When chef Victor Albisu was invited to cook at the esteemed James Beard House in New York City, his menu spotlighted a contemporary American obsession.
The tuna ceviche came with smoked foie gras. The angel hair pasta featured smoked crab and smoked uni butter. The chorizo and cheese polenta arrived with a hearty dose of smoked Hollandaise.
For Albisu, the smoky accents are due in no small part to his Latin American heritage. “It’s what we do,” says the chef-owner of the popular Washington, D.C., restaurant Del Campo.
But those flavors have found a very receptive audience in the present-day United States, where the “smoked” descriptor has never sounded more appetizing.
Consider the enduring barbecue boom, which has seen the usually rural Southern traditions of slow-and-low smoked meats spread to urban centers all across the country, or the Phoenix-like rise of mezcal, the smoky Mexican spirit, from near-total obscurity in this country. Or just take a look at the shelves at your local supermarket, stocked with smoked salt, smoked honey, smoked everything. From the smoked corn of a chilled summer soup at Brooklyn’s Sauvage to the raw-smoked oysters at Delaware’s Chesapeake & Maine, America is basking in the flavorful fumes.
How did we get swept away in this vaporous love affair?
Earlier this summer, Food Republic caught up with renowned writer Steven Raichlen, author of the popular Barbecue Bible, whose latest book, Project Smoke, takes the deepest breath yet of this ever-expanding culinary plume, offering expert guidance on equipment and technique as well as 100 recipes for everything from smoked vegetable cassoulet to smoked ice cream.
Accompanied by a trio of fuming smokers in the backyard of his stepson Jake Stein’s Brooklyn restaurant, Jake’s Handcrafted — and fueled by an incredible array of the house’s smoked sausages — Raichlen touched on the cultural, historical and technical aspects of this ancient cooking method and current fascination.
Our discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.
As a form of cooking, smoking has a long history.
Ancient. I would venture to say it’s the second-oldest method of cooking. The first cooking method was grilling — live-fire, throwing meat on a fire, roasting it by the fire. That discovery of fire, 1.8 million years ago, it was the evolutionary bootstrap. It gave us big brains, small heads, round mouths, gifts of speech, our communal nature, the sharing of food.
Everything that makes us human. Smoking had to happen shortly thereafter. The way I imagine it, somebody is sitting downwind of the fire and the smoke and notices there are fewer flies and mosquitoes. So he starts hanging food on a stick downwind of the smoke, smoking it. That food has less bacterial contamination, less insects, and you know what? It tastes damn good, too. It’s mind-boggling to think about for us, but we are living in the only 100 years of human history with refrigeration. So smoking was absolutely essential in keeping food safe. Ancient Greeks, ancient Romans did it. The Middle Ages had a big tradition of smoking. [In] colonial times here [in America] George Washington had a smokehouse. Thomas Jefferson sent smoked hams to Paris when he was the economic attaché.
A long history, and yet here we are today, and smoking hasn’t been this popular in decades.
I like to say smoking is the new grilling. It’s enjoying a huge renaissance. And I think there are three reasons. Number one: the proliferation of easy-to-use home smokers like the Big Green Egg, the Weber Smoky Mountain Bullet, the whole family of electric smokers — that’s made it easy to do. The second thing that happened is the whole popularity of barbecue shows like BBQ Pitmasters, that sort of brought this niche world….
Very regional. And very niche. And it’s kind of brought it into the mainstream. I also like to think, in my small way, shows like Project Smoke and the book have played a role, too. Barbecue Bible came out in 1998, and we’ve really gotten good at grilling and very sophisticated. So smoking was the next frontier. If you want to play with raw fire, it’s the next thing to do.
You said smoking is the new grilling. And I would venture to say smoke is the new salt. By that I mean it enhances the flavor of everything it touches. It’s such an interesting element — it’s a technique, it’s a flavor, it’s an ingredient. How would you define smoke?
That is a really interesting question, and believe it or not, six weeks on tour, I’ve never been asked that question. I call it the umami of barbecue. What I mean by that is, it sort of makes everything it touches taste like itself, only better, a little different. It gives you a slightly different perspective. I would say obviously it’s an ingredient, a flavoring that goes on the surface of the food. It’s also a technique, and that technique is incredibly varied, right? Because you can go from cold smoking, like you would use to make Nova Scotia salmon, to warm smoking, which is what you use to make bacon, 165 [degrees Fahrenheit] — to that classic barbecue zone, 225 to 275, for pork shoulders, ribs, briskets. And then I would add a few more that aren’t part of the classical canon. I do something called smoke-roasting, about 350 to 400, when I cook a chicken or turkey, so you get a crisp skin and the smoke flavor. There’s rotisserie smoking, which is great for poultry and prime rib. There’s tea-smoking in China, hay smoking like they do in Italy to make smoked mozzarella. In France, they’ll cook mussels over dried pine-needle smoke, a dish called éclade.
How did you get turned on to smoking?
I had touched on smoking in the context of barbecue in many of my barbecue books, but I never focused on smoking itself. I think the lightbulb moment came with the realization that all barbecue is smoked, but not all smoked foods are barbecue. Like, everything from bacon to smoked cheese to Scotch whiskey to mezcal to smoked salmon. And once I thought about that, I thought, ‘Well, it’s related to what I do, because it involves fire and wood, but it’s not congruent to what I do.’ So it was a new territory for me.
How long did you spend on the book?
Two years writing it. The first thing I do when I start a new book is I pack a suitcase. For this one, I obviously crisscrossed the U.S. and Canada. I went to Mexico to learn how to make mezcal. Smoked tequila, you know? That’s what it is. So then I went to Scotland to learn how Scotch whisky is made, crisscrossed Scandinavia, went to Northern Italian for speck, Southern Italy for smoked mozzarella…. People smoke all over the world.
We live in a world that is so accelerated, with our smartphones, instant messaging, emails, texting and everything. To do a process that takes 10 hours from start to finish, it really forces you to slow down.
What are the biggest pitfalls with regard to smoking? What are people doing wrong?
Well, one thing is what I call the Guy Syndrome. That is, a guy thinks in his reptilian brain that some is good, more is better. You’ve got a whole bucket of wood chunks over there and the average guy will say, ‘Well, the instructions say put one chunk in every hour, let’s just dump all 12 in right now and be done with it.’ And that of course gives you a very bitter flavor. Slow and steady — that’s one important thing. The whole temperature thing is really important. Fire control. Smoking is not grilling. You’ve got to really understand the indirect thing and the patience thing. But it’s great, actually, because we live in a world that is so accelerated, with our smartphones, instant messaging, emails, texting and everything. To do a process that takes 10 hours from start to finish, it really forces you to slow down. It’s nice. I think that’s another reason that smoking is catching on. It allows you to slow down.
You dispense a ton of knowledge in this book. Was that your purpose, to help people navigate this brave new world of home smoking?
I like to say that smoking is easy, but it’s not simple. If you think about a grill, a grill is pretty much a grill. If it works on gas, if it works on charcoal, if it works on wood, the principle of how to use it is pretty much the same. You put the food on the fire, you cook it on both sides, you take it off. Whereas with smokers, there are probably a dozen different types of smoker families, there are the ceramic cookers, there are offset smokers, the water smokers, the electric smokers, the pellet smokers.
So much gear, man!
And in each of those categories, each one works differently.
A while back, I interviewed Mike Mills, the famous Illinois pitmaster. He made an interesting comparison, saying, “If you know anything about raising colonies of bees, when you want to steal the honey, you smoke ’em. They become docile.” Humans are the same way, he said. [Watch the video here.] What do you make of that? How do you think smoking and smoked food affects people?
It affects you on a societal level and on a personal level. On a personal level, when you eat smoked food, you flash back to that time when you were a kid and you sat around your first campfire, toasting marshmallows over the fire and making s’mores. That smell, the smoke in your clothes, that is such a happy memory for many of us. From a societal point of view, we have this ancestral memory of going from ape-like beasts to modern humans sitting around the campfire, cooking around the campfire, the invention of fire, the single most important discovery in human history. When we eat smoked foods, it triggers this ancestral memory that we have of that leap from ape to man.
How does it make you feel?
I love playing with fire. I always have, as a kid and now I’ve sublimated it into a socially accepted activity. When I eat smoked foods, it transports me around planet barbecue, which has been my beat for 20 years, traveling around the world, documenting how people grill and smoke in different cultures. So anytime I smell smoke and I make smoke, I feel like I’m one with the world.