There is nothing better than a rack of ribs fresh from the smoker, but sometimes finishing a big chunk of smoked meat is a bridge too far and the last thing you want is your leftovers going to waste.
The good news is, smoking your meat means you can store it for longer; in fact, humans have been smoking meat since the paleolithic era for just the reason.
Just because it’s smoked, however, doesn’t mean meat can’t go off.
To help you to extend the life of your smoked meat, and avoid being one of the 48 million Americans who get sick from foodborne diseases each year, we’ll be breaking down exactly how long different types of smoked meat can be safely stored.
So how long does smoke meat last for?
Smoked meat can be kept for four days, as long as it was refrigerated within two hours of being removed from the smoker. If you properly wrap and freeze your smoked meat, it can last up to three months.
The longer answer depends on what method you used for smoking your meat. The Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines (as referenced in the answer above) assume you have hot smoked your meat.
- Hot smoking means you can raise the internal temperature of the meat to at least 145°F for raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, 160°F for ground meat, and 165°F for poultry.
- These high temperatures help to destroy any bacteria in the meat.
However, hot smoking isn’t your only option. Meat can also be cold smoked, warm smoked, and even smoke-roasted.
To give you an idea of what these terms mean, and how long the meat they produce can be stored, let’s dig a little deeper into the different smoking techniques.
What are the different methods of smoking meat?
Smoking meat just means cooking it over an open fire or some wood chips, right?
Well, not exactly.
Different smoking techniques will give you different results, and because they use different temperatures, different storage times for your meat.
Hot smoking is the most common form of food smoking. The ‘hot’ part of the name comes from the fact that the internal temperature of the smoker usually sits between 225° and 250°F.
Even at these temperatures, it can take several hours to hot smoke meat. For a big old brisket, it might even take a full day.
Because these temperatures are hot enough to cook the meat, it’s not necessary to brine it beforehand, although many pitmasters do in order to improve the taste.
The aim of hot smoking is to flavor the food while it cooks, not to preserve it better. This is why, despite it being smoked, hot smoked food can only be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Warm smoking is a variation of hot smoking that uses temperatures of between 77 and 104°F.
Delicate meats like fish are warm smoked for short periods to preserve their texture. Pre-cooked meats like bacon and sausage are often warm smoked to both heat them up and provide a smoky tang to their flavor.
Warm smoking meat like pork or poultry is a great way to get food poisoning, as it requires you to leave your meat in the Danger Zone (between 40°F to 140°F) for hours at a time.
Unlike hot-smoking, cold-smoked food remains raw throughout the process.
Cold smoking is closer to the technique our ancestors would have used to preserve food in the days before refrigeration. The meat is first cured by using salt to dehydrate the meat, creating an environment that inhibits bacterial growth.
After being cured, the meat is then hung in an area with good airflow for between 1 to 12 hours to develop a pellicle. The pellicle is a dry, slightly sticky layer on the meat the helps those wonderful smoky flavors adhere to it.
Once the pellicle has developed, the meat is then smoked at a temperature under 90°F. A lot of cold smokers use an offset design that produces the smoke in a separate firebox and then moves it into the smoking chamber, so the meat is not exposed to the heat of the fire.
Cold smoking meat can take days at a time, depending on the type of meat and size of the cut.
Smoke roasting combines traditional roasting techniques and recipes with a touch of wood smoke for flavor.
This can often be achieved in a conventional fan oven through the use of an accessory that holds smoldering wood chips or pellets, like the A-MAZE-N Pellet Smoker.
Smoke roasting doesn’t preserve the meat being roasted in any meaningful way; it just adds another dimension to the flavor.
How long will hot-smoked meat last?
As we mentioned above, hot smoking is mostly a method for adding a deep tangy flavor to your food while it cooks ‘low and slow ‘.
While it is true that the aldehydes in the smoke leech moisture from the meat in a manner similar to curing salt, they aren’t a replacement for the proper curing and drying process that is so important in cold smoking.
So how can you keep your hot smoked meat in top condition for the longest period of time?
It’s all about bacterial control.
The first thing you’ll need to do is observe proper food safety guidelines:
- Make sure you don’t cross-contaminate your meat with dirty utensils or chopping boards
- Make sure the meat reaches the minimum safe temperature as advised by the Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines
- Make sure the meat is refrigerated within two hours of being taken out of the smoker so that it spends the minimum amount of time in the danger zone
- Make sure the meat is stored in the smallest possible container or wrapped thoroughly in foil
- To maximize the storage life of your meat, use a vacuum sealer to reduce the amount of oxygen it comes in contact with
Once you’ve checked off the list above, you should be safe to keep your smoked meat in the fridge for 4 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
How long will cold-smoked meat last?
Cold smoked meat will last longer than hot smoked meat because the process of curing, airing, and smoking it is designed to create an environment within the meat that is hostile to bacterial growth.
When properly cured and smoked, cold-smoked meat can remain edible for months.
The downside to cold-smoking is that is can go badly wrong if done improperly.
Because the meat is raw and is then held in the temperature danger zone during the smoking process, improper curing can result in the growth of bacteria like Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes, both of which can make you severely ill.
The widespread use of factory farming has increased the chances of the meat you buy carrying these potentially deadly bacteria, and cold-smoking does not bring the temperature of the meat high enough to kill them off.
Cold-smoked fish can also contain parasites, like tapeworms, that cooking normally destroys.
The particularly old, very young, pregnant mothers, the chronically ill, or other immunocompromised are particularly vulnerable to these bacteria and parasites and should generally avoid cold smoked meats, especially the home-cured ones.
If you would like to try cold smoking, the best place to start is with foods that present less of a risk. You can cold smoke tofu, cheese, eggs, nuts, and even pre-cooked meats like bacon, without running the risk of botulism.
Wrapping it up
Hot-smoking meat is a great way to give it an extra punch of flavor. Cold-smoking food adds the same character with the added benefit of preserving the meat.
In both cases, the best way to get the most from your smoked meat and make it last longer is to be well informed about how to store it safely.
Your hot-smoked meat can be refrigerated for 4 days or frozen for 3 months before it becomes a risk.
Cold-smoked meats can be stored in months, but there is an inherent risk to cold-smoking that can lead to some very nasty bacterial infections. If you’re new to smoking and want to try cold-smoking food, it is best to stick to something other than meat until you’ve gained a little experience.
Do you have an amazing hot-smoked recipe you’d like to share with us? Perhaps you’ve got some tips on how to minimize the risks of cold-smoking? We’d love it if you’d tell us in the comments below.