Such a simple question. Sadly, there is no answer. It's not that the answer is complex; it's that there is no answer. Smoking these days is primarily done to impart flavor, not for its preservative effects. Even in ancient times, smoking was an adjunct to salting and drying meats and fish, and in combination, could be relied upon to keep some foods almost indefinitely. But the "shelf-life" of preserved foods depends on many variables, including moisture content, density, and how well the surface of the food is sealed.

(continued from home page) Even today, some very dry sausages, fish, and jerkies will keep almost indefinitely. But most smoked foods are highly perishable and need refrigeration. Even a jerky that is not completely dry should be kept in the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for several weeks.

The preservative benefit of smoking is that the smoke contains tar-like substances that are deposited on the food. To a greater or lesser extent, they seal the surface, keeping air from coming in contact with the food. Fats in the food will not turn rancid from exposure to air, so smoking is particularly useful for preserving fatty foods. The smoke also kills bacteria.

But without a salt cure or a thorough drying process (don't forget, prosciutto and many Virginia-style hams are cured for 12 months or more), the smoking is not nearly enough to keep the meat from spoiling.

In cool, dry storage, you can keep fully-cured, uncooked hams for a few months without any loss of quality. Some correctly cured fish, such as smoked haddock, herring, salmon, and trout will keep for a week or more without refrigeration. Salt cod, of course, will keep for years, but you have to soak it for years to get the salt out (slight exaggeration on our part). Some sausages can be kept for weeks and months without harm, but, surprisingly, even some very dense, very dry sausages will spoil without refrigeration.

For more information on smoking (in conjunction with salting and brining) meats and fish, check out these books:Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing Meat, Fish, & Game (Canada, UK), by A.D. Livingston, The Smoked-Foods Cookbook (Canada, UK), by Lue & Ed Park, and Home Book of Smoke-Cooking (Canada, UK), by Jack Sleight and Raymond Hull.