I get asked this question quite often, but it is a really hard to answer in a simple way. The simplest answer is that it reallly depends on what meat you are smoking, and for what purpose. As a very broad generalization, there are two main reasons for smoking meat:
- to add smoke flavour to the meat
- to cook and cure the meat to preserve it
If all you are doing is adding flavour to the meat, the smoking time can be very short, as little as a few minutes. I often add a handfull of hickory or mesquite chips to my barbeque when I’m cooking hamburgers or steaks just to add a little smoky flavour. However, if you are looking to preserve meat, fish, or sausages by smoking it, the process can take hours or even days.
Other factors that influence overall smoking time include:
- type of meat you are smoking – some meats like poultry and white fleshed fish take on flavours quite quickly, other meats like beef, bison, or wild game are more robust and can take more smoke to reach your desired level of flavour
- the thickness or mass of the meat – a thin strip of beef jerky will smoke much faster than a 10 pound brisket or ham
- how much heat is involved – heat not only cooks the meat, but also renders out fat which takes on a lot of the smoke flavour. Cold (or colder) meat smoking means that more time will be required
- how much smoke is involved – are you producing huge billows of smoke? A thin stream? There are times and reasons for both, and both will impact how long you need to smoke the meat.
- your smokehouse – the size and design of your smoker or smokehouse will also affect smoking times. More or less ventilation, overall circulation of air will change the time needed for smoking meat.
- the ‘strength’ of the smoke’s flavour – some wood simply produces less intense flavour than others. Fruit woods are often more subtle, while hardwoods like hickory, oak, and mesquite can produce quite strong flavours.
For really basic smoking where you just looking to add some flavour to your meats, and your are planning to fully cook them as well, just go ahead with trial and error. You will be surprised at just how easy it can be to do some simple meat smoking.
Smoking meat is a very safe and effective way or preserving, but it must be done properly to be sure the meat is safe. So, for more advanced smoking where you are looking to cure/cook the meat with the smoking process, the best thing to do is to follow known recipes for whatever it is you are trying to smoke, and then make adjustments as you become more skilled and experienced.
The one book that you simply must have in your meat smoking library is: Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing. It is really cheap ($25 or so for a hardcover) and is simply the most complete resource on meat smoking, and sausage making you will be able to find anywhere. Use it as your reference and go from there.