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 Learning to smoke The teacher takes a seat in the classroom and invites instruction on stovetop smoking.
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Learning to smoke

My friend Barbara, a skilled professional chef, is moving out of town, and as people do when packing for a long-distance move, she gave away a lot of junque that she didn't want to have to take along.

Naturally I took a kitchen item off her hands - a sturdy stovetop smoker - and I'm having a blast learning to use it. We'll miss Barb, but every time we enjoy a house-smoked chunk of fresh salmon or some hot smoked pork chops or a plate of Szechwanese tea-smoked duck, we'll have something nice to remember her by.

There's a problem, though. The thing came without instructions, and Barb had only used it once or twice herself, so there's a serious process of learning and experimentation involved. Today, in lieu of the usual recipe, I'm going to take a seat with the rest of the class, tell you a little bit about the device and my early efforts with it, and hope that I can inspire a few of you who've been down this road to help out with tips and advice, on our Food Lovers' Discussion Group or by E-mail.

Let's start with a brief description of this toy, er, useful kitchen appliance. It's a four-part device with a sturdy steel base that resembles a good-size shallow roasting pan. A tight-fitting flat tray drops in, an open wire rack sits on top of that, and a shiny aluminum lid (embossed with the manufacturer's name, "Burton") slides securely on top and locks into place.

You use it by soaking wood chips (Barb threw in a box of mesquite) for a half-hour or so, then placing them, with a little liquid, in the main pan. Assemble the rest, pushing the inner tray down over the wood; place the food-to-be-smoked on the rack, lock down the lid and put it over a stove burner set on high. When you start to smell smoke, turn the heat way down, remove all the smoke detectors in the house, and wait for yummy smoked food to emerge a little later on.

So far, so good, but after cooking a few dinners in it, with results ranging from "pretty good" down to one unfortunate incident that won't be repeated, I see that I've still got a lot to learn. First, it's a hot-smoking process, not cool-smoke (think Ivar's alder-smoked salmon on the Seattle docks, not the subtle smoke of nova lox), and food cooks surprisingly fast in it. You can't easily look in to see how the food is coming, so it's easy to overcook; there's also a risk of saturating your food with too much smoke flavor if you overdo either the amount of wood chips or the smoking time. Also, the process scents your house with aromatic smoke that lingers for hours. I like it, but you might want to know about this before you rush out and buy one.

My first effort was a boneless duck breast (from California's Grimaud Farms by way of Whole Foods). I pan-seared the duck first to give it a little color and render some of the fat, then in a spur-of-the-moment decision, trimmed off the fat, butterflied the lean meat to an even thickness and gave it a quick dose of salt and pepper and Chinese "Five Spice" before moving it to the smoker. I used about 1/2 cup of soaked mesquite chips and smoked it over high heat for about 30 minutes. Results: Not bad. The meat was a little smokier than my wife likes, but I have more tolerance for it and didn't mind. It was way overcooked, though, and probably needed only half the cooking time or less.

Next up was a pair of excellent pork chops from a local small-farm producer, with no hormones and no nasty injected industrial "moist and tender" slime. This time I throttled the chips back to 1/4 cup and held the cooking time to 15 minutes. I thought these were great, although they were pale white - the quick smoking imparts no color, and they'd have been prettier if I browned them in a pan before smoking. They still triggered my bride's hyper-sensitive smoke detector. "Next time, try something other than mesquite," she advised, in a suggestion that bore the weight of an order.

In that direction, as it turned out, disaster lurked. Remembering Ivar's, I headed for my favorite fishmonger and acquired a beautiful fillet of boneless Alaska sockeye salmon. Unfortunately, I also asked his advice about smoking, and was gifted with a little bag of applewood pellets that he buys in 40-pound lots for his commercial smoker. I tried soaking them only to discover that they fall apart when wet, so I put about 1/4 cup into the smoker pan without any liquid. Assembled the pans, fired up the heat, and ... uh oh. An intense, acrid smoke came squirting out around the edges. Before long I was worrying that the neighbors' smoke detectors would start going off.

I had intended to smoke this thin fillet for only 7 minutes, but stopped at five. It was coated with a bright golden liquid that smelled and tasted like varnish, beneath which the fish remained as raw as sushi. I patted off as much of the varnish as I could with paper towels and finished it in the microwave. Results: Nasty. A waste of almost 20 bucks worth of fish. I won't do that again. My fish guy knows his stuff, and he meant well, but it's clear that applewood pellets meant for large commercial smokers aren't intended for small stovetop smokers. Next time I'll use a little hickory, or alder if I can find it, and try 10 to 12 minutes over very low heat.

I'm not giving up. Two decent dishes out of three isn't bad, and I can't resist the challenge of trying until I get one great one. And to its credit, the smoker is very easy to use and has the added benefit of cooking without much supervision, allowing the chef to focus on side dishes and cleanup while the main dish smokes.

Yes, it's possible to improvise a smoker without investing in a special tool. Stack a wok and racks and a tight-fitting lid and you can fashion your own. But then I wouldn't have a kitchen keepsake to remember a friend by.

In pairing smoked fare and wine, I'd consider matching to the base food, considering the smoke aromas as a secondary factor. For what it's worth, I went to fruity, aromatic reds in all three cases: A modest but well-made California Pinot Noir with the duck, the Budini Malbec featured in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor with the pork chops, and a Bourgogne Passetoutgrains (Gamay-Pinot blend) from a good producer in the fat 2003 vintage to help me forget the salmon disaster.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "Learning to smoke,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Agua fresca again (July 14, 2005)

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Thursday, July 21, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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