Smokehouse Handbook

Comprehensive Techniques & Specialty Recipes for Smoking Meat, Fish & Vegetables


By Jake Levin

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For backyard grilling enthusiasts, smoking has become an essential part of the repertoire. Butcher and charcuterie expert Jake Levin’s comprehensive guide, Smokehouse Handbook, guarantees mouthwatering results for producing everything from the perfect smoked salmon to a gorgeous smoked brisket.

Levin demystifies the process of selecting the right combination of meat, temperature, and wood to achieve the ultimate flavor and texture. Detailed step-by-step photos show the various techniques, including cold-smoking, hot-smoking, and pit roasting. A survey of commercially-available smokers critiques the features of each one, and for readers with a DIY bent, Levin includes plans and diagrams for building a multipurpose smokehouse. Featured recipes include specialty brines and rubs along with preparation guidelines for all the classic cuts of meat, including ham, brisket, ribs, bacon, and sausage, as well as fish and vegetables. With in-depth troubleshooting and safety guidelines, this is the one-stop reference for smoking success.


Dedicated to my two brothers, Will and Sam, and my wife, Silka.

To Will, for your willingness to try whatever I cook and for your craftsmanship and creativity as a builder. Without you there would be no smokehouse and no book.

To sam, for being my biggest fan as a food writer and for your insightful edits and suggestions for this book.

To silka, for always being there to support me and for pretending to not mind that I am usually covered in animal fat and soot and always smell like smoke.


Smoke-Filled Beginnings

Part 1: The Basics

1. Why We Smoke

2. Choosing a Cut to Smoke

3. Rubs, Brines, and Cures

4. Heat and Smoke

Part 2: Choosing a Smoker

Stove-Top Smokers

Electric and Gas Smokers

Smoking on Your Grill

The Grill Table

Pit Smoking

Vertical Smokers

The Smokehouse

Part 3: Recipes

Hot-Smoking Recipes

Cold-Smoking Recipes

Part 4: Building Your Smoker

Shallow Pit Grill

Deep Pit

Aboveground Pit

Hot-Smoke Drum

Cold-Smoke Drum

Tri-Purpose Smokehouse



Metric Conversion Charts



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Smoke-Filled Beginnings

This book starts and ends in my backyard, with my wife, my two brothers, and me sitting around a fire, cooking dinner. In between, we will travel around the globe; touch on the history of Homo sapiens; talk about chemistry, biology, and physics; describe simple building techniques; and breathe in a lot of smoke. But, in the end, this book is about being in your backyard with your loved ones, eating delicious food you've smoked in a smoker you built.

I can't say exactly how I came to be so interested in smoking meats. Ever since I was a child, I have always loved meat — especially smoked and cured meats. The father of my best friend from childhood was Hungarian, and whenever there was an important holiday or gathering at their house, there would always be links of dark red, smoky, dry-cured sausages served. I couldn't resist those coin-sized medallions made of pork, paprika, and garlic, glistening with studs of white fat. Every movement I made through my friend's house involved a pass by the platter of sausage so I could surreptitiously pocket another small fistful of this delicacy. I will never forget the flavor and aroma of those sausages.

It wasn't until I was in my early twenties and living in Brooklyn that I first started to experiment with smoking meat myself. I was becoming increasingly bold in my at-home culinary experiments; in hindsight, this was when I began to realize I wanted to pursue a career in food. One day I decided to buy a stove-top smoker so I could start to try smoking myself. You can imagine how thrilled my roommates were when they came home to find our railroad apartment filled with cherry smoke and a partially raw whole chicken for dinner. But I didn't let that stop me. I continued to play, and I grew more ambitious.

The next year my girlfriend (now wife) and I decided to throw a Christmakkah party (now an annual event), and I insisted on brining and smoking a Christmas ham in our apartment. My stove-top smoker was too small for a ham, so I decided to turn our oven into a smoker. I turned the oven to 250°F (120°C) and placed a baking dish of sawdust on the bottom of the oven, which I kept smoldering with the assistance of a small propane blowtorch. For weeks after, our whole apartment smelled of applewood smoke.

Luckily for my wife (and our neighbors), I decided I wanted to work with meat professionally, and we moved to the Berkshires, in rural western Massachusetts, where I had grown up. My wife no longer had to worry that we would be kicked out of our apartment, and our neighbors were no longer subjected to the odd aromas emanating from our tiny kitchen. Moving to the country and becoming a professional butcher were major developments in my relationship to smoking meat.

I insisted on brining and smoking a Christmas ham in our apartment. My stove-top smoker was too small for a ham, so I decided to turn our oven into a smoker.

In my training as a whole-animal butcher, I gained a deeper understanding of meat and the various processes applied to meat production. I now understand much more about muscle structure and development, the biochemical changes that occur when a cure is applied to meat, the way fat behaves, and the effect different temperatures and levels of humidity can have on meat. Working in a butcher shop also meant I had access to equipment like a large electric smoker that I would never have in my home. My colleagues and I experimented a lot — we made smoked corned tongues, face bacon, smoked mutton leg (a.k.a. "shamb"), all kinds of smoked sausages, smoked rillettes, and smoked salt.

I was in nirvana: I had a group of meat-nerd colleagues, and I had a house with a backyard, where I could get as smoky and messy as I wanted. As soon as we moved into our house, I started designing my outdoor kitchen. I am very fortunate that my brother Will, who is a builder, loves smoked meats as much as I do. Together we designed a smokehouse, which he built (with some assistance from me). Our smokehouse, which we named Frazier (after the great boxer, Smokin' Joe Frazier, and our grandfather's farmhand, Willie Frazier, with whom we worked closely growing up), took a lot of experimenting and tinkering with to get to work just right; see The Tri-Purpose Smokehouse for details on its design. Today, it is my happy spot and the workhorse of most of our family holidays. From early spring to early winter we are outside cooking, smoking, and experimenting.

Like any fanatic, I'm never fully satiated when it comes to the craft of smoking meat. Part of my love for smoking meats is all of the equipment that accompanies it. And so I continue to amass various smoking apparatuses and toys. Along with Frazier, I still have that first stove-top smoker, a large grill table, a Weber kettle grill, an upright barrel smoker, a donabe (a Japanese ceramic vessel used for cooking rice and smoking foods), and an electric smoker oven. I constantly experiment with different techniques, fuels for smoke, and smoking structures. I continue to find an indescribable joy and satisfaction in smoking meat and enjoying the results it provides.

I wanted to write this book because I want everyone to feel that same joy and satisfaction — and I want people to be able to find that joy and satisfaction a little more easily than I did. My smoked meat–filled journey has been beset by failed experiments; the most frustrating part was the lack of solid information on building a backyard smokehouse. Because there were so few resources to guide us, building Frazier was a long process with lots of missteps and rebuilding, correcting, and testing.

What I wished I'd had as I was learning, testing, and building was a book that would explain the basics of hot and cold smoking, as well as the process of smoking meat and the various fuels for generating smoke, designs for building smoking apparatuses and how to use them, and foundational recipes that I could experiment with and build upon. I hope that this book will provide you with all of that, and more.

Part 1

The Basics

To be successful at smoking meat, you must consider the three main elements: the meat itself, the temperature at which you smoke the meat, and the source of the smoke. These elements can be brought together in different ways to create myriad delicious smoked products. It's important to consider the structure of the meat itself: Is it fatty or lean? Tough or tender? Also think about what kind of cure you'll be applying, whether it's a rub, a brine, or a full cure. Another decision is whether to hot smoke — fully cooking the meat — or cold smoke, which preserves and cures the meat. The smoke can come from sawdust, woodchips, or split logs — or from nonwood sources like straw or tea.

Once you have a firm grasp of these three elements, as well as the way in which they interplay, you'll have the knowledge you need to experiment freely and produce delicious smoked products in your own backyard.


Why We Smoke

Before we go further, we should probably establish what smoking is. Smoking, at its most basic, is a form of preserving meat by exposing it to smoke from burning plant material (usually wood) over a period of time (anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks).

Exposure to smoke helps to preserve meat in two ways. First, it helps to draw out the moisture. Second, smoke imparts various chemical compounds onto the surface of the meat, which kill or inhibit the growth of microbes and slow down the oxidization of the fat. It also happens to add a delectable flavor to the meat. The combination of its preservative effect on meat and its flavor enhancement made smoking so popular a process that it has withstood the advent of refrigeration. Today smoked foods are often considered a delicacy and are an ingrained part of the cultural history of many regions of the world. But how did we get to this place?

From the Cave to the Barbecue

Envision a group of nomadic people. They have just completed a successful deer hunt and butchered the carcass, and they are getting ready to cook some of their favorite cuts. They're sitting around a fire inside a small shelter. In celebration of this successful hunt, they're cooking the back strap over the fire. There is more meat than they could consume in one meal, so they have salted and hung the other cuts of meat to dry from the top of the shelter. Some of that venison hangs over the fire, near the vent where the smoke from the fire escapes.

A couple of days pass, and they go to cut down and eat one of the pieces of venison that had been hanging near that vent. They notice that while the venison that wasn't hanging near the vent is starting to go rancid and is covered in flies, the venison near the vent appears to be still good to eat. They might notice that the texture and color of that venison is different. It has dried out evenly and is firm to the touch instead of being tacky and soft. The color of the flesh retains a redness instead of becoming a grayish brown. They bite into it and notice the flavor is different; it's better than it usually tastes after hanging for a few days. The venison hasn't turned at all, the fat isn't rancid, the meat doesn't taste rotten — it is smoky and delicious!

Although the nomads probably didn't have a complete understanding of why this meat was lasting longer than usual or why it tasted so mouth­wateringly good, they did know they had stumbled upon something great. This was the beginning of smoking food, a process that has since become an indispensable part of human life and culture.

The process of smoking meats is utilized throughout the world, adapted to the culture and environmental conditions of each place. One of the things I love about smoking is that, for the most part, very little about the process and techniques has changed over time. Wherever you are in the world, you can find people smoking foods the same way their great-grandparents did — often using the same smokehouse their great-grandparents used. It's a wonderful example of how food becomes a representation of culture and environment.

Native Americans and people of the First Nations traditionally smoked venison, bison, and fish by cutting the meat into thin strips and hanging them from the top of their living structures or similar wooden structures to catch the smoke from the hearth as it vented out.

First Nations Jerky and Early Barbecue

Smoking meat was a practical way to preserve meat harvested from the hunt. This Cree woman is smoking meat in northern Saskatchewan.

Pit roasting whole animals, such as goats, wrapped in organic material like banana leaves is a centuries-old tradition in Central America. The wrapped meat is placed directly on a deep bed of hot coals in an earthen pit, covered, and left to slowly cook for hours.

The Cree of the First Nations in Canada and the American Plains smoked meats up until the bison were nearly exterminated by white settlers. They would hang thin strips of bison from the top of their tepees and wigwams, or build miniature versions of those structures, catching the smoke as it rose from the hearth. The result was a smoky jerky that was easy to pack and could last for a long time. This was important, as the Cree were nomadic and followed the herds. Being able to preserve meat in a transportable form — especially from animals as large as bison, which yielded a large amount of meat — was indispensable for their way of life. This First Nations food staple has now become one of the most common snacks of America, available at any gas station, convenience store, grocery store, or butcher shop across the country. Similarly, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest would smoke much of the salmon they caught during the summer and fall months, ensuring that they had food to take them through the cold and often hard winter season.

Farther south, in Mexico and Central America, a very different technique, called pit roasting, was used to cook meat. This process of cooking is part of the origin story of another staple of modern American cuisine — barbecue. Pit roasting is one of my favorite techniques, partly because it's still practiced today in its simplest form, and it results in unrivaled flavor and texture. One of the first times I experienced it was in Oaxaca. My brother was building a house for some friends there, and when it was complete, they celebrated by pit roasting a whole goat. When the goat was finally unearthed, the meat was falling off the bones and infused with a sweet, smoky scent from the maguey (the type of agave plant that mezcal is made from) the goat had been wrapped in. The meat had a wonderful silky quality. The gaminess of the goat was mellowed out by floral and grassy smokiness from the maguey. We ate the goat with some handmade wheat tortillas, a spicy salsa made from dried chiles, and mezcal.

The particulars of pit roasting — including the cut and type of meat and the material it's wrapped in — vary throughout Mexico and Central America, but the principle technique remains the same. Mexicans and Central Americans dig pits in which they build a deep bed of charcoal. Then they wrap a whole animal (or large portion, like a steer's head) in big leaves, usually banana, maguey, or corn husks. The meat is laid on the hot bed of coals and then covered and buried. It is left for hours, even overnight, and then it is uncovered, unwrapped, and eaten. This technique yields the most succulent meat with an amazing smoky aroma imparted by the burning coals and the leaves wrapped around the meat.

Smoked Fish in Scandinavia and West Africa

Across the Atlantic, various forms of salted and smoked fish — whether it's cod, flounder, salmon, herring, or mackerel — are an important part of the Scandinavian and British diets, as well as their cultural identities. When my wife and I went to visit her family on Faro, the easternmost island in Sweden, I kept seeing signs next to little white stone huts that announced rokt flundra. When I asked our hosts what this meant, they stopped and picked some up for us to try. Rokt flundra are smoked flounder fillets, a staple of the diet there. I quickly fell in love with them! The flesh was delicate and flaky, imbued with a light smoky flavor that made it taste the way a fire on the beach smells — briny and heady.

In northern Europe, and especially Scandinavia, oily fish like salmon and mackerel are smoked over beech and oak in distinctive-looking white smokehouses along the shore.

You will see similar small stone huts dotting the coasts of Scandinavia and Great Britain. The cold northern waters produce fatty fish, which have historically been an important part of the diet, especially during the harsh winters. Traditional fishing patterns were based on the time of year when various species were running (swimming through those particular waters) and when they were spawning (breeding). Whatever type of fish the locals caught would spoil quickly, though, if it wasn't preserved; salting and smoking helped make the catch last. Inside those small stone shelters, the fish were (and still are, in many places) cleaned, salted, and then hung to smoke over small fires built on the shelter floor.

As in Scandinavia, fish is one of the staples of West African cuisine and there are many different methods for preserving it, including salting, air-drying, and cold smoking. Along the coast of Senegal and Ghana, the method of preserving fish that scents the air is traditional hot smoking. In long trenches, similar to the pits you see in the American South, fish are butterflied and set to smoke over millet grass (millet is one of the most common grains in the region) and then salted and fermented (a reversal of the process we use in North America). The smoked and salted fish is then used to flavor dishes. The smoky, briny scent of this process is inseparable from the experience of traveling the West African coast.

Throughout coastal West Africa, fish are salted and smoked over shallow pits of smoldering millet grass.

From Speck to Char Siu

Pork has been an indispensable part of European diet and culture for thousands of years — the first evidence of domesticated pork dates back to at least 5000 BCE. Traditionally pigs were slaughtered and processed in the fall. After farmers harvested the last of the vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains, they would run their pigs through the fields and orchards to eat up what was left; the different crops they ate imparted different flavors in the meat. Once the weather was cool enough that the hot sun wouldn't spoil the meat, families would gather together to process their hogs. The pork harvested had to last until the following fall, so many of the cuts were salted and often smoked.

Depending on where you are in Europe, you'll find various versions of cured and smoked pig legs. One of my favorites comes from the southern part of the Alpine region, along the border of Italy and Switzerland. Here, whole pork legs are first cured in salt, juniper berries, rosemary, and bay leaves (all products that grow in the region) and then hung to smoke over juniper wood to produce speck. This fatty, salty, smoky, aromatic meat is eaten throughout the year with bread, cheese, and wine. (See the recipe for Speck.) On the northern edge of the Alps is another notable and probably more recognizable pork product — the Black Forest ham. This Bavarian delicacy is now a standard deli meat. The distinct flavor and color of the ham comes from the fact that it is smoked over fir and juniper.

Throughout China and Southeast Asia, you will find examples of pork infused with smoky flavor. In China, char siu (literally, "fork roasted") is a great example. Pork is slowly roasted over a wood fire and then lacquered with a sweet and salty sauce made with honey, soy sauce, and the Chinese five spices. In Southeast Asia, you can find racks of pork ribs cooking over smoldering wood, being slathered with a combination of herbs, spices, palm sugar, and fish sauce. One of my favorite smoking traditions (and favorite cuisines) comes from the Sichuan province. There, they let a whole duck or duck breasts marinate overnight in a cure of saltpeter, Sichuan pepper, and rice wine and then smoke it over a mixture of rice and tea (see recipe for Tea-Smoked Duck Breast).

These techniques have existed across the world for a thousand years and are still being employed, largely unchanged, today. The only thing that has really changed is the necessity of preserving meat. We no longer smoke meats out of a need to preserve them, but out of a love for the effect that prolonged exposure to smoke has on them.

Throughout Southeast Asia, especially in the famed night markets, you will find metal grills covered in racks of pork ribs, thin slices of pork shoulder, whole fish, and pieces of chicken and duck slathered in chiles, various spices, palm sugar, and fish sauce and being slowly cooked over coals billowing smoke.


  • “Jake Levin is the prime minister of smoke, and this book will show you why — it is equal parts function, fire, and flavor.” — Dan Barber, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns

    “I have long appreciated Jake's talents as a butcher and salumist. His genuine love of cooking shines through in this rich exploration of the ancient art of smoking.” — Mark Firth, Co-founder of Diner and Marlow Sons, owner of Prairie Whale

    “This is a really wonderful book.  If you think you have no interest in smoked foods, Jake Levin will show you the error of your ways.” — Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of Gourmet and author of My Kitchen Year

On Sale
Apr 30, 2019
Page Count
200 pages

Jake Levin

Jake Levin

About the Author

Jake Levin is the author of Smokehouse Handbook. A butcher and charcuterie expert who trained at Fleisher’s Meat in Kingston, New York, he has worked in whole-animal butcher shops including The Meat Market in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Eli’s Manhattan in New York City. He currently produces cured meats at Jacuterie, an artisanal charcuterie in Ancramdale, New York, and travels nationwide conducting workshops on how to slaughter, butcher, and cure meats. He and his wife live in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, and his website is

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