Steven Raichlen doesn’t know exactly how the first humans began smoking their food, but he has an idea. “We were probably sitting around a fire with strips of meat posted on sticks downwind of it, because we’d realized flies don’t like smoke,” he says. “And when we tasted that meat, not only were there no flies on it, but it had this amazing flavor, too.” He admits it’s pure conjecture, but having written the book on smoked foods, Raichlen is qualified to conject.
It was in the late 1990s, after earning a degree in French literature, winning a Watson Fellowship to study medieval cooking in Europe, and publishing several cookbooks that Raichlen had an epiphany. As he puts it, “Grilling is the world’s most universal cooking method, the most ancient cooking method, but everywhere it’s done differently.” He estimates he’s been around the world four times ever since, documenting the ways in which different cultures cook food over fire. He’s written more than two-dozen cookbooks, done Italian- and French-language cooking shows, and gone head-to-head with Tokyo’s Iron Chef—and won.
After all he’s learned about the timeless interplay between food and flame, smoking holds a special place in his repertoire. “Grilling is hot, fast, and theatrical, and barbecue is slow and iconic,” he says, “but smoking is really soulful, it’s flavorful.” Having visited a world of smokehouses, from the røgeri of the Danish Baltic Islands, to the smokehouses of Tokyo, to the jerk shacks of Kingston, Jamaica, he’s here to tell you that many of the recipes he collected in the making of his 2016 book and television show Project Smoke can be made at home with a stovetop wok-smoking method, using kitchen equipment you may already have. Here’s how.
Raichlen’s method takes place entirely within a lidded wok. The food rests on a round rack within the wok while the smoke from heated chips on the bottom of the pan circulates throughout the sealed chamber. Being himself an expert, Raichlen doesn’t see the need to drill a hole in the wok lid to make room for a temperature gauge, but other instructors of this at-home method advise doing so.
You’ll only need a few items.
- Lidded wok
- Round rack (that fits inside the wok)
- Tin foil
- Paper towels
- Extra: drill and temperature gauge.
Start by folding a sheet of tinfoil into a 4” by 4” square. Place the tinfoil in the bottom of your wok, then place a handful of woodchips onto the square. Next, place the rack in the wok and your food on the rack, making sure to leave enough room between the food and the wok lid for the smoke to circulate. If you’re a beginner, drill a hole in the lid that is slightly larger than your temperature gauge. Insert the gauge and seal the hole with wet paper towels.
Once you have your food ready in the wok, place the lid on top and line the seal with damp paper towels, then again with tin foil. At this point, a ring of tin foil should encircle your wok, covering the area where the wok lid sits on the wok. Start your burner on high heat, then after 10 minutes, reduce to medium heat. The lid must be hermetically sealed; where there is smoke, there is leakage. Revisit with a wet paper towel and more tin foil.
When the wok is sealed and your stovetop burner is on, your food is smoking and you are underway. If you’re using a gauge, adjust the flame up or down to meet your recipe’s temperature needs.
Once you’re comfortable with this Raichlen-approved stovetop smoker, you can use Raichlen’s recipes to explore a whole world of smoked foods.
To get a taste of how our Mesolithic forebears ate, you can smoke oysters on the half-shell, mimicking how they cooked (and opened) shellfish by placing them on fire embers. You can put a smoky twist on deviled eggs—a dish whose history traces back to Ancient Rome. Or, you can experience the plank-smoking traditions developed by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and apply it, in this case, to French cheese by smoking a wheel of camembert and serving it with jalapeños and pepper jelly. (These links all lead to recipes that can be made in your wok-based smoker.)
When you’ve mastered the basics, feel free to move on to more involved recipes. Asian ingredients such as dark sesame oil and dry-roasted peanuts meet the beloved chicken wing in this Pac-Rim smoked wings recipe. Add “smoky” to the sour, sweet, and spicy German-style potato salad you bring to your next cookout. Summertime also means tomato season, ideal for making a smokey Spanish gazpacho.
Ambitious indoor smokers can take on even more challenging dishes such as tea-smoked duck, smoked not only with wood chips but also loose black tea, white rice, orange peels, and spices in traditional Chinese fashion. Scandinavian salmon candy is an impeccable mashup of sweet, savory, and smoky that Raichlen recommends pairing with Norwegian aquavit. Raichlen’s take on smoked jerk chicken simulates traditional Jamaican jerk pits from the comfort of your own home, as long as your definition of “comfort” leaves room for a few thousand Scovilles.
Leave room for dessert: This tangerine smoked flan proves even your favorite sweets can be smoky too.
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