Move over beef jerky. Supermarket aisles are filled with smoke, and it’s not all about meat. The fact that stores are banking on such smoked groceries as potato chips, barbecue sauce, salt, nuts, olives, and olive oil validates what restaurant operators already knew: Smoke is a well-founded flavor, as old as fire.

That puts every ingredient in the restaurant kitchen up for grabs when it comes to smoking, and chefs are responding, says Rick Tramonto, executive chef/president of Tramonto Cuisine and culinary director of Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood at the Westin Chicago North Shore. He is also an executive chef and partner with John Folse at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans. Tramonto toyed with smoked marcona almond aioli in September. He smoked the almonds, puréed them, and incorporated them into his aioli served on a venison carpaccio dish.

Apples also have filled Tramonto’s smoker in the past few weeks. He lightly brines them in citrus, salt, and sugar, then smokes them to create a smoked apple purée for a pork dish.

Honey and butter are two of the trendier non-meats up for smoke, and are favorites of smoking guru Ted Reader, a prominent Canadian research and development chef and Toronto-based author of  “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Smoking Foods.” He smokes honeycomb, mixes it with brie or havarti cheese, and stuffs a chicken with it. He smokes butter, allowing it to drip into a container, and then fills a syringe with it to inject baked potatoes.

Going even more basic with smoked butter, Joe Schafer, executive chef at Atlanta’s open-fire eatery King+Duke, smokes organic cream, then cultures it with crème fresh or yogurt and makes a smoked cultured cream, which ends up as smoked butter. He also smokes honey for dessert glazes or to make smoked honey-glazed pork chops.

Cream, butter, and honey each require cold smoking, an expanding proposition as operators experiment with more-delicate ingredients.

Cheese and chocolate are trendy cold-smoking subjects, though cheese can be tricky, says Reader. “You don’t want cheese to sweat. It releases fat, breaks down, and loses texture, especially hard cheeses like Cheddar.” Thus, keeping the temperature around 60° F, and never above 80° F, is important.

Smoking nuances

A basic of smoking success comes from understanding the mechanics of the equipment and how to use it, Reader says. Beyond price, the most important equipment consideration is how hard the operator wants to work. Gas, electric, and charcoal kettle smokers are among the choices, as are vertical box, offset barrel, and water smokers. At one time, Reader says he had more than 100 smokers in his yard.

To smoke fruits and vegetables, Jason Dady, chef/owner of San Antonio’s Jason Dady Restaurant Group with four restaurant concepts, uses a classic Weber kettle grill and simply builds a small or medium-size fire for a fast smoke.

He’s a fan of using local wood for smoking. Though each wood type imparts its own flavor nuance, regionalism seems the natural consideration to him.

“One thing we do a lot is go to a tree and shave off some bark from a live tree. The bark is already dry. Why buy wood chips when you have a tree of bark that’s perfectly good?” he asks.

Reader notes that maple imparts a more subtle flavor, while the flavor of hickory is more pronounced. Useful, flavorful smoke can also be derived from other materials, like pecan shells or cinnamon sticks. To use nut shells (including pistachios and walnuts), smash the shells, soak them in water, place them on the edge of hot coals, and let them smoke, he says.

Produce considerations

Smoking fruits and vegetables as dish ingredients provides an undertone to sauces and vinaigrettes, Dady says. “It’s so simple, yet so astounding. [And it gives] the ability to add so much depth to different dishes.” He smokes eggplant, tomatoes, mango, avocado, and mushrooms, for starters.

The key is to keep the skin on when smoking them, so they hold their shape, he says. One of his dishes is Local Smoked Eggplant Caponata. For another dish, he smokes avocado, slices it thinly and tops it with a salad of combined crabmeat, celery root, shaved fennel, red onion, mint, and blood orange. Smoking avocados turns them dark, so the color no longer pops. Therefore, he recommends serving them covered with other ingredients.

Reader warns that smoke easily overpowers delicate fruit. “There’s a time and a place for smoke,” he says. For example, smoked cherries work as an ingredient in barbecue sauce, and smoked peaches work well in a peach glaze, but not peach jam. “Remember, use smoke to enhance, not to overpower.”  

By Jody Shee

Chef Profiles, Industry News