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Additionally, the sweetness of the wood that’s
used to slowly smoke dishes like barbecued
meats helps to soften the edges. “Apple wood,
cherry wood and pecan add a nice flavor,” says
Vanderstigchel. “Smoke takes items that have
a very neutral flavor and just elevates them. It’s
amazing what people smoke these days.”
When Vanderstigchel’s Wings Across America
cookbook was published in 2003, he had no
recipes for smoked chicken wings, but he has
since developed several and discovered that they
are excellent candidates for a smoke infusion.
“People enjoy [smoked meat] so much because
the flavor is amazing, and it invokes feelings in
people about their past lives or prehistoric times,”
he says with a laugh.
COFFEE, TEA OR … SMOKE?
In fact, the origins of popular smoked items may
not reach back to prehistoric times, but many
did originate as a result of primitive methods
(involving fire, of course) and, occasionally, happy
accidents. The mysteriously smoky Chinese black
tea Lapsang souchong is an example of both.
In the 17th century, a tea producer in the Wuyi
region of the Fujian province tried to quickly dry
his black tea using pine-fueled fire in order to
hide it from invading soldiers. The pine smoke
gave the tea a strong flavor, and the tea was
considered ruined. However, European traders
found it to their liking, and the tea continues to
be produced to this day.
Lapsang souchong is also distinctive for the
kind of smoke that flavors it. “Pine gives you a
really strong campfire flavor,” notes Certified Tea
Master Daniela Cubelic, owner of Silk Road Tea
Store in Victoria, British Columbia. “It’s got that
intense but bright smokiness. It’s not deep and
charred; it’s lighter and brighter and stronger.”
Cubelic’s chef friends have discovered innova-
tive ways to utilize that distinctive aroma and
flavor. One chef infuses balsamic vinegar with
Lapsang souchong leaves for a salad dressing,
while another chef uses the leaves to infuse smo-
kiness into melted butter that can be poured
over everything from vegetables to popcorn.
Palates seeking heartier smoke notes gravitate
toward the darker stuff: coffee. Smoke is a natural
part of the coffee-roasting process, whereby green
coffee beans are subjected to high heat to basically
caramelize them in varying degrees.
“Coffee beans themselves already become
smoke-flavored during the roasting process,”
explains Giorgio Milos, master barista for illy.
“The higher the roasting level, the higher the
smokiness flavor the beans will carry.”
SMOKE THAT SETS THE BAR
A popular spirit associated with assertive smoke
notes is single-malt Scotch, particularly examples
from the Islay region, where peat smoke is used
to kiln-dry the malt. “The characteristics of peat
smoke vary from distillery to distillery— some
want just a faint whiff; others make the smoke
front and center,” explains Georgina Bell, global
ambassador of Mortlach Whisky.
Only a minority of single-malt Scotch has an
aggressive smokiness to it, but it can offer an
evocative experience for those with a taste for that
distinctive briny peat smoke. “The whisky from
Islay is famously known for its enticing peaty/
smoky/maritime flavor, very much mirroring the
rugged Islay Hebridean landscape,” says Bell.
“Lagavulin, for instance, is like a roaring bonfire.
The wood smoke envelops your palate.”
Many mixologists are incorporating certain
single-malt Scotches to add smoke flavors to
cocktails, but in the anything-goes world of
cocktail creation, everything from chipotle chil-
ies to a scorched sprig of fresh rosemary can
lend smokiness. Beyond ingredients themselves,
a handheld smoke gun can be used to give an
intense hit of fresh smoke to a classic drink such
as a Manhattan or a Bloody Mary.
Smoke has also found its way into the ever-expanding craft beer world. The traditional
smoked malt used for brewing is from Bamberg,
Germany, home of the Rauchbier (Rauch is
German for smoke). The malt is made with beech
wood, but specialty malting companies are now
producing barley and wheat malts that are smoked
using cherry wood, apple wood and even oak.
“[Beech wood] is not neutral, but compared to
hickory, cherry or apple, it’s less sweet,” explains
Todd Haug, brewery operations director at
Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing. “The fruit woods
and hickory are favorable to our palates and what
we like to eat.”
Some brewers have been using smoked malts
to replicate what traditional styles of beer must
have tasted like when fire was the easiest way to
kiln-dry malt. While it’s impossible to know how
smoky those ancient brews were, what is certain
is that smoke, whether it’s used experimentally or
traditionally, remains a culinary fascination. p