Getting that Deep South BBQ flavour on your modest city stovetop needn’t cost the earth. We asked some of the UK’s leading industry experts and smoke aficionados how and why to DIY.
Nicola Lando, Founder of specialist e-tailer Sous Chef
“Interest in Scandinavian cuisine has been growing for some time, and cold smoke fits very well with the Nordic flavour profile – light, fresh, pickled – then with a hint of smoke to add depth and complexity. Restaurants like North Road, and later Dabbous, did fabulous things with smoke. Dabbous’ dish ‘coddled hens egg with woodland smoked butter’ was the talk of the London restaurant scene. People try it in restaurants, and then they want to eat it at home – we put up a recipe for a ‘smoked coddled egg’ on the Sous Chef site, and it’s the one that gets the most search traffic.
“Slow hot smoking – or American BBQ – is still big. I think that one driver behind the US trend is blogging. There are so many great food blogs in the US, which showcase everything from hot and cold smoking, to delicious Deep South cuisine.
“Access to the equipment and ingredients is also important. These days, a simple small metal coil that you fill with chips (ProQ Cold Smoke Generator) can generate cold smoke at a consistent rate for just £35. Now anyone can smoke a salmon in their garden, or bring a little special something to cheese for a dinner party cheeseboard. Our bestselling Cameron smoker was incredibly popular during January, when people were dieting and detoxing, and looking for low-fat ways to make fish and chicken a bit tastier.
“I think smoke adds an extra level of depth and complexity to a dish. Clearly it’s not umami, but it’s something similar – might we have a sixth taste for smoke?”
Neil Rankin, Head Chef at acclaimed gastropub John Salt
“For a chef, cooking with a medium that’s inconsistent and uncontrollable is exciting. Sticking food in a hi-tech oven or bath might achieve great consistency but it’s really, really boring. I’m more creative if I’m enjoying myself. To achieve great flavour takes time on coal or in smoke – it’s not something that people can just do as a finishing tool, it has to be the whole deal.
“It’s interesting to see what guys like Simon Rogan and James Petrie at The Fat Duck are doing with Big Green Eggs [the increasingly popular kamado-style ceramic charcoal cooker]. I also love what the Japanese and Koreans do with basic grilled foods. I don’t pretend to be an expert in their cooking style in any way, but it’s where most of my influence is coming from right now. I still love the American BBQ thing but I don’t think it’s right for my food. When I have such good produce I don’t want to cover the flavour up with smoke, I want to give it a delicate seasoning.
“Smoke brings back memories of bonfires and family BBQs; we’re drawn to it from a young age and have been since we rubbed two sticks together. Trees are everywhere, so I guess in the natural way of things smoke should work with just about anything on this earth.”
Tim Hayward, FT Food Columnist, Editor and broadcaster, restaurateur
“I think the recent upsurge in smoking food is a confluence of two basic facts: a) we have a great national history of smoking food and b) the period when we weren’t terribly interested in our food or in getting ‘real’ with it has come to an end.
“Smoking is a sort of natural corollary of that. We look at other countries and think, ‘those guys smoke in their back garden sheds… why can’t we? When that discovery can be overlaid on something from our own food history, then everybody gets excited.
“Smoke adds a layer to existing flavours, bringing them out, rounding them and – this bit is hugely subjective – adding a kind of bassy weight. And because so few of us encounter live wood fire, wood smoke is a powerful semiotic cue for ‘natural’, ‘warmth’, and ‘hearth’.
“Anyone who can start a fire and manage to erect an enclosure can smoke. It’s almost impossible to get wrong. Recently, we’ve also seen more subtle tools, like the Pro-Q, which lets you smoke in a cardboard box for a few quid, or the Smoking Gun, which is used to pipe doses of flavoured smoke over individual pieces of food in the kitchen.
“Favourite smoked food? I use a Smoking Gun to smoke butter. A dot of that in scrambled eggs is close to sublime.”
Tim’s first book, Food DIY, is a handbook of smoking, curing, preserving and baking and was published by Fig Tree in July 2013. Image credit: John Salt.