It’s time once again for our favorite holiday, that momentous day devoted to eating and drinking and football and more eating. Thanksgiving is here, and our good friend smoked turkey has returned.
Ah, smoked turkey! Courtesy of our good friends at the local high school. It’s one of their big fundraisers every year, providing smoked turkeys to those in the know. Perfectly done, slowly cooked, they bring the joy to the season. It’s hard to argue with the results – juicy meat that tastes woody, slightly smoky, and so wonderfully turkey. Ah, smoked joy!
Smoking is a wonderful way to cook if done correctly. No need for liquid smoke please – that might add some smokiness but it doesn’t really give you the full potential of true smoking. Smoking gives flavor upon flavor, and the best smokers mix and match to make sure that the flavors from the smoke complement and enhance the meat. Whether it’s turkeys or oysters, there’s a unique recipe that will bring out the best.
But what exactly is smoking? Why does it add so much flavor by the simple process of cooking, where so many other methods require the addition of spices, herbs, and other ingredients?
The secret to successful smoking is in the slow speed of the process. Smoking heats the meat so slowly that the fat molecules open up. Most other processes heat the meat so quickly that the fat molecules shrink, hence the reason your lovely steak seems to be a size smaller when it comes off the grill.
Opening the fat molecules is critical. Burning wood creates a sugar that helps break down the fat molecules, and as the fat breaks down, water seeps in, bringing the flavors of the smoke and wood into the meat. With larger, more viscous fat molecules, you’ll be able to pull in more of the flavors then you can with meats that have smaller, tighter fat molecules.
The other part of the equation is the wood. The best woods are those that have little sap, air, and water. Generally, that means hardwood that’s been carefully dried. Softwoods have too much sap and air, so that you end up with less water in the meat and more of a sticky mess. Hardwoods have far less sap and air to begin with, and drying them removes the water. (Removing the water ensures you aren’t just steaming your meat.)
Ah, you say, but don’t you need water in the process? Isn’t that what seeps into the meat? It is, but in small amounts. Too much water and your meat might as well be placed in a sauna. And we know what the leads to – something soggy, mushy and flavorless.
Even the wine concept of terroir plays into smoking. The trees that provide the wood are impacted by the soil and conditions, just like those grape vines. You may decide you really liked that cherry wood smoked brisket last time, but if you don’t buy wood from the same location, it might not taste the same next time around. Of course, that’s part of the fun, discovering the possibilities that exist out there. Any good smoker will tell you that, after all, smoking is as much art as it is science.