Smoked food will always delight a crowd. Whether you plan to make hot smoked salmon in just 15 minutes for canapés, a whole side of cold-smoked salmon for Christmas breakfast, or racks of hot-smoked American-style BBQ ribs for a New Year's Eve party, there is something primal about the fireside warmth and aroma in smoked foods.
We love cooking with smoke at Sous Chef - and Sous Chef Director Nicola frequently cooks with each of the food smokers we sell. Here she runs through what you need to think about when choosing a food smoker.
When you first start out, choosing a food smoker can be overwhelming. Why do I need a smoker? What is hot vs. cold smoke? Can I cook indoors or outdoors? What do they look like? What is the difference between food smokers? Here we answer each of those questions in turn.
What is the difference between hot and cold smoking?
There are two very different types of smoking:
- Hot smoking: Hot smokers cook food at around 150°C whilst smoking it. American-style pulled pork, ribs, pastrami and brisket are hot smoked - but for a very long time, to help keep them tender as they cook. Quicker foods to hot smoke include hot-smoked mackerel, hot-smoked salmon and thinly sliced smoked duck - all of which might only take 20-30 minutes to hot smoke.
- Cold smoking: Cold smoking surrounds the food with smoke, but never lets the temperature get above 32°C. This food remains 'raw', keeping the beautiful translucence of cold-smoked salmon. This method is also perfect for cold smoking foods that would melt when heated, for example butter or cheeses. Because the food isn't cooked, meat or fish should always be cured before it is smoked. For example, brining in a salt sugar solution, sometimes even with saltpetre (to kill bacteria); or packing tightly with curing salts for a couple of days in the fridge. Often food is cold smoked for flavour and to help preserve it, and then cooked at a later date - for example bacon.
Indoors or Outdoors? Quick or Slow?
Secondly - decide whether you will smoke foods indoors, or outside in the garden. Because a smoker releases smoke, indoor smokers tend to be used for shorter periods of time than outdoor smokers, and therefore are suitable for different types of food. Luckily smoking isn't too dependent on weather, and you can get good results with outdoor smokers, even in pouring rain. We've used the ProQ Frontier Hot Smoker to BBQ ribs in a downpour, with great results, although the cook was a little bedraggled. The ProQ cold smoke generator - when used with a robust metal chamber - is also fine in the rain.
Which food smoker is best?
As we've mentioned above, choosing a food smoker depends on a number of things - but most importantly what you want to cook. This table should provide a useful summary, before we run through each of the smokers below in turn:
What is the best indoor hot smoker?
The two-person version of the Camerons stovetop smoker - perfect for smoking a couple of fillets of salmon (see photos below), four boned chicken thighs, one large duck breast, or a couple of medium steaks.
The original stovetop smoker! It'll take a side of salmon, a couple of whole trout, and even fit in your dishwasher afterwards for an extra easy clean.
See the Camerons indoor hot smokers in use
Both the smaller Camerons Gourmet Mini Smoker and the larger Cameron Stovetop Smoker will sit on any type of hob indoors, or can be used outdoors on a BBQ. These images show the Camerons Gourmet Mini Smoker.
Wood chips are placed in the base...
... and covered with a metal drip tray. Then pop a little foil onto the drip tray (if you're not a keen washer-upper), insert the rack, and sit whatever is cooking on top.
Cover with a lid...
After 20-30 minutes, you'll have a perfect piece of hot-smoked salmon for dinner. Delicious flaked over pasta, mixed with crème fraîche for a canapé or served cold with a salad. See the gorgeous deep orange outside...
... and the lovely moist pale pink interior.
Boned chicken thighs are transformed from pale and pasty to deliciously smoky, and deep orange in colour in around 30 minutes on a very low heat on the hob.
... delicious sliced and tossed together with ribboned courgettes, sliced tomatoes and salad dressing for a quick and healthy week-night dinner.
Cheeses that are best cooked, such as halloumi, also work well in the Cameron Smoker:
How do I choose an outdoor hot smoker?
When we talk about American BBQ, we mean hot smoking – or cooking ‘low ‘n’ slow’ – anywhere from 1.5 to 24 hours of cooking over a low heat, in a smoke-filled chamber. The best known classics are whole hog BBQ, pulled pork shoulder or ‘butt’, and pork ribs. It’s a style of cooking that is about making tough cuts delicious, and less about detailed prep work than enjoying beers with family and friends.
These vertical smokers also double up as traditional barbecues, and their modular design makes them extremely versatile. ProQ smokers work by burning wood chips over hot coals – the hot coals provide the heat necessary to cook your food, and the wood chips produce those wonderfully smoky flavours.
The Bradley Smoker range includes the Bradley Original and Digital Bradley Smokers. These sleek smokers from Canada make home smoking as easy as switching on a slow cooker. Their clever smoke generators burn Bradley’s unique wood chip bisquettes, and have an automatic feeding system so you don’t need to constantly monitor and top up the wood chips. They also have a separate heating element – this is inside the chamber, so it acts like an oven by maintaining a constant temperature that cooks your food.
The latest Bradley Smart Smoker gives you the ultimate control, as you can set the temperature and cooking times on your mobile phone!
What is the best outdoor hot smoker?
The ProQ Ranger Elite is the smallest in the ProQ family of hot smokers. It's the perfect size for getting started with smoking outdoors, and is great for a family of four with a small back garden.
The ProQ Frontier Elite is the most popular BBQ smoker that we sell. It's a good size for cooking for a family, but also is large enough to host parties for 10-20 people, serving slow-cooked ribs.
The ProQ Excel 20 Elite is the daddy in the ProQ range - it can cook a staggering 65 lbs of meat, and is the choice for BBQ Competition enthusiasts. With its red PVC detailing it's a beauty in any backyard.
If you are a fan of hot-smoked flavours, but don't want to be lighting fires, or arranging coals, then the Original Bradley Smoker is for you. Developed in Canada by game hunters and fishermen, this is an outdoor oven, with a special system to dispense wooden pellets that smoulder to bring consistent and repeatable smoky flavours to your food.
This is just the same size as the Original Bradley Smoker, but higher tech. You can set the time and temperature using a digital display rather than a dial.
If you're catering for a crowd, you'll want the largest in the Bradley smoker family. As with the Digital 4-Rack Smoker, you can set the time and temperature using the digital display.
Read more about choosing the right size of smoker for you in our article "What size smoker do I need?".
What is the best indoor cold smoker?
The Sage by Heston Smoking Gun is used in restaurant kitchens around the world. The gun produces short controlled bursts of smoke for a minute or so at a time, perfect for spectacular table-side theatre. Try serving food under a smoke-filled cloche, and as the cloche is whisked away diners will enjoy a cloud of aromatic smoke. The Smoking Gun can also be used to infuse a salmon or trout fillet with flavoured smoke, or by mixologists to flavour and infuse cocktails and liqueurs. And because the smoking gun can burn almost anything - herbs, wood chips, tea leaves - there is no limit to your creativity.
How do I use an outdoor cold smoker?
My favourite use for a cold smoker is for making smoked salmon - a huge treat throughout Autumn and Winter, and a real showstopper on a Boxing Day platter.
I cure a side of salmon in the fridge for 6-10 hours, covered in herbs, salts and spices. After rinsing it is patted dry and left uncovered overnight in the fridge (this helps the smoke adhere to the fish), before it is cold smoked for 6 hours. After a further night in the fridge to let the flavours mellow, you'll have the perfect cold smoked salmon - ready to slice for breakfast. And everyone is wowed by a whole side of salmon as a party centrepiece. All the more, it is certainly the most delicious salmon we've ever eaten. And when a 1kg side of salmon is £10-£12 from a supermarket, and cold smoked salmon is anywhere from £20-£40 a kilo, it's pretty darn good value.
The cold smoke generator is simply lit with a candle. It is then placed in the base of a smoking 'chamber', which will fill with smoke. The food either hangs above the smoke generator or can sit on a rack.
The ProQ Cold Smoke Generator in Action
The cured salmon is then rinsed, and patted dry, ready to smoke. Just hang or place on a rack in the smoking chamber and leave for 6 hours (the cold smoke generator can generate smoke for around 10 hours before it is refilled).
The salmon is best left overnight, finely sliced and ready to eat. Salmon perfection.
What is the best outdoor cold smoker?
The ProQ Cold Smoke Generator - pictured in action above - is at its best when smoking whole sides of salmon. But you can also use it to smoke butter, cheese, eggs, bacon, vegetables and even garlic.
If you're smoking for more people, the larger ProQ Artisan Cold Smoke Generator is better for larger smoking chambers. It works beautifully inside the ProQ Excel 20 Elite, using that smoker bbq as the cold smoking chamber.
For the smoking chamber, choose between a specially made housing (the ProQ Eco Smoker), the base of a Weber BBQ, or any other metal housing (such as a dustbin, oil drum, etc). The ProQ Frontier Elite Smoker (usually used for hot smoking), doubles up as an excellent smoking chamber for cold smoking.
Alternatively you can use the Bradley Cold Smoking Adapter to convert your existing Bradley smoker into a cold smoking chamber – use the same great Bradley bisquettes for your choice of wood smoke, and use the same easy controls on the smoke generator for fuss-free cold smoked fish, bacon, cheese and even butter in your own back garden.
Simply cure your fish or bacon beforehand as outlined above, pop on a rack or hang in the smoking chamber and switch on the smoke. Because the cold smoking adapter attaches on to your existing Bradley smoke generator, you can still get up to 9 hours of consistent cold smoke.
See the full range of Food Smokers & BBQ cookware, sets and accessories here. Or read all our BBQ how-to guides, recipes and top tips on the Bureau of Taste blog here.
After a stage as a chef at a London Michelin-starred restaurant Nicola became obsessed with seeking the best flavours from around the world. She started Sous Chef in 2012, and is always sharing her knowledge of ingredients and writing recipes to showcase those products. Learning from the products, Sous Chef's suppliers and her travels, Nicola has written the majority of the recipes on the Sous Chef website, all of which are big on flavour.