The appeal of smoked food is universal and elemental. It spans the globe, from barbecued pork in the American South and smoked fish in Scandinavia to Sichuan tea-smoked duck in China and jerk chicken in Jamaica.
It’s an ancient technique; one used to preserve, flavour and cook food. Methods vary by food culture and region – whether hot-smoking, cold-smoking, smoke-roasting or using a handheld smoking device.
“Smoking is probably the world’s second-oldest cooking method,” food writer and TV host Steven Raichlen says.
Grilling came first, possibly discovered as early as 1.8 million years ago by human ancestor Homo erectus.
“The way I imagine it, hominids gathered around a campfire roasting meat. They put a piece of meat on a stick downwind of the fire, smoke passed over it, (and they discovered that) you can preserve it longer, there are fewer bugs.
“And then they taste it: ‘Oh my god, it tastes great,’” he says. “So it’s perfect fusion of form and function.”
In his latest cookbook, Project Smoke (Workman Publishing, 2016), and the PBS series of the same name, Raichlen focuses solely on “the umami of barbecue.” From meats, seafood and vegetables, to desserts, cocktails and condiments, every recipe in the book receives the smoke treatment.
“Barbecue is both very broad and very deep. What I mean by broad is that with a book like Planet Barbecue (Workman Publishing, 2010) I’m really looking at it from a global perspective. And very deep in that with a book like Project Smoke, you can really drill down on one technique,” he says.
Raichlen’s field work for Project Smoke took him to the Basque Country, in northern Spain, where Victor Arguinzoniz first served him smoked ice cream at his renowned restaurant, Asador Etxebarri.
“(Arguinzoniz) burns logs to embers in a wood-burning oven. He put a container of milk in the oven at the end of the day and smoked it overnight, and then turned it into ice cream. It was fabulous,” Raichlen says.
Since he was already asking readers to fire up a smoker; he says he wasn’t about to ask them to plug in an ice cream maker as well. He was on set shooting an episode of Project Smoke when a method for smoking store-bought ice cream came to him.
“I set up a kettle grill for indirect grilling (a technique in which the food is placed off to the side of the heat source, rather than directly above it) and super front-loaded it with wood chips, put the ice cream in over a bowl of ice, and did a five-minute smoke.
“It was a ton of smoke in a very short time so the ice cream didn’t melt. It got covered with a beautiful patina of wood smoke,” Raichlen says.
Enjoy a scoop or two on its own, or à la mode with his Smoked Bacon-Bourbon Apple Crisp or Smoked Chocolate Bread Pudding – all three recipes are in Project Smoke.
Raichlen had of course touched on smoke in his other books, such as The Barbecue Bible (Workman Publishing, 2008). “But if all barbecue is smoked, not all smoked foods are barbecue,” he says.
Singling out smoke allowed him to include food and drink that simply wouldn’t fit into the barbecue category: such as Italian hay-smoked mozzarella, smoked shoulder ham, smoked salmon and the Mexican spirit mezcal.
“Oh my god, it’s so smoky,” Raichlen says of mezcal, which he witnessed being made in Oaxaca, Mexico. “And to watch them make it: dig these holes, line them with stones, build a giant fire, bury the piña, roast them for a week and use a donkey-drawn millstone to grind them up… it’s incredible.”
To understand the practice of smoking, it’s important to understand the difference between it, grilling and barbecue. Raichlen says this comes down to three factors: where the food is in relation to the fire, the temperature, and smoke as the vehicle.
“In grilling, the food is right over the fire; it’s a hot fire, it’s a fast technique. It may or may not be smoked. In true barbecue, the food is next to, not directly over the fire. The temperature is much lower – typically 225 to 275°F (107 to 135°C) – and there is wood smoke.
“In smoking, the food is also next to, not directly over the fire. And there may be heat to cook it, there may not be heat to cook it but there’s always smoke,” he says. “It’s more about the smoking than the cooking, which is why you can use an electric or stove-top smoker. Because they don’t require live fire; it’s about the smoke.”
As Raichlen writes in Project Smoke, “Smoking is easy but it isn’t always simple.” He includes detailed information in his “Seven Steps to Smoking Nirvana” chapter: how to choose your smoker, source your fuel, assemble your tools, flavour your food, select your smoking method, light your fire, and know when your food is done.
If you’re new to the craft, Raichlen suggests starting with pork shoulder. His gateway recipe in the book is Smoked, Pulled and Vinegar-Sauced in the Style of North Carolina, dispelling the notion that barbecue sauce is exclusively sweet and sticky.
“Unlike something like a brisket or beef ribs, pork shoulder is intrinsically tender. It has marbling throughout the meat and then a big cap of fat on the surface, so if you over-cook it, if your temperature spikes too high, it’s very forgiving.
“You almost always succeed at a pork shoulder. It always tastes great. As opposed to a brisket where there are many, many factors that can conspire to make it tough,” he says.
Above all else, Raichlen stresses the need for patience on the part of the cook. “The single-most important attribute you need to bring to smoking in terms of character is patience. And that’s very different than grilling, which is all about speed,” he says.
If a recipe calls for a cup of wood chips added once an hour for eight hours, adding the entirety at the start is not the way to go. More smoke at the outset is not always better. Take your time and space it out for best results.
A potentially controversial statement Raichlen makes in the book is that the variety of wood you use matters less than the way you burn it.
“It’s not like when you smoke with cherry wood you’re going to taste cherries, or when you smoke with apple wood you’re going to taste apples. Now, I’m sure there are people that disagree with me on that,” Raichlen says.
“Somehow we have the notion that Texas or Carolina pitmasters sat down and thought, ‘What wood smoke is going to taste the best on brisket?’ I think on the contrary; it’s that they looked and saw what they had in their backyard. When you think about the globalization of just about everything, smoke is kind of a last frontier of regionalism.”
HOW TO CHOOSE A SMOKER
When it comes to what to consider when buying a smoker, Raichlen says this question poses a bit of a conundrum in Canada. His TV shows include Le Maitre du Grill and La Tag BBQ in Quebec; he is well-acquainted with Canadian barbecue culture.
“Canadians are about 90 to 95 per cent gas grillers, and gas grills are not great for smoking,” he says. “But even within that context, there are dishes like the Smoked Planked Camembert and the Smoked Planked Trout where you’re cooking on a wooden board. You’re letting the board edges singe, so you can smoke in a gas grill.”
For those looking for an entry-level smoker, Raichlen recommends a Weber charcoal kettle grill.
“That has the dual advantage of being affordably priced, and being both a grill and a smoker,” he says. “Set up for indirect grilling with fewer briquettes, put wood chips on the coals, and you’ve got a smoker. If you want to cook sausages or steak, rake the coals together and you’ve got a grill.”
If you’re ready to take the plunge and buy a dedicated smoker, Raichlen recommends Weber’s Smokey Mountain Cooker as well as two “terrific” Canadian brands.
“One of them is Napoleon, which is in the kettle grill and upright water smoker space – those R2-D2-looking smokers. And Bradley, which is made in B.C., has a great electric smoker. One cool thing about the Bradley is you can convert it to a cold smoker; I love it for cold-smoking.
“There’s a little bit of snobbery in my field but I love electric smokers for making bacon because you cook bacon at about 165°F (74°C); it’s very hard to maintain that temperature consistently with charcoal but super easy on an electric smoker,” he says.
Recipes excerpted from Project Smoke by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing). Copyright ©2016. Photographs by Matthew Benson. Used with permission of the publisher.
CHERRY-SMOKED STRIP STEAK
Method: Reverse searing (you slow-smoke the steak first to cook it through, then rest it, then finally sizzle it over a hot fire to sear the crust)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Smoking time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Grilling time: 4 to 6 minutes
Fuel: I like cherry for smoking this steak, but any hardwood will do. You’ll need enough hardwood chunks or chips (soaked and drained if using the latter) for 1 hour of smoking
Gear: A remote digital thermometer or instant-read thermometer so you can monitor the internal temperature during smoking and grilling
Shop: Reverse searing works best with really thick steaks: 2- to 3-inch-thick strip steak, porterhouse, rib steak, and sirloin steak
What else: This steak works best on a charcoal-burning grill or smoker, like a kettle grill or offset barrel smoker with a grill grate over the firebox. That enables you to smoke low and slow, then sear over a hot fire. Otherwise, you’ll need to start the steak in a smoker and finish it on a grill
1 thick (2- to 3-inch) boneless strip steak, rib steak, or sirloin (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs or 680 to 800 g)
coarse salt (sea or kosher) and cracked or freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1. If using a charcoal kettle grill, light 10 to 12 pieces of charcoal (preferably natural lump charcoal) in a chimney starter. When ready, place the charcoal in one side basket or on one side of the bottom grate. Adjust the top and bottom vents to heat your grill to 225 to 250°F (107 to 121°C).
2. Meanwhile, very generously season the steak on the top, bottom, and sides with salt and pepper. Insert the thermometer probe through the side of the steak, deep into the centre.
3. Add the wood to the coals. Place the steak on the grate as far away from the fire as possible. Cover the grill and smoke the steak until the internal temperature reaches 110°F (43°C). This will take 45 minutes to 1 hour.
4. Remove the steak from the grill and let rest for 10 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, add 10 to 15 fresh coals to the bed of embers and build a hot fire in your grill, readjusting the vents as needed.
6. Lightly brush or drizzle the steak on both sides with olive oil. Place it on the grate over the fire and direct grill until the top and bottom are sizzling and darkly crusted and the internal temperature on an instant-read thermometer reaches 120 to 125°F (49 to 52°C) for rare to 130 to 135°F (54 to 57°C) for medium-rare (2 to 3 minutes per side, 4 to 6 minutes in all), turning with tongs. If you like, give the steak a quarter turn on each side halfway through searing to lay on a crosshatch of grill marks. For really thick steaks, grill the edges, too.
7. Serve hot off the grill. I like to cut the steak on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices. I wouldn’t say no to an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
makes 1 really thick steak, enough to serve 2 or 3
SMOKED SHRIMP COCKTAIL with Chipotle-Orange Cocktail Sauce
Method: Smoke-roasting or grilling
Prep time: 30 minutes
Smoking time: 30 to 60 minutes in a conventional smoker or 4 to 6 minutes on a grill
Fuel: I like to smoke the shrimp with mesquite, but any hardwood will work. You’ll need enough for 1 hour of smoking.
Gear: Medium-size bamboo skewers (8 to 10 inches)
Shop: Use fresh local shrimp when possible. Size matters less than freshness.
What else: There are two options for smoking: traditional low-and-slow smoking, which gives you great flavour but a slightly rubbery texture, and high-heat smoke-roasting on a grill, which gives you a little more sizzle and crust.
for the Chipotle-Orange Cocktail Sauce:
1 cup (250 ml) ketchup
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated orange zest
1/4 cup (50 ml) fresh orange juice
1 tbsp (15 ml) Worcestershire sauce
1 or 2 canned chipotle chiles, minced, plus 2 tsp (10 ml) adobo sauce
2 tbsp (30 ml) finely diced white onion
2 tbsp (30 ml) finely chopped fresh cilantro, plus 4 sprigs
for the shrimp:
1 1/2 lbs (680 g) jumbo shrimp, peeled with tails intact, and deveined
3 tbsp (45 ml) chopped fresh cilantro
2 scallions, trimmed, white and green parts thinly sliced
1 to 2 tsp (5 to 10 ml) hot red pepper flakes
1 tsp (5 ml) ground cumin
coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly cracked black pepper
4 tbsp (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for oiling the rack
1. Make the cocktail sauce: Place the ketchup, orange zest and juice, Worcestershire sauce, chipotles, adobo sauce, onion and chopped cilantro in a bowl and whisk to mix. Divide the cocktail sauce among four small bowls. Cover and refrigerate until serving. Place a cilantro sprig in the centre of each just before serving.
2. Rinse the shrimp, drain, and blot dry. Place the shrimp, cilantro, scallions, hot red pepper flakes, cumin, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a large bowl and toss to mix. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the oil, cover, and marinate for 15 minutes. Thread the shrimp onto bamboo skewers, 2 to a skewer. Leave 1/4 inch exposed skewer at the point end and the bottom half of the skewer shrimp-free. Place the skewers on a lightly oiled wire rack if smoking.
3. Smoker method: Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225 to 250°F (107 to 121°C). Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer. Place the rack with the shrimp in the smoker and smoke until bronzed with smoke and firm to the touch, 30 to 60 minutes, or as needed. Baste with the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil after 20 minutes. Grill method: Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high (450°F/232°C). Toss the wood chunks or chips on the coals. Direct grill the shrimp, turning them over once, until sizzling and brown on the outside and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Slide a folded strip of aluminum foil under the exposed parts of the skewers to keep them from burning. Baste with the remaining oil after you turn the shrimp.
4. Serve the shrimp on the skewers with the Chipotle-Orange Cocktail Sauce for dipping.
serves 4 as a starter
Prep time: 20 minutes
Smoking time: 12 to 15 minutes
Fuel: Hickory, or hardwood of your choice—enough for 15 minutes of smoking
Gear: Perforated grill skillet, 10-inch cast-iron skillet, or 10-inch metal pie plate
Shop: My personal preference goes to fresh jalapeños, but pickled peppers punch up the flavour with vinegar.
What else: I call for shredded smoked brisket. Alternatively, use jerk chicken, smoked turkey, pulled pork, or smoked tofu for a vegetarian version.
8 cups (2 L) tortilla chips
2 cups (500 ml) shredded smoked brisket or chicken
1 can (15 oz) black beans (preferably organic and low-sodium), drained well in a colander, rinsed, and drained again
12 oz (350 g) finely grated mixed cheeses (like cheddar, smoked cheddar, Jack, and/or pepper Jack; about 3 cups/750 ml)
4 fresh jalapeño peppers, stemmed and thinly sliced crosswise, or 1/3 cup (75 ml) drained pickled jalapeño slices
4 scallions, trimmed, white and green parts thinly sliced crosswise
2 to 4 tbsp (30 to 60 ml) of your favourite hot sauce (I like Cholula) or barbecue sauce
1/4 cup (50 ml) coarsely chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
1. Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 275°F (135°C). Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
2. Loosely arrange one third of the tortilla chips in the grill skillet. Sprinkle one third of the shredded brisket, beans, cheese, jalapeños, and scallions on top. Shake on hot sauce. Add a second layer of these ingredients, followed by a third.
3. Place the skillet with the nachos in your smoker and smoke until the cheese is melted and bubbling, 12 to 15 minutes.
4. Sprinkle the cilantro on top, if using, and dig in. Yes—you eat the nachos right out of the skillet, so be careful not to burn your fingers on the rim.
serves 6 to 8
Smoked Nachos on the Grill: Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium-high (400°F/204°C). Place the nachos pan on the grate away from the heat and toss the wood chips on the coals. Indirect-grill until the cheese is melted and bubbling, 5 minutes.