Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I've been thinking about smoke lately, as a basic primary flavor along with salt, sweet, etc. I think we humans have an oddly hard-wired predilection for smoke which may have had some evolutionary advantage, perhaps as a preservative. Or maybe it was just cooking in general, done over fire, which gave some humans advantages over those who ate raw meat. Whatever the reason, smoke is one of those primal flavors many humans, including myself, crave. I know modern scientists link burnt food and smoke to cancer, but really, would we have gotten this far as a species if that were the case?
I've heard people argue that it takes many cumulative years of exposure, and wouldn't affect most people until after their child-bearing years, so ultimately it wouldn't have an effect on population growth, evolution, etc. But how could a carcinogenic substance come to be such a positive advantage? A craved flavor. Piffle.
So here's the smoker with which I thumbed my nose at modern scientists. Though, oddly, this was an experiment. One day last fall I had a sudden urge to tangle with smoked sausages. So I first bought an entire pig's-worth of intestines, along with some nice fatty pork butt. Second I bought a meat grinder. This proved to be not so simple as it ought to have been. The fat kept clogging the works. Maybe it should be shredded first by hand? Or maybe I was doing something dreadfully wrong. In any case, I used only a fraction of the casing, to make about 20 links with the entire butt. Maybe another cut would work better.
Then came this smoker pictured here. Chips and such were out ofthe question since I wanted a serious deep flavor without a lot of heat. Somethig like a cold smoke. So I lit a few oak and cherry logs, blew them out and let the sausages sit for several hours over the smouldering logs. the air vent kept the thing going, as you can see here, a nice steady light smoke.
When they came out, they were the most heavily smoked things I have ever tasted. Might work nicely in a cassoulet or chou croute but way too heavy to eat on their own. But they achieved the purpose. They tasted like camp fire. They made you want to throw off your clothes, dance ecstatically in a circle and bang sticks together. Primal.
So the experiments continued, and what you see here was a whole brined turkey, in which the smoke penetrated but was not so overwhelming. Only thing is, it was actually cold smoked. Firm, but still pink, so it gave many people the willies. So much more for me.
Next I think I will try a fresh ham, or maybe some ducks. It seems to be the one flavor I can't get enough of. The barbecue just doesn't suffice any more. (Though a handful of grape vine cuttings thrown in works wonders). Also on the TO DO list is smoking salt, which people have been doing for a long time. But then why not sugar? Or whole spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, which you could toss into a pot? Or tea, like Lapsang Souchoung? The possibilities are endless. As are the varieties of wood.
I shall report further anon.


Simona said...

Hello Ken. I recently took a class from Dianne Jacob and she told me about you, so I am glad I found your blog (bless Google). This is a very interesting post you wrote. I like smoked food a lot, though now that I don't eat meat any more, my options are severely limited. My favorite smoked food was the smoked prosciutto I ate during a visit to what is now Croatia, many years ago: it was light and tasty, delicate, but long lasting, different from speck. During my visit I also ate smoked cheese that was just as delicious. Good luck with your experiments: I am looking forward to reading more about them.

Simona said...

I forgot to tell you that I also have a food-related blog, called briciole.

Ken Albala said...

Hi Simona, Your blog is lovely - especially for the Italophile word freak like me. I hope we meet some time. You should come to a Culinary Historians of Northern California meeting. We're meeting today actually in Napa. Ken

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Smoke to make mosquito away?

Daphne Medina said...

Lapsang Souchoung! I recently made LS infused portabella mushrooms with raw kraut, and pickled mustard seeds. The flavors were like a hot dog, but on raw, vegan form! :)

I love this tea.