Smoked food: do it yourself
April 26, 2012 | By:

It's the newest way to cook, and one of the oldest. Smoking food adds wonderful flavour and doing it at home is easier than you might think, says Elaine Lemm

Food smoking_Salted bream-trench-620 Bigstock

Fishy fashion: just popping in for a smoke

If you want to be bang on trend this year, you need to start smoking at home. Not ciggies, of course (you saw that coming?!) but food. Talking to my peers, I gather it is 2012’s must-have for the culinary enthusiast.

But while home smoking may be the next big thing, I hate to remind any neophytes extolling the virtues of this method that, ever since Neanderthal man slapped a mammoth steak on the cave fire, we have been in love with it.

Originally, our smouldering passion was less to do with flavour than preservation. Hanging meat over smoke for long periods extended its shelf life, and taste was very much a secondary concern. That certain aromatic woods imparted delicate flavours to the food was a bonus.

Now, before we go any further, let us understand the distinction between hot and cold smoking. The meat hung over the cave fire or in a home-smoker is cooked by the heat of the fire and flavoured by the smoke. Hot smoking is used for food to be eaten right away.

With cold smoking, the food is in a separate chamber to the heat and comes into contact only with the smoke. This process can take from days to weeks and is more like slow-drying than cooking. Effectively, this is preservation (curing) rather than cooking. The foods need to be brined or salted beforehand, but once fully cured, it will remain good for many months if kept cool.

How to smoke food at home

As for home smoking, it is quite straightforward and requires very little effort and certainly no specialist equipment. I have smoked food using only a deep, cast iron wok – don’t use your best pans – with a mixture of sawdust and aromatic wood chips in the bottom and a cooking rack above it.

I covered two meaty duck breasts with coarse sea salt – which draws moisture from the meat and makes it more receptive to the smoke – then wrapped them tightly in clingfilm for about an hour.

Then I rinsed, dried and placed them on the rack and simply set fire to the sawdust. I covered the pan with a tight-fitting lid, lowered the heat and – hey presto – an hour later they were ready.

You may want to check your smoke alarm with this process (mine was not happy). If yours complains too much, you can take the pan outside and place it on a barbecue; or if you have a primus stove, into the garage.

To buy or not to buy a smoke box

Do take care, though: I recently heard of someone who didn’t keep his eye on his smoker and burned down not only his own garage but his neighbour’s, too.

Once you are hooked on smoking, you may want to invest in a smoke box (unless you have an endless supply of old pans), the cheapest being a stove-top model, just like the pan but purpose built.

On the other hand, an electric smoker is safest and most convenient. These will set you back anything from about £150 to several hundred quid. However, they’re very safe: just plug them in and away you go.

I eventually invested in a Cobb Grill, as it is dual purpose: a cracking smoker that can also be used as a portable barbecue. The only other thing one needs is a supply of non-resinous wood chippings, which are best bought from a specialist supplier to be sure they are the right ones.

Tea is another great ingredient to create a flavoursome smoke: mix loose leaf tea with sugar as a replacement for the sawdust and wood chips.

Experimenting with different flavours and foods is the real fun in home smoking. As long as a food isn’t still flying, flapping or swimming, give it a go. Cheese loves smoke, as do fruit and veg (though some of the juicier ones, such as tomatoes, won’t work).

Given the number of woods, teas and foods that like this method, there are so many variations that you will be able to bore your friends with them for a very long time. That’s if you have any left, once you tell them you have started smoking.