What’s the Difference Between Smoking and Curing?


Smoking and curing- two age-old traditions of flavoring meat in a way that makes cooks and their guests stand with mouths agape, awing the taste and texture. These methods are both incredible ways to change up your day-to-day cooking style, but what is the difference between the two? 

Though similar in some ways, smoking and curing are different in many others. Smoking is a process that uses low heat over a long period of time to maintain moisture, tenderize, and flavor. Curing, in its many methods, uses salt to preserve meat by making it impossible for harmful bacteria to grow.

Both of these methods have their advantages and each offers a different type of flavor for your food. These methods are most often used for different types of meat, but it is possible to transfer them to other types of food as well! Continue reading to understand the differences between smoking and curing and a few tips and tricks to help you get the best out of each method. 

Main Differences in Smoking vs. Curing

While both methods (smoking and curing) have their own advantages, they each descend from different regions and have unique applications to a variety of foods. Still, there are some standard differences that, when understood, can help you to choose the right method of cooking your food.

The main differences in smoking vs. curing include the preparation steps required, cooking temperature, length of time of each process, and intentions for storage. While both methods take quite a while to accomplish, curing takes longer in the prep while smoking takes longer to cook.

Again, choosing the right option for your cooking needs will depend on the type of food that you are intending to prepare as well as the equipment that you own (or can acquire). Of course, personal preference and family traditions come into play, too. Without further adieu, let’s take a closer look at what makes each process (smoking and curing) unique.

What is Smoking? 

No, we are not talking about grabbing your favorite Cuban cigar and sitting on the porch on a cool fall evening (even though that does sound incredible). Here, we are talking about smoking meat. I say meat because this is the most common type of food used with this process, but do not let that be where you start and stop. Smoking can be used for anything from meat to vegetables, to cheese, to deserts. The possibilities are truly endless. 

So, what exactly is the process of smoking meat? Smoking involves low heat, an enclosed chamber, good wood, charcoal, or even gas (depending on the device you are using), and lots and lots of smoke. Even more, this process entails quite a bit of time. Through the combination of these factors, you are able to cook meat in a way that results in a kind of flavor that you would otherwise never be able to accomplish. 

For the sake of keeping things nice and neat though, I want to talk about this process as it applies to all things that once swam, walked, or flew on this earth- all things animal. Smoking is a way to beef up even the best cuts of meat. This is a process that has been around since our ancestors figured out how to start a fire and it is one that will continue on for as long as the world remains round. 

Preparation

You can start off with meat in the raw, can brine it, can put a rub on it, or can either go classic with a bit of salt and pepper. Once you have your meat prepared, you are going to get your smoker heated up. 

Temperature

With smoking, the temperature is usually very low, around 200-250 degrees. Once the smoker is heated, that’s when you get down to business. Through this heat, smoke is going to be produced pretty rapidly. 

Cooking Process

As I mentioned, this is either induced through wood, charcoal, gas, or even a combination. Your meat is then placed in a chamber to sit and cook for a few hours, or even a full day. The meat is then surrounded by smoke throughout the entirety of its stay at the “Smoke Inn” and that is where the transformation happens. Through this infusion of smoke at low heat, meat is flavored by the constant exposure to this rich, sultry smoke. 

Moisture Retention

Beyond flavor alone, smoking meat at such a low temperature ensures that moisture is held within the meat. For you and your pals, this means juicy chicken, mouth-watering steaks, ribs that fall apart, and fish that practically melts in your mouth. This also helps to keep all your meats nice and tender. This means no more sawing your ribeye and no more ripping your pork chops to bits. A butter knife will be able to cut your sirloin – what a dream! 

Cooking Outcome

Smoking uses smoke, low heat, and time to get your meats flavored in a way that your oven or stove could never accomplish and also gives them a tenderness that is very difficult to achieve when you are cooking quickly at high temperatures. This method of cooking is one that brings the world’s history into the twenty-first century, but still satisfies in the ways it did hundreds of years ago. 

What is Curing? 

Smoking is one of those things most have heard of and few are intimidated by. I mean, how hard could it be? They have all the machines out there you could ever need that work with the flip of a switch. Read the manual and you are good to go! Well, for many people this is true, anyway. 

However, when it comes to curing, some can be a bit shy to tackle the challenge. When many think of curing, they think of a process used to keep those in the 1800s fed on their journey across wide-open oceans. The thought of curing seems regal almost, like a tradition that long ago faded away, kept secret by those pioneering new lands. However, this is a history lesson that continues to be written even today. 

Before we get into the “why’s” of that though, let’s first delve into what exactly curing is. Curing is the process of using heaps of salt to essentially dry the meat out. The meat is coated with salt and the moisture within the mean is drawn to the skin. Once it hits the skin, it evaporates and is never seen again. 

Curing is still a practice with meat used by many and is one that is actually quite easy to do as long as you follow instructions and practice plenty of patience. That last word is key here- patience is what is going to make or break this process. 

Preparation

This process of curing meat through the application of salt (among other herbs and spices) helps to create an environment within the meat that makes it impossible for bacteria to set up shop. When bacteria can’t plant their roots, they also cannot thrive. This means that you have a perfect setup of dried meat without the worry of contracting any type of food-borne illness due to nasty inhabitants residing within it. 

This may sound like a horrifying setup, but the process is one that leads to a delectable treat that few are able to stop gobbling up once they’ve started. This process is simple, but it is one that takes plenty of time to complete, much more than smoking. 

Time

When it comes to curing, time is going to be your new best friend – this is where patience comes into play. Curing meat is not a process you can start and have completed by the end of the night, but one that can take weeks (even months!) to finish. This depends on the level of cure that you are shooting for and how big the piece of meat is that you are curing. Processing this long may be painful to some, but always remember, good things come to those who wait.

Harmful Bacteria Prevention via Salt Application

Once you understand that time is your friend here and you taste your very first piece of cured meat, you will no longer fret having to wait so long. Giving your meat time helps to ensure that a fermentation stage can occur so that all pathogenic organisms are long gone from your salty treat. Water, pathogens, and other microorganisms are expelled and prevented from entering the meat, and once done, you will have a piece of prosciutto so perfect it could win awards.

3 Tips for Smoking Meat 

There are a few tips and tricks to smoking meat that will make all the difference when it comes to flavor, but also when it comes to how well your smoking experience actually is. Most of you will not be smoking in a cave, like the good old days, so I can only assume you will have some type of smoking machine that pretty much does all the work for you. 

Even so, there are a few things you can do to really maximize taste and flavor. Consider the following tips when you begin smoking meat on your next go-around.

1. Know Your Wood 

Even if you are using a gas, electric, or even charcoal smoker, it is likely that you have some type of wood chip or pellet mingled in with these components to get plenty of smoke surrounding your meat or to simply add another flavor layer. 

Wood is going to be the star player when it comes to getting the perfect smoky flavor for the meat, fish, or poultry that you have in your smoker. All wood is not good wood when it comes to smoking. 

The thing to remember here is that there are different wood types that are going to pair better with what you are cooking. You do not want to add pecan wood to the smoker when you are planning on lamb, but cherry would be fantastic. 

Get to know the different wood types out there and explore how they affect the flavor of all your different dishes. With your meat being stuck in the smoke for so long, the type of wood you use makes a huge difference. 

2. Watch the Thermometer, Not the Clock 

We are so used to relying on a timer to decide when something is done cooking. However, when it comes to smoking, throw out that timer, and get yourself a thermometer. All fish, pork, poultry, and beef have a certain temperature they need to reach to ensure they are done. 

Using a thermometer to directly check the temperature of your meat is a much more reliable method than setting the timer. Smoking time is simply too variant.  

If you do not use a thermometer, this could mean that you grab your meat from the smoker too soon or too late. You cannot judge a piece of meat from the surface when it comes to smoking, so leave the guessing games behind and ensure perfectly cooked pieces every time with a thermometer. 

3. Add Salt Well Before, Not During 

By not adding salt during the smoking process, I mean do not add your salt when you are putting on your rub or right before throwing it onto your smoker. Salt is a very powerful tool and it should be used to your advantage when you are smoking. 

Apply the salt a few hours, or even a day, in advance before you smoke. This will cause the salt to “melt” on the surface of the meat and will lead to it getting deep into its center. This promotes tenderness and will give you a juicier cut. 

3 Tips for Curing Meat 

This process may seem a bit more daunting due to its “hands-on” nature, but really, the steps are quite simple. When it comes to curing meat, the biggest thing you need to understand is that salt is a must, and time, as preached on earlier, is going to make or break the outcome of your meat. 

If you rush the process, the results will not be in your favor and you will end with a perfectly good cut being tossed straight into the trash. It saddens me just thinking of it. When curing meat, consider the following tips to achieve success:

1. Choose Your Curing Method 

You may think “Oh, so simple, salt it and forget it.” You might be right, to an extent, but there are a few different choices for curing methods that you can decide between. 

Salting can happen in four different ways: 

  1. You can massage the salt into the meat.
  2. You can drop the meat into a large vat or container of salt.
  3. You can salt your meat in a brine.
  4. You can inject the meat with salt. 

Either of these processes will achieve what you want, it is simply a matter of how much meat you have and which way is going to be the most effective for the meat’s size. 

There is no right or wrong method here, but it is important to find one that is going to work the best for the meat you have chosen, but also for your space. If you are going to have to cure a piece of meat for six weeks, it would be pretty obnoxious to have a big bucket of salt sitting in your basement workspace for so long. Make sure you can accommodate whatever method you choose without it totally interrupting your day-to-day. 

2. Wrap it Up 

Before you get to hanging or leaving your meat to dry, you want to make sure that it is properly wrapped. You do not have to go to extremes to get this done, you simply want to make sure that the meat stays in a tidy shape so that it is easy to cut once the curing process is complete – this also helps to keep added spices in. 

Either wrap the piece of curing meat in a cheesecloth or tie it together with some butcher’s knots. Just make sure there is room for air to circulate.

Giving your meat some room to breathe is also key to ensuring that it dries properly. If you were to wrap the meat too thick in the wrong type of covering, it could keep moisture which could lead to some nasty bacterial growth. 

If you can’t get your butcher knots just right, do not sweat it. Simply leave enough space for that air to make its way in and out of the meat and you can leave perfection to the pros. 

3. Store it Properly 

Once you have your meat properly salted, it has to be stored the correct way. Since you are trying to rid the meat of all moisture, it must be stored in an environment that is naturally moisture-wicking – that means someplace cool. 

It is ideal to store the curing meat in a place that is anywhere from 33-40 degrees Fahrenheit. The goal is to dry all of that moisture out, but not to freeze it. If you go too cold, you could end up with a popsicle rather than pancetta. 

William Johnson

Will has loved smoking food in his free time for the last few years. Each major holiday or off-weekend, Will spends days testing and prepping new recipes for perfection.

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