Does Smoking Meat Kill Bacteria?

Many people love the taste of smoked meat, especially when it’s done properly with a smoker and someone who truly understands how the smallest changes in temperature, time, and type of wood can create an entirely different experience. But what about the rumors about smoking meat not killing bacteria? Is this true or just a scare tactic?

Properly smoking meat kills bacteria but it’s not because of the smoke – it’s because of the long-term exposure to heat, the same with most styles of grilling or cooking. Actually smoking meat doesn’t kill bacteria any more effectively than grilling, roasting, or frying as long as the temperature at the center of the meat hits 149 degrees Fahrenheit.

While bacteria shouldn’t be an issue for smoked meat, there have been some concerns about the overall health pros and cons of smoking meat compared to other forms of preparation.

Let’s dive in to looking at how smoking kills bacteria, whether it’s good or bad for you, and everything else you need to know about the health concerns around smoking meat and bacteria.

Smoking meat covered grill
I love seeing the smoke doing its thing whether a covered grill or traditional smoker like this one.

How Smoking Meat Works

My earliest memories of smoking wood came not from a more traditional smoker, but a gerry-rigged cover grill that Dad had designed to create a makeshift smoker. We had plenty of apple wood in Iowa, and since grandma lived in New Mexico we would come back from visits with a lot of trunk space filled with mesquite bought by the bundle.

That was an early lesson on how the slow cooking with certain types of wood would impose a flavor into the meat. Low but steady heat, moisture, and a long cook time at low heat while trapping the smoke in would give a distinctive flavor that you wouldn’t find from other methods. Apple wood gave the meat a touch of sweetness that worked perfectly with a pinch, just a pinch, of salt.

Mesquite was, well mesquite. A deep Southwest flavor that is just fantastic and distinctive and if you’ve had the actual thing and not a cheap artificial copy then you understand the allure.

The exact techniques will change depending on whether or not you’re using an actual smoker or a covered grill. While I grew up learning from Dad how to smoke using a covered grill, I’ve since learned the beauty that is known as a smoker. Actual smokers are outstanding and while I’m still searching for a favorite, there’s no denying that they do make the process easier and more fail proof.

There’s a good post on the U.S. Department of Agriculture about smoking vs curing for more information understanding the similarities, differences, and overlap between the two.

Barbecue on grill meat
Smoking and barbecue go hand in hand, and to me this is the definition of a good weekend.

Smoking Meat Does Have Anti-Bacteria Benefits

Just because it’s the heating that kills bacteria doesn’t mean there aren’t additional benefits to smoking. While it’s always the heat itself that kills the bacteria in meat, there are some additional benefits that come with smoking meat over your other methods of preparation.

According to this article from the University of Arkansas, there are chemical compounds from the smoke that come from the burning of wood that can have a further anti-microbial effect, while the drying that happens from a smoke cure takes away moisture that would be needed for bacteria to reproduce rapidly.

When you combine all of these it’s easy to see why smoking meat is a favorite method for taking care of the meat and keeping eaters safe from bacteria.

Smoking Meat Vs Curing Meat

Many people believe smoking meat makes it ready for long-term storage since it’s then immune to spoilage, but that’s actually not necessarily the case. When someone talks about smoking meat to preserve it for months, they’re generally misusing the term as they are watching curing meat. Curing meat is a process that allows meat to be prepared for months without spoiling.

Most cured meat is smoked, but smoking meat doesn’t mean it’s cured. The curing process also involves the important addition of salt which is a major factor in being able to drastically extend the shelf life of the meat without refrigeration.

Actual smoking alone will not do that.

However, the two often go hand-in-hand because they work great in conjunction with one another. The salt allows the meat to stay edible and safe for a long period of time while the smoking kills any bacteria present in addition to adding a nice flavor that most people prefer to any other style of curing meat.

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, and might be the same thing in many areas for all practical purposes, it is important to know that the overlap isn’t 100% and if you are looking not just for the smoky flavor but for a treatment that will allow the meat to remain edible for a much longer period of time without worry of spoilage then make sure the meat is also being cured.

There’s a good bit in this Kent State article about how this process works, and if you’re looking for cured/smoked sausage recipes this University of North Dakota article does a deep dive on the topic.

Two grill tier covered grill
Grill time is good time, but to me it doesn’t seem the same anymore without a smoker.

Looking to Smoke Some Meat This Summer?

If you have ever smoked meat before using a covered grill can easily move to a smoker and see major results. Likewise, even if you’ve never had any experience, learning to use a smoker is pretty easy. There are always little adjustments you’ll learn over time to really tune it in, but similar to a slow cooker – it’s REALLY hard to screw things up unless you’re trying to.

So what smoker should you start with? I’ve had experience with quite a few and talked to several of my other friends who love their smokers, and in some cases even own multiple smokers. Because M.B. KNOWS how to throw a neighborhood get together. We have a lot of differing opinions.

It seems like the more years someone has been smoking meat, the more likely they are to have a differing opinion. However, most of us agree there are certain brands or smokers that are highly regarded even if they aren’t a perfect fit for your particular style of smoking.

There are two models that come up in virtually every conversation of best smokers: one beginner budget-friendly and one premium.

Z Grills Wood Pellet Grill & Smoker

Type: Budget-Friendly Wood Pellet Grill & Smoker

Description: Inexpensive model that focuses on wood and wood pellets (my personal preference) versus charcoal. Great learning model very easy to use that holds up great for regular grilling, as well.

Masterbuilt 1050 Gravity Series

Type: Premium Digital Charcoal Grill & Smoker Combo

Description: Premium model with digital readings, exceptional temperature control, and a reputation for being among the best for flavor – especially when using charcoal.

Is Smoked Meat Healthy or Unhealthy?

This is a bit of a loaded question as there are conflicting studies. On the healthy side of things, the smoked meat when properly cooked isn’t going to have an issue with bacteria and when smoked and cured properly the meat can last a long time without issue.

However, there are some studies suggesting that the smoke can create an added risk of carcinogens in the meat, especially when burnt, charred, or lighter fluid is used.

Cured meat is also high in salt so there are high blood pressure and heart health issues potentially tied to that. That said, many foods (especially meat and red meat) have some degree of health warnings so decide what’s an appropriate risk level for you and go from there.

There’s a good article here breaking down the various things to consider.

Final Verdict on Smoking Meat to Kill Bacteria

Smoking meat properly will kill bacteria. Having a meat thermometer is critical to make sure that you have the meat at the temperature it needs to be to kill all bacteria. As long as meat is properly smoked all the bacteria will be dead and the meat will be as safe to eat as anything you baked, grilled, fried, or otherwise prepared.

And admittedly for someone who grew up with it, it’s hard to argue with the taste of sweetness something like apple wood can add or the amazing taste of mesquite when smoking meat is done right!

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