwatering and enjoyable to eat.
If you want to try out tried and tested smoked meat recipes, we recommend looking into our smoked pork shoulder recipe & Texas style smoked brisket recipe. They’re great for any holiday dinner or backyard BBQ.
2. The Positives of Smoked Food
There are many reasons why the smoking process is a relatively healthy and effective way of preparing and cooking meat.
No need to use saturated fats
Whenever you fry meat or vegetables, you have to use some form of fat, grease, or oil to add flavor, texture, and moisture to your food as it cooks. Whether you use butter, margarine, or various unhealthy vegetable oils like sunflower, corn, or processed canola oil, these fats can be absorbed into your food, creating a tasty yet highly unhealthy result.
The more saturated fat you have in your diet, the higher your risk of developing heart issues and high cholesterol levels.
When you smoke meat or vegetables, you don’t have to use these types of fatty oils for cooking these foods, so you’re less likely to gain weight or suffer from cardiovascular problems as a result.
The smoking process creates nutritious results
Generally speaking, your food is more nutritious if you cook it at a low temperature as there is less oxidation and degradation of vitamins and minerals. For that reason, when you smoke meat or vegetables properly, you retain more of their nutritional value while still creating delicious results.
The slow cooking method is a healthy and sustainable way to heat meat
When you cook meat in a saucepan or on a grill over high heat, you run the risk of burning the food. If your chicken breasts or steaks look charred or carbonized, they may contain damaging compounds that can cause you health issues.
If you’re hot smoking your food, you’ll cook meat at a much lower temperature than you would if you were grilling or frying this product. For that reason, you’re much more likely to avoid causing flare-ups on the meat’s surface or burning the food.
3. Possible Health Issues Associated With Smoked Food
All types of smoked, slow-cooked meat have a deliciously savory flavor and a juicy texture. However, if you don’t cook the meat correctly or use certain types of fuel, this smoked food can sometimes cause health problems.
If you brine the meat, it will contain high sodium content
To answer the question “is smoked food bad for you?” you’ll need to consider your preparation methods. In some cases, you’ll have to brine your turkey, chicken, or beef joint before smoking it on your grill. When you brine meat, you submerge it in a saline solution, and this process adds moisture to the food. The salt in the solution passes into the meat and denatures this meat’s proteins, giving it a tender texture.
Since brining is such an effective and popular technique for preventing this type of moisture loss, smoked meat will often have a disproportionately high sodium content. If you eat too much salt or sodium as part of your diet, you’ll experience short-term and long-term health issues, from high blood pressure to kidney problems.
Some fuel sources contain potentially carcinogenic substances
You’ll also need to think about the cooking process itself when considering the answer to the question, “is smoked food bad for you?”
Some types of wood smoke contain various carcinogenic compounds like benzopyrenes and formaldehyde that can have serious adverse effects on your physical health. However, this only really becomes an issue if you overcook and burn your meat. The food’s carbonized surface is where these potentially harmful polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons develop.
4. How to Smoke Food in a Healthy Way?
Thankfully, you can easily avoid dealing with these potentially harmful effects of smoked food by following these simple tips.
Step 1 - Smoke meat low and slow
Ensure you’re smoking meat at a consistent and low temperature for several hours or more at a time. If you set your smoker’s temperature too high initially, you may burn or char your meat, which can lead to the formation of potentially harmful contaminants on the food’s surface.
Invest in a digital dual probe thermometer so you can monitor both the meat’s internal temperature and the temperature within the smoker itself. Aim to smoke your meat at between 200-220°F for at least 6-8 hours, modifying this cooking time depending on the size and type of cut.
Step 2 - Don’t brine meat before smoking it
If you want to cut down on your smoked food’s sodium content, avoid brining it. For those worried about the meat drying out or becoming dehydrated, just add a full water pan to your smoker box. This creates a humid environment that keeps the meat moist throughout the cooking process.
Step 3 - Opt for lean cuts
Another simple way to smoke your food healthily is to buy lean cuts of meat that don’t contain much fat marbling. The smoking method favors these types of cuts: when you cook lean, sinewy meat for a longer time at a lower temperature, the heat breaks down this meat’s connective tissue, releasing juicy collagen that trickles down throughout the cut, imparting moisture and flavor.
Step 4 - Marinade your meat before cooking
When you marinate your meat before the smoking process, you’re coating this food with a protective layer of moisture that helps to prevent charring and burning later on. Therefore, the simple act of marinating your food can significantly decrease the risk of carcinogens developing on the meat’s surface.
5. Smoke Food Properly and Effectively for Healthy, Delicious Results
Smoked food has flavor and texture unlike anything else. When you learn how to cook meat and vegetables properly in your smoker box, you’ll be able to produce food that’s healthy, nutritious, tender, and delicious. Opt for low, slow cooking temperatures and use the right kind of fuel for smoked food that you can feel confident about regularly adding to your diet.