Smoke Infused Flavor

The scent of woodsmoke must be one of the most potent memory triggers known to humankind. One whiff takes me back to long-ago evenings around the fire, waiting for hotdogs and burgers to reach their blackened glory. Camping was an annual vacation for our family, we slept in a family-sized tent in sleeping bags and built campfires from branches and sticks we kids were sent to pick up in the woods. We kept an eye out for special sticks, the ones that would make good tools for roasting marshmallows later.

Smoke marked all the food we ate that week, with a smell and flavor that were only available to us outdoors, over that crackling fire. Even the canned baked beans that mom heated over the fire took on the flavor. Staring at the hypnotic dance of the flames, we talked and told stories long into the night.

Smoke is an elemental tool we can now use to give foods that kiss of the campfire, even at home. You may notice that a touch of smoke makes food taste meaty and particularly flavorful. That's because smoke is working on a chemical level to make your food extra satisfying. The chemicals in smoke are triggers for the sensation of "umami," the Japanese term for a fifth taste beyond hot, sour, salty and sweet. Smoke's umami creates a sensation of meatiness and fullness in foods, even vegetables.

There are several ways to get a smoky flavor. Of course you can smoke foods on the grill, as I will explain later, but you can also use smoked paprika, chipotles, or smoked salts to bring a smoky taste to foods without building a fire. Liquid smoke, available in grocery stores, is a concentrate made by burning wood over water, then boiling down the water. It's very strong. A few drops added to a marinade can make baked chicken taste like it's been over burning wood. Other smoky foods, like smoked cheeses, smoky bacon, smoked meats and fish, and even smoked almonds can add a touch of that satisfying, umami-rich smoke when you can't fire up the grill.

Smoking foods in your kitchen is also an option. Stovetop smoker pans allow you to put soaked wood chips in the bottom of the pan, then put food on a rack and cover it with a tight lid. Similarly, traditional Chinese tea-smoked chicken uses a wok lined with foil to heat tea and sugar to the smoke point underneath a rack, infusing the food with flavor. If you want to smoke foods in the oven, you can purchase foil smoker bags that contain a layer of finely powdered wood covered with perforated foil. Simply place the food on a heat-safe plate in the bag, seal tightly, and bake. The bag fills with smoke as the food is cooked. All of these methods will make your kitchen smell smoky, even if you take the smoking vessel outside to open it when the food is done.

Smoking on the grill is a great option for infusing smoky flavor into foods. You can buy a special smoker that does nothing but smoke foods, of course, but unless you are an enthusiast you may not want to invest in that. With very little effort, home grills, both charcoal and gas, can be used to smoke food.

To create smoke, use either a wood plank or wood chips (use only untreated wood). To “plank” foods, a slab of wood is soaked, the food is placed on top and the plank is positioned over the flames on the grill. With the grill lid closed, the bottom of the wet plank smolders and the flavor comes up through the wood and around the sides, infusing the food. To use wood chips on a charcoal grill, build a fire on one side, creating hot and cool zones on opposite sides of the grate. Once the fire is going, sprinkle soaked wood chips over the hot coals and place food on the cooler side. Keep the lid closed to contain the smoke. For a gas grill, place the soaked chips in a special metal box made just for this purpose, a foil cake pan, or make a foil packet and perforate it so the smoke can escape. Place the box or container on the hot side of the grate.

To really infuse smoky flavor into your food, it's important to have a zone on your grill that can be kept around 225°F, so the food can sit in the smoke while cooking slowly. If you have a small grill this may not be possible, but you can still get a good dose of smoke, the food will just cook more quickly and will be a tad less smoky.

Smoking the food is simple, you just have to keep an eye on your fire and be patient. Have a spray bottle of water handy. After putting wet chips in the grill, close the lid and wait for whiffs of woodsmoke. Let it get going before putting anything on the grate. Once the smoke starts, put the food on and close the lid. If using a gas grill, control the heat under the chips so that they don't flame and burn off too quickly; what you want is a slow smolder. While the food is smoking, open the lid and spritz the wood with water occasionally to dampen it down. Otherwise keep the lid closed so that the smoke surrounds the food.

Once you've ventured into the world of smoking food, you may want to branch out by adding soaked aromatics like herb stems, tea, citrus, bay leaves or cinnamon sticks to your smoke. Different types of wood are available too, and you can pair them with foods. Sweet woods like apple and cherry are good with pork and poultry, while hickory and oak are more assertive and pair with beef, ribs and game. Mesquite is good with most meats and vegetables, and alder and pecan woods are lighter and more delicate, making them a good choice for fish, chicken breasts and pork tenderloin.

Experiment with these methods and enjoy food infused with the savory umami of smoke. It's like being around a campfire in your own backyard.

Try these smoky recipes.