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.
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.”
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.
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