This year I had the opportunity to be one of two on-site technical advisors for the American Cured Meat Championships (ACMC) held in conjunction with the American Association of Meat Processors Convention in Kansas City, MO July 15-17, 2010. The other on-site technical advisor was Dr. Jeff Sindelar, Extension Meat Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There were 747 exhibits entered in the competition and a team of 13 judges spent many hours evaluating the 26 different classes of products.  As I looked over the products prior to the start of judging, the difference in external appearance between exhibits was striking. Some looked so very good I longed to be able to sample them, while others gave me a take-it-or-leave-it feeling. I was very quickly reminded of the fact that you must “please the eyes first.”

 The very first thing judges do in evaluating a class of products is rate the external appearance. If a product does not look good you have a negative impression before you sample the product. External appearance is particularly important in products that will be sold whole such as frankfurters, smoked sausage, boneless ham and smoked turkeys.

The desired external color for most smoked meat products is a golden mahogany color. This color is often achieved by naturally smoking the product. When and how much you smoke the product determines its color. It also has an impact on the aroma and flavor of the product.

Typically when you put products into a smokehouse, the external surface of the product is wet. The surface needs to be dried until it has a slightly tacky feel before smoke is applied. If a product is smoked when the surface of the product is very wet, the finished product will have a dark, muddy appearance. Often there will also be visible streaks on the product as a result of moisture running down the outside during smoking. If you let the surface of the product get too dry before smoke is applied it will be difficult to get the smoke to adhere resulting in a light or pale external color.

It is also extremely important that the inside of the smokehouse and its duct work is clean when you start. Dirty smokehouses and dirty duct work can result in creosote dripping on the product producing streaks or spots visible on the external surface.

Consistency of external product color is also important. Some processors will add a little humidity at the start of cycle when processing products to achieve uniform surface moisture on the products. They will then dry the products uniformly prior to smoking. This helps to assure that in a package of smoked links you don’t have a variation in color.

Experiment with different drying times and different smoke times until you get uniform eye-appealing external color.

Remember: the best way to achieve repeat sales is to have a consistent product.

Dr. Joe Cordray is the Extension Meat Specialist at Iowa State University.