Smoking is an ancient method of preserving and preparing food. Used in tandem with curing and salting, the antioxidants in wood smoke extend the shelf life of perishable (not to mention valuable) foods — especially meats. The preservative effects of smoke are largely irrelevant to most of us today, but the taste isn’t: smoke imparts a pretty darn good flavor, color and texture during the cooking process we call “barbecue” (unless you’re from California and think grilling is barbecue).
If the pits of Central Texas aren’t in your backyard, you can, of course, make it at home. But there are obstacles — time and infrastructure, mainly. Barbecue takes a long time to make. A piece of meat in excess of 10 pounds can cook at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 to 16 hours. And then there’s the smoker. You can build your own, or there are plenty of options that will fit on a patio — particularly vertical water smokers that don’t take up much more space than a charcoal grill.
But what if space is really tight and all you have is your kitchen? There’s two options: the stovetop smoker and the smoking gun. We met with chef Ash Fulk, Culinary Director of the Hill Country restaurants in New York and Washington, D.C., to figure out how we could smoke better in small spaces.
The Stovetop Smoker
A Mini-Pit in the Kitchen
1. Buy a Stovetop Smoker
The best way to smoke food in a tight space is on the stovetop, and Fulk recommends the very affordable Camerons Original Stovetop Smoker ($48), which appears to also be the only stovetop smoker available commercially. It’s not very large (11 x 15 x 3.5 inches), so you won’t be cooking a whole brisket in here, but if you break down a chicken you could probably pack the whole bird inside. Although it’s not nearly as large or impressive as a pit, you can still cook a piece of meat low and slow and give it an authentic barbecue treatment, complete with the textures, colors and flavors.
2. Procure Wood Chips
Since Texas post oak doesn’t come in chip form, Fulk uses his other favorite wood, alder. If you’re cooking something big that may take a while, soak the chips in water to make them burn longer; if it’s something small or fast-cooking, like fish, it’s not necessary. (You can also always add as you go.) Either way, dump a generous amount of them in the bottom of the pan and start the heat on low over your largest burner. “You are building a little oven on the stovetop”, Fulk says. “And you want a nice low heat.” The Camerons also has a nice long handle so you can take it camping and use it in the fire.
3. Get Cooking
“Once it’s hot and smoking, that’s when you want to slide it open, put in whatever you’re cooking in there and close it back up”, Fulk says. From there you can adjust the heat based on what’s inside. Fish like mackerel or bluefish smoke nicely on a low temperature; for chicken wings you might use medium heat. Since stovetop smoking is likely unfamiliar territory, the best way to check doneness is always by taking the internal temperature of the protein with a thermometer.
The Smoking Gun
Hot Box Your Meat
1. Buy a Smoking Gun
The other option for smoking in the home kitchen is a handheld food smoker, and the one you’ll find in most professional kitchens is PolyScience’s The Smoking Gun ($100). “This is a way to get smoke on something, but this isn’t cooking it”, Fulk says. Instead, you’re adding authentic smoke flavor to something that you’ve already cooked, like a steak, deviled eggs or even caramels; smoking a steak or a piece of fish before cooking works as well. Start by covering whatever receptacle the food is in with plastic wrap. Insert the hose of the gun into the container and seal the plastic wrap around it.
2. Pack and Light the Bowl
The gun looks a bit like a vaporizer, so if you’re familiar with that the next step is like riding a bike. If not, pack the opening on the top of the gun with wood chips or any other combustible you’d like to use (tea, herbs and spices all work). Then light them up and let the smoke fill the container that your food is in. When all of the chips packed in the opening of the gun have burned, you can remove the hose, seal the container and put your gun away. Let your food sit in the smoke until it dissipates. Consider smoking a steak, vegetables, even a cocktail. “Obviously, nothing is better than hot smoking and actually cooking food in smoke”, Fulk says. “But this is a really fun little toy.”