The link among all barbecues worldwide is smoke, according to Almir Da Fonseca, chef instructor, culinary arts professor at the Culinary Institute of America, St. Helena, California.
“When you think of barbecue, smoke is really what differentiates it from other types of cooking,” he said. “For tougher cuts [of meat], you want to cook low and slow — hickory, apple wood, mesquite — they’re all very popular.”
Da Fonseca aims to teach the balance; “Not just the balance of seasoning and flavoring the food, but also the balance of application of smoke and heat.”
Mark Liberman has learned a lot about smoke and fire. Currently, the award-winning chef/owner of AQ Restaurant & Bar in San Francisco is continuing his collaboration with restaurateur Matt Semmelback and about to open Fenix, the group’s Mexican-inspired venue.
A San Francisco native, Liberman has been garnering positive reviews for his culinary expertise in general, but the lure of smoke and fire has him enthralled. He is drawn to wood-fired cooking precisely because it’s not precise.
“Wood is a return to cooking and creates a lot of deeper flavors,” he said.
Because the fire requires constant watching so it’s not too hot, not too cold, he finds it to be “a very enjoyable way of cooking.”
Fresh takes on technique
Protein remains the primary center-of-the-plate ingredient that features smoke flavors, but vegetables are increasingly given star treatment as well. At The Granary @ The Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, Texas, Tim Rattray celebrates “BBQ and beer” at the venue, as well as the “Unstoppable Power of Smoke —The Techniques Behind the Next Generation of BBQ,” the working title of Rattray’s presentation for an upcoming Culinary Institute of America program, World of Flavor: On Fire.
Rattray describes smoke as another layer of flavor like sweet, salty, bitter or sour.
“We don’t want smoke to be the first thing you taste,” he said. “We want smoke to enhance the flavor but we do want you to taste the protein, the veggie, the whatever, first.”
Overall, Rattray likes to cold smoke meat first, then finish by grilling over live oak.
“Like music, hot smoke gives you mid- to high-notes while cold smoke gives you more underlying bass notes,” he said. “If there’s too much bass, you get a muddy, droning sound, but in balance, it gives you a really harmonic, melodious sound. We try to use smoke in balance.”
Ninety percent of the wood used at The Granary is oak. Not only is it indigenous to the San Antonio area, but it imparts “a slightly more subtle smoke, not quite as woody as post oak,” according to Rattray.
For the cold smoking process, Rattray has a smoker in which wood chips are used to make the heat smolder.
“We try to keep the temperature below 100°F,” he said. “Different smoke aromas are produced at different temperatures.”
Lower temperatures allow operators to keep items at the raw state. In this way, vegetables may be smoked but not cooked. Rattray said he will often juice smoked vegetables for use in a sauce for risotto or in a consommé.
Admitting that traditional barbecue has undergone dramatic change, Rattray now applies barbecue techniques to some unconventional ingredients, including smoking or barbecuing vegetables, especially by controlling the cold smoking and grill finishing.
There is one exception though, and that’s The Granary’s menu item, You’d Travel Miles for Pastrami.
“Traditionally, you’d smoke it a few hours, then put it in the steamer, but we put it in the smoker for the whole process. That could be about 12 hours for 12 lbs. of raw meat.”
No surprise, the brine used for the pastrami preparation is made in-house over live oak.
“Our pit is unique — it’s all wood, rotisserie-style, and completely wood fired,” he said.
Choosing the technique to employ depends upon the flavor profile you’re after, Rattray said.
“For it to be intensely Maillard, you’d want to grill over live fire; for a more subtle [flavor profile], you’d want to hot smoke in a pit like we do. For other applications, we’d cold smoke with grill finishing [to layer the smoke effect].”