Smoking food is like a magnet. When alder or maple smoke from my backyard wafts over to the neighbours, they come over. "That smell is mouth-watering," they say. Smoke is like umami--it deepens and enhances the flavour of just about any food.
It's a stone-age technique for preserving foods. And it's making a comeback. "People are buying smokers for slow-cooking pork with a hot smoke," said Serena Johnstone, Johnstone’s Barbecues in North Vancouver. "Fishermen like to use electric smokers with low temperatures to cure and flavour rather than cook fish." For a few hundred bucks, I bought a Bradley Smoker (available in most sporting goods stores) that controls heat and amount of smoke.
You can also smoke on the outdoor grill, add plumbing to a steel drum or smoke inside with a wok--windows open. However you smoke, time and patience is required. Think of it as a weekend project.
Brine and Cure
Some recipes call for a brine and/or cure before smoking to season food and help prevent meat and fish from drying out.
Cold and Hot Smoke
There are as many techniques as there are wood flavours. The two categories are cold and hot smoking. Think gravlax or country ham for cold smoke, which is under 29C (84 F). Hot smoking, 52 to 80 °C (126 to 176 °F) cooks. A pork shoulder could be hot-smoked up to 16 hours, while shellfish takes about 20 minutes.
Check frequently. The worst that can happen is over-smoking, resulting in a taste mainly of smoke. Take it easy on the wood--smoking is all about balance.
Chef Quang Dang at West Restaurant smokes octopus in his Bradley. After an hour the tentacles become “bacon of the sea”. He set the smoker at 93°C (200°F) and alder smoke curled up and through the kitchen vent—don't try this in your home.
“I keep the smoker vent almost closed so the smoke is more intense for a short period of time,” Dang said. The octopus is in the smoker for one hour, unlike meat, which will take hours to smoke with the vent open. Dang smokes salmon for 30 minutes at the same temperature. To cold smoke, he fills the pan at the bottom of the smoker with ice.
As for the wood, use alder or maple with seafood and cedar is great with salmon. Try cherry and apple cold smoked with fruit and cheese.
Above all, smoking is an adventure. "Don't be afraid to experiment," declares the Bradley manual. "Smoking is an art, not a science."
Follow the recommended times. I once brined oysters for 12 hours (too long) and they tasted salty. Experiment with wood chips. I use equal parts mesquite and fruity wood. Make extra: Place the oysters in small canning jars (following canning directions) and cover with extra virgin olive oil before sealing.
2 pints fresh shucked oysters
1/2 cup (125 mL) Kosher or any non-iodized salt
1 cup (250 mL) brown sugar
2 pints (4 cups or 1 L) stout or dark ale (Guinness preferable)
2 jalapeno peppers, diced
1 Poblano pepper, diced
Rinse oysters under cold water and place oysters in a strainer. Refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight. In a medium pot, blanch oysters for 2 minutes or until plump and slightly firm. Drain and rinse. Combine salt, sugar and stout in a medium bowl and whisk until dissolved. Add peppers and oysters. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours, making sure oysters are submerged in the brine. Rinse and pat dry. Air-dry for 2 hours.
Heat the smoker to100°C (220°F). Place oysters on racks brushed with olive oil. Smoke for 30-60 minutes, depending upon taste.