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 Almir Da Fonseca, 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,” he says. “For tougher cuts [of meat], you want to cook low and slow — hickory, apple wood, mesquite — they’re all very popular.”
Mr. Da Fonseca says he aims to teach the balance.
“Not just the balance of seasoning and flavoring the food, but also the balance of application of smoke and heat,” he says.
Mark Liberman has learned a lot about smoke and fire. Currently, the award-winning chef and owner of AQ Restaurant & Bar in San Francisco, is continuing his collaboration with restaurateur Matt Semmelback and about to open Fenix, the group’s Mexican-inspired venue.
A San Francisco native, Mr. Liberman 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,” he says.
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. At The Granary @ The Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, Texas, Tim Rattray celebrates “BBQ and beer” at the venue, as well as the “Unstoppable Power of Smoke — The Techniques Behind the Next Generation of BBQ,” the working title of Mr. Rattray’s presentation for an upcoming Culinary Institute of America program, World of Flavor: On Fire.
Mr. Rattray describes smoke as another layer of flavor like sweet, salty, bitter or sour.
“We don’t want smoke to be the first thing you taste,” he says. “We want smoke to enhance the flavor, but we do want you to taste the protein, the veggie, the whatever, first.”
Overall, Mr. Rattray likes to cold smoke meat first, then finish by grilling over live oak.
“Like music, hot smoke gives you mid- to high- notes while cold smoke gives you more underlying bass notes,” he says. “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 The Granary 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,” according to Mr. Rattray.
For the cold smoking process, Mr. Rattray has a smoker in which wood chips are used to make the heat smolder.
“We try to keep the temperature below 100°F,” he says. “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. Mr. Rattray said he will often juice smoked vegetables for use in a sauce for risotto or in a consommé.
Admitting that traditional barbecue has undergone dramatic change, Mr. Rattray says he now applies barbecue techniques to some unconventional ingredients, including smoking or barbecuing vegetables, especially by controlling the cold smoking and grill finishing.
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