What indoor smoking can — and can’t — do for food


Indoor-Smoked Salmon (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
January 24, 2012

Before I started experimenting with indoor smoking, I had a question: Was smoking foods indoors basically the same as smoking it outdoors, except with a ceiling instead of a sky?

By “same,” I didn’t mean the method. Indoor smoking is a miniature version of the real thing — well, sort of. I mean the flavor. Is the taste of oven-smoked meats as robust as those smoked outside? If not, is it close enough to make it worth the bother?

It really isn’t much bother, which is the first thing I discovered. If the weather is nasty or you live in an apartment, various products, and even just repurposed household items, make indoor smoking a breeze.

Smoker bags, for example, cook food in a method resembling en papillote. But rather than being enclosed in parchment, the food is enveloped in a wood-chip-filled foil pouch that is perforated to release smoke. Camerons, a company that specializes in indoor smoking, sells smoker bags in hickory, mesquite and alder wood flavors. Jim Beam sells smoker bags with chips from its oak bourbon barrels.

Grilling papers function in a way similar to smoker bags. The papers are thin lengths of wood that you submerge in water for about 15 minutes, then wrap around your fish or meat. California Citrus Wood Chips, which sells gourmet cooking woods such as lemon, avocado and
orange, also offers a wide variety of grilling papers, including pecan, white oak and maple.

The most common way to smoke indoors is by using a stove-top smoker, which, despite the name, can also be used in the oven. The contraption is basically a baking pan with a rack and a lid. Camerons and Emerilware sell them, but you can make your own version, which is what I did.

I thought about making one from a wok, a method employed by lots of folks online. You line the wok with aluminum foil, put wood chips atop the foil at the bottom of the wok, loosely cover the chips with a small length of foil to serve as a drip pan, place a round rack at the top, put your food on the rack, enclose the whole thing in foil, put the wok on a burner, turn it on and smoke the food until it’s done.

Then I remembered: I don’t have a wok. I think we tossed it during our most recent move as a relic of the 1980s.

I reached for a baking pan. You can use one that doesn’t have a lid; simply fit foil over it. But I wanted something as airtight as possible, so I used a rectangular cake pan with a latch on either end that locks the lid in place.

I decided to make iconic outdoor summer foods: salmon fillet and pork ribs. I started with the salmon because it would take less time than the ribs and seemed less daunting.

I put a layer of maple chips on the bottom of the cake pan, placed a rack above the chips, set a spice-rubbed center-cut fillet of king salmon on the rack and locked the lid in place. I put the homemade smoker on two burners and, just before turning them on, remembered to start my exhaust fan and open a window.

Last year, when I experimented with hay smoking, I forgot those two steps. For three days, our house smelled like a barnyard.

I turned the burners to high. Once smoke appeared, I reduced the heat to low and allowed the salmon to cook for about 15 minutes. When I opened the lid, a beautiful, moist smoke wafted up into the overhead exhaust fan like cartoon ghosts.

The fish lacked the characteristic charcoal taste of grilling, and its smoke flavor was the barbecue equivalent of an air kiss. Yet the smoke was detectable. And the fish was as moist as any I’ve ever made. It practically dripped with juice. At the same time, the moistness did not destroy the structural integrity of the fish: Its flaky layers remained intact.

The next night, I smoked the ribs. I layered the pan bottom with two cups of hickory chips to get a good head of smoke and repeated the stove-top process. This time, the smoke emanating from the pan was much thicker — just what I wanted for ribs.

I slid the smoker pan into the oven and let the ribs slowly smoke at 250 degrees. After an hour and a half, I checked them and they seemed not nearly done enough. So I cooked them for another hour and a half.

When I bit into them, they had an unmistakable smokiness. The downside was that they were overly tender. I prefer ribs with a bit of tug. These didn’t just fall, they all but tumbled off the bone.

The following night, I tried again, this time letting them cook at a low temperature on the stove top for 45 minutes to get a penetrating smoke flavor and speed up the cooking process. This time, at the hour-and-a-half mark, the texture was much more to my liking.

The smoke, heavier than with the salmon, lingered in the house for a couple of hours. Both nights, the pan, covered with scorch marks, was a challenge to clean. I made a mental note to keep the pan for smoking only.

In answer to the question I asked myself before I began experimenting: No, indoor smoking does not impart the same flavor as outdoor barbecue. Anyone who tells you that it does either is lying or doesn’t know barbecue.

What happens, I think, is that indoor smoking creates something of a sauna. The food is almost steamed as much as it is smoked.

The scent of summer, though, if not its full flavor, is imparted, both in the food and, even with an open window and exhaust fan, a little in the house. You might not taste summer entirely, but you can smell it from here.

RECIPES:

Indoor-Smoked Salmon

In-the-House Smoked Ribs

Follow Shahin on Twitter @jimshahin.

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