The Difference Between Cold Smoking and Hot Smoking: Which Way of Smoking to Prefer?

Here, we explain how hot smoking and cold smoking work and compare them side by side.
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Last updated: September 02, 2023
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It’s official. Smoking food is once again on the list of top things to do over the weekend. Whether you prefer the fast pace of a hot smoking process or the subtle flavors of a slow smoke, the point is, there’s a smoker somewhere just itching for you to use it.

But, how different are the two? When it comes to cold smoking vs hot smoking, is one better than the other? Let’s have a look at what sets these two processes apart and what they have in common. To ensure your smoked meats reach the ideal internal temperature, be sure to use an accurate digital meat thermometer like one of the best meat thermometers. Monitoring with a thermometer ensures food safety.

What is hot smoking?

The Difference Between Cold Smoking and Hot Smoking: Which Way of Smoking to Prefer?

Hot smoking serves one purpose. To cook the meat for immediate consumption. The average smoking temperature for this type of smoking is anything between 140 and 300°F, depending on the type of food being smoked.

When you’re hot smoking, you’re looking at an estimated time frame of between 12 and 24 hours.

The process

Hot smoking is popular because it’s quicker than cold smoking. While it does take several hours longer than grilling or regular barbequing, hot smoking adds a rich smoky flavor to the food being smoked. Let’s have a look at the quickest way to produce hot smoke.

  • Heat your smoker to a temperature of no more than 175°F.
  • The meat is placed next to the smoke in the same smoker. Unlike with cold smoke, you don’t require two chambers. Don’t place the meat directly over your heat source. This will cause uneven cooking.
  • Baste the meat with your favorite basting. Cover or close the smoker.
  • If your smoker has the option, set the temperature and timer. If you need to check the temperature manually, ensure that the correct temperature is maintained throughout.

What do you need for hot smoking?

The Difference Between Cold Smoking and Hot Smoking: Which Way of Smoking to Prefer?

It might sound obvious to say you need a smoker, wood, and food. But, if you’re new to smoking, you might need some advice in choosing the perfect smoker for you. Let me share one of my favorites with you.

One of the most popular ways of hot smoking is with an electric smoker. With a quality smoker like the Masterbuilt Mb2007117, you’ll have the advantage of a digital panel control. The panel gives you an on/off option and also shows you the cooking temperature and time. This is perfect for keeping track of the temperature to ensure your meat doesn’t get ruined because of the wrong temperature. The thermostat control also allows for even and consistent smoking, giving the smokiest flavor all around!

Another advantage of a standard smoker is its capacity. On average you can fit:

  • 4 pork butts
  • 4 racks of ribs
  • 6 chickens
  • 2 turkeys

Sounds like the perfect barbecue!

Some smokers also have wood chip loading systems on the front or side, which makes it super easy to add wood chips without opening the door. If possible, the door shouldn’t be opened often as it will affect the temperature of the smoker.

What foods are good for hot smoking?

The Difference Between Cold Smoking and Hot Smoking: Which Way of Smoking to Prefer?

Since the point of hot smoking is to eat the food within a few hours, it means you can hot smoke just about anything. Meats don’t have to be cured and require only a light seasoning rub. The most popular hot smoke choices include:

  • Seafood
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts and cheese
  • Meat which includes poultry, beef, or even game

Things to avoid

One of the key things to avoid when following the hot smoke process is to refrain from using treated or resinous wood varieties. These types of wood, which include pine, release toxins when heated up, will poison your food.

During the smoking process, avoid lifting or opening the smoker lid to “check-up” on the food. Doing this will cause a loss of heat and smoke. This can set your cooking time back by at least 30 minutes.

What is cold smoking?

The Difference Between Cold Smoking and Hot Smoking: Which Way of Smoking to Prefer?

Cold smoking is primarily used as a method of food preservation. While hot smoking is a faster way to cook meat, cold smoking imparts more flavor. It’s important to maintain the temperature during the process.

Cold smoking relies on smoke created by low heat to penetrate the food you’re smoking. Using this process gives the meat a smoky flavor and it can last for months if stored correctly.

The process

The process for cold smoking is very simple. The steps to follow include the following:

  • For cold smoking, you’ll need a chamber or box through which smoke can be pumped for a period varying from 12 to 24 hours.
  • The chamber should be kept at a constant temperature between 20 to 25°F. The fire producing the smoke must be kept some distance away from the food. The smoke is channeled toward the food using a tube or pipe.
  • Generally, food should be cured before you start the cold smoke process. Curing draws out excess moisture so that the smoke can easily penetrate the food particles. Curing also keeps cold smoked food fresher for longer without requiring refrigeration.

What do you need for cold smoking?

The Difference Between Cold Smoking and Hot Smoking: Which Way of Smoking to Prefer?

When it comes down to which smoker to use, a cold vs hot smoker is slightly different. Since your food must be kept apart from the smoke, you’ll need a little more than your regular smoker.

  • Cold smoker with two separate chambers: One to store the food, and one for the heat source. You might need to modify your current smoker or use a separate smoke sauce. If you modify your smoker, remember to add a tube between the two chambers so that your smoke can successfully reach the food being smoked.
  • Fuel source that burns slowly: Wood is ideal here. It’s crucial to choose a wood that provides enough smoke.
  • Smoke generator: Ordinarily a smoke generator is a device that attaches to your existing smoker or grill. The primary purpose is to pump out enough high-quality smoke to give your food that unique smoky flavor.

If you’re not feeling brave enough to modify your existing smoker to facilitate cold smoking, you can always invest in a cold smoke generator.

Ideally, you might want to invest in a Smoke Daddy Magnum P.I.G. Cold Smoke Generator, an impressive, market-leading unit. It can work for hot and cold smoking. You’ll need a generator that can attach to your existing smoker, allowing you to customize your smoker to your exact needs.

Some smoking might require an overnight session. The great news is, a smoke generator is designed for unattended smoking, allowing you to focus on other things. No need to spend the whole day and night guarding your appliance and food!

What foods are good for cold smoking?

Foods that taste awesome when prepared using the cold smoke method include the following:

    • Country hams: Cured with salt, ham choices such as sandwich ham, Gypsy ham, and Wigwam ham are great additions to any sandwich or salad.
    • Quality cuts of beef: Popular choices of beef that are only improved with a few hours of cold smoking include brisket, chuck roast, or ribeye that have been cured first.
    • Bacon: It takes about 6 hours to smoke this breakfast favorite. Cold smoking vs hot smoking bacon depends on your personal preference. It’s equally delicious either way.
    • Sausages: Some of the easiest sausages to smoke include chorizo, bangers, and bratwursts.
    • Salmon: Smoked salmon seasoned with Dijon mustard makes for a hearty main. Cold smoking vs hot smoking fish boils down to one key difference. The temperature. Cold smoked salmon at 90°F whereas hot smoking should be a consistent 120°F.
    • Cheese: Cheese is probably the easiest food item to smoke and a good way to practice your smoking skills. Popular choices include gouda, cheddar, and mozzarella. A tip here is, a robust cheese will be complemented by a heavier smoke made by using cherry or applewood.

Things to avoid

When it comes to cold smoking, the most crucial thing to avoid is letting the temperature level drop during the smoking process. A dropped temperature can result in bacterial growth or even botulism which can be fatal. If you’re cold smoking for the first time, ensure your equipment works properly and reaches the necessary temperature.

What about the smoke ring?

Anyone who has ever asked for smoking tips has undoubtedly been told about smoke rings. But, what exactly are they and is there any danger to them?

Hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells, primarily carries oxygen to the different parts of the muscles. Myoglobin stores the oxygen in muscles, some of which is released during the slaughtering process. However, some remain trapped in the muscles and form myowater (muscle tissue water). When the meat is cooked over wood or charcoal, the myowater reacts with nitrogen dioxide.

Grilling in the open air allows for the nitrogen oxide to be released into the air. When smoking, the chamber is closed and the chemicals are absorbed into the meat. This will give the meat a bitter taste and is unhealthy to consume. It’s important to do thorough research on these smoke rings to find the best way to avoid them during the smoking process.

What is the best wood for smoking?

The Difference Between Cold Smoking and Hot Smoking: Which Way of Smoking to Prefer?

Newbie food smokers should know, one piece of wood is not like another. Certain types of wood make for better smoking than others. Let’s get an idea of what’s best for your next smoking session.

  • Oak: Provides a mild smoky taste that’s excellent for smoking meat. The best foods to smoke with oak are sausages, beef, brisket, and lamb.
  • Maple: If you’re looking for a little sweetness in your smoky flavor, then maple is your answer. Probably one of the more refined smoking food choices, it’s perfect for pork, game foul, and poultry.
  • Hickory: The smoke flavor you get from this popular choice is hearty with a touch of bacon. The trick with hickory is to know how much to use. Too much will leave you with bitter food. Since it imparts a bacon taste, it’s perfect for any type of pork, poultry, and just about any type of red meat. Hickory is also a great choice for smoking cheese.
  • Alder: By offering a sweet, non-overpowering flavor, Alder is one of the more popular choices for fish and other kinds of seafoods. Alder provides the perfect smoke needed for Salmon.

Side-by-side comparison

To summarize the key differences between hot smoking and cold smoking, I’ve drawn up a side-by-side comparison.

Foods you can smoke

The main difference when it comes to hot smoking meat vs cold smoking meat is the length of smoking and the curing process. Hot smoking takes longer but doesn’t require curing. Let’s have a look at a comparison of what you can smoke.

Hot Smoking Cold Smoking
Meat Yes Yes, if cured first
Fish Yes Yes, if cured first
Vegetables Yes Yes, some
Cheese Yes Yes
Nuts Yes Yes
Spices No Yes

The process

The important point to remember during the smoking process is the temperature. Invest in a quality thermometer that will give the correct temperature at all times. This is especially necessary with cold smoking. Wrong temperatures in cold smoking can lead to illness. Let’s have a look at some crucial pointers on each smoking process.

Hot Smoking Cold Smoking
Temperature 126 to 176°F 68 to 80°F
Time 1 to 24 hours 12 – 24 hours
What you should remember Curing not required Meat must be cured

Final thoughts

A distinctively smoked flavor is what sets smoking apart from other cooking methods. With its flexibility, it’s relatively easy to smoke anything from cheese to your favorite cut of meat.

While there are a few significant differences in the way cold smoke vs hot smoke is done, both processes yield delicious, smokey flavored foods. The quintessential difference is whether you want to prepare food for the same day or whether you’d like to preserve it for some time later.

Not only is it fun, but smoking food is also a very versatile way of preparing food. When it comes to deciding which is better between cold smoking vs hot smoking, there isn’t a definitive answer. Both are equally great options and present a unique and tasty, smokey flavor to your next meal!

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