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What is Cold Smoking?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Cold smoking is a process that smokes meat without exposing it to heat, usually at temperatures below 85°F (30°C). Unlike hot smoking, this process can take days or weeks to complete, and it tends to yield drier, salty foods.

The prolonged smoking process yields a complex flavor development, but it also requires careful work to do correctly, as the perfect conditions for cold smoking are also ideal for the promotion of bacterial growth. It is also difficult to accomplish in hot conditions, which is why the process tends to be done more often in cuisines from colder regions of the world, such as Scandinavian nations.

During the smoking process, the smoke is usually generated in a chamber separate from the meat and passed through pipes so that it cools before it reaches the meat. Typically, the meat is held close to room temperature, and in relatively dry conditions. More intensely smoked meats will be smoked longer, while other cooks smoke meats briefly for a hint of flavor.

Since cold smoking does not technically cook or extensively cure the meat, it is usually brined or salted first. Salting meat ensures that bacteria will not develop while it is smoked and stored. Some foods, such as lox, that are classically prepared in this way also have an identifiably salty flavor, due to the brining that the meat undergoes before it is put in the cold smoker.

Typically, cooks cold smoke in the winter, when temperatures are cooler and more controllable. In warmer weather, the temperature in the smoker can rise too high, putting a halt to the process. In extremely warm climates, such as those in the tropics, it is impossible to prepare meat with this method, since temperatures never get cool enough. Excessive heat can also result in rapid putrefaction, which is extremely undesirable.

Because the meat is not cooked, it tends to have a characteristic smooth texture that often reminds consumers of the uncooked food product. The smoke does not fully preserve the food, so it should be kept under refrigeration until it is used, and expiration dates should be carefully observed. Some cold smoked food must also be cooked before use, especially if it has been lightly cured, as is the case with bacon. Others, like Black Forest ham, can be eaten raw as long as they are well handled.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon929280 — On Jan 31, 2014

I'm seeing more and more cold smoked steaks on restaurant menus in our area. Is this safe?

By anon351437 — On Oct 14, 2013

@simrim: Hot smoked salmon is cooked. I have no idea which is better or worse for you, but as others have said, most things in moderation is sensible.

By anon190089 — On Jun 25, 2011

I love cold smoked salmon (a.k.a lox) as well, but if you eat too much of it or even hot soked fish, you will get to much sodium in your diet. so just as turkay says, moderation is the key.

By candyquilt — On Feb 18, 2011

@simrin-- Yes, hot smoked salmon is cooked unlike cold smoked salmon. If you are buying the frozen kinds, I don't think you need to worry. They are prepared in special facilities and quickly packaged. My only concern might be that consuming too much smoked foods in general might affect your health. I always eat everything in moderation, whatever it may be. Cold smoked salmon a couple of times a month sounds fine though. If you are still concerned about the products you are buying, you can try making hot smoked salmon recipes at home. Cold smoking is unfortunately only possible in a facility.

By SteamLouis — On Feb 15, 2011

My dietitian recommended eating more fish so that I can get enough omega 3 in my diet and since I love smoked salmon, I've been having cold smoked salmon every week. I've also tried hot smoked salmon, but I don't enjoy the flavor as much. I know cold smoked salmon is not cooked, which makes me worry sometimes. Is hot smoked salmon cooked? Is one smoking technique healthier than the other?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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