Up in Smoke

Chefs are stoked about this flavor technique

Thousands of years ago, humans warded off starvation by smoking food to preserve it. Survival isn’t so tricky these days, but a craving for sweet, woodsy flavors imparted by exposure to smoke vapor has been burned into our DNA. Now chefs are smoking beyond the usual meats, fish and cheese, summoning flavors from woods, herbs and spices, and infusing them into cocktails, desserts, fruits, vegetables and everything in between. 

Cold Is Cool

Much of the menu at The Old Sage in Seattle gets some sort of smoke treatment. With just a standard cabinet smoker bought at a sporting goods store or a hand-held smoking gun, Chef de Cuisine Emily Young puts hickory into hamachi, mesquite into burgers and sage into chicken. She’s not always fully cooking dishes with smoke but more often combining it with other methods to add flavor without overpowering them.

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“It’s an application we use to make everything a little more tasty and to accentuate certain elements of each dish,” she says. “It’s mostly there to add another dimension.”

The burger ($15), for example, is cold smoked with oak wood by adding ice to the smoker, which imparts flavor without cooking the meat. The foie gras is also cold smoked, but with pink peppercorns before it’s sous vided and turned into a mousse garnished with cocoa nibs and more crushed peppercorns ($15). Even butter with rosemary, cinnamon and honey is smoked before it’s sprinkled on popcorn ($3). 

Smoke a Fatty

Fat is conducive to smoke, making dairy products like butter, cream and fresh cheese a natural vehicle. Chef de Cuisine Chris Emerling of Los Angeles’ The Bel-Air finishes mushroom barley risotto with a swirl of smoked cream and then adds a dollop of salted smoked whipped cream that slowly melts into the steaming grains as it hits the table. 

“It reminds me of something you cook in a cauldron over an open fire,” he says. 

Emerling pours the cream into a hotel pan, wraps it tightly with plastic wrap and inserts a smoke gun fueled with hickory chips into an opening before filling it with smoke and stashing it in the walk-in. As the cream absorbs the vapors, he’ll stir and repeat the process one or twice more, tasting until it starts to take on a slightly brown color.

Sweet on Smoke

Smoke adds a wow factor and value to desserts, chefs say. For special events at Stanford University, smoke is piped into a dish of Australian lamb belly with squash and wild mushrooms, covered and  unveiled at the table for a multi-sensory effect. The lamb is already smoked, but the presentation always succeeds in impressing guests, says Regional Executive Chef Nijo Joseph.

The Better Half in Atlanta goes for the wow factor in desserts. Chef Zachary Meloy recently made  fried ice cream anchored by a smoked milk jam, with equal parts milk and cream, sweetened with salt and vanilla, set with agar, then blended while taking on applewood smoke from a hand-held smoker ($8). 

In small kitchens such as his, a smoke gun is a relatively inexpensive and convenient way to impart smoke flavors without investing in large, pricey equipment. 

Pastry Chef Robert Gonzalez of Bistro du Midi in Boston plays with smoke for a twist on s’mores. His composed plate features chocolate Kahlua custard, marshmallow ice cream and smoked brownies ($12). 

“I wanted to get the whole wood-burning fire flavor you get from toasting a marshmallow over an open fire,” he says.

 Gonzalez sets the sliced brownies in a hotel pan, covers it with plastic and then uses a smoking gun with applewood. “As you bite into it, you start with the chocolate,”  he says. “As you’re eating it, you get that smoky flavor as if it just came out of the fire.” 

Smoke takes particularly well to ice cream. At the Hop Ice Cream Cafe in Asheville, North Carolina, smoked chocolate is a big seller. Owner Greg Garrison says they fill bags of their blended cocoa base with applewood smoke and let it rest for three hours. 

When it’s ready, they empty some into 2.5 gallon ice cream containers for an extra boost. “It’s subtle,” he says. “When your mouth gets back to normal temp, the flavors of the smoke will come in, and it almost feels like you have smoke in your mouth.”

Liquid Smoke

Smoke is often used as a garnish. Young makes a cider-braised apple bread pudding with vanilla chantilly cream and scotch caramel, paired with a 15-year-old bourbon barrel-aged single malt scotch ($18). A small piece of oak is set aflame on the plate and the whole dish—whiskey included—is covered to collect smoke. By the time the dome is lifted at the table, the whipped cream and scotch pick up an oak note.

Benjamin Schiller, beverage director and partner of The Sixth and The Berkshire Room in Chicago, takes a similar approach with his Spaceman Spiff cocktail. He loads a smoke gun with a mixture of cedar, citrus and various dried hookah spices and pumps it into a glass bowl. The drink (mezcal, grilled pineapple, hazelnut syrup and lime juice) is poured into a stemless martini glass set into the mouth of the bowl. 

When drink is lifted from the bowl, the smoke emerges.  “They’ll be drinking and smelling a lot of the same flavors,” Schiller says. 

At Lot 45 in Brooklyn, New York, bartender Rael Petit burns applewood with a blowtorch under a rocks glass, adds dill and lets it sit for 10 minutes. He builds the Rebel Rebel with mezcal, Fernet Menta, Demerara syrup and Moroccan bitters, pours it into the smoke and garnishes  with an orange peel and a dill sprig. “The smoke helps enhance the smokiness of the mezcal and makes the taste of dill more savory,” he says. 

Not Just for Meat Anymore

Smoking fruits and vegetables imparts wood notes and tends to concentrate flavors. Executive Chef Jared Bennett of Metropole in Cincinnati cold smokes trays of red table grapes for his charcuterie board.“The flavor just intensifies,” Bennett says. “Once you bite into the grape, it’s like a smoky explosion in your mouth.”

Cost Goes Up in Smoke

Whether you’re hot smoking with a camp cabinet smoker or cold smoking with a hand-held smoker, after the initial outlay for equipment and fuel, there’s literally no food cost associated with the process. “It might make your cost go up initially,” Young says. “But after you pay that off, it’s an easy and affordable way to add flavor to any dish.”  

Smoked Grapes

Executive Chef Jared Bennett

Metropole, Cincinnati

2 pounds red seedless grapes

Smoker

Wood chips

Rinse grapes. Place grapes on a resting rack set on a sheet tray. Smoke grapes on high smoke/medium heat for up to 2 hours depending on the size.