Living and traveling in an RV has its ups and downs. I love that I can follow fish and game to where they are and explore different species, spaces, and seasons.
But, I don’t have freezer space or gadget space. Also, I’ve always been more interested in primitive skills and bushcraft than any kind of industrialized system. So, I decided to kick it primitive style and build a primitive meat smoker.
It worked phenomenally, so I had to share it with the world. Before we cut into the meat of the project, let’s talk shop.
What Smoked Meat is All About
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you have had bacon, and probably beef jerky, before. Those are some simple examples of smoked meat, but you’ve probably had smoked BBQ somewhere in your life also, since it’s amazing!
To put it simply, smoking meat is a cold or hot process that imparts robust flavors and colors to meat. Cold smoking, when combined with curing, can preserve meat. You would cold smoke after curing. The curing process is a dry rub or a brining process, usually with a lot of salt and often more seasonings to impart flavors.
Hot smoking is more of a slow cooking process. Most of our smoked meats today are done so for the flavor factor and less so for the preservation.
Sometimes, the preservation method has produced something so delicious it’s still done today, like bacon, which is still amazing! If you ever try a cut of bacon that hasn’t been smoked, you’ll see it’s just pork.
Hot Smoking vs. Cold Smoking
Hot smoking is probably the most common process used today and is primarily used to add flavors to produce a slow-cooked savory product. Hot smoking is usually in the 160-275 degree range.
Cold smoking is mostly used to preserve meat and is usually in the 68-89 degree range. When meat is cured, then cold smoked, the smoke adds phenols and other chemicals that have an antimicrobial effect on the meat.
Cold smoked preserved meat is not cooked so it is recommended that the meat is cured before smoking or cooked after smoking.
Some will argue there is another method of smoking: liquid smoke. OK, liquid smoke can impart some lovely flavors but isn’t smoke and, in my opinion, is just another consumable product that waters down the authenticity of really doing things yourself.
That being said, I have used liquid smoke before when making jerky in the oven and not having a proper smoking method on hand.
Principles Behind a Meat Smoker
The primary purpose of a smoker is to provide a chambered area where smoke can be concentrated, and meat or other products can be hung or shelved.
The more efficient the smoker operates, the better and more consistent a product can be produced. The smokers efficiency is in heat regulation and the ability to hold smoke.
The smoker I build here isn’t manufactured to 100% efficiency perfection, but it did a great job! Even a smoker you get off the shelf isn’t able to regulate heat perfectly and also has to allow for draw and smoke to get out.
The smoker I built is more like something indigenous folks around the world used. It worked for them and it worked well for me and it’ll work for you too!
Know Your Wood
Of course, we’ve all heard using apple, hickory, and mesquite as being prime wood choices for smoking meats, but there are plenty of others that do a great job.
The only real absolute is to use a deciduous or hardwood and not a coniferous or softwood. Conifers often have a long-lasting resin in the wood that, when burned, creates soot that can blacken pots, pans, and your meat. It’s also toxic and tastes horrible.
Hardwoods also burn hotter and longer than softwoods. Knowing how each wood burns is great information to acquire, but not necessary for our project here. I would not recommend green, unseasoned wood.
I also wouldn’t recommend rotten punk wood, unless you can identify what species it is. (Punk wood refers to rotten or soft wood. We talk about punk wood when smoking buckskins or as a fire carrier.)
Some woods that are easy to find and that also produce a pleasant smoked flavor are hickory, apple, pear, cherry, oak, maple, birch, persimmon, cottonwood, mulberry, and willow.
For this project, I was able to find maple that was starting to get punky on the outside. This turned out to be a great choice. It smoldered most of the time with only a few flare-ups.
Know Your Fire
Knowing how fire operates at top efficiency will help with a primitive project like this. Creating smoke, and the type of smoke, does come from the fuel itself but that’s not all there is to it.
Fire needs three things to burn and to burn efficiently:
- Fuel, and
Altering any, or all, of those three can improve your fire’s heat and efficiency, giving you a smokeless fire, but could also give you a nice smoky fire.
For oxygen, the fire needs to draw cleanly from the bottom of the fire and into the fuel area. The fuel should be stacked neatly so the draw is nice and smooth in and then up. That is for a fire that burns smokeless and clean.
The fuel is, of course, whatever you have found to burn. You don’t need to use the same fuel wood to start the fire that you want to use for the smoke. I often use fatwood, found in pines, to start a fire.
Heat in a fire may seem obvious; there’s heat in fire after all. It’s the concentration of the heat that gives fire its rage.
If you have a nicely burning campfire; hot, smokeless, nice draw, and you scatter all the fuel, you have displaced the concentration of that heat. Now you have a smoky fire that’s struggling to regain its rage, but is still smoldering.
Tools For the Job
How To Build Your Smoker
First things first is a manageable burn area. If there are other combustibles near your burn area, you will need a good fire ring. If you aren’t using a fire ring, you’ll need to clear the area of anything that will burn. Not only is this a necessity for safety’s sake, but also to minimize unintentional flair-ups. Plus, it would be a shame to see your project go up in smoke!
After the fire ring is put together I would suggest a pre-burn to double-check combustibles and to see if anything needs adjusting.
Now comes the fun part! We need to build a tripod that will support our meat racks, as well as any cover you decide to use, if you decide to use any.
To make a tripod, find three saplings, branches, or other suitable wood that is straight-ish, doesn’t need to be perfect, and about wrist thickness.
Cut a four-foot length off of your hank of paracord and pull the insides out, you’ll use the inside strings later. Now, lash them together with the paracord skin using a figure eight lashing, or you can go a little more primitive, like I did, and find branches that have a crotch or “Y” in them.
If you follow this method, you’ll have to do some tinkering and figure out the most secure way to situate them together. It doesn’t have to be too solid as there will be two or three or more horizontal sections lashed to the poles that will help secure them all in place.
Next, you’ll need to find horizontal sticks to support your racks. Decide how many supports you want to use and get sticks in that length in sets of three. These only need to be about thumb thickness.
You will need to consider how much space you will need for meat, but you will also need to be able to raise and lower your meat depending on the varying temperature, wind, heat, etc.
You will also need to think about if you want to skewer and hang your meat, or make racks to shelve them on. My preference was to skewer the meat. That let me move them easier and also took up less space since they hung in place.
After you’re all lashed up, you will need to find sticks to lie across the horizontal supports. You could either lay sticks down like a grill top and put your meat right on top of that, or you could put sticks down to support your meat skewers.
If you decide to skewer the meat and hang it, I would suggest not making them too long or the weight will make the skewer sag in the middle and you might lose it in the fire.
If you lay the meat on top of a shelf make sure it doesn’t shrink in the process and fall through the gaps and into the fire.
At this point, you have a perfectly serviceable cold smoker. I used mine just like this to make goose breast jerky and smoke some catfish. It is archery deer season now so I wanted something to hot smoke some deer haunch, so I did add a cover.
You can cover it with anything you have at hand, but I wouldn’t use anything you’d consider harmful if it was in you. Don’t use organics that are highly combustible, such as dry grass, pine needles, river birch bark, etc.
I usually carry a canvas drop cloth for a groundsheet or emergency “A” frame shelter that I put to good use as my cover. I would have preferred to use bark or leaves but my camping location was a bit sparse on either of those.
The principle here is to make the smoker more chambered and efficient, keeping smoke and heat in. It doesn’t need to be factory sealed, it just needs to be closed up as best you can to make it more efficient.
Orient your opening on the opposite side of the wind. If you’re having a gusty day and it is blowing one way one minute and another the next minute, orient your opening parallel to that if you can. If it is a bit windy and you have flair-ups or other struggles, go ahead and build a little door or cover for the opening.
If you do decide to put a cover over it, I would suggest making sure you can move it away from your fire ring and then back again. Otherwise, you may run the risk of seeing the whole project go up in smoke.
How To Use the Smoker
If you put a cover over your smoker, move it off of, and away from, the fire ring. If you did not cover it, you’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to move it or not. If any wood is low or close to where you think the flames or core of the fire will be I would suggest moving it.
Now get a nice hot raging fire going. The rest of the process will be a lot easier if you start with a nice hot bed of coals. Hard hardwoods are going to be preferred for this. I was able to use Osage orange and black locust, nice and HOT!
After the fire dies down and you have a nice bed of coals still burning, move your smoker back over your fire ring. Now, situate your meat at the heat and height you want. When you add your smoking wood, you may get some flair-up at some point so consider that when hanging.
Spread the coal bed around so the core heat is distributed over the whole fire ring. This will now make a once happy fire into a suffering, choking, smoky fire, but it’s still hot.
Add your smoke wood on top of that. I only add two or three chunks at a time. My chunks were about wrist thickness and a foot long. It should be smoking now and will smoke at least thirty minutes or more.
Ideally, your smoke wood will smolder, not burn. If you have small flair-ups that’s OK. If you get a lot, maybe soak some of the next chunks before putting them in the smoker.
You can also try to minimize the airflow, choke the fire area so there is less oxygen. This could be as simple as moving the wood perpendicular to the wind instead of parallel, or vice versa.
Some Tricks and Tips
- When looking for dry wood, stick out your bottom lip, where it’s wet, and put it on the wood. If it sticks, then the wood is good and dry. If it doesn’t stick, the wood hasn’t seasoned yet.
- Maple and oak are probably two easy trees to identify, after that, maybe branch out to hickory.
- If you have tree identification trouble, cut it and smell it. If it smells kind of sweet then it’ll probably smoke nicely. If it smells like a mess you probably won’t like the flavor of it either.
- Folks often struggle with fire craft, especially when they have to do it in a small, confined space. Sticking with dry, seasoned wood is largely overlooked. If it came off the ground, make sure it snaps when you break it. If it’s larger wood, it should burn smooth and silently in the fire, no hissing or wet ends.
- Wood that is wrist thickness or more will give you better coals than smaller selections. Anything less than wrist thickness tends to burn down faster and turns to ash too fast.
- Pay attention to your wind direction and use it to help or hinder the fire or smoke.
- Hot smoking meat internal temperature should reach 165 degrees and 145 for fish.
Storage and Preservation
The meat could last for years, depending on how it’s stored after smoking. It also depends on what kind of meat.
Pork can be dry-rubbed, cold smoked, and last for ten or more years. Fish can last for at least a year, but could just be cured and not even smoked if you really wanted to.
It really depends on how it’s stored. I will hang it in a dry place, put it in a zip lock bag or vacuum bags, or canning jars. The absolute must is to keep moisture away from it.
This was a fun and short project that made some pretty amazing jerky and smoked fish. After putting the cover on, I was able to slow cook and smoke legs and whole goose breast.
The build itself only took about half a day and I’ll be able to use it as long as I’m camped here, another two months.
The fish at this stretch of the Potomac are mostly carp and channel catfish so being able to smoke them is a nice boost in flavor. The goose jerky and smoked goose legs were excellent.
Next, I need to get my early archery deer and slice that up for the smoker. I will do this at my next camp spot and it’s easy enough to build in a backyard as well.
You could collect enough material from the forest in a couple of hours to put this together.
By Eric Kelly a.k.a Mangy White Bushman