While it may vary by region, there’s no denying smoked food has become universally popular. There has been a surge in popularity in utilizing smoking as a flavor enhancer and menu expander.
Unlike other equipment, a smoker features a slow cooking process that often takes place overnight.
Although meat and fish represent the most common food foodservice operators prepare in commercial smokers, this equipment can also infuse flavor into cheese, vegetables, butter and other items.
Foodservice operators can use smokers in a variety of ways. Hot smoking exposes foods to both heat and smoke at temperatures between 120 degrees F and 220 degrees F. Barbecuing is a different process, which combines smoking with baking or roasting. This occurs at higher temperatures, typically more than 250 degrees F.
Commonly used as a flavor enhancer for meat, poultry and fish, operators can cold smoke already cooked or brined items and even salted food. Cold smoking temperatures range from 68 degrees F to 100 degrees F. Cold-smoked products are not cooked or cured, yet the brining process hinders bacteria growth. The benefits of cold smoking include cost savings in preparing from-scratch items and from not needing additional ventilation, since this process does not use heat or produce grease-laden vapors like hot smoking.
Operators can choose from a variety of smoke-producing options, including wood logs, wood chips or chunks, pellets and charcoal. Traditional woods used in smokers include hickory, mesquite and applewood, but operators can create custom flavors by incorporating other ingredients during the smoking process, like herbs, or mixing in different types of sawdust or chips.
When specifying a smoker, foodservice operators can choose from electric, gas and wood-fired units. Capacities vary, with smaller smokers accommodating 50 to 60 pounds of meat and larger models holding up to 1,000 pounds. Stationary or rotating racks are available. Smokers are available in various configurations, including countertop, cabinet-style and room-size units used indoors. Operators considering an outdoor smoker need to check local codes and requirements, as some jurisdictions have outlawed these units.
Among the three types, electric smokers are the most popular because most units tend to be portable and also provide cold smoking capabilities for added flexibility. These types of units generally utilize wood chips or pellets for the smoking process. Unlike gas, pellets are a renewable resource that are made from compressed sawdust. Gas smokers utilize wood logs to create smoke.
For those seeking more versatility, combi oven models with smoking features also are available. Sizes range from 4- to 40-pan units. Because these units’ interior is not infused with a smoked flavor profile like with traditional smokers, the combi oven can be used for a variety of cooking methods. Smoker ovens also are available that include cook-and-hold technology. These hold between 3 and 18 pans and can be used for hot or cold smoking.
The majority of log-burning smokers have single-wall construction, which can make maintaining proper temperatures more difficult during production. Insulated models help keep interior temperatures more consistent and also capture more smoke that can be infused into the product.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has created national smoker standards, even though ventilation requirements are dependent on differing state and local codes. Generally, larger-sized smokers require a hood, while other models have built-in catalysts to handle ventilation requirements.
Units with controllers are now available that not only provide cook and hold functions but also record internal meat temperatures for HACCP requirements. Operators can plug into the controller via USB to capture cook cycle details.
It’s important to note that, in some locales, health departments prohibit storing wood outside that is uncovered. In this case, a shed or container will be necessary. For instances where proper storage is unavailable, a smoker that utilizes wood chips or pellets, which take up less space and have less stringent storage requirements, should be considered.