As fall sets in, everyone is getting ready for winter. Thinking back, this is when most families would typically stock up and preserve their food. For me, dealing with the meat side, that would include smoking your meat products to help preserve them during the winter. I still have the old world view of the shack-looking apparatus in the back of the house that would serve as the smokehouse. Product would be hung in the smokehouse for days to help preserve it and give it that distinctive smoke flavor and appearance.
During all the tours we give at our facility, I always do like the reaction when individuals reach the smokehouse room. The walls have been stained from the many years of smoke exposure. As they walk down the hall, they are met by five old metal boxes. These are the pride and joy of our smoking process. They are nothing fancy, a simple design based on years of experience. They were manufactured by Griffith Laboratories in Chicago. The newest one is around 75 years old.
Each smokehouse can hold approximately 24 hams or 40 slabs of bacon. They are hand loaded with removable bars that can hang at various heights. There is a small two-foot box on the side of each house that has a pipe leading to the main house. This is where we place the hickory sawdust that produces the smoke. We light the sawdust and get it to a smoldering point. We don’t want it to burn; we only want to produce smoke. Adding a little moisture to the sawdust is sometimes necessary to prevent a fire from flaring up. These types of smokehouses are called gravity houses. This comes from the fact that we allow gravity to do what gravity does to smoke: it enters from the smoke box, and goes up and out the stack on top. We don’t have any fans or motors to move the smoke around. We let the old fashioned method work its magic.
Each house does have a gas line and thermostat to allow a cooking process along with the smoking. It doesn’t take a lot of heat for most of our smoking process, but it is necessary. A low, slow smoking process is what we utilize to help bring out the best flavor. We like to use our old houses for all our hams, bacon, and dried beef. We usually smoke for 48 hours on most of our products. We do have two new conventional smokehouses also, and they serve their purpose, but for some of the best smoked product, the older methods seem to be best.
Tom Eickman, a third-generation meat processor, is co-owner of Eickman’s Processing Co. in Seward. He is a past president of the Illinois Association of Meat Processors, and is a founding member of the Local Foods Work Group at the University of Illinois Extension–Winnebago County. He blogs about local foods at blogs.e-rockford.com/gogreen.