Beginner’s Guide to Cold Smoking

Cold Smoked Christmas Ham

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Occasionally, we barbecuers need to try something outside of our comfort zone to progress our grilling skills.

The technique of cold smoking just so happens to be one of these times, not so much in terms of sheer skill, but rather in regards to health and safety.

Before progressing with this guide, you must understand that the art of cold smoking requires extreme care and precision. The health risks involved are dire and should not be taken lightly at any cost. 

Thankfully, alleviation is possible for most of these risks. So long as you have everything correctly set up, and follow our guidelines to the dot, you can (hopefully) survive your first cold smoking session without too much trouble. 

Now’s your time to decide if this is a path you want to venture on to.

What is Cold Smoking?

To start, you must understand what cold smoking is before you can utilize it to your advantage. 

Cold smoking is a process that preserves and adds a smokey flavor to meats and other foods when bundled with curing. Some of the food products we’ll list later on needn’t be cured before smoking as meat does. Most cold-smoked food products can last months without refrigeration.

For easier digestion, we’ll break down the basic process of cold smoking.

The meat goes through a curing process of some sort (usually salting) that extracts moisture and bacterial growth from both the outside and shallow inside layers. It is then exposed to smoke, branding the product with the distinctive smokey flavor we desire. This part takes quite a while, lasting anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days, depending on the food. The key to cold smoking is to expose the food to smoke without high temperatures. It needs to be kept lower than 90°F. Generally speaking, this is achievable by keeping the food in an unheated cooking chamber while smoke from a different chamber is directed in.

Smoked Salmon

Cold vs Hot Smoking

Differently from cold smoking, hot smoking most often takes place in one chamber. The food product is placed in the same chamber as the smoke, creating temperatures high enough to cook the meat; these usually lie somewhere between 225°F and 250°F. 

This meat commonly served hot, right after cooking.

You may have already noticed that hot smoking occurs in temperatures far above the ‘danger zone’ we mentioned earlier. This means that the meats don’t need to be cured before smoking, at least not in regards to safety; regardless of this, I would always recommend curing your meats for any smoking, just for the flavor profile this creates. 

As for cooking times, hot smoking can range in times from a few hours to an entire day; this is dependant mainly on the size and type of the meat cut.

What Foods Should You Cold Smoke?

When picturing cold-smoked goods, most people think of salami or smoked salmon. Unbeknownst to most people, though, is that there is quite a wide range of different meats and other foods available for cold smoking, such as cheese.

Furthermore, products like cheese, tofu, and even vegetables are some of the best choices for a beginner cold-smoker, as they enable you to get a grasp on the concept of cold smoking with reasonably low risk. My point is – don’t take ready-made smoked salmon off your shopping list. At least, not 

Here is a list of the best foods to start cold smoking with.

  • Vegetables
  • Garlic
  • Bacon, as well as other meats that you cook before serving.
  • Tofu
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Olive oil (amazing flavor profile) 
Some of the most popular (albeit most dangerous) foods to cold smoke are fish and sausages. We highly recommend that you steer clear of both these categories for now if you value your and your family’s lives.
I’ll elaborate.
Cold Cuts of Meat and Cold Smoked Cheese

Staying Safe when Cold Smoking

Most information you’ll find about this subject online will either try to convince you that cold smoking is inherently good or bad; the truth is, it really isn’t that black and white. You’ll often see one website telling you to avoid cold smoking altogether, as it’s far too dangerous to try at home, while others will tell you it’s easy, and only skim over the involved dangers with little detail. For these reasons, I’ve decided to explain the benefits and risks in an unbiased manner, providing you insight into what you’d be getting involved in when trying cold smoking for the first time.

As explained previously, some foods, such as fish, sausages, and other cured meats that you aren’t going to cook before serving, should definitely be avoided at all costs for first-timers. I say this because that is where the risks are most prominent, and even the slightest misstep or failure to take something into account can have horrifying consequences.

The performance of cold smoking occurs at the temperature range at which it is easiest for harmful bacteria to cultivate and multiply at vast rates. Under normal circumstances, any bacteria that may develop will be killed off when cooking, but therein lies the problem. Most cold-smoked foods are not cooked after being smoked, making these very risky to consume if appropriate precautions aren’t being put in place during production. Some of the mentioned bacteria include botulism and listeria, both of which can be lethal.

It is a common misconception that curing your meat kills off the bacteria before you smoke it, and it is, therefore, safe to eat as long as you have cured it. The cold hard truth (no pun intended) is that this simply isn’t the case. While you definitely should cure your meats, believing that this is where your health and safety responsibilities end can and will be a costly mistake.

As a side note – please remember that ground meat has a higher risk of bacterial infection than regular meat because the bacteria that live inside the gut of the animal are evenly-distributed when it is ground.

Who Should Avoid Cold Smoking?

Due to the dangers of cold smoking, it is in my belief that some people should just avoid it altogether. These people include those that are chronically ill, the elderly, and pregnant women. To clarify things further, I would also advise the mentioned groups of people to avoid cold-smoked goods as a whole, not just the homemade kind.

Moving on, have you ever wondered why smoked salmon has such a short shelf life, differing substantially from most other smoked (and particularly cold smoked) products? If you have, the answer to this question is that it is due to the risks of listeria and botulism. Smoked salmon can only fight off the risk of these bacteria developing for so long, even if cooled or frozen. Smoked salmon can only be safely consumed for a week when stored in the fridge and a month while frozen. This unusuality shows just how potent and real the danger of these diseases is, and how crucial it is that you keep this in mind before making your final decision.

Pregnant Woman

Risk Summary

We have now discussed just about all the risks you must keep in mind when contemplating the decision of cold smoking, but just before we move on to the guide itself, let us review all that we’ve covered to this point.

  • The cold smoking process does not kill parasites present in the meat
  • Those with weaker immune systems must stay away from cold smoking
  • Cold smoked goods are not cooked products, and the process takes place in the temperature range where bacterial growth is most potent
  • Risks of diseases such as listeria or botulism are particularly high when smoking fish or sausages
So that’s it then. If you’ve gotten to this point, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’ve decided to take on the challenge that is cold smoking. Plenty of people around the globe do this safely at home! It’s just a matter of knowing how.

DIY Cold Smoking System

I’ll start by saying that you simply can’t use conventional combustion methods to produce smoke, and therefore, to cold smoke your food.

Generally speaking, the simplest and way to set up your cold smoking system is to use an external firebox, and have that firebox pump smoke into the smoking chamber through pipes. In essence, the idea is that the smoke cools as it makes its way through the pipes, creating the cold smoke effect we so desire.

It is a good idea to vent the firebox, as this will make it far easier to control the intensity (heat) of the flames and the smoke production.

Once you’re all set, place the food you intend to smoke inside the smoking chamber (a separate container to the firebox). It would be ideal to install racks in the mentioned smoking chamber to utilize the space you have more efficiently and, once again, a vent for airflow and temperature control.

The mentioned smoking chamber needn’t be anything fancy; a simple plastic cooler or wooden barrel will do just fine.

Weber Smokey Mountain Cold Smoking

Using the Smokey Mountain grill for cold smoking means that you don’t have to use any external container or firebox. However, I would not advise doing it all in the grill itself regardless, as it makes it very difficult to maintain a temperature lower than 120°F, which starts to become truly dangerous in terms of bacterial growth.

The easiest, most affordable option is to place a basic electric stove cooker inside a cardboard box, putting wood chunks inside a skillet and heating this skillet with the mentioned stove. Additionally, place a small computer fan in the box to blow the smoke in the necessary direction.

Then, cut out vents in the cardboard box to keep the air flowing consistently. Run some sort of ducting or pipes (you can use aluminum foil) from your cardboard box to the Smokey Mountain (note: you can make a replacement cardboard door for the smokey mountain with a hole in it that’ll fit the ducting perfectly). Be sure to keep an eye on this setup, as it can be a bit of a fire hazard.

In essence, this setup works by driving the smoke you create through the ducting and into the Smokey Mountain using the fan we mentioned.

Besides everything we’ve mentioned here, it is also vital that you invest in a top-tier thermometer for this project if you don’t already have one, as the key to staying safe when cold smoking is maintaining a safe temperature at all times. The thermometer allows you to monitor the temps of your Smokey Mountain at all times.

Weber Smokey Mountain

Adventure No. 1: Cold Smoked Cheese

If you’ve been utterly frightened by the many warnings we’ve put in place throughout this guide, fear not. There may well still be options for you!

Cheese is one of these options. Cold smoked cheese has terrific taste, and will only use up 2 to 4 hours of your time, making it reasonably quick to produce for something that is cold-smoked. The best part is that it doesn’t contain any of the health risks involved with cold smoking meats. The only ‘bad’ outcome would be accidentally melting your cheese if temperatures get too hot.

Keeping the temperature under 90°F in the smoking chamber should suffice for keeping your cheese solid. Keep an eye on the temperatures for best results. This, of course, will be much easier to control during colder days as opposed to scorching summer heat.

If you must cold smoke during hotter seasons, it’s good to do so in the morning or evening when temperatures are much lower than the rest of the day.

When cold smoking cheese, it’s crucial to keep in mind that the smoke will only penetrate slightly beyond the cheese’s exterior, so cutting it into reasonably small pieces will yield much better results than entire blocks of the product.

Another good piece of advice is to bring your cheese to room temperature before beginning the smoking process, as doing so will prevent condensation from building up on the cheese as you progress.

Once smoked, wrap your cheese in plastic wrap and place in the fridge for a few days to develop a more intense, solidified flavor profile.

Cold Smoked Cheese

Top Safety Tips

– Use expert recipes only



– Use highest quality meat from a local butcher



– Always salt your meats



– Follow the cold smoking with another cooking method (such as frying, for bacon).


To conclude, I hope you’ve found this guide of much aid to your future cold smoking ventures if you choose to undertake them. While cold smoking may still be out of your comfort zone after reading this, and not quite something you’d like to try as of yet, at least now you know all the risks, benefits, and shortcomings involved with this procedure. Keep in mind that if you have the right information (such as this) and equipment, cold smoking could be a path worth traveling for amateurs and pitmasters alike.

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