Hangikjöt - Icelandic smoked lamb (instructions)

Still in keeping with the Þorri theme, here is a popular food that is a favourite main dish for Christmas and Sundays, as well as being an essential part of the Þorri buffet and a popular cold cut to top bread and flatbread.

Slices of hangikjöt
Hangikjöt is an old favourite of the Icelanders. For centuries, we have smoked, pickled and dried food for preservation, and hangikjöt is one of the most delicious of the smoked products. Much like in olden times, hangikjöt is not an everyday food, except when used as a topping for bread, skonsur and flatbread. It may be eaten either hot or cold, and is traditionally served with cooked potatoes, white (béchamel) sauce, peas and pickled red cabbage. What follows is a description of the old method used for smoking lamb/mutton to make hangikjöt.

Smoking food, general information:
Smoking is an ancient food preservation method, which leaves the food tasting smoky-delicious. The smoke dries the food and contains preservatives which prevent the food from spoiling quickly. All food that is to be smoked must be salted first.

The smoke room:
The best facility for smoking food is a small shed or room with a high ceiling and a chimney. There should be a fireplace in the centre of the floor, and rafters up close to the ceiling for hanging the food. If only a small amount of food is to be smoked, a barrel smoker can be used. This is made by stacking two barrels on top of each other. A small fireplace is made in the bottom one, and the food is hung in the top one. Sometimes the smoke is piped from one barrel to another through a flue. This cools down the smoke and prevents it from cooking the food. The food must never be hung so close to the fire that the heat reaches it.

The smoking materials:
The best smoke comes from wood, especially birch, willow and juniper, but you can also use heather or sawdust. Dried, pressed sheep dung mixed with straw from the floor of the sheep pens is used by some Icelanders, and sometimes dried peat was used.

The fire must be covered to make sure it does not flare up and burn too high. The aim is to get the maximum of smoke with the minimum of fire. The temperature of the smoke as it reaches the food must not be higher than 20-25°C. Smoking times can only be given in approximates, as it depends on the volume of smoke, size of the food pieces and various other factors.

Small pieces, like fillets of Arctic char or trout, can be smoked in a matter of hours in a barrel smoker. Meat should not be smoked for more than 2-3 weeks.

Making Hangikjöt:
Any meat can be smoked, like mutton/lamb, horse, pork, game bird breasts, etc., but only lamb/mutton and horse meat are called hangikjöt. Legs, thighs and sides of lamb are well suited for smoking.

Processing the meat:
Clean the meat well, and pickle in brine #1 for 2-4 days, depending on thickness of the pieces. Allow the brine to drip off the meat before smoking it.

Brine for pickling meat:
20 litres water
10 kg coarse salt
500 g sugar
100 g saltpetre (Note: This is an unhealthful chemical and is no longer used by modern hangikjöt producers).

This recipe may be halved for a smaller amount of brine.

Heat the water to boiling and mix in sugar, salt and saltpetre and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until the salt is melted. Strain and cool the liquid. This brine is strong enough for salting small pieces like rúllupylsa and also for salting meat that will be smoked.

Hang up the meat and start the smoking process. Make sure the fire never dies – the smoking must be constant. Taste check the meat in a week or so – the meat should taste smoky. If the meat is at all slimy to the touch, or has a rancid taste, it is spoiled and must not be eaten. Smoke for another week and taste the meat again. It should be reddish in colour with a pronounced smoky taste. For even smokier taste, give it another week, but no more than that, or it may become too dry.
When the meat is smoked, it should be hung in a cool, dry place. Meat that has been hung for a while is more easily digested than meat that has not been hung. Hangikjöt can be eaten raw, and is excellent served by wrapping thin slices around pieces of melon.

Cooking and serving:
Home-smoked hangikjöt sometimes needs to be salted during cooking, and sometimes not. Taste it raw to evaluate whether or not you need to cook it in salted water. Cook for about 40 minutes for each kilo of meat, less if you cut it up before cooking. When cooked, remove the cooking pot from the stove, and allow the meat to sit in the cooking liquid for about 30 minutes before removing it. This step may be skipped if the meat is to be served hot.

Serve in the traditional way: with potatoes, white sauce, cooked peas (or peas & carrots) and pickled red cabbage. For an authentic Icelandic Christmas meal, serve leaf-bread and butter on the side and drink the Icelandic Christmas mix with it..
Leftovers may be sliced thin and used as a topping for bread, or the meat and potatoes can be diced and added to white sauce along with the peas, warmed up and poured into small pie shells for serving.

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JoGillespie said…
Thanks for this description! Very useful for a novel I am writing. So is it kind of like the Italian prosciutto? You can eat it raw, in thin slices, but also boil it?
Bibliophile said…
Home-smoked hangikjöt is similar in texture to prosciutto and can be used as an interesting alternative to it. It tastes smokier and saltier and has a slight gamey flavour. Although it can be eaten raw, we prefer it cooked.
Anonymous said…
The last time I had hangikjöt was at Mula Kaffe, with a bowl of beans. "Salty Meat and Bean Day" was the occasion.

Now if Boladagur was on the same day, that would be heaven. Maybe once a week thereafter:-)
Alice said…
Thanks, I want to try this.

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