It’s cold outside, and that makes cold smoking a strange but viable cooking technique.

Cold days in Virginia are punctuated by -- what’s that smell? Hickory smoke. Some neighborhoods are full of it, and it’s not coming from the wood burners.

It’s called cold smoking, and your pappy learned it from his pappy and on and on. It’s looked forward to with the enthusiasm of Christmas. Fans clean out a season of fishing and hunting in the freezer, and look for a taste of summer outdoor cooking.

Cold smoking may be the oldest way to barbecue fish and meat, yet it’s not really cooking. It is smoking under temperatures less than 40 degrees, hence the need for winter days. It works with red and white meats and all of the seafoods.

When I first tried it with my grill, I over-smoked chicken breasts. They were highly flavored but tender. I should have left the Jim’s Cold Smoke Rub in the pantry. That’s the thing to watch. It took me a few trials to get the right blend of smoke and rub. In many cases, you might decide you do not need the rub. Venison and beef benefit the most.

The main concern is food safety (bacteria growth) but that’s neatly solved. All cold-smoked meats must be cured. The most common home curing is brining. It sterilizes and tenderizes meat.

I’ll walk you through the process. The result is barbecue-tasting meats in mid winter.  Note that cold smoking has become a bit of a trend in fancy restaurants outside the South. They’ve even developed temperature regulated smoking boxes and jet guns that squirt blasts of smoke at finely tuned intervals.

The first thing is to defrost the fish or meat and brine it. The classic brine is a cup of kosher or sea salt in a gallon of cold water. You could add herbs or garlic, but those flavors probably won’t survive the process. Cover the meat in the brine and do not refrigerate.

Fish and seafood brine in about an hour. The rest require at least three hours. The more you brine, the more tender the meat.

In England, the fish smoking is called kippering, and it is wildly popular for breakfast smoked fish. The same technique is used for smoked sardines, oysters and mussels.

Clean the spider webs from your covered gas or charcoal grill. You’ll need a bag of hickory chips from your hardware or cooking store and a stainless steel smoking box if you’re using gas.

After brining, wash the meat under a cold tap to remove the salt.

Charcoal Grill

Open vents and light a pie of chips in a corner. Let it burn with the top off, adding chips as the fire progresses. Place the meat as far away as possible on the top grill. Cover and watch as the grill fills with smoke.

Note that cold smoking means less than 40 degrees. The colder the day, the better the results. All grills are different, so you’ll need some experimentation.

The general rule is 45 to 60 minutes for meat and 20 to 30 minutes for seafood.

Gas Grill

Load the smoking box with chips. Fire it over a burner until it smokes. Shut down the gas, add the meat as above and smoke, covered.

You’re not finished when the time runs out. You really haven’t cooked anything. Bring the smoked meat indoors and finish it on the stove or oven, using the usual recipe time.

If you want more of a barbecue flavor, try a dry rub just before the finish cooking. Mine is Virginia style only for the reason that I once lived there and learned to love cloudless winter weekends.

Note: If your grill gets too hot, prop the lid open for about and inch to let in the cold air.


Jim’s Virginia Cold Smoke Rub

2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cumin, ground
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Mix and store in a tightly closed glass jar. Rub on cold-smoked red or white meat just before finish cooking.