Smoke & Mirrors

The smoking of meat, originally linked to basest survival, conjures up feelings of hearth and home, or perhaps the image of an experienced pitmaster tending a live fire for hours. Pioneered as a method for meat preservation, it had the added benefit of imparting tremendous flavor and improved texture. But what was formerly done for longevity is now being utilized in contemporary kitchens to apply innovative flavors and texture to non-meat dishes, ingredients and cuisines one would never expect; even a favorite libation or two!

In beverages, smoky flavors are traditionally limited to Scotches and German Rauchbiers. Scotch gets its signature flavor from drying barley over burning peat, while Germany’s famous smoked beers are created from drying malt over beechwood. Modern beverage programs are exploiting the flavors of smoke in all sorts of cocktails. Some of these innovations are possible because of The Smoking Gun, a portable device that produces low-temperature wood smoke in a directable stream from culinary toolmakers Polyscience.  At Jose Andres’ BarMini in Washington, D.C., a cocktail is started not with ice, but with an upside-down wine decanter filled by a Smoking Gun. Meanwhile, the cocktail is shaken alongside it.  To finish the beverage, the prepared cocktail is poured into the smoky decanter and swirled around to pick up the flavors.  Not only is this a spectacular bit of theater for the patrons to watch (and smell!), but the finished drink benefits from smoky nuances left behind by the charred aromas trapped in the decanter.

Another fantastic approach to applying smoke is taking place at The Granary in San Antonio, Texas.  Chef Tim Rattray uses the techniques championed by traditional BBQ pitmasters, but applies those skills through a fine-dining lens. In one dish, Prince Edward Island mussels are garnished by ripe tomatoes that have taken a quick turn through the smoker to impart a delicate flavor that is both sweet and smoky, perfectly complementing the mussels. Another dish utilizes smoked granola to garnish a root vegetable curry. Without meat present, diners wouldn’t normally expect smoke, so an infused grain takes diners by surprise. Rattray even utilizes the smoker for desserts by smoking bananas to serve with a French toast dish.

Smoke in the pastry kitchen is a great way to build excitement and wow your guests. Putting a pan of heavy cream in an ice bath lets you place it into a smoker to steep prior to making ice cream. The result is a delicious homemade ice cream with a delicate smoky background. Marrying chocolate with chilies that have been smoked and dried is another entry-level technique for incorporating smoky flavors, highlighting the two ingredients while creating a bold new combination that can be used in any number of dishes.

This renaissance of smoked flavors is a great way to layer flavor into food and beverages while also adding elements of smell, sight, memory and surprise to your dishes. Smoke speaks to our most-primal instinct of survival while keeping our dining experience fresh. We’ve come a long way from smoking for survival, but the attraction is just as strong, and the potential for culinary creativity is even greater.

Light the creative fire with these smoky ideas:

  • Smoke bonds well with fat, so try smoking a compound butter for topping a steak.

  • Impromptu smokers can be assembled to experiment with small batches of new flavors: Try putting damp tea leaves in a half hotel pan with a perforated pan holding a duck breast above. Cover with foil and place over a low burner for a new take on traditional Chinese tea-smoked duck.

  • Use a Smoking Gun for cold or raw preparations: Piping the smoke into a running blender with a cold soup will incorporate complex elements into a familiar dish.

  • Smoked seasonings add a pop of flavor to plating dishes. Look for smoked Maldon sea salt, or try smoking your own, such as nutty, aromatic smoked za’atar.

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