Smoked Meats

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Smoke from burning plant materials, usually wood, has helped to preserve food ever since our ancestors mastered fire. Smoke’s usefulness results from its chemical complexity. It contains many hundreds of compounds, some of which kill or inhibit the growth of microbes, some of which retard fat oxidation and the development of rancid flavors, and some of which add an appealing flavor of their own. Because smoke only affects the surface of food, it has long been used in conjunction with salting and drying—a happy combination because salted meats are especially prone to developing rancidity. American country hams and bacons are examples of smoked salted foods. Because there are now other ways to store meat, and because some smoke components are known to be health hazards, smoke is now used less frequently as a full-strength preservative, and more often as a lightly applied flavoring.