Seeing innovation through the smoke

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August 29, 2016

Smoke flavors are adding nuance to a variety of applications and formulations.

Smoking as a preparation method is hot and on trend. Don’t be surprised to find smoke flavors imparted in such varied items as butter, fruit, yogurt, desserts and beverages as well as such traditional items as meats, marinades and sauces at today’s top tables.

The link among all barbecues worldwide is smoke, according to a chef instructor and culinary arts professor at the Culinary Institute of America, located in St. Helena, Calif.

When you think of barbecue, smoke is really what differentiates it from other types of cooking. For tougher cuts [of meat], you want to cook low and slow — hickory, apple wood, mesquite — they’re all very popular.

Not just the balance of seasoning and flavoring the food, but also the balance of application of smoke and heat.

Currently, an award-winning chef and owner of another restaurant & bar in San Francisco, is continuing his collaboration with another restaurateur and about to open another restaurant, the group’s Mexican-inspired venue.

This San Francisco native, has been garnering positive reviews for his culinary expertise in general, but the lure of smoke and fire has him enthralled. He is drawn to wood-fired cooking precisely because it’s not precise. Wood is a return to cooking and creates a lot of deeper flavors.

Because the fire requires constant watching so it’s not too hot, not too cold, he finds it to be a very enjoyable way of cooking.

Fresh takes on technique

Protein remains the primary center-of-the-plate ingredient that features smoke flavors, but vegetables are increasingly given star treatment as well. World of Flavor: On Fire.

We don’t want smoke to be the first thing you taste. We want smoke to enhance the flavor, but we do want you to taste the protein, the veggie, the whatever, first.

Like music, hot smoke gives you mid- to high- notes while cold smoke gives you more underlying bass notes. If there’s too much bass, you get a muddy, droning sound, but in balance, it gives you a really harmonic, melodious sound. We try to use smoke in balance.

Ninety per cent of the wood used at a San Antonio restaurant is live oak. Not only is it indigenous to the San Antonio area, but it imparts a slightly more subtle smoke, not quite as woody as post oak.

For the cold smoking process, a smoker is used in which wood chips are used to make the heat smolder.

Try to keep the temperature below 100°F. Different smoke aromas are produced at different temperatures.

Lower temperatures allow operators to keep items at the raw state. In this way, vegetables may be smoked but not cooked. Some will often juice smoked vegetables for use in a sauce for risotto or in a consommé.

Admitting that traditional barbecue has undergone dramatic change, some chefs now apply barbecue techniques to some unconventional ingredients, including smoking or barbecuing vegetables, especially by controlling the cold smoking and grill finishing.

Choosing the technique to employ depends upon the flavor profile you’re after.

For it to be intense, you’d want to grill over live fire; for a more subtle [flavor profile], you’d want to hot smoke in a pit like we do. For other applications, we’d cold smoke with grill finishing [to layer the smoke effect].

Achieving scale

For the food and beverage manufacturer who wants to add the flavors of smoke within an industrial setting, numerous application techniques do not require an open pit, burning wood or the associated issues that each may present.

Short of barbecue restaurants, which may have a cinder block pit or commercial smoking apparatus, there are several primary techniques for applying smoke. Smoke may be applied through atomization, showering, by impregnating the flavor through a casing, spray drying or as a topical rub. It depends on the manufacturer and what they are manufacturing.

At its core, the smoke flavors used in most industrial manufacturing are generated by burning sawdust from specific woods that generate a plume of smoke captured in water and condensed.  It’s water soluble. Barbecue is on the upswing, and with the trend comes innovation as manufacturers attempt to add smoky notes to a variety of applications.

Often, when we think of smoke, we think of meat, but it can be applied to a lot of things, like fire roasted vegetables. Have you ever had smoked lettuce? It’s amazing.

Butter and beverages are two other applications where smoke may be added to increase flavor.

Let’s say we are making a compounded butter where one may want to introduce a smoke flavor. The easiest and most reliable way would be to take a spray dry or liquid smoke, liquefy the butter or get it to a point where it is malleable, blend the smoke and then shape the butter to what is appropriate through a molding process.

For beverages, it may be a matter of taking a bit of naturally condensed smoke, applying it to water and freezing it in the form of an ice cube. The ice cube will impart a slight smoke flavor to the beverage. Often, you may not want to have a robust or intense flavor, but something that is in the background. Smoke also has a tendency to mellow certain sharp flavors.

Burnt and charred

And another chef shifted his emphasis to “the firewood thing” and the blending of the flavors of ethnic ingredients.

Here, you can take culinary traditions, for example, plus Texas [recipes] and add smoke.  American foods have evolved and moved west and morphed into the next thing.

In some venues, “smoked” dishes have transformed into “burnt” and “charred.” Use of the terms has grown from 2% of menus a decade ago to 7% today.  Char and smoky is kind of abrasive.

You need to bring some of the garden into the story — all the vegetables, all the sides.

Vegetables and sides are an intentional focus. If you only focus on the steak, that’s not sustainable. You’ll keel over.

Slow roasting corn-in-the-husk is another favorite. To prepare, peel down the husk, remove the silk, butter the corn with barbecue spice or honey, then fold the peels back up and tie them at the top. Then, roast it in the fire for a caramel flavor.

Mr. Byres grills almost exclusively with mesquite if he can and prefers open fire.

Thick cut, highly-seasoned and dropped directly into red hot coals, this steak is soon retrieved — duly charred yet pink on the inside — and sliced to share with horseradish, blue cheese butter, a loaf of sourdough and hearth-roasted potatoes and vegetables.

Drawing inspiration from the wood-fired grilling tradition of Argentina, one couple’s passion for creating smoky flavor is evident. By using an Argentine-style parrilla grill with its “V” channels instead of a flat grill, fat is prevented from dripping between the grill grates then onto the fire where it may create flare-ups but not great flavor.

Here, fat and juices drip down into pans. You don’t want to lose the juices from chorizo, morcilla, lamb, pork chops, beef, etc., so line all these pans with lemon, garlic and herbs. Then, take a brush and re-brush (the proteins) with these juices that we call ‘black gold.’ It really transforms your steak into your signature. We’re wiping our umami on top of all the meats we cook in our kitchen.

The wood-fired trout entrée currently on the menu goes into the grill on top of embers.

Some are enthusiastic about the concept of incorporating smoky flavor into cocktails.

Mesquite smoke, lemon and orange in a pisco sour, for example, introduces a smoky element into an already very cool and refreshing beverage.

For a new twist on the Old Fashioned, instead of muddling slices of orange, try tossing them on a grill then into a glass to muddle with sugar.

“There’s the bright freshness of orange, plus it reminds you of the burnt top of a crème brûlée that has a hint of bitter caramel flavor.

Some chefs cite the positive role that sous vide prep plays in their grilling outcome. Mr. Liberman cooks small briskets sous vide then grills individual portions over mesquite in a hibachi grill. At Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass., chef and owner Tony Maws finds sous vide a time saver.

Think ahead of what you’re trying to accomplish and how much time the item needs on the grill. It could be 40 minutes from raw, but with sous vide we have a more customer-friendly time frame.

How about a dessert with smoked pears — smoked on shelves above the grill — with an infusion [with smoked pears] for one of our cocktails.

Source:, 8-18-2016

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