For my latest “cooking with kid” adventure, I decided to take up smoking. Rather, I started the kid smoking. The goat kid, that is.
Smoking has traditionally been used as a meat-preservation method, but in this case I just smoked a chunk of meat (that had been preserved in the freezer) for the delicious flavor imparted by the smoke. I used a hot-smoking technique that simultaneously cooks the meat while allowing the smoke to infuse its flavor.
The term “ham” can often imply that the meat chunk has been through a curing process, but it can also simply refer to the location on the animal: the back leg’s upper bone (femur) and associated muscle. In this case, I use the term to simply refer to the cut. The shape of this piece is well suited to smoking, as it is an especially compact piece of meat, with a lot of internal volume to the surface area and no thin areas to dry out and turn crispy.
I had considered smoking this goat ham for Thanksgiving, but I didn’t because the forecast was for rain (though it didn’t). When the Christmas Eve forecast came in at 52ºF and dry, it seemed I had no excuse to postpone again. On consultation with Eric at dinner on Monday 12/21, I came up with this timeline:
- Monday p.m., pull meat out of freezer, defrost in refrigerator
- Tuesday p.m. or Wednesday a.m., make brine & chill
- Brine goat for ~12-20 hours
- Round up some firewood that’s appropriate for smoking
- Pull goat out of brine by 8 a.m., allow it to rest for a couple of hours
- Start the smoker at 9:30, with a plan to put the meat on by 10 a.m.
- Expect a 5-6 hour cooking time, so meat comes off by ~4 p.m., allowing for a finished photo in the daylight. This also allows for a couple of slush time before dinner (say, to finish it in the oven, if necessary).
On Tuesday evening, I decided to postpone brine-making to Wednesday morning so I could get good photos in the daylight, but I knew that meant little room to spare in the timeline. Sometimes half the battle with cooking is remembering to do something at the right time:
Why brine? It certainly adds salt and other flavorings to the meat, and it reportedly also helps with making the meat moist and tender. Some sources claim that adding nitrates (pink salt) are necessary for food safety, but others claim that they aren’t when smoking a whole cut of meat (as opposed to something ground, like sausage). Years ago Eric stopped using nitrates for this type of cooking,and and we prefer the more natural flavor we get without them. I consulted Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for a basic brine:
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup salt; I used canning & pickling salt which is free of additives & cheap
- ½ cup sugar
The flavorings are the fun part! Alliums, herbs, and spices are all good options. I decided to use all farm-sourced ingredients for my flavorings.
Alliums that aren’t in prime condition make great brine additions. With the warm weather, our alliums are sprouting like crazy, indoors and out. Sprouting garlic, check. Sprouting onions, check. Leaves from leeks that Eric planned to use for a Christmas Eve shepherd’s pie, check.
Then I went for some herbs. The thyme was in beautiful condition, for late December, so I grabbed some. The sage wasn’t so happy, but I decided I could hit our indoor rosemary plants a bit.
I made a 1 gallon brine for the 3 lb 3 oz goat ham, which was sized just perfectly to fit in our 1.5 gallon pot. Everything went into the pot, then I brought it to a simmer, with a stir now and then to help dissolve the salt and sugar. Eric commented, “That’s a helluva smell.” Which I took to be a good thing, having already written in my notes, “smell = YUM!”
To cool the brine, I put the pan in the sink with some cold tap water, and replaced the water a few times, about every 10 minutes. I eventually added an ice block to the sink water, since I needed the brine to be close to fridge temperature before adding the meat.
With the brine just a smidge above fridge temperature and the goat ham just a smidge icy still, I plunked it into the brine, covered the pan, and put it in the refrigerator by late morning.
By 7:30 a.m. the next morning, I pulled the meat out of the brine so it could “rest” and dry in the refrigerator for a while before its mid-morning appointment with the smoker.
Many years ago, we acquired this smoker at a bargain price from a friend who was upgrading. In our household, Eric pioneered the way on the meat-smoking front, and he provided me with a tutorial, this being my first attempt at smoking. The smoker has two chambers, a fire box on the left, and a bigger chamber where the meat goes. That chamber has a built-in thermometer. The goal is to keep the thermometer at about 275ºF, with anything in the 250º-300ºF range considered acceptable.
We like to smoke using only our own hardwood, no purchased charcoal, for reasons both principled and economic. At about 9:30 a.m., I started a fire in the smoker’s fire box using wood that Eric had kindly assembled for me, though perhaps it was the disassembly into small chunks that was even more important. Chunks of oak and plum are shown in the basket, plus some kindling and plain newspaper as fire starter. The idea was to start with the oak to generate some heat & coals quickly, then switch to (slightly damp) plum for smoke generation. Turns out the plum was a little too damp, and I switched to hickory as my prime burn wood, with a chunks of plum thrown on now and then for good measure.
There are several tools available for keeping the temperature in the right range:
- There’s a vent in the firebox and on the chimney. These can be used to adjust airflow and thus temperature. Too cold, open them all the way. Too warm, close them down a bit.
- Adding more wood will obviously heat things up. However, there might be a temporary drop in temperature, so it is important to add just a couple small chunks at a time and be a bit patient for a response to prevent overdoing it.
- If the fire gets too hot, opening one or both lids will release a lot of heat and cause the temperature to drop, but this is less than ideal as it causes significant temperature swings.
- Stoking the fire with a poker and rearranging the coals can heat things up. I figured out that I could stick the poker through the air vent and do this without opening the lid to minimize heat loss.
- At times, I added trimmings from the herb garden: woody parts of sage and winter savory plants that needed to be pruned. I don’t know if they added any flavor, but they were good for giving the fire a nudge when it was getting pokey.
Developing an intuitive sense of when to add more wood and how long the fire takes to respond to what has been done is something that comes with experience. I checked on the smoker obsessively, probably every 10 minutes on average. I had some streaks where the temperature stayed nice and stable for a good half hour or more, but in other cases I needed to check routinely. My plan was to spend a bunch of time doing maintenance in the herb garden, which, like the smoker, is just outside the kitchen. However, the weather did not adhere to the partly sunny & warm forecast (the red star indicates our location.):
Although it isn’t great to have rain on a hot smoker, and although I was looking forward to my day in the herb garden, the rain did keep me on task with my somewhat ambitious list of Christmas Eve kitchen projects, which I list here for two reasons: 1) to demonstrate that smoking (meat) leaves plenty of time for muilti-tasking and to 2) to shamelessly brag. The kitchen projects were: prepare candied lemon peel from our home-grown lemon to put in Christmas stollen; make butternut squash custard for dessert; roast Mercuri winter-keeping tomatoes to go in lasagna sauce for Christmas lasagna; make stollen; make lasagna sauce; make ricotta for lasagna. I also thought I might make mozzarella for the lasagna, but I didn’t get to that. Eric also made a shepherd’s pie for dinner, with oven time for all of these things having been negotiated at breakfast.
Back to the meat. The left shows the fire in action. It doesn’t look impressive, but it doesn’t need to be to achieve the desired temperature. On the right is the meat at about 3 p.m. I had turned the meat once or twice during the day, but I was relieved to see it looking cooked but not singed. I let it go about another hour thereafter. A meat thermometer indicated that it was plenty well done, up to 170ºF even.
The finished product is shown in the photo at the top of this post. It was glorious! And I was relieved, since we had received an invitation to Christmas Eve dinner after making the plan to smoke meat, and we had offered to bring some. So, we packed up a nice pile of sliced meat, plus Eric’s shepherd’s pie and my squash custard, and we had a lovely evening with friends.
But, we did not bring all of the meat to the party.
And for most of the following week it enhanced a multitude of meals. We had some slices with Christmas breakfast along with the stollen, one egg each, and a bowl of our frozen melon and strawberries. Little bits of smoked meat added richness to the Christmas lasagna (along with a whole host of other awesome ingredients), shown served with slaw from the year’s last fresh cabbage. Fried rice was an obvious choice with shiitakes, broccoli, carrots, alliums, and more on hand; unusually for us, most of these veggies were fresh harvested in late December. And beans and rice with greens and dried peppers received a nice flavor boost from the last of the smoked meat bits. Eric also made a delightful soup flavored with the bone, plus onions, Mercuri tomatoes, sweet corn, dried anchos, home-canned tomatoes, fresh shiitakes, and a little sorghum.
If this series hasn’t already demonstrated the value of using of meat as a condiment to vegetables, the smoked goat ham surely does. We could have eaten the whole ~3 lb in a few meals featuring hunks of meat on a plate, but instead turned it into nearly a week’s worth of interesting and diverse meals. Next up, weather permitting: smoked kid ribs. Guess smoking is addicting, huh?