Is It Best to Smoke Before or After Sous Vide?

Ever since sous vide became more popular as a cooking method, people have experimented with their favorite dishes. Sous vide adds an unprecedented level of temperature control, allowing you to cook foods effortlessly and have each dish turn out perfect every time.

On the other hand, smoking is an excellent way to give meat a succulent, smoky flavor. So why not combine the two?

Depending on the dishes you want to prepare, the choice between using smoke before or after sous vide is up to personal preference and timing. The resulting meal will taste great regardless, although people swear that meat will taste better if it’s smoked first, then put in a sous vide bath to cook through.

I’ve compiled a short guide on each cooking method and how to combine them to make better-looking tasty meals.

salmon filets in pellet grill for smoking

Sous Vide vs. Smoking: Differences and Similarities

The name sous vide comes from French and means “under vacuum” and is commonly referred to as a “low temperature long time” (LTLT) method.

The main benefits of sous vide are that it imparts flavors into meat and fish better than traditional cooking methods and allows for unparalleled temperature control.

Sous vide is also perfect for uneven meat or fish pieces since the internal temperature will reach the desired level throughout the cut without needing turning or checking.

The water bath essentially puts a hard limit on the dish’s final internal temperature because nothing that’s cooked in the water will ever get hotter than the water itself.

Sous vide also cooks vegetables better than other cooking methods. Since vegetable cell walls break down more rapidly under high heat, the LTLT method ensures the vegetables remain crisp but are cooked through.

One of sous vide’s disadvantages is that meats won’t develop a crust. The browning (Maillard reaction) only occurs at temperatures above boiling. In most cases, sous vide is the first step of the cooking process, and the dish is finished by searing it in the pan.

Smoking, however, is an ancient cooking method primarily developed to keep meat from spoiling.

pellet smoker rack of ribs
Courtesy of https://zgrills.com.au/

In modern times (with refrigeration commonplace), smoking serves as a way to impart meat with a distinctive smoky flavor that can’t be achieved by other means. The flavor added to the meat heavily depends on the wood used for smoking and not all wood will be suitable for the task.

Beef and pork are the most commonly smoked meats, but poultry, venison, and lamb are also popular.

There are two popular types of smoking: cold smoking and hot smoking. Cold smoking operates at temperatures below those needed to cook the food. It only imparts the smoky smell and taste without processing the meat further. Since it doesn’t cook the meat, you need to cure it entirely before it’s cold smoked. Cold-smoked meats need to be cooked afterward to ensure they’re safe for human consumption, making cold smoking an unpopular method.

Hot smoking is a holistic cooking process that both cooks the meat and imparts the necessary smokiness. It’s also one of the slowest traditional cooking methods, as large cuts can require an entire day to smoke properly. The smoke doesn’t penetrate deep into the meat, only leaving the distinct taste near the skin. The wood releases sugar molecules that caramelize and leave the distinctive sugary aroma on the skin.

Smoking and sous vide are generally different processes that achieve the same goal. Here’s a short table to highlight what to expect when using these methods.

Sous VideHot Smoking
Imparts FlavorNot by itself; you need to use spices alongside the mealImparts smoky and sugary flavor to the skin
Cooks EvenlyYesNo
Maillard BrowningNoYes
Can Cook VegetablesYesPossible, but not recommended
Cooking TimesVary, usually 2-6 hours, but can be as long as 24-48 hoursVary, between 1 and 24 hours
Can Control Internal TemperatureYesNo
Fat LossNoneMinimal, depends on the meat used
Moisture LossStays in the bagDries out food

Combining Sous Vide and Smoking

While sous vide and smoking are two almost entirely different cooking methods, it’s possible to combine the two to make the overall meal better.

Smoking gives meat a noticeable smoky flavor and crisps up the skin. However, smoking a larger piece of meat can last for a long time, and you don’t get precise temperature control to ensure the meat is cooked through.

Sous vide will ensure that the meat is cooked evenly and that the tougher muscle fibers break down and remain tender throughout the process. Additionally, since the sous vide bath’s internal temperature can never get higher than the water temperature, you can leave the machine on for 24 hours without worrying. The resulting meat will look and taste the same.

However, you can combine the two to get both the perfect, even cooking of sous vide and also the flavor of smoking.

Should You Smoke Before or After Sous Vide?

If you want to know whether to smoke before or after sous vide, the answer will largely depend on the dish you’re preparing and the specific timing constraints.

Imparting a smoky flavor to the meat doesn’t take a long time, but using a smoker and keeping the fire and internal temperature consistent requires a hands-on approach. Therefore, it’s usually better to smoke the meat before cooking it sous vide.

In fact, some chefs swear that raw meat soaks up the smoke better than cooked meats. Additionally, if you’re preparing a dish for a party, you don’t have to keep checking on the meat. After the meal has been cooked sous vide, you can put it on the grill to finish.

When smoking the meat, ensure that the internal temperature never goes above what you’ve set the bath to. Going above this temperature will essentially defeat the purpose of the sous vide method since, once the meat is overcooked, it can never tenderize well. This applies whether you smoke before or after sous vide.

I recommend smoking the meat at a lower temperature for several hours to impart enough flavor. After that, cook the meat via sous vide for at least 24 to 48 hours, depending on the texture you want. Finish the meat off in the broiler or back in the smoker to regain the crispy skin and brown appearance.

You can add a bit of smoking salt or liquid smoke to the bag when using the sous vide method. It will impart even more flavor.

Additionally, don’t waste the juices. As the meat dries in the sous vide machine, all the cooked juices remain in the bag. Those juices can be reused to make a rich sauce to serve alongside the dish.

In Summary

When planning an outdoor BBQ or an elaborate meal, you can combine sous vide and smoking methods to get the best of both worlds.

Smoking the meat imparts it with that delicious smoky-sweet aroma, while sous vide ensures the meat is cooked through and tenderized to perfection. Whether you smoke before or after sous vide, the meal will end up perfect every time.

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