The not-so-mystifying art of smoking

The not-so-mystifying art of smoking

By
Ben Tish
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
978 1 84949 715 2
Photographer
Kris Kirkham

This book wouldn’t be complete without some words on one of our very best friends at Ember Yard: smoke. The main reason we love cooking over a charcoal- or wood-fired barbecue is the chance to capture some of that ethereal smokiness in whatever we are cooking.

Smoke and fire are intrinsically linked, of course, and a good understanding of both will elevate your cooking skills on the barbecue to a new level. Yes, you can simply grill over some charcoal, and that’s fine, but the real essence of barbecuing lies in harnessing the natural flavours from burning wood and charcoal in this process. Throw a chunk of wood or some wood chips onto your barbecue, close the lid, and you will get some intense smoky flavours happening on top of the flavour from the charcoal. Essentially, that’s all there is to it – but with a little know-how and understanding, you can turn your barbecue into something much more than the sum of its parts. Be warned – it’s highly addictive once you get going.

Introducing foodstuffs to smoke is a centuries-old process: perhaps a side-effect of cooking over an open fire; the result of hanging meat to dry near campfires; or even a mistake. If a mistake, it was a fortunate one, for not only does the smoke impart a sublime flavour but it also acts as a natural preservative, which would have been incredibly important in the days before refrigeration. Later, the use of salt and brines prolonged shelf-life even further, as well as adding their own flavour. It’s interesting that one of the earliest-known methods of cooking and preserving is now the height of fashion in gastronomic circles and you’ll find smoke in just about everything from cocktails and ice creams to fruit and chocolate!

Smoke comes from the burning of hardwoods and, to a lesser degree, charcoal (wood that’s already had most of its natural gases burnt off, to make a highly concentrated fuel). When wood is burnt, water, natural gases and carbon are released, and the lignin in the wood breaks down to produce the sweet smoke associated with barbecues. When choosing your wood and charcoal, it’s worth remembering that it’s this smoke that will end up flavouring your food.

Smoking will never be an exact science, and there’ll always be an element of trial and error – at least until you get more confident – but there’s no reason you can’t successfully smoke food at home. At the restaurant, we have purpose-built hot- and cold-smokers that consistently produce well-rounded smoked flavours, so we can be confident of what we serve our customers. Of course, at some point you might want to consider investing in (or even building) a smaller-scale specialist smoker – such as the ProQ cold-smoke generator: you simply fill the gadget with wood dust, light it and pop it in your barbecue, then it slowly releases cool smoke over a period of a few hours. Until then, if you have a barbecue with a lid, an empty tin and a temperature probe, you’re all set.

There are two main methods of smoking food: hot-smoking and cold-smoking.

Hot-smoking

Hot-smoking flavours the surface of the food while cooking it at the same time – but at temperatures of 52–80°C, the process will be long and slow. This suits some of the larger cuts of meat that contain enough fat to self-baste as they cook, such as lamb shoulder, pork belly or oxtail. Arguably, this kind of hot-smoking is the essence of barbecuing, and embodies all that is rich, delicious and unctuous about slow-cooked meats.

I recommend soaking wood chips or hardwood lumps in cold water before adding them to the hot coals: an hour will suffice for wood chips, and a few hours for lumps. What this does is stop the wood from incinerating and burning fiercely on impact; instead, it will start to smoke gently.

Generally, I add wood chips when I’m cooking something relatively quickly, to add a short, sharp burst of smoke; and lumps of hardwood (about 8cm quarters) if I’m cooking something for longer, with the bigger pieces of wood slowly but surely doing their thing over time.

I’ve indicated in the recipes when to add wood chips or hardwood lumps, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. Feel free to experiment by adding wood when and where you see fit. Just remember to wait until the flames have died down and the charcoal has achieved the all-important ashen-grey stage for optimum cooking. If you are using wood chips, sprinkle them directly onto the coals. If you are using lumps of hardwood, carefully nestle them into the coals, using long-handled tongs or a poker to carefully push a little of the perimeter ash around the wood to ‘pen it in’ – this helps the wood to smoke nicely and for longer.

Cold-smoking

In this process, smoke penetrates the food without actually cooking it as the temperature doesn’t exceed 30°C. We use this technique for introducing a subtle, smoky flavour to fish, vegetables and even liquids over a period of 1–2 hours. We also like to cold-smoke meat and meatier fish prior to cooking it on the grill. This gives two layers of smokiness on eating: an intrinsic background smokiness from the cold-smoking, then a more pronounced hit from the barbecuing process.

For easy cold-smoking on your barbecue, all you need is a small perforated firebox (many barbecues come with these) or a clean empty can (from beans, tuna and so on), with the lid prised open. Use a screwdriver to – carefully! – poke a few holes in the lid, then half-fill the can or firebox with your choice of wood chips. Using long-handled tongs, carefully add a piece of very hot charcoal and then cover it with more wood chips. Close the lid of the can or firebox and sit it in one corner of your barbecue. Position a grill rack above it and place whatever you’re smoking on the rack. Close the barbecue lid, making sure the top vent is closed, and leave for the time specified in the recipe – although it’s always good to check the temperature inside the barbecue as a back-up.

After cold-smoking, always give food a resting time of at least 6 hours (or overnight) before eating it or cooking it further. This allows the smoky flavours to develop and balance out.

This book has a good few recipes that involve cold-smoking but once you’ve mastered the process, experiment and see what works for you. Often, you’ll find that ingredients that have been marinated, salted or brined tend to hold the smoke flavour better.

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