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

KANSAS CITY – 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.

Almir Da Fonesca
Almir Da Fonseca, chef instructor and culinary arts professor at the Culinary Institute of America

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

Mr. Da Fonseca said 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 said.

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.

Chef Mark Liberman
Mark Liberman, chef and owner of AQ Restaurant and Bar

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 said.

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 said. “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.

Tim Rattray, The Granary @ Pearl Brewery

“Like music, hot smoke gives you mid- to high- notes while cold smoke gives you more underlying bass notes,” he said. “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 said. “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 said he now applies barbecue techniques to some unconventional ingredients, including smoking or barbecuing vegetables, especially by controlling the cold smoking and grill finishing.

Granary pastrami
The brine used for The Granary's pastrami preparation is made in-house over live oak.

There is one exception, though: The Granary’s menu item, ‘You’d Travel Miles for Pastrami.’

“Traditionally, you’d smoke it a few hours, then put it in the steamer, but we put it in the smoker for the whole process,” Mr. Rattray said. “That could be about 12 hours for 12 lbs of raw meat.”

No surprise, the brine used for the pastrami preparation is made in-house over live oak.

“Our pit is unique — it’s all wood, rotisserie-style, and completely wood-fired,” he said.

Choosing the technique to employ depends upon the flavor profile you’re after, Mr. Rattray said.

“For it to be intensely Maillard, 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].”

Smoke flavors chart
The flavors of smoke

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,” said Robert D. Johnson, business development director for Red Arrow USA, a Manitowoc, Wis.-based business unit of the Kerry Group. “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,” Mr. Johnson said.

He added that barbecue is on the upswing, and with the trend comes innovation as manufacturers attempt to add smoky notes to a variety of applications.

Fire-roasted vegetables
Smoke may be applied to fire roasted vegetables.

“Often, when we think of smoke, we think of meat, but it can be applied to a lot of things, like fire roasted vegetables,” Mr. Johnson said. “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,” Mr. Johnson said. “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

Chef Tim Byres returned to his roots with the 2009 opening of Smoke restaurant in Dallas. After working in a variety of fine dining venues over the years, Mr. Byres said his goal was to get back to American cooking.

So, Mr. Byrnes traveled the country to learn, came home and said he started interpreting “regional American through [his] own personal lens.”

Chef Tim Byres' michelada
Chef Tim Byres' michelada, a beer-based cocktail, derives its smoky uniquess from a three-chile puree.

In creating that spirit of sharing and hospitality — to have a good time and to be available to guests, he 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,” he said. “American foods have evolved and moved west and morphed into the next thing.”

Today, Mr. Byres and his partners own and operate four restaurants including a second Smoke in Plano, Texas, Chicken Scratch, and The Theodore. Sharing his now celebrated expertise in cooking with wood and open flames, his cookbook, “Smoke: New Firewood Cooking” received a James Beard Award in 2014.

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, according to a study from the market research firm Datassential MenuTrends.

Mr. Byres pegs “char and smoky” as “kind of abrasive.

“I try to match it with bright flavors, raw herbs, thinly-sliced shallots, pickles and maybe honey, but not to be overly sweet,” he said.

He pointed out that chimichurri is a counterpoint to smoky.

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

Grilled corn
Slow roasting corn-in-the-husk is one of Mr. Byres' favorites.

Vegetables and sides are an intentional focus for Mr. Byres.

“If you only focus on the steak, that’s not sustainable,” he said. “You’ll keel over.”

Slow roasting corn-in-the-husk is one of his favorites. To prepare, he peels down the husk, removes the silk, butters the corn with barbecue spice or honey, then folds the peels back up and ties them at the top.

“Then, we roast it in the fire for a caramel flavor,” he said.

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

“At Smoke in Plano, we have an open fire — a 10-foot hearth counter with four fires to it; we’ll do fish, vegetables, steak — simultaneously,” he said. “We’re kind of famous for our Eisenhower Steak.”

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

Smoking ribs
The Eisenhower Steak at Smoke in Plano is thick cut, highly-seasoned, dropped directly into red hot coals, quickly retrieved and served charred yet pink on the inside.

The husband and wife team, chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton, share a passion for culinary inventiveness and the determination to make the dream of creating their own restaurant come true. That “dream,” the Argentine-inspired Ox, opened in Portland four years ago.

Drawing inspiration from the wood-fired grilling tradition of Argentina, the couple’s passion for creating smoky flavor is evident. At Ox, 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,” Ms. Denton said. “We don’t want to lose the juices from chorizo, morcilla, lamb, pork chops, beef, etc., so we line all these pans with lemon, garlic and herbs. Then, we take a brush and re-brush (the proteins) with these juices that we call ‘black gold.’ It really transforms our steak into our 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.

Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton
Chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton own the Argentine-inspired Ox.

For her part, Ms. Denton is 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,” she said.

For a new twist on the Old Fashioned, instead of muddling slices of orange, she suggested 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,” Ms. Denton said.

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.

Chef Tony Maws
Tony Maws, chef and ownder of Craigie on Main

“We brown up on the grill,” he said. “We think ahead of what we’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.”

Since Mr. Maws views smoke as “seasoning,” he’s more than game to play with it for dessert presentations.

“We just did a dessert with smoked pears — smoked on shelves above the grill — and also made an infusion [with smoked pears] for one of our cocktails,” he said.

To prepare smoked labne, a Middle Eastern-style of yogurt, Mr. Maws said he uses cherry wood chips in a Polyscience Smoking G n — a neat and easy way to create smoky flavor pronto for almost any presentation.