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Thank you for smokingThank you for smoking

Smoking foods is on trend, with a large percentage of chefs preferring it to grilling.

April 29, 2010

6 Min Read
Thank you for smoking

In spite of its millennia-long history, smoking foods is considered on trend in 2010. Nearly half of chefs in the latest Chef Survey by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) rated smoking a hot menu trend this year, even surpassing grilling the cooking-method darling of recent years.

Cibo Naturals, Kent, WA, introduced smoked-jalapeño spreadable cheese at the 35th Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco in January. Seattle-based Frans Chocolates showcased soft-butter caramels dipped in chocolate and finished with smoked salt. And The Smoked Olive, based in Healdsburg, CA, displayed three varieties of smoked California olive oils.

Other products at the show, coming from around the worldincluding smoked paprika from Spain, mapuche spice (dried and smoked red chiles, toasted coriander seed, and salt) from Chile, smoked mussels and clams from France, smoked oysters from China, and Calvados-spiked smoked duck sausage from Canadarevealed that favorite smoked foods of other countries find receptive taste buds on the American palate.

Naturally smoked pork sausagelike andouille, Polish and jalapeño-Cheddar sausagesis a part of my companys identity. Our smoked-sausage offerings reflect current consumer demands, but they contain heritage seasonings and are smoked slowly over specially sourced hardwoods or hardwood blends in 65-year-old smokers.

Ideal smoking medium

Different woods are selected to impart specific flavors upon foods. Virtually any type of wood can work for smoking, except resinous woods, such as pine and cedar, which give foods a bitter flavor.

While hickory is the best-known wood for smoking, it tends to be a bit too pungent for my taste. Great care must be taken that it is not overused. Most feel it is excellent for ribs and most red meats, but I personally prefer the more-subtle smoke of fruit woods such as apple, cherry or a combination for pork ribs. For red meats, I enjoy using oak for heat and apple for smokeagain, for the more-subtle smoke profile to help prevent over-smoking of the protein.

Hickory smoke can also be used very sparingly for all cuts of poultry; keep in mind, however, that time and temperature will vary depending on the leanness of the cut. Smoke from alder and fruit woods also complements poultryfrom chicken to turkey to game birds.

Alder is preferred for fish, especially salmon and trout. Maple lends a light and sweet taste that best complements poultry and ham. Oak, second only to hickory in popularity, is a good choice for larger protein cuts that require longer smoking times. Excellent for brisket, oak introduces a strong smoke flavor that is usually not overpowering. Pecan lends a somewhat fruity flavor and burns cooler than most other barbecue woods. It is similar to hickory in that is best used on large cuts like brisket and pork roast, but it can also complement chops, fish and poultry.

My personal favorite is mesquite. It can easily overpower, so avoid using mesquite by itself for larger meat cuts that require longer smoking times. I have been quite successful, though, using mesquite wood in tandem with other woods to smoke larger cuts.

Applewood smoke, which gives foods a sweet, fruity taste, is gaining ground as a trendy smoke choice, particularly for poultry, ham and bacon, all inherently mild-flavored meats. Not only does applewood smoke lend flavor that is simultaneously rich and subtle but, from a marketing perspective, apple is a very approachable and recognizable.

Smoking with tea leaves, alone or combined with other aromatics, rice and sugars, produces a mild smoke, and is often used for fish and poultry. Traditional Chinese smoking materials include hickory, camphor and cypress woods; raw rice; peanut shells; black and jasmine tea leaves; brown sugar; and a host of specialty items ranging from pine needles to cassia bark and fruit peels. My standard tea-smoking mixture is based on almost equal parts brown sugar, raw rice and black tea leaves. Some cultures in Southeast Asia also use coconut husks to smoke pork and seafood. The traditional smoking wood for Jamaican jerk is the tree that bears allspice, Pimenta dioica.

Tofu, beer and beyond

Smoked spices, cheeses, produce and chiles, smoked foods, tofu and other vegetarian analogues, sea salts, and even drinks gaining notoriety with U.S. consumers. Peat is used to smoke the barley for some whiskies, as well as beers, such as Rauchbier (German for smoked beer). Tofu can be cold-smoked with any number of subtle woods, such as apple, cherry or a lightly applied level of hickory, or accented with liquid smoke. Mild-flavored cheeses, such as mozzarella, are appearing in the marketplace smoked with subtle, sweet woods such as apple and cherry, and even pecan shells. Bolder cheeses can withstand and benefit from bolder wood smoke. Mesquite is used throughout Mexico to create chipotle chiles (smoked jalapeñosthe resinous smoke from mesquite contributes to the tan-brown coloration of the típico variety), although pecan is also popular in parts of Mexico and in southern New Mexico.

Restaurants will continue to use unique smoked spices, salts, cheeses and other ingredients to build primal flavor without becoming the star of the dish. Smoking allows for great creativity in product and menu development, and has the power to dramatically increase many manufacturers portfolios. Just consider how popular regional American barbecuea category of food that regularly relies on smoking and smoke flavorshas become over the years. What will be the next smoked food to sit alongside this national treasure?

James T. Murray, C.E.C., is corporate chef for Johnsonville Sausage, LLC, Sheboygan Falls, WI, and a member of the Research Chefs Association.

Smoke in a bottle

The production of commercial liquid smoke begins with the proper wood. Mesquite or hickory have both been associated with meat barbecuing for decades, while regional woods such as pecan or apple wood have recently grown in popularity. Liquid smoke is a common ingredient in many commercial barbecue sauces featuring hickory or mesquite flavor enhancements. Because liquid smoke is so concentrated, most recipes only call for a few drops to taste; it is usually added to a meat marinade or sauce, rarely directly on the meat itself. In the case of cows milk cheeses, according to the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison, liquid smoke can be applied during cheesemaking by various methods: to the milk, to the brine and to the surface of finished cheeses, as well as directly to cheese products such as curd and processed spreads.

Certain varieties of liquid smoke may be better suited to specific types of meat, as in the case of apple wood with cured ham or hickory with pulled pork. Pecan liquid smoke often works well with seafood, but may not be strong enough to enhance beef tenderloin. Generally, hardwood varieties lend a sharp, phenolic note to foods; hickory achieves a tangy smoke note; mesquite, a musty, peat smoke note; and apple and cherry woods a sweet smoke note.

Liquid smoke and other smoke flavoring agents can facilitate an economical and consistent method of preparation compared to actual smoking of foods. However, although many of these products have advanced immensely, the subtle characteristics of a live fires smoke are extremely difficult to replicate and produce in a convenient format. The extended cooking time involved in smoking many foods also drastically enhances the texture of the products, which is another benefit of live smoke over liquid.

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