This year, one of the hottest summer restaurant trends is adding the flavor of smoke to your menu. Whether you blame it on the explosion of bacon popularity or something else altogether, restaurant-goers are seeking four-alarm sizzle with a smoky taste. Here are some tips on how to fire up your guests’ taste buds with culinary creativity this season.
Smoked meats. Let’s start in the obvious place. If you’re a barbecue or burger joint, you’ve always needed to bring the flavor with tried-and-true smoking techniques. Sure, hickory wood is probably the most popular choice for commercial smokers, but have you thought about experimenting with the different flavor profile other varieties of wood chips can add to your grill? Apple wood, mesquite, alder, maple, or oak will each bring a unique taste. The right commercial kitchen equipment will aid your efforts; achieving a smoky flavor can happen gradually over time, or you can speed things up in your restaurant for easier food management. Whether it’s fire-grilled, flame-broiled, or pan-seared, there are many ways you can cook the meat (both indoors and out) as long as you smoke in some flavor, too. The trick is knowing when your smoke is adding essence and when it’s only replacing the flavorful juices in the meats…which is, of course, not quite the pyrotechnics you’re trying to create.
Fruits and veggies. Who says carnivores should enjoy all of the flavor? From grilled peaches to smoked potatoes, chefs are setting blaze to a wide variety of garden-fresh ingredients. You can use the same smoking techniques you do on meats, or perhaps try something a little more adventurous, such as poaching your vegetables in tea or pairing fruit with jasmine rice. Bringing the heat to your fruits and vegetables can actually emphasize their natural sweet taste while adding a subtle blackened flavor that your restaurant guests will love this summer.
Spice rack and beyond. If you’re concerned your kitchen team cannot consistently reproduce the smoked recipes you develop, maybe you need to turn to your spice rack for help. You can smoke your seasonings, and then add the smoked spice rubs to your entrees. Smoked sea salt, paprika, oregano, onion powder, and chili powder are common to use, but some chefs are even using ingredients like coffee, brown sugar, and cinnamon in their spice palette. You may also want to dry a variety of types of peppers, other locally-grown vegetables, or even fruits to use when creating smoky new flavors. (By drying and storing them, you'll even be able to incorporate some local ingredients during the winter months!) Consider adding some zest to your sauces and glazes, too, or make use of some new smoke-in-a-bottle options to help capitalize on the robust spicy flavor you’re making. Combining inherently “smoky” ingredients, such as America’s favorite food right now, bacon, to your meals can also help you bring that taste to otherwise less-than-flaming foods. Cooking with apple cider or dark beers can also help achieve a similar flavor, so experiment with your recipes until you find what works best in your kitchen.
Cheese, please. Smoked gouda is versatile, and it provides a good smoke-flavored option for vegetarian diners. You can also cold-smoke cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Havarti, and many other hard cheeses. Whether your restaurant staff is ready to learn smoking techniques themselves or whether you opt to source already-smoked ingredients from your vendors, cheese is a simple way to add a smoky taste to almost any dish.
Fire-roasted nuts. Nuts are another easy way to add a dimension of smoky flavor to your meals. Adding some roasted nuts on top of a salad or in a stuffing can provide just the right amount of smolder for some tastes. You don’t have to go over-the-top to win over a new smoke-seeking customer.
Flaming cocktails. Okay, you don’t have to set off alarms, literally, with your insurance company or local fire department, but you can still add some heat to your bar menu. New smoke-flavored cocktails are all the rage these days, whether you actually light anything on fire or not. Scotch whiskey and mezcal both can bring a smoke-like flavor to your mixed drinks. Coat the rims of your glasses with smoked sea salt for the ultimate dramatic effect! A roasted lemon, lime, or orange peel can also do the trick. Try a few concoctions of your own, so when your guests pull up a bar stool, they'll know they’ve arrived at the hottest bar in town.
Grilled desserts. A smoky dessert? Of course! Add a little twist of the unexpected for a unique surprise. A smoked dessert can taste exotic and sinful, which — let’s face it — is the best kind! Because the sugars in sweet ingredients make them burn more quickly, cool your grill a little and lower your flames to create your toasty sweet treat. Turn grilled fruit into a dessert by adding a sugar, chocolate, or cinnamon glaze, or find a way to use your peppery and smoky ingredients in an after-dinner treat (jalapeno ice cream or chocolate-drizzled bacon, anyone?). A big trend in desserts right now is the old-fashioned, nostalgia-filled s’more. In your restaurant, you can combine a gooey, toasty marshmallow with several exciting ingredients for an updated take on the campfire version. Or perhaps you can try new twists on your crème brulée or experiment with your torch skills to caramelize some of your other existing desserts. Just as the flavors of salty and sweet bring out the best in each other, smoky and sweet can add up to a dessert made in heaven!
Whew, feel the inferno! You don’t have to be a smokehouse to bring the delicious flavor of smoke to your menu items. Talking with your chef and food vendors is a great place to start. Don’t hesitate to add some flares and fumes to your restaurant menu this summer. You’re in the business of making your customers happy, after all, and this summer, it seems they want smoke. Go ahead, kick it up a degree or two! (Just make sure you know where the fire extinguisher is at all times!)