Smoked Food: Do It Yourself
October 1, 2014 | By:

It's the newest way to cook, and one of the oldest. Home smoking adds wonderful flavor and is easier than you might think

Food smoking_Salted bream-trench-620 Bigstock

Fishy fashion: just popping in for a smoke

If you want to be right on trend this year, you need to start smoking at home. Not cigarettes, of course (you saw that coming?!) but food. Talking to my peers, I gather it is a 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 smoldering passion was less to do with flavor 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 flavors 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’s pretty 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 plastic wrap 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 neighbor’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 $250 to several hundred dollars. 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 flavorsome smoke: mix loose leaf tea with sugar as a replacement for the sawdust and wood chips.

Experimenting with different flavors and foods is the real fun in home smoking. As long as a food isn’t still flying, flapping or swimming, try it out. 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.