What is Smoked Meat?

Hey there my fellow smoking enthusiasts and welcome to my post where I will try and run through the answer to a question I was asked over the weekend: What is Smoked Meat? You see we were having a street party with some neighbors and one of the girls had a new boyfriend around who to be honest, I think was trying to show off a bit. And as the meat from my smoker came out, he started to ask me all these questions about smoking meat.

What Is Smoked Meat - Header

He wanted to know why bother cooking something for that long and went on to explain that smoking meat is really bad for you (as he ate a hot dog, but anyway haha). So as this is something I have never really thought about too much, I thought I would check it all out…

So, What is Smoked Meat Anyway?

This was his first question, so let’s answer it as simply as possible. Smoked meat is just what it sounds like – meat that’s cooked and flavored by smoke from burning wood – or in my case, pellets. It is actually a method of cooking and preserving meat that has been around for centuries, but for me, it is just a different method to utilise.

His next question then centered around the time it takes to cook – or to the way he said it – Why does it take so long? How Boring! (He didn’t even bother looking up from his phone this time). So then, for no other reason that I might be able to bore him further, I explained “low and slow”.

What is smoked meat- finished ribs

Low and Slow

Now, in an effort to make this a little more stimulating to you than I did with my little friend, I will explain the low and slow philosophy a little faster. Low and Slow means cooking the meat for a longer time at a lower temperature. This is for a number of reasons including:

  • Breaks Down Tough Cuts – One of the best things about smoking meats in this manner is that it does tend to open up access to a wider variety of cuts. For example, cuts such as pork shoulder and beef brisket come from muscles that work hard and contain a lot of connective tissue made up of collagen. High heat can tighten and toughen these fibers, but cooking them low and slow allows the collagen to gradually break down which not only tenderizes the meat but also gives it a rich, silky texture.
  • Retains Moisture – Rapid, high-heat cooking methods can cause meat to lose moisture quickly which can result in a dry finish if not monitored more closely. The low and slow method minimizes moisture loss, ensuring the meat stays juicy and succulent. As the meat gently cooks, its fats also render slowly, further enhancing the juiciness and flavor.
  • Develops Flavor – The gradual breakdown of fibers and fats that we discussed above, combined with the extended exposure to herbs, spices and smoke, infuses the meat with deep, layered flavors.

And don’t forget the Maillard reaction , a chemical reaction that occurs when proteins and sugars in the meat are exposed to heat of a lower temperature, contributing to a richer taste and appealing color. I only learned this in my research for this post, but it would have been great if I could have told him that as well… haha

Why Do We Love It So Much?

That was his next question, and for this one, I had backup. “There’s something about smoked meat that just hits the spot”. “The slow cooking makes it super tender, almost melting in your mouth”. “And the smoke? It adds a rich, deep flavor you can’t get from just cooking meat in an oven or on a stove”.

A group of Michelin starred chefs appeared before my eyes and carried on along these lines until our little friend decided that anywhere else than here was better for him so he upped and left.

However, him leaving to check out other dietary options did not stop our discussions that went well into the night and deep into the beer cooler. I will run you through some of that now, however I do have a caveat here:

I am not a doctor or trained in any health related practices at all, so any information I give here is based on experience and research only (I have included links where applicable). So nothing I say below is to be taken as fact without doing your own research or seeking the advice of a professional.

So, into the discussions:

what is smoked meat - Chicken on smoker

Is Smoked Meat Bad for You?

I think the fact that I have mentioned things like fat breakdown etc. above probably start to answer that question for us. Not to mention the salt content in most rubs as well. However in general, as with anything, I think if you tried to live on smoked meat alone, then you might have some issues – which is no different that if you ate bacon or fatty sausage every day.

In moderation on the other hand, then the good can be:

  • Protein Power: Like all meats, smoked meats are a good source of protein, which is important for muscle building and repair.
  • Rich in Nutrients: Depending on the meat, you can get a bunch of nutrients like iron, zinc, and B vitamins.

Of course, there is always the risks associated with meat that is not cooked properly as we will discuss next as well…

Is Smoked Meat Undercooked?

This is an interesting one as I was in a BBQ joint in Fort Worth at Christmas time (Coopers BBQ – OMG!!) and they had a sign up in the entry about the risks of consuming under cooked meat. I remember finding that interesting as in my experience, smoked meat is actually cooked for longer to reach internal temperatures considered safe in most publications.

Now, of course you can end up with undercooked meat no matter which way you cook it – especially if you are running blue rare steak on the hot plate for example – but to be safe in a smoker, use a meat thermometer to make sure your internal temperatures reach that safe point before you remove it!

Now, the big questions that came up:

Does Smoked Meat Cause Cancer?

Again, I am not a doctor so I am going to copy and paste some information directly from the U.S. Cancer Institute:

The concern primarily revolves around two types of compounds found in smoked meats: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), as well as the use of nitrates and nitrites as preservatives.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

PAHs are formed when meat is smoked, as the fat burns and produces smoke that settles on the meat’s surface. PAHs can also be found in other smoked foods and in the air pollution from burning coal, wood, or organic matter. Some PAHs have been identified as carcinogenic, meaning they have the potential to cause cancer.

Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs)

HCAs are created when meats are cooked at high temperatures, such as grilling or frying, in addition to smoking. Like PAHs, certain HCAs have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly cancers of the digestive system.

Can Pregnant Women eat Smoked Meat?

Again, if you are pregnant, please use this information as a baseline to check with a professional. Pregnant women need to be cautious with their diet anyway, and when it comes to smoked meats, there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Listeria: All meats (including those smoked) can be a breeding ground for Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria that can cause listeriosis which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women.
  • High Sodium: Smoked meats are often high in sodium (mainly from the rubs), which can contribute to increased blood pressure.
  • Preservatives: Some smoked meats, and almost all store-bought rubs, contain preservatives like nitrates and nitrites, which some studies suggest could be linked to adverse health effects, though more research is needed.
Traeger 321 Ribs - Paul with cooked ribs

Conclusion

Ok, so that is my take on what smoked meat is and how it can affect our daily lives. I love it but it is definitely something that should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. And as for my little friend, I saw you sneaking an extra helping when you thought no-one was looking.

And who can blame you? It was delicious!

Until next time

Happy smoking

Paul

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