For smoking your own food at home, there are two primary methods available: in your kitchen using a stovetop smoker and outside using a charcoal cooker/smoker. Even though both of these methods cook food through the application of heated smoke, they each produce different results. The differences are rooted in the cooking temperature of each method, and are worth understanding as you begin smoking your own food indoors.
A typical outdoor smoker will use charcoal and wood chips to produce smoke and heat. during use the food is situated so as not to be in the direct heat. It cooks via the indirect heat that is carried by the smoke. This means the the cooking temperature is low (180º-230º usually).
A stovetop smoker uses much smaller wood chips (wood shavings, really) and the heat from your stovetop. The small size of the smoking vessel means that the food is directly over the heat, and the enclosed cooking area retains heat. Here the temperatures are a lot higher (300º-350º).
The lower temperature achieved in outdoor smoking is ideal for making BBQ, which requires several hours of low heat. The cuts of meat most often used in BBQ have a lot of collagen and other connective tissues in them. These are tough to eat, and tougher to cook since they can turn into inedible gristle with too much heat. However, these same tissues can, when exposed to the lower heat of a smoker for a long time, break down into soft gelatin. As these tissues break down the meat falls apart and becomes very tender. The time that this requires allows for another great BBQ phenomenon: bark. This is the tasty crust formed on the outside of smoked meat. It requires a spice rub and cooking time to achieve.
Of course throughout this process the smoker will need attention and tending (adding more wood chips, changing the coals, rotating the meat, etc.) You also need the right space to use a smoker (being an apartment dweller, I do not have access to such a space) and good enough weather to be out side tending to the process. It’s a lot of hard work, but well worth the effort.
Stovetop smoking is a different animal. Since it smokes at a higher temperature, much less time is needed to cook your food. Obviously these temperatures are too high to get that nice breakdown of collagen into gelatin that BBQ needs. (There are ways to utilize a stovetop smoker as part of a process that can achieve reasonable BBQ results, which includes use of the oven and a long cooking time. We have a recipe for ribs that you can try here.)
However, this higher cooking temperature offers some advantages when cooking foods that don’t require a breakdown of collagen. Chicken, sausages, fish, pork loin, and many other proteins will cook as quickly in a stovetop smoker as they will in the oven, but now will have a delicious smoked flavor. Vegetables also work very well in a stovetop smoker (try smoked mashed potatoes or smoked applesauce, for example). Since these foods cook just as quickly in the stovetop smoker as they would otherwise it’s very simple to incorporate the stovetop smoker into your meal planning. (By the way, even though it’s called a stovetop smoker you can use it just as effectively outdoors on your grill.)
The primary difference between stovetop smoking and conventional outdoor smoking is one of temperature, which in turn leads to a difference in cooking time. Each method offers it’s own advantages. Stovetop smoking is not a substitute for conventional smoking methods, but rather an easy way to cook with great smoked flavors any time you want.