Spec Check: Smokers

The smoking process has been a food preservative technique for hundreds of years. Recently, though, this cooking process has enjoyed a resurgence as operators look to expand their menus and enhance the flavors of individual items.

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Although meats represent the food item operators most commonly prepare in commercial smokers, they can use this equipment to infuse flavor into a variety of items including cheese, vegetables and even butter and salt. Cold smoking functions on some units can help produce bacon, sausage, country ham, fish and cheese.

When purchasing a smoker, ease of use, speed and the unit’s size in relation to the capacity represent
a small handful of factors foodservice operators should weigh. Smokers come in a variety of configurations, including countertop, cabinet-style and room-size units used indoors as well as larger outdoor pits. Operators purchasing an outdoor smoker should research local codes and requirements, as some jurisdictions have prohibited the use of these units.

A common mistake in specifying this equipment is not properly calculating the necessary capacity. Smoker manufacturers recommend operators scale up in size to ensure enough food can be produced at one time. Capacities of these units vary, with smaller smokers accommodating 50 to 60 pounds of meat to larger models holding up to 1,000 pounds of meat.

Restaurants featuring mainly smoked or barbecued items require a higher capacity smoker, but it’s still important to estimate daily or weekly volume when choosing from the various sizes. Operators and their supply chain partners can accomplish this by estimating how much smoked food the restaurant will prepare, the table turns and the percentage of barbecued or smoked items on the menu.

After determining the appropriate size unit, operators can decide whether they prefer rotating or stationery racks.

When researching a smoker purchase, operators and their supply chain partners also should pay close attention to the unit’s fuel source, which will determine the utilities necessary to operate the equipment. Smokers
are available in electric, gas and wood-fired versions and every unit will utilize a product to produce smoke, such
as wood in a log, chip or chunk form; pellets; or, in rarer cases, charcoal.

Electric smokers are the most prevalent. Many of these models are portable and provide cold smoking capabilities for added flexibility. Units are available that use wood chips or pellets to impart the smoke. Unlike gas, pellets made from compressed sawdust are a renewable resource.

Traditional barbecue restaurants typically work with wood-fired smoker models to produce an authentic flavor. Electric smokers may be better suited for operations where smoking is not the primary method of cooking food, due to the fact that this equipment utilizes less wood and tends to be easier to use.

For those seeking more versatility, combi oven models with smoking features represent another option worth pursuing. Sizes range from 4 to 40 pan units. The benefit is that these units’ interiors are not infused with the smoked flavor profile like traditional smokers, so the restaurant can use the oven for a variety of cooking methods.

Ventilation needs and requirements represent additional key factors that can influence the purchase of a smoker. The requirements can vary greatly, depending on state and local codes, although there has been a national standard put forth by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Newer smoker technology includes programmable capabilities that allow operators to automatically set recipes for simpler operation.

Hot vs. Cold Smoking

There are a number of options for operators looking to add smoked items to the menu.
Hot smoking involves exposing foods to both heat and smoke. Food is exposed to temperatures between 120 degrees F and 220 degrees F, but must generally be cooked to an internal temperature of about 180 degrees F to be safe, yet still moist and flavorful. For the best results and to prevent creosote buildup, smoke needs to keep moving in the cooking chamber.

Barbecuing differs from hot smoking since it combines the process with baking or roasting. This is accomplished at higher temperatures, typically more than 250 degrees F.

Used as a flavor enhancer for meat, poultry and fish, cold smoking can either be applied to food that is already cooked or on brined or salted. It’s important to note that cold smoking does not cook or cure foods. This process is accomplished at temperatures ranging from 68 degrees F to 100 degrees F. The brining process not only helps keep bacteria at bay during cold smoking, but also enhances flavor.

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