Summer’s on its way and that means grilling for many people, so why not try smoking?
Steven Raichlen, who wrote “The Barbecue! Bible,” has followed with “Project Smoke,” also the name of a PBS series he hosts that will launch its second season over Memorial Day weekend.
“By now, in 2016, most people know how to grill, and even if they don’t know how to grill and they have the Y chromosome, they think they know how to do it,” he said in a recent interview. “Smoking is not something that most people grew up doing, so there is a learning curve and there’s an intimidation factor, but once you do it, it can give you tremendous satisfaction.”
The step-by-step book, out this month from Workman Publishing, covers gear, technique, recipes and the science behind the cooking method that Raichlen shows can be used on everything from appetizers to dessert.
“Basically every grill works the same. Charcoal may need a little more care with heat control, and gas you need a little more care in how to boost the flavor, but each smoker operates a little bit differently,” he said. “You can be convenience-oriented or get as nerdy as you want to be.”
A conversation with Steven Raichlen:
Associated Press: What are the biggest misconceptions among home cooks about smoking?
Raichlen: Maybe the first is that you need a heavy-duty smoker to do it. In fact, it’s easy to smoke on a charcoal kettle grill, for example.
I think another misconception is that smoking has to be very time-consuming. While it’s true that to smoke a brisket or a pork shoulder, you are looking at the better part of a day, there are many quick smoking techniques. For example, in Italy they smoke mozzarella using hay. The process maybe takes five minutes.
Another misconception is that all smoked foods are barbecued. That is certainly not the case. All good barbecue is infused with wood smoke. That’s its very nature, but there are a lot of smoked dishes that are not barbecue. Think of smoked salmon, think of smoked cheese. These are very traditional smoked dishes.
AP: What about smoking indoors?
Raichlen: You can smoke indoors. There are a variety of indoor smokers that work on your stovetop. Two that I feature in the book are the Cameron Stovetop Smoker cooker and the Nordic Ware Kettle Smoker.
Another tool that I use a lot in the book is what’s called a hand-held smoking device. Kind of the most famous brand is the Smoking Gun by PolyScience. It’s sort of like a reverse bong that you fill with hardwood sawdust instead of you know what. That’s great for smoking cocktails. You can use it for smoking ice cream.
AP: Can you smoke anything?
Raichlen: That’s really another misconception, that all smoked foods are either meat or fish, but in fact the realm of smoked foods is enormous. It stretches from appetizers to desserts.
AP: You call smoking the new grilling. What evidence do you have to back that up?
Raichlen: Many, many pieces of evidence. One, if you look at grill and smoker sales statistics. Pellet grills and pellet smokers, the sales are going through the roof. That’s probably the fastest growing segment. Big Green Egg, that’s another company that’s enjoyed double-digit growth for the last 10 years.
Things like wood sales are up. Ten years ago, smoking was more a regional phenomenon. It was done a lot in the American South, in Texas, in the Midwest. Now it really is going mainstream.
AP: Do you have a general philosophy about smoke?
Raichlen: I like to think of smoke as the umami of barbecue. What I mean by that is umami flavors from Asia. You find them in seaweed, you find them in Asian fish sauce, soy sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese. These are rich, earthy flavors that are called the Fifth Taste. They sort of make foods taste more intense. They keep a food’s flavor but they make it taste more interesting.
I think smoke very much serves this function. A piece of grilled salmon, delicious. A piece of smoked salmon, delicious, and the salmon has been somehow transformed in an otherworldly way.
AP: Tell us about smoking cocktails and what some of your favorites are.
Raichlen: When you smoke cocktails you are joining two worlds: the cocktail world and the barbecue world. You’re sort of creating barbecue you can drink. I’m not the first guy to come up with this concept. When you think about Scotch whisky, it’s a whisky that’s made with smoked barley, so thousands of years ago people conceived the notion that smoke and booze are a very good combination.
Mezcal is another classic example. I know this summer I’m going to be making a lot of mezcalinis. That’s sort of a cross between a mojito and a margarita. It’s made with muddled mint and cucumber. Mezcal is an agave cactus-based spirit from the Oaxaca region in Mexico. The cactus hearts are smoke-roasted in a pit before distilling so it has a good smoky flavor. I like to beef that flavor up by adding smoke using a smoking gun to fill up the cocktail in the pitcher.
AP: How can home cooks get started on smoking?
Raichlen: There’s one thing I’m going to say that will probably be a little bit unpopular. There’s one way that you really can’t smoke very well and that’s with a gas grill. At the very least they need a charcoal kettle grill. You can smoke anything in a charcoal kettle grill.
Indoors, it’s harder to get a crust, what in barbecue circles would be called the bark that we would look for in a Texas brisket or Memphis-style ribs. You also have to choose somewhat judiciously what you smoke indoors. It’s theoretically possible to smoke a brisket or a rack of ribs on an indoor smoker but you will get far better results if you do it outdoors in a kettle grill, for example. The kettle grill is amazing. You’re looking at $150 for a kettle grill.
Everybody thinks they need to spend thousands of dollars but there are many, many effective smokers that cost less than $300.