Want to know all about smoking food, from meat to fish, veggies to dessert? What about the type of wood? And what’s the secret to getting just the right balance of flavour? Hugh Thomas talks to Ben Tish, ex-head chef at London’s Salt Yard, to nab his top tips and tricks.
Maybe it’s down to a few primeval associations, but smoke and fire has a way of appealing to the senses. Just the sight of fire or fumes, and you might imagine a sirloin steak searing over the grill, dripping fat onto the embers.
In a world full of convection ovens, microwaves, induction hobs and pop-up toasters, is it any wonder more of us are looking for smoke and fire to do the job? Especially so when smoky flavours in food often involve a bit of cheating these days. Take supermarket ‘smoked’ bacon, which relies on additives rather than actual smoke.
A DIY guide to smoking food
Smoking food has been happening since forever. As such, it’s already pretty well documented. And, surprise surprise, it’s easier and cheaper than you thought.
- Step one: fit a rack, like the one you use for cooling cakes, into a sealable heat-proof container. A lidded tray would do the trick.
- Step two: put some soaked oak chips into the container and set them to a smoulder.
- Step three: place your meat on the rack and pop on the lid.
- Step four: wait.
See? Easy. But how to get started without cocking up your food? That’s not always so simple. We asked former Salt Yard chef director, Leith’s cookery teacher and smoke charmer, Ben Tish.
Here’s Ben’s guide to get you started.
1) Smoke is secondary
Whether hot smoking (smoking to cook), or cold smoking (just to impart the smokiness to your food), stay on the conservative side. Rather than go even slightly overboard. You don’t want that beautiful salmon you caught off the banks of Loch Lomond to end up tasting like a mouthful of bonfire. ‘You’re looking for a subtle taste,’ says Ben. ‘And in that respect you want to get excellent quality meat, fish, or whatever you’re smoking so that that is the predominant flavour that comes through. Then the smokiness afterwards.’ Look online for a smoking time chart to guide you.
2) Make it stick: brining
If there’s one essential thing when prepping meat before it’s ready to be smoked, that’s brining. Or curing, if you prefer. While the salt in a cure offers another depth of flavour, it also brings out the moisture in the meat, ‘making the smoke better adhere to what you’re smoking,’ says Ben. ‘If it’s a piece of mackerel, for example, just stick some sea salt and a little sugar on it for 20 to 30 minutes before washing it off. Then the smoke will work much better with it.’
3) Invoke the oak
Over the past few years, smoking and live-fire cooking has become more of a thing in restaurants. To a point where wood or charcoal is treated as an ingredient in itself. Which can translate as either an exciting challenge, or a new level of faff: can I smoke pork over cherry? Does chicken work with silver birch? ‘I’d just use oak chips,’ says Ben. ‘There’s a lot of talk over which wood works with what, but oak is easy to get, and a good all-rounder. Then if you wanted to go and experiment with other woods, you can – it’s kind of a next level thing.’
4) Fuel for the fire, not for the miles
Speaking of wood, Ben goes into quite some detail about where to source it in his book Grill Smoke BBQ (and as I do here). But in short, cheap wood and charcoal (generally the kind you pick up from the nearest petrol station) is, well, rubbish. It’s impure and mostly shipped all the way from South America. ‘Buy British if you can,’ says Ben. ‘It ticks so many boxes. British woodland is great. Mark Parr of London Log Company has certainly pioneered it, but there are other people doing it. It’s very popular now.’
5) Oh, give it a rest
Like with cooking meat in general, it should always be allowed to rest off the heat before you tuck in. As tempting as it may be otherwise. This way, it retains those flavourful juices better when you serve it. The only difference with smoking – and this goes for smoking any food, not just meat – is that resting takes a bit longer. ‘If you eat something smoked straight away, it can be quite acrid,’ Ben says. ‘If it was something like mackerel, you’d want it to rest for three to four hours. Ideally overnight, but generally longer if it’s a bigger cut.’
6) It’s not all about the meat
Smoked vegetables can, believe it or not, be just as tantalising as smoked meat or fish. Besides, vegetarians and vegans needn’t be left out of the good stuff. Feel free to try smoking beetroot, celeriac, tomatoes, garlic, or peppers. ‘Squash works really well,’ says Ben. ‘Cut it in half lengthwise, add salt and pepper, then on the grill over indirect heat, barbecue to 180ºC, throw on a handful of oak chips halfway through the cooking time, then just leave till it softens.’
7) Leave room for dessert
You may have heard of smoked ice cream, butter, or chocolate. Constituent ingredients are fairly simple enough (you can cold smoke milk in a heatproof container for 30 minutes, and stick to milk chocolate instead of dark), but the whole pudding? ‘I did a lot of testing on this,’ Ben says of his smoked frangipane tart. ‘And managed to do the whole thing on a barbecue – even blind-baking the pastry – but it was a real pain in the end. So I blind-baked the base in the oven, then made frangipane with cherries and cooked that in the barbecue off the direct heat with silver birch. And it got a really good smokiness to it.’
Cakes also suit well to the smoker, as does some fruit – pineapple, perhaps, foremost. ‘Grill chunks of pineapple over direct heat,’ Ben says. ‘Then move it to the side, put some wood on the barbecue, baste the pineapple with vanilla syrup, then close the lid to get smoke onto it, and repeat the process three or four times to get it really smoky.’