In praise of smoking — your food, that is
Steven Raichlen, the grilling and barbecue author, is looking to introduce audiences to a world beyond brisket and burnt ends. With his new PBS series “Steven
Raichlen’s Project Smoke,” the chef more broadly explores smoking, one of the world’s oldest techniques for preserving foods. The 13-episode series covers a range of hot and cold techniques and includes everything from pastrami to smoke-infused cocktails. Raichlen, 62, is an author of best-selling cookbooks including the “The Barbecue! Bible” series, and draws students from all over the world to classes at his Barbecue University, held at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs. He splits his time between Chappaquiddick Island in Edgartown and Miami.
Q. What do you mean when you say smoking is the new grilling?
A. Over the last 15 years, Americans have become incredibly sophisticated about grilling. It used to be a special occasion thing. Now it’s something we do every night. Americans used to own one grill and it was a pretty crappy gas grill. Multiple grill ownership is up to about 35 percent. More and more of them are smokers. We used to think of smoking as a regional activity. People smoked in the South and in Texas. The fact that Aaron Franklin at Franklin Barbecue in Austin could win a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest is quite extraordinary. That speaks volumes about how really good, really authentic, barbecue has come to play in our consciousness.
Q. Explain the differences between grilling, barbecuing, and smoking.
A. Grilling is a direct high-heat method. You grill small tender pieces of meat like steak or chicken breast. It’s a quick method. Barbecuing and smoking both are done at a much lower temperature for a much longer time. The fire is generally located next to or behind, not directly under, the food. All barbecue is smoked, but not all smoked foods are barbecued.
Q. What are the other ways of using smoke?
A. At first glance people think of smoking as this monolithic technique, but in reality there’s an enormous variety of techniques. They start with cold smoking and hot smoking. Think about something like Scottish smoked salmon or Virginia ham, which are smoked but not cooked. Those are smoked foods of great cultural depth. In the category of hot smoking, you smoke bacon at 165 degrees, which is very different than smoking a brisket or pork shoulder at 225 or 250
degrees. There’s also smoke-braising.
I do that for a recipe where the lamb shanks are cooked in a liquid in the smoker so you get both smoking and braising. On the show, we do traditional Chinese tea smoking where you make a mixture of white rice, black tea, brown sugar, cinnamon, and star anise and you smoke on that mixture. It’s very aromatic and a different flavor from wood smoking.
Q. How do you describe the appeal of smoked foods?
A. First of all, it tastes great. Second, like umami, smoke tastes of itself but it also has a transformative effect on flavors. Look at the difference between a braised or roasted pork shoulder and a smoked pork shoulder. It broadens, enriches, and deepens the flavor of the pork.
Q. Have you found any foods that don’t take smoke very well?
A. I’m sure I’m going to stir some controversy, but I don’t think chocolate smokes very well. If you think about the flavors of chocolate, the earthiness and bitterness, smokiness doesn’t have a lot of room to operate around that arena. In the upcoming “Project Smoke” book, I include a recipe from Alden & Harlow in Cambridge that’s a smoked-chocolate bread pudding. What’s being smoked there is the bread pudding, not the chocolate.
Q. What equipment do you recommend?
A. If you have a charcoal kettle grill, or any charcoal grill, you can smoke very effectively on it. Smoking on a gas grill is more problematic. You can get yourself a pit barrel cooker that’s basically an upright steel drum. You can get an electric smoker for a couple hundred bucks (they may seem a little less satisfying or have a little less machismo or gravitas). But when you prepare something like bacon or pastrami and you want to be at a very low heat for a very long time, electric smokers are really good. On the show we have a couple Kalamazoo wood-burning grills that also smoke. Those are $15,000 grills. I’m not expecting many to go buy them.
“Steven Raichlen’s Project Smoke”
airs Sundays at 2 p.m. on WGBX.