I've finally made it back to the Ozarks and home to our land. Sorry I've been away for such a long while, but I have tons of information to share with you on living off the land and being self-sufficient. Lately, the Marine and I have been visiting, sharing with and learning from other off-griders in the Ozarks about ways to become more self-reliant, and I'll be sharing some of these tips and skills here with you, to help spread the knowledge.
First up - How to make your own smoker. If you butcher your own livestock, whether it is cows, goats or chickens, the ability to smoke - and thus preserve -- the meat is a necessity for an off-grid lifestyle. Granted, canning is also a great way to preserve meat, but the smoking process also adds delicious flavor that you can't get any other way.
Smoke is an antimicrobial and antioxidant, but smoke alone is insufficient for preserving food unless combined with another preservation method. The main problem is the smoke compounds adhere only to the outer surfaces of the food, because the smoke does not actually penetrate far into the meat or fish.
In the past, smoking was a useful preservation tool, in combination with other techniques, most commonly salt-curing or drying. In fact, smoking was simply an unavoidable side effect of drying over a fire. For some long-smoked foods, the smoking time also served to dry the food. Drying, curing, or other techniques can render the interior of foods inhospitable to bacterial life, while the smoking gives the vulnerable exterior surfaces an extra layer of protection. This is why it's important to salt-cure or brine your meat first, before smoking it. Some heavily-salted, long-smoked fish can keep without refrigeration for months.
There are two types of smoking -- cold-smoked and cooked-smoked. The difference mainly is in the temperature used. Cold smoked should have a temperature ranging from 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit, being careful not to go over 120 degrees. Whereas cooked smoking, or hot-smoking, utilizes temperatures in a range from 150 degrees to 200 degrees, thus both cooking the meats thoroughly and smoking them. The only problem with the cooked smoking method is that the meat must be eaten within a few days, whereas if kept in cool, dry storage, you can keep fully-cured, uncooked hams for a few months without any loss of quality.
But most importantly, before you smoke any meat, you must be sure to brine it first. This will insure that the interior of the meat is bacteria free, while the smoking will preserve the exterior of the meat, along with drying it for long term storage.
We use a simple brine consisting of 1 cup kosher salt, 1/2 cup light brown sugar, 1 gallon vegetable stock (or water), 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries, 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger (optional) and 1 gallon heavily iced water.
Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate. When you're ready to brine, you'll need a large enough container to hold the brine and your meat. We use an old cooler that is dedicated just for meat brining. Be sure to brine your meat thoroughly before putting it into the smoker.
To make your own meat smoker, all you really need is a useful space (from the size of a barrel all the way up to a barn-sized area that you can fill with smoke and close tightly. For our temporary smoker, we used a 55 gallon drum with a removable lid. We got ours from a food production company for $10.
Cut out the bottom using an acetylene torch or a reciprocating saw. Six inches down from the lip of the lid, drill a hole on either side that will fit a left over piece of rebar. The rebar will serve as your meat hanger within the smoker. About four inches to the side of these holes, drill one hole for insertion of a meat thermometer, so you can keep an eye on the temperature inside the smoker without having to remove the lid.
Now dig a trench roughly 18 inches wide by one foot deep by two feet long. We often use our handy folding compact shovel for jobs such as this. Place the open end of the barrel about six inches over the trench.
Once you have brined or salt-cured your meat, hang it from the rebar and replace the barrel's lid.
Start a fire using a good fire starter, such as Insta-fire (we get ours from www.MyPatriotSupply.com), along with some wood charcoal on the far end of the pit, away from the drum. Add whatever wood chips you would like for their particular flavor, such as hickory, mesquite, apple, etc. Now cover the trench with a paving stone or cinder block, to direct the smoke into the barrel. Remember, you don't want a blazing fire, just a smoking bed of coals.
Keep an eye on your temperature, and continue to add chips to the fire as needed. Different meats cure at different rates, so be sure to do your homework to smoke your meats for the right amount of time at the right temperature.