I am often asked by small meat processors for advice on which smokehouse to buy. I try to stay away from recommending a specific brand. I do, however, pass on what I believe to be the attributes of a smokehouse or cooking oven that they should keep in mind during their decision making.
The first thing to be cognizant of is that modern day smokehouses are nothing more than stainless steel cooking ovens. They are basic pieces of equipment. Keep that in mind and the decision on which one to purchase is not nearly as daunting.
There are a lot of smokehouses available to purchase. I believe the best ones have the following characteristics:
· Find one with a user-friendly microprocessor. Each product you manufacture will have a different smoking and cooking cycle. A microprocessor that can be programmed for many different cycles is best. Number (or identify) each program so all you must do is turn on the oven when starting the cooking cycle and leave it. You can go and perform other tasks while the oven is going through its various stages
· I advocate electric powered smokehouses rather than gas fired ovens. They cost more initially and are slightly costlier to operate (energy costs) but eliminate a lot of maintenance issues (gas jets will frequently clog) and electric powered smokehouses are significantly safer than gas fired smokehouses. In some geographical areas, the electric company allows the use of a demand electric meter. If this is available, you have the option of running the oven during “off peak” hours when the cost of electricity (per kilowatt hour) is much lower
· Effective and reliable air movement inside the smokehouse for consistent and even heat, humidity and smoke distribution is necessary. You do not want unevenly smoked product. Furthermore, evenly, and thoroughly cooked product is necessary for quality, consistency, and food safety. Some ovens have oscillating dampers and this technique proves quite effective.
· Humidity control is necessary anymore. An oven does not necessarily need access to a steam generator; although this allows for more rapid cooking. Ovens that use water supply is fine and do an adequate job
· Fire control in smoke generator is needed for safety reasons. This is assuming you are using natural smoke. If you don’t have some type of fire control in the smoke generator you are asking for a disaster. Controls typically are water solenoids that are activated once a preset temperature is reached or exceeded. Water is sprayed inside the generator until the temperature is reduced to acceptable levels.
· Obviously, a tight door seal is desired. Keeping door gaskets well maintained is essential. Some ovens have a trough drain outside of the oven immediately in front of the product loading door. This eliminates the need for a drain inside the smokehouse which is one more potential place for heat and humidity to escape.
· Clean in place system. This is obviously not a necessity. One can always clean the smokehouse by hand. However, this is a long, difficult, and thankless task. Clean in Place systems are well worth the one-time equipment purchase cost. It will pay for itself many times over in labor savings. They also do a better job of removing the creosote from all those tight and hard to reach places. Creosote is a major cause of fires in smokehouses.