Why Does Smoked Food Last Longer?


If you’ve bought a smoker recently or are trying to get more out of your smoker, you’re probably wondering if you can use it to help extend the shelf-life of the food products in your kitchen? Well, the good news is that, yes, a smoker can be used as part of a bigger process to make your food last longer. 

Why does smoked food last longer? It lasts longer because smoking kills bacteria on the surface of the meat and, to some degree, inside it. However, it works best when combined with curing and the use of refrigeration or freezing. Smoked meat will only last for about 2 hours at room temperature if you don’t give it a helping hand.

Let’s take a look at smoking and the other methods of food preservation. Then we’ll see how they can be combined to give better results and then, finally, we’ve got a simple checklist to help you ensure that your smoked meat lasts as long as possible – without risking your health. 

What Does Smoking Food Do To It?

Smoking meat, by itself, does not mean that you’re going to get the perfect level of preservation. In fact, smoking only works on the surface of the meat.

Any bacteria, viruses, or other microbes exposed to smoke for a lengthy period of time will die off. This is going to help improve the shelf life of your meat to some extent. 

Unfortunately, smoking cannot prevent bacteria, viruses, etc. from the air landing on the meat and starting to reproduce after the smoking effort has finished

It also has a limited effect on anything that is trapped inside the meat, though (in theory, at least) the meat ought to get hot enough during most smoking processes that anything trapped inside gets killed off too. 

The Other Three Schools Of Preservation

There are three other forms of preservation and some of them may be used in conjunction with smoking (as we shall see later) to achieve a much higher degree of preservation than smoking will by itself. 

Curing

Curing is a process that removes as much moisture from food products (usually meat but it can also be done to vegetables) as possible using salt. The items of food are placed in a large amount of salt and then the salt draws the water out of the food using a process of osmosis.

The act of curing makes it very hard for bacteria, viruses, and other microbes to get a foothold in the meat. In modern cookery, of course, there’s no need for long-term preservation of food so curing is most commonly conducted for the taste that it imparts to the food. 

Curing is often combined with other forms of preservation process (such as smoking) or with other flavoring processes (such as adding sugars or nitrates or nitrites). However, the most common cured products such as salami or Parma ham rely on salting alone for their preservation. 

Canning

Canning is the most modern form of preservation for foods. It works by taking a foodstuff and then removing all the air around it and then preserving it in a tin can (or a steel or aluminum can for that matter) or even in a glass jar such as a mason jar. 

Canned products can last for years following canning. Canned food that was retrieved from the Missouri River over 109 years after it had been sunk there was tested and deemed fit for human consumption! There had been no development of microbial growth at all in that time.

However, typically, a shelf-life of 1-5 years is recommended for canned products. You cannot typically smoke and can product, however, it’s one or the other. 

Drying

As the name suggests, the objective of drying food is to simply reduce the moisture content from the meat to the point that it is no longer able to rot effectively. The best known dried meat is beef jerky.

A dehydrator is commonly used for the drying process. This is, essentially, a low powered over which heats to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The food for drying (usually, but not always, meat) is then hung in the oven for a long(ish) period of time.

Dried meat is, generally, considered to be healthy as it has lower fat content than most other meats and higher protein content (fat melts out of the meat during the drying process). 

You would not, normally, combine smoking and drying as they both, to some extent, offer a similar level of protection to food – though dried meat will last longer if stored correctly than smoked meat will. 

Does Smoked Food Last Longer?

Smoked food that has only been smoked – does not last appreciably longer than the original product. In fact, the smoking process is only going to kill off surface-level microbes and even then, only for a brief period of time.

However, when smoking is combined with curing, it can dramatically extend the life span of food products and, typically, when we think of smoked products having a very long shelf-life it is these products that we are thinking of

A smoke cooked meat that has not been cured, should not be kept at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. However, you can keep it at temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours (though you risk it drying out over time) before you need to store it. 

Wet-Cured And Smoked Meat

Wet-curing is best known as the process where the meat is placed in a vat of “wet” salt. That is it’s submerged in the brine. The brine may also contain other flavorings, as well as nitrites and/or nitrates. These can have an impact both on the taste of the finished product as well as the shelf-life of it.

You will find that many types of ham and bacon are wet-cured in this way. The curing does inhibit the growth of bacteria but as you will know from experience, we tend to keep bacon and ham in the refrigerator and not out in the open. This is because wet-curing is not typically enough to prevent bacterial growth after the curing has finished.

It’s worth noting, however, that you can wet-cure some products so that they can be stored in barrels of brine nearly indefinitely. Products cured this way will need to be soaked in plain water for a long period of time before they are consumed in order to remove the excess salt.

There is another form of wet-curing in which the product is injected with brine on a regular basis, however, this isn’t very common in home curing and smoking setups. 

Dry-Cured And Smoked Meat

Dry curing requires a bit more than your common table salt in order to be effective. It uses a yellowish mix of salt and sodium nitrite for most meats, but you can also use a mix of salt, sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate if you intend to let a meat cure for a very long time.

It’s worth noting, however, that nitrites have been potentially linked to the risk of cancer

The dry-curing process takes place in a refrigerator and for quite a substantial time period. Bacon, for example, would take roughly 10 days at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. A pork leg, on the other hand, can take up to 30 days at a temperature of around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. 

A piece of dry-cured, smoked meat can be hung, in a temperature and moisture controlled environment, for a period of months or even years prior to being cut open. However, once they are cut, they should be refrigerated. 

Commercially Smoked Meat

Commercially smoked meats may have additional preservatives added to them during the preparation process but, otherwise, they are prepared in a similar way to the cured meats that you would prepare at home. This means that in the main, they should be refrigerated unless they have been dry-cured and smoked and remain unopened. 

How Long Does Smoked Meat Last? 

As we’ve seen, the smoking process does help to preserve meat (and, indeed, other foodstuffs) but it’s not something that makes a huge difference to their shelf life without a bit of help. 

That’s because the smoking process only kills bacteria and microbes on the surface of the food. As soon as the smoking process stops – new bacteria move in.

The horror of it is that these bacteria multiple incredibly fast on the surface of your food. If you give them a few hours on smoke ribs laying around on your kitchen’s worktops, then you’re giving them everything they need to thrive and survive.

Want to know something really horrifying? It takes 10 E Coli bacteria, that’s right just 10, to give you food poisoning. That’s why when it comes to cooked and smoked meat – we cannot take any chances; a single bacterium can become more than 1 billion bacteria in a period of 2 hours!

The simple rule of thumb is that no matter what you’ve done in terms of smoking meat unless it is then going to be cured – it needs to be removed from the “danger zone” which is the term used for temperatures of between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

In that “danger zone”, bacteria will breed and multiply rapidly. 

Do You Need To Refrigerate Your Smoked Meat?

The ideal thing to do with all meat, that is not being consumed immediately, is to refrigerate it if you will use it within the next 3-4 days. 

Refrigeration is a cheap and easy process in most modern homes (it wasn’t always like that – which is why curing was once the thing to do with smoked meats after smoking). You can place the meat in a plastic sealable container and then place it in your refrigerator.

Sealing the container helps to keep new bacteria from arriving on the surface of the meat and the low temperatures of the refrigerator inhibit the bacteria that are already there from being able to reproduce. Essentially, it puts them to sleep. 

If you have a poor memory for when things are cooked – it can also help to label the container with a cooking date, so that you know when to throw it out.

Do You Need To Freeze Your Smoked Meat?

If you want your smoked meat to last for longer than a few days, then you’re going to want to freeze it. Fortunately, this is also an easy process.

We’d recommend that you wrap the meat once in butcher paper (or freezer paper) and keep the wax side facing inwards. 

Then wrap it again in aluminum foil which will hold the first layer in place and also traps the moisture in the meat (which is required for the freezing process).

If you really want to be thorough, you can then pop it into a plastic bag with the storage date written clearly on the outside

While you could keep this meat around for up to a year, we don’t recommend doing so – the taste of meat degrades when it has been frozen for a long period of time. We’d say you’re better off keeping it for no more than 3 months. 

How To Extend The Life Of Smoked Meat? A Simple Check List

Whatever combination of processing methods you used to deliver your smoked meat there are some basic tips that can help you keep it for as long as possible in almost any circumstances:

  • Always wrap any meat that you’re not going to eat, properly. Bacteria, viruses, etc. are going to have a much harder time getting on the meat if you’ve covered it and sealed it properly.
  • You should never keep meat that has been cooked in the open for more than 2 hours unless it’s part of a curing process. 2 hours is the time it takes for bacteria to start to swarm and multiply on the surface.
  • All refrigerated smoked meat is supposed to be eaten within 4 days – we know how tempting it can be to push the boundaries of “supposed to” but you risk food poisoning if you keep it for much longer than that.
  • Frozen meat can, theoretically, be kept for 6 months or even a year before it’s no longer fit for consumption, however, it starts to lose its taste long before then. We’d say no more than 3 months in the freezer and that will also ensure it’s never in there for long enough to become dangerous.
  • Meat can last longer in the fridge or the freezer if you use a vacuum sealing process to put it away – the less air the meat is exposed to, the harder it is for bacteria to grow on the meat. 

When To Discard Your Smoked Meat? 

There comes a time, however, when you have to face up to the facts that no matter what you’ve done to extend the shelf-life of your meat, it’s reached the end of the line and you’re going to have to dump it in the garbage.

You ought to be able to recognize the signs of meat on the turn quite easily. If you find that it no longer has an appealing smell (sometimes if you’ve refrigerated or kept the meat in a container – you may need to let it “breathe” for a couple of minutes before subjecting meat to a sniff test) or worse there are signs of slime and/or mold on the surface – then it’s probably time to hold a brief and unsentimental funeral for it.

Our number one rule when it comes to dealing with meat is this: if you have any doubts whatsoever about its fitness for consumption, don’t eat it, throw it away. 

The Federal Government says that 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, 128,000 times these illnesses are severe enough to cause hospitalization. In 3,000 cases those who went into hospital didn’t come back out again because they died there. 

There’s no meat on earth that’s worth risking your life for. If you want to make certain that the meat is OK, heat it to 165 Fahrenheit (as an internal temperature at the thickest point – test this with a thermometer, don’t leave it up to guesswork) and taste a small piece. If it doesn’t taste perfectly OK – get rid of it. 

Conclusion

Why does smoked food last longer? In theory, it lasts longer because you’ve killed the bacteria and microbes on the surface of the food. 

In reality, because bacteria breed so quickly – you need to combine smoking with other forms of food preservation to really extend its shelf life. You can also refrigerate or freeze smoked products to keep their longevity. 

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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