Smoke gets in your pies

Pheas­ant breasts and salmon, ice-cream and even wa­ter, a hint of smoke adds taste to so many dishes – whether you are eat­ing out or smok­ing at home


A hint of smoke can add taste to so many dishes, as Hat­tie El­lis ex­plains

There’s a big puff of in­ter­est in smoke at the mo­ment. Orig­i­nally a preser­va­tion tech­nique de­signed to save the sum­mer glut for win­ter scarcity, smok­ing has em­bed­ded cer­tain tastes in the Bri­tish palate, es­pe­cially smoked ba­con, smoked salmon and kip­pers. But why stop with what we know? Nowa­days, restau­rant menus, delis and food pro­duc­ers are broad­en­ing their range to of­fer smoked ice-cream, salt, flour and even wa­ter.

To start, there’s no smoke with­out fire. One way to add smoke to food, out­side the tra­di­tional smoke­house, is through the use of wood-fired ovens or grills. These are grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity, both in restau­rants and in the gar­dens and homes of ad­ven­tur­ous cooks around the coun­try.

spits and saw­dust

David Jones, of Manna From Devon Cook­ing School, is at the fore­front of the wood-fired oven ap­proach to smok­ing and cook­ing. The ovens al­low you to har­ness smoke in var­i­ous ways, he says. It can be part of the aroma of roast­ing a chicken, for ex­am­ple, or you can in­ten­sify the smoke by us­ing saw­dust.

On his cook­ing cour­ses, Jones wraps scal­lops in pancetta and puts them in an old roast­ing tin with slightly damp oak shav­ings splashed with wa­ter. He cov­ers this with another roast­ing tin and puts it close to the fire. Once the smoke has built up, he takes the top off for a fi­nal roast­ing and gets a spe­cial dish in just six to eight min­utes.

In terms of game, Jones might roast pheas­ant breast in his oven, let­ting the smoke drift over the dish, or grill veni­son loin on a high heat, then freeze and slice for a smoke-spiced carpac­cio. These dishes and this way of cook­ing mark a step up from the or­di­nary gar­den bar­be­cue, says Jones, and makes en­ter­tain­ing more fun by draw­ing peo­ple around a fire, bring­ing warmth and light into a gath­er­ing.

Some cut­ting-edge restau­rants are based ex­plic­itly on smoke. At the ac­claimed Rök smoke­house in Shored­itch, din­ers feast on dishes such as Birch Syrup Choco­late Pud­ding with Smoked Beet­root Ice-cream. A

dra­matic tarry black stripe runs up the wall by its oak-fired grill, a vis­ual coun­ter­point to the strong yet sub­tle and com­plex smoked and charred flavours on the plate.

In Bris­tol, chef Freddy Bird has long favoured wood and smoke over gas and elec­tric­ity af­ter he came to feel, from a Miche­lin-starred train­ing, that mod­ern cook­ing messed around too much with the true taste and in­tegrity of the raw ma­te­ri­als. There’s a back-to-the-el­e­ments ap­proach at Bird’s un­usual venue, Lido, an open-air Vic­to­rian swim­ming pool with a restau­rant where the cook­ing is done with fire and smoke. His new restau­rant, Thames Lido, open­ing later this year in Read­ing, re­peats the for­mula of fire and wa­ter be­side a re­stored Ed­war­dian pool.

thicker crusts

Bird favours beech as his main fuel for its con­sis­tency and light­ness. “I want the food to be kissed with smoke not drenched in it so you lose the flavour of the in­gre­di­ent,” he says. Bird also har­nesses smoke in his bak­ing. “You can’t match the flavour you get with wood-baked bread,” he says. “You get a thicker crust from the in­tense heat and the first half cen­time­tre is pure smoke and wood flavour.”

At home, the tra­di­tional lid­ded bar­be­cue is a piece of kit for the home smoker to ex­plore. Mar­cus Baw­don, ed­i­tor of the on­line UK BBQ Mag, thinks we’re ready to ex­pand our ways of cook­ing, be it out­side on a bar­be­cue or in­side on a wood-burn­ing stove. He wants us to go way be­yond burnt bangers to make cherry-smoked duck, hotsmoked trout and scal­lops cooked di­rectly on a burn­ing sil­ver-birch log.

Baw­don’s ap­proach has been to learn how to con­trol fire and smoke to get sub­tler ef­fects. “It’s easy to over-smoke food and it’s not very good,” he says. “The best smoke is a trickle. If you’ve got bil­lows of smoke there are lots of tars in it and the fuel isn’t right. Good, sea­soned wood burns with a light­blue, gen­tle smoke. If you have too much then it loses the sweet­ness.”

Fire­side cook­ing and smok­ing sound ex­cit­ing but are they just a bone’s throw

away from our cave­man ori­gins – “man” be­ing the salient word? But Jones says the male-fe­male ra­tio on the cour­ses he runs with his wife, Holly, which cater for about 500 peo­ple a year, is half and half and the tone of their books and web­site is ap­proach­able. Baw­don uses Youtube video tu­to­ri­als to demon­strate easy ways to use fire and smoke and says that once you grasp the ba­sics of fire, the rest is sim­ple and adapt­able to how you want to cook.

Fur­ther help can be found in food writer Char­lotte Pike’s new book, Smoked: a begin­ner’s guide to hot- and cold-smoked fish,

meat, cheese and veg­eta­bles (re­viewed in the June is­sue). This is full of straight­for­ward ways to bring smoke into the home kitchen. “This sub­ject can seem quite ma­cho, with big hunks of meat and not very re­lat­able to ev­ery­day cook­ing,” says Pike. “You can smoke in a do­mes­tic kitchen with­out mas­sive DIY projects tak­ing over your gar­den. It’s a good process to add to your reper­toire and opens out so many flavours and pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

First of all, Pike ad­vises try­ing hot-smok­ing, the sim­plest form for the home cook. A stove-top smoker can be im­pro­vised from a wok or a sim­ple, cus­tom-made one costs about £50. Pike rec­om­mends the Camerons Stove­top hot-smoker. This type of smoker

‘You can smoke in your kitchen with­out mas­sive DIY projects tak­ing over the gar­den’

isn’t es­pe­cially large but will fit a side of had­dock, a jointed pheas­ant or a fil­let of veni­son.

Hot-smoked foods are ready to eat straight away, with fil­lets of fish and prawns cooked in un­der 20 min­utes. These are good to eat as they are or form the ba­sis of other dishes. “I re­ally like the com­bi­na­tion of sweet and salty in­gre­di­ents, such as sal­ads with smoked meat and fruit,” says Pike. Dishes in the book in­clude smoked duck breast with or­anges and wa­ter­cress, and smoked mer­guez salad with honey-roasted al­mond and or­anges. “What sur­prised me about smoked food is that I’m gen­er­ally a fan of fresh, light flavours but smoked in­gre­di­ents work re­ally well in that con­text,” says Pike. “You can smoke things as much or as lit­tle as you like and they work in lighter recipes.”

gen­tle smok­ing

Cold-smok­ing is a more com­plex pro­ce­dure. You need to mon­i­tor the smoke flow and tem­per­a­ture over a longer pe­riod of time, en­sur­ing it goes no higher than 29°C (85°F). Home-made smoked ba­con might need two days of gen­tle cold-smok­ing, for ex­am­ple.

Pike ex­plains how the food needs to be brined or salted first to draw out the mois­ture and cre­ate a slightly sticky layer that the smoke can at­tach to. If the food is al­ready pro­cessed – cheese or sausages, for ex­am­ple – then you don’t need to do this; just make sure that your in­gre­di­ent is dry.

Brin­ing or salt­ing draws out the liq­uid so the smoke goes in and dries out the in­gre­di­ent fur­ther, act­ing as a nat­u­ral an­ti­sep­tic just as the salt stops mi­crobes from spoil­ing the food. Even though cold-smok­ing is more com­plex, Pike points out that it re­quires more of your pres­ence than your time and the whole process is fun and deeply sat­is­fy­ing. Cold-smoked choco­late, cream, salt and but­ter can all be used as in­gre­di­ents that can sea­son your dish sub­tly. “Bar­be­cued lob­ster with smoked but­ter is pretty spe­cial,” Pike en­thuses.

All the smoke ex­perts are keen on us­ing veg­eta­bles. Pike favours onions, gar­lic, chillis, sweet­corn, mush­rooms and aubergines. Baw­don cooks cour­gettes and pep­pers di­rectly in the em­bers to get a fan­tas­tic char as well as smoke. A whole but­ter­nut squash can be roasted this way and scooped out to get a beau­ti­ful roast-chest­nut flavour.

For those of us who want to en­joy and ex­plore smoke with­out do­ing it our­selves, there are plenty of prod­ucts to buy that have been pre­pared by pro­fes­sion­als. Bachel­dre Water­mill has a spe­cial gra­nary flour that uses oak-smoked grains as part of the mix. Baked into a loaf, this makes a great ac­com­pa­ni­ment to a meal, im­part­ing a spe­cial and sub­tle magic to the other in­gre­di­ents, not least as hot-but­tered toast that car­ries a smoky scent of the flame.

The An­gle­sey-based com­pany Halen Môn sells bot­tles of oak-smoked wa­ter that has been used by both He­ston Blu­men­thal’s Fat Duck restau­rant and in M&S ready meals. The com­pany sug­gests ad­ding it to soups and casseroles or even freez­ing as ice-cubes for cock­tails.

Chris Mills of the Up­ton Smok­ery in Glouces­ter­shire col­lab­o­rates with other

ar­ti­san food pro­duc­ers to make smoked wa­ter for spir­its, smoked sugar for smoked salted caramels and even smoked rape­seed oil. Up­ton’s own ac­claimed prod­ucts in­clude smoked pot­ted shrimps and con­fit duck and goose, as well as the usual fish and meats.

dif­fer­ent styles

Ev­ery smoke­house has a slightly dif­fer­ent style, ex­plains Mills. “It’s re­ally about the smoke, the salt and the main in­gre­di­ent,” he ex­plains. “Each one of those three com­po­nents can over­bear the other. Like all sorts of cook­ing, it’s about find­ing the bal­ance of flavours that peo­ple like.”

The busi­ness re­cently ac­quired a sixme­tre bar­be­cue to cre­ate The Up­ton Smoke­house, ex­tend­ing the mas­tery of smoke to feed din­ers with the likes of Texas pulled pork and smoked beef brisket.

Whether har­nessed by craft smok­eries or done at home, good smok­ing is a long way from ar­ti­fi­cial liq­uid smoke with its chem­i­cal whiff. In­stead, it car­ries the sub­tle per­fume of the fire and all its deep con­no­ta­tions. These as­so­ci­a­tions are at the heart of our at­trac­tion to this flavour and way of cook­ing and preser­va­tion, and why they en­dure and find new forms.

“We’ve been do­ing this for nearly two mil­lion years and us­ing gas and elec­tric­ity for only about 100,” says David Jones. “It trig­gers this Pavlo­vian re­sponse in the deep­est part of our brain, to taste foods that have been kissed with smoke and fire and im­bued with flavours that only coals and wood can give.”

‘It trig­gers a Pavlo­vian re­sponse to taste foods kissed with smoke and fire’

Above left: Bris­tol’s Lido restau­rant favours wood and smoke. Above: a recipe for smoked duck from Char­lotte Pike’s book Smoked

Be­low: smok­ing calçots, a type of onion Be­low right: Char­lotte Pike’s smoked beef Right: Lido chef Freddy Bird smok­ing

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