Where There's Smoke, There's Flavor
Why We Crave It, and How to Do It With Or Without a Grill

By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Smoking isn't even half as bad as it has been made out to be. The 19th-century satirist and Know-Nothing Party activist George D. Prentice put it succulently: "Much smoking kills live men and cures dead swine."

Although smoking cigarettes has nearly become anathema in modern society, smoking foods is more in vogue than ever. Smoke, it seems, is like a fifth flavor (or sixth, if you allow for umami), with the ability to transform, contrast with and accentuate the food that has been exposed to it, whether that is salmon, pork, fruit, chili peppers or tea. In gastronomy, smoke is the door to another room, a lively, hazy space that is at once promising and almost limitless, yet also dark and dangerous.

Today smoking is done mainly for flavor, or rather for the distinctive aroma compounds it imparts. That has not always been the case. Smoking has been a part of our cooking for as long as we know. With an abundance of game and fish at certain times of the year and an acute, often life-threatening scarcity at others, our ancestors used smoke as a way to preserve food. By hanging meat or fish over an open fire, one would speed the drying process and keep flies away. After prolonged smoking, the meat would be not only dry but also coated in tarry substances with the dual ability to kill bacteria and form an impervious layer that sealed out air and hence protected against oxidation.

The flavor was only a pleasant side effect in a world where enjoyment always came second to survival. In my native Norway, where the smoking of foods seems to have been the rule and not the exception, it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries, when British and German "salmon lords" started visiting the country to fish its rich waters, that the ubiquitous smoked salmon was upgraded to delicacy status.

Exactly what makes smoked foods so appetizing to us is still a scientific unknown. Like smoking cigarettes, it just doesn't make sense: Why would we deliberately expose ourselves -- and with such great pleasure -- to the impurities left on our food by fire? Perhaps it is genetically implanted in us from a time when all cooked food was slightly smoked and all uncooked food was unsafe.

Smoked food does allow for more and different flavors. Few savory dishes do not benefit from the addition of a little bacon. But the smoking process itself seems inaccessible and mysterious to many home cooks.

I discovered the joy of smoking (food) by chance about 10 years ago, on a visit to the basement of the apartment block where I was living. There, in searching for the water main, I found a dark room, one of those places that give you the shivers but also a vague, exciting feeling that a treasure might be nearby.

And so it was. After I flicked the light switch, the room remained nearly as dark as before: The walls were completely covered in tar. I had come across the smoking room of a long-abandoned butchery. The smokers there still seemed to work, so I bought some wood shavings, returned and started a fire. On my trial run, I set off the fire alarm at 11 p.m., resulting in a rear court full of sleepy and worried neighbors.

But after I started closing the door more efficiently, I quickly progressed. With professional-grade equipment, smoking was not difficult, and in the following months I exposed everything but my neighbors to my new hobby: curing my own bacon and smoked salmon and also lamb shanks, cheese and even an ice cream base, in a strange and not altogether unsuccessful attempt at smoked vanilla ice cream. (It was just as good when I simply cured the vanilla bean.)

The most surprising result was a green apple that managed to remain as fresh as ever, its characteristic cool, crisp acidity combined with deep, rich smokiness reminiscent of an Islay malt whiskey.

Smoking without special equipment can be more of a challenge. But it is far from impossible. The most important thing is to know your limitations. Broadly speaking, there are two main techniques. One is cold smoking, in which the food is smoked at temperatures under 100 degrees Farenheit (37 Celsius), often at specific, even lower temperatures. That is how most smoked salmon is produced and how the flesh manages to keep that silky, uncooked texture.

According to my experiments and all the experts and books I have consulted, cold smoking is very difficult without the right equipment, such as an abandoned smoking room in the basement. You can build your own smoker from cheap or free parts, such as an old metal pipe and a refrigerator. But it will take hours of construction and calibration for it to work properly and for you to be able to control the temperature.

Hot smoking, on the other hand, can be the simplest thing in the world, a re-creation of any Stone Age meal. An open fire will do. If you have a grill, you can throw a handful of sawdust or wood chips on the burning coals and cover it with a lid to concentrate the smoke. (In a gas grill, you need to place the sawdust on a metal tray directly over the burners.)

A couple of years ago, we were filming a segment on smoking for an episode of my television series "New Scandinavian Cooking." The location was a remote, road-less farm, and there was no room for the smoker in our helicopter; all we had was a camping stove, a pot and some wood shavings. By throwing those shavings into the bottom of the pot and hanging small river trout from the top, we managed to achieve the same perfectly cooked and smoked fish that our smoker would have produced. But I am afraid the pot will never be the same again.

The idea of smoking food indoors is intriguing but impractical; there is almost no way to flavor your food without also seasoning your home. Before you try, you might want to ask yourself how much you really hate being outdoors and whether you would allow a dozen people to smoke a pack of cigarettes in your kitchen if they promised to stand near the kitchen fan or window.

I have tested several indoor contraptions, and even though I quit smoking cigarettes 15 years ago, you would never guess it if you visited me the weeks after these experiments. Enough smoke managed to seep into my kitchen to give it a real pre-smoking-ban-dive-bar character. (For gadget enthusiasts, there is a small, hand-held smoker called the Smoking Gun, available from PolyScience for $80. The amount of smoke is so limited and controlled that it is easy to contain; on the other hand, there is not enough for the food to be properly smoked, just lightly seasoned.)

But you can always cheat. If you do not want to smoke but want more or different flavor from what can be achieved by adding smoked salmon, bacon or smoked salt to a dish, liquid smoke is an alternative. I had always felt that the bottles of often-overpowering condensed smoke were the result of some sinister process, like the manufacture of artificial vanilla (a byproduct of cellulose production). But Kent Kirshenbaum, an associate professor in chemistry at New York University, tells me liquid smoke is completely natural, insofar as putting smoke into a bottle can be natural.

Kirshenbaum says he initially was repulsed by the product. But after researching it for a recent Experimental Cuisine Collective workshop in New York, he found it to be little more than carefully controlled smoking of water (a few brands also add molasses, sugar and vinegar; that is stated on the label). The problem of liquid smoke is mostly one of scale; it is very easy to use too much, rendering food almost inedible.

And whereas all smoke, as we know, contains carcinogens, the controlled smoking plus an ensuing filtering process has removed if not all, then most of these compounds. So, at least from a health perspective, the best approach might be to pretend that you are smoking rather than to actually light up.

Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and co-host of the new public television series "Perfect Day," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or food@washpost.com. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.

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