Sous vide is a fantastic method of preparing a meal, it is convenient and easy. Although cooking times are extended, the results are well worth the wait. On its own, cooking sous vide style will have you plating delicious meals time after time.
When sous vide cooking steaks, what makes it even better is adding a little smoke flavor to the mix. But one of the toughest decisions is whether to smoke before or after sous vide cooking the steak.
In this article, I discuss the best methods to take your sous vide cooking to the next level, simply by adding a little smoke.
How Does Smoking Work?
I love the flavor of smoke-infused food. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a fishing port that had everything from commercial smokehouses to small sheds that individuals used to make some of the most exquisite smoked products.
Traditionally, smoking would be used in conjunction with brine to preserve food. While smoke alone can still be used to offer some level of preservation to foodstuffs, these days it is as a method of flavoring food that the process is almost exclusively used as.
Smoking food is as it sounds. Food is exposed to the smoke from smoldering materials, usually wood. This process infuses the food with a smoky flavor. Different materials will lead to a variety of smoky flavors.
Common woods that are used in the process for different flavors of smoke include:
There are several smoking methods commonly used: Cold Smoke, Warm Smoke, and Hot Smoke.
- Cold Smoking – In cold smoking, the temperature used in cold smoking is usually between 68° and 86° F. This method doesn’t cook the food and when done commercially in larger batches, the process can take several days.
- Warm Smoking – As the name suggests, warm smoking is where the food is exposed to temperatures that are between 77° and 104 °F.
- Hot Smoking – The hot smoking technique cooks the food as well as smoking it. The hot smoking temperature range is from 126° to 176° F.
Smoking Food Benefits
There are many benefits to smoking your food, but ultimately the main reason that cooks use this method is to enhance the flavor of the dish they are preparing.
That has to be at the top of any list of the advantages of smoking your food.
There is a distinct flavor to food that has been smoked that cannot be replicated by any other method of food preparation.
It isn’t just the smoke that flavors the food, the process breaks down the proteins in meat, which helps to tenderize the food.
Also, the meat’s fat melts and is absorbed into the tender meat, further enhancing the flavor.
Appearance and Aroma
Different woods release different aromas, these are released when the wood smolders, they then infuse the food with all those wonderful scents as it cooks.
Food also takes on a different texture and appearance, this is due to an acidic coating caused by the smoking process.
Historically, smoking has been used as a preservation method for meat and fish. Although home smoking is not recommended as a method of long-term preservation, the process can prolong the fridge life of produce.
Smoking removes much of the moisture that bacteria require to survive. The acidic coating also acts as a bacterial barrier.
Smoking Food Drawbacks
There are some downsides to smoking food. Perhaps most concerning are studies that have shown a statistical correlation between certain cancers and smoked food.
While there is no definitive evidence that the cancer link exists, no honest list of food smoking cons should omit this possibility.
Smoked Food May Contain Increased Levels of Carcinogens
While not everyone agrees that the evidence is conclusive, some experts have concluded that substances and smoke particles from the smoking process increase the risk of cancers.
This is similar to the carcinogens that come from the grill and other seared fire seared meats.
Loss of Nutrients
The process of smoking dries out the product and this can lead to a loss of nutrients. Particularly Vitamin C and Thiamin.
Nutrient loss increases the length of time you can store food before eating. That’s why preserved foods like McDonald’s french fries don’t show rot for 6+ years.
I can vouch for this one, my first couple of efforts at smoking were pretty dreadful, to be honest. But there are plenty of great guides available on the internet and it is well worth the effort.
Smoking Before Sous Vide
There is a long-running debate about whether it is best to smoke your food before or after sous vide. I find that there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.
One of the fun things is experimenting and finding out what works for you and the food you are preparing.
Smoking before you sous vide is a method that many cooks say infuses the meat with more of that smoky flavor. However, it does require a bit more forethought and preparation.
The crucial aspect in getting this process correct is the internal temperature that the meat reaches during the smoking process. The temperature needs to be carefully monitored.
As a rule of thumb, the smoke temperature should never be higher than the temperature you are going to sous vide cook at. This applies to whatever you are cooking.
For example, if you plan to sous vide brisket at 131° F, then you should stop the smoking process before the internal temperature of the meat has reached this mark.
Smoking After Sous Vide
Some people don’t like to smoke meat after it’s been cooked sous vide, because the smoke doesn’t penetrate the food quite as deeply. On the other hand, the smoky flavor is freshly imbued into the meat and not lost during cooking.
One great advantage of this method is that you can have the meat precooked sous vide style and simply finished in the smoker.
The easiest method is to fully sous vide the food until it is completely tender, then leave it to cool. Once cool, it only needs to be smoked long enough to bring it up to the desired temperature.
By this point, the meat will be infused with plenty of smoky flavors and the smoky-sweet aroma that is irresistible.
As with smoking before sous vide, the temperature is critical. To avoid the meat becoming too tough, always remove it from the smoker before the internal temperature is higher than the sous vide level.
Final Thoughts: Smoke Before or After Sous Vide
Smoking and sous vide cooking food combine two of my favorite ways of preparing meat and fish, and even more vegetables.
Should I smoke before or after sous vide?
For me, I personally like to smoke after having cooked sous vide. The smoky flavor is fresher when I smoke after sous vide.
Not everyone likes to smoke after sous vide, so the best way to find out what works for you is to simply have fun and experiment.
If you’re looking for a handheld smoking gun, check out my Breville Smoking Gun Review.