The Smoke Source

Maximum smoke, minimum heat, minimum time spent stoking the firebox. These are the three main attributes you want in any smokehouse smoke source, and there are different ways you can make it happen.

High-tech options include electric- or propane-powered smoke generators that cause wood or wood products to smolder. These are usually easy to use and foolproof, but you’re probably not going to be able to use raw wood from the back-40 to keep them fuelled. Manufactured smoke generators typically keep you dependent buying wood disks or pellets, and you’re certainly dependent on electricity or propane to keep them running. Nothing wrong with these things under normal circumstances, but self reliance is what we’re after here, and that’s why you might consider a lower-tech, more self-reliant way of generating smoke for your survival smokehouse.

Details of the Cold Smoke Firebox

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Fire contained in some kind of external structure with smoke piped into the smoker itself is key to the traditional cold smoking process. This gives a cooler smoke than any internal fire source, and more control over the fire. You get to tend the fire outside the smokehouse, too.

So, how do you create an external source of smoke? You could build a firebox from a steel barrel with a pipe leading through the wall of the smokehouse at floor level, or you could even hook up an old metal box stove to do the same thing.  Steel barrels or stoves work fine for a time, but they do rust out. A little more effort invested now gives you a firebox that’ll last for decades and works better by making cooler smoke.

My design features a masonry firebox made with a concrete well tile, with a concrete or steel pipe that connects to the smoker underground. You can certainly pour your own firebox from concrete or build it from brick, block or stone, but an easier option uses 24” or 30” round concrete well tile, as shown in the plans. You’ll need to build it on a stable foundation, but that’s no big deal.

The firebox is small and you can park it on a circular concrete lid as a base. If you live in a frosty area, as I do, consider sinking three concrete-filled sonotube forms below the frost line with the concrete base parked on top. Just as important as the foundation of the firebox is the need to slope the firebox slightly towards the opening so water doesn’t pool inside between uses. The concrete smoke pipe should be pitched upward towards the smoker itself, too. Build in half a bubble of slope on a 24” level and smoke will flow automatically into the smokehouse.

There are two things you’ll need to do to turn a length of concrete well tile into a smokehouse firebox. First, you’ll need to make a round hole in one side to accept the 6” smoke pipe. Second, you’ll need to cut a square opening for a door on the other side of the tile. Here are some tips for tackling the work.

Smoke Pipe Hole: Use a length of concrete or steel pipe as a tracing template, and mark a circle on the well tile with a large felt marker. The top of the circle should be 8” down from the top of the tile. Next, get a rotary hammer with a 1/2” diameter bit and bore a series of holes through the well tile just outside the circle you drew. With all the holes drilled, it will be fairly easy to knock out the inner disk of concrete using a 4 lbs. mason’s hammer and cold chisel. Widen the hole as needed to allow the concrete pipe to fit in. Later, with the well tile in position and the concrete pipe in place, use mortar to seal any gaps before final burying.

Loading Door: A masonry saw is the tool of choice for cutting a 12” x 16” door opening. If you don’t own one, rent or borrow a model with a water hose connection to keep dust down. Also, make sure your saw is fitted with either a diamond blade that can handle rebar, or an abrasive wheel. Precast well tiles are laced with rebar for strength, and you’ll certainly run into some of this metal as you cut. Your saw won’t be able to get right into corners because of the circular blade shape, but you can use a hand-held grinder to clean up any areas of concrete that the saw misses.

You’ve got a couple of options for firebox doors. You could transplant a good cast iron door from an old woodstove, mounting it on the front of the firebox with concrete screws threaded into pre-drilled holes. Use a hand-held grinder to create a level surface for the door on the curved side of the tile. Woodstove doors usually have some kind of sliding draft control, which will be useful later.

Another option for a door is 1/4”-thick mild steel. If you’re handy you can make one yourself with the right curvature to match the shape of the pipe. A welding shop can do the same if you’re not set up for metalworking. Weld strap hinges on the door and bolt them to the side of the well tile.

You’ll need some control over air flow into the firebox (possibly beyond what may be present in a reclaimed stove door), but don’t make any holes in the firebox or door just yet. You’ll need to run your smokehouse first and see how it draws and burns to determine if more air vent space is needed. You need complete or nearly complete control over the air going into the firebox for your smoker to work. You want a smouldering fire not a roaring hot one.

Watch the video up next for tips and tricks that’ll help you build the firebox for your smokehouse.

VIDEO – Tips for Making the Firebox

A full-featured smokehouse is an investment in the security of your home and family. The fact that few people go to the trouble of building a smokehouse these days just highlights how important it could become later. And even if people can still buy meat freely in the grocery store, you’ll be ahead with the ability to make your own great smoked meat on your own.

TECH TIP: Choosing Wood for Smoking

Dry, bark-free hardwoods offer the best results in a cold-smoking smokehouse like the design here. Maple, beech, oak, cherry and hickory are the mainstay woods for smoking foods and they do a great job. Birch and fruitwoods like apple, peach. cherry, pecan, mulberry and citrus woods also offer great flavour. As you gain experience, try different types of woods combined in the firebox. Measure how much of each wood you use and record the results. Without proper record keeping you’ll never get better.

Cold Smoking Versus Hot Smoking

Cold smoking is a traditional process that happens when the temperature within the smoker remains below about 85ºF (29ºC) at the most, and occurs over a period of days or weeks. Cold smoking is a form of drying and does not actually cook the meat.

Hot smoking, by contrast, happens over a period of hours or days, with a typical temperature range of 120ºF to 212ºF (50ºC to 100ºC). Hot smoking is a cooking process as well as a procedure that adds flavour.

Cold smoking puts flavour deeper into the meat than hot smoking because the process happens more slowly and over more time, but there’s a danger. Since cold smoking occurs below a temperature that prevents microbe growth, meat needs to be salted, cured or brined before smoking to make sure it’s safe. Any of these treatments also happens to make smoked meat taste great, so no one’s complaining.  See “Becoming a Smokehouse Master” coming up to learn more about collapse-resistant resources to help you with the curing, salting and brining processes.

TECH TIP: Simple Smoker Options

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Want to make a small, portable smoker to try out the whole food smoking thing before investing in building a proper smoke house? Find a 55 gallon barrel that wasn’t used for anything toxic, then burn it out in a bonfire for a couple of hours to remove all paint and residue. The plans here show how ball valves fit into holes in the side of the barrel at the bottom to allow air control to the charcoal in a metal basket sitting on the bottom of the barrel. Further up you’ll need to install support bolts for the removable grate. The plans show one level of bolts and one grate, but you could install two or three. You don’t absolutely need to weld handles onto the barrel and the lid, but it makes the smoker easier to use and move. The hole you’ll find in many steel barrel lids works perfectly to let smoke out. You might want to partially cover the hole with a flat stone or piece of plate steel to increase smoke retention. To use the smoker, fill the basket with charcoal, then light it on fire with the air valves open and the grate and lid removed. When the charcoal is burning reliably, put the grill in place, lay the meat on it, replace the lid, then close the air valves half way. Ten pounds of charcoal will keep the barrel smoking for almost 20 hours. Keep a close eye on the thermometer for at least the first 15 minutes. Use the air control valves and the smoke hole cover to bring internal temperature to 225ºF to 250ºF. Placing hardwood on top of the burning charcoal increases the depth of smoke flavour.

Different companies offer hardware kits for outfitting a barrel to work as a smoker (Google “drum smoker hardware”), but all the hardware shown here is regular, hardware store stuff. Watch the video up next for tricks and tips about turning a steel barrel into an effective portable smoker.

VIDEO – Building a Barrel Smoker

Smoking meat has been around a lot longer than purpose-built smokers, even simple ones like the barrel smoker. Native peoples all over the world have been smoking meat on simple racks positioned over smoky fires. You can do the same in times of need.

TECH TIP: Become a Smokehouse Master

Here are some great reference books for developing your smokehouse know how. Physical books make more sense in survival situations because it’s almost certain that the internet will go down long-term if things go really bad. Forget YouTube.

Meat Smoking and Smokehouse Design

by Stanley, Adam and Robert Marianski

The Complete Book of Butchering, Smoking, Curing and Sausage Making

by Philip Hasheider

A Guide to Canning, Freezing, Curing and Smoking Meat, Fish and Game

by Wilbur F. Eastman Jr.

Now that you’ve finished this week’s lessons, you should:

1. Understand how to build a traditional smokehouse

2. Recognize the basics of smoking meat

3. Know how to create the kind of cold smoke needed for preservation

4. Understand where to go for more information

Coming up in the next section . . . Learn how to build your own high-performance solar food dryer and use it properly for preserving fruits, vegetables and more.