So, first take a pack of King-size Rizlas. Ooops, wrong kind of smoking! Ignore that.
Let’s start again.
When I was growing up, smoked food meant a couple of things to me. Firstly, it meant smoked salmon, those luscious pink slithers of rich flavour, associations of good times and parties; Christmas, family birthdays and the like. Also kippers, those stinky, smoked breakfast fish that my Dad ate and I also grew to love.
As a young lad on a family camping holiday in Suffolk, we once stopped at a small smokery, where I saw a cupboard full of herrings hung out, being smoked into kippers. We bought some, and had them for breakfast the next day, I still remember the overpowering charred wood flavour of these just-smoked fish.
But seeing that cupboard of fish pegged up like laundry taught me exactly what this smoking process was, how it worked and how kippers ended up tasting how they did. Since then, I’ve always held a repressed fascination for smoking as one of the fundamental processes in food preparation that I wanted to know more about.
So, here are the basics for you and the easiest way for you to try it at home.
Smoking: The Basics
There are two methods of smoking food; hot-smoked, or cold-smoked.
Smoked salmon and kippers are cold smoked, which means they are cured with salt or brine, then smoked, so are still raw when finished. This is traditionally a food preservation technique, as the initial curing prolongs the shelf-life of the food.
Hot smoked foods are cooked during the smoking process and are more likely to be eaten straight after the smoking has been finished. This long, slow cooking process is very popular in the BBQ scene, where the BBQ is kept at a specific temperature to ensure the meat or fish is cooked thoroughly, but very slowly and over a long period of time, creating a soft, succulent finished product.
Hot Smoking - How it worksThe food is smoked in the same chamber as the heat and smoking wood. Due to the presence of a heat source, the food is cooked at the same time as it is smoked. The heat source is not immediately beneath the food, so it is known as ‘indirect’ cooking. When using this method for meat or fish, it’s very important to maintain the temperature to the appropriate level so that the meat cooks throughout, yet at the same time doesn’t dry out. This is the method I’m using here and also the easiest method to try at home.
Cold Smoking - How it worksThe food is usually smoked in a separate chamber to the heat and smoking wood, with the smoke being fed to the smoking chamber once it has cooled. This means that in contrast to hot smoking, the cold smoking process does not cook the food, so it is still raw after smoking. Meats and fish are cured or brined before they are cold smoked, to help prolong their shelf life, however you must be careful with this method as there are inherent health risks when working with raw meat and fish.
Although the most commonly available smoked foods are meat and fish, you can smoke anything you want. So, for your first go, I would suggest smoking vegetables, cheese or tofu. Once you move away from meat and fish, you’re removing the requirement to cook the food to kill bacteria, so don’t have to worry about keeping temperatures exact, you just need to keep the smoke moving. These all make a perfect gateway foods to try out smoking with, knowing you’re very unlikely to ruin, or undercook the end product.
Slow ‘n’ low
Tofu is a spongey mass that takes on flavour beautifully, so a great food to start with. This recipe makes ‘plain smoked’ tofu, like the stuff you can buy in packets off the shelf, and can be used as an ingredient in other dishes, or served alone.
As we are just trying to gently impart the smokey flavour into it, it’s better to keep the BBQ on the cooler side of things, as too much smoke, too quickly will result in a bitter, over-smoked flavour. You can always add more wood to create more smoke, but if you go too far, you can’t rewind. As BBQ fans say – “keep it slow ‘n’ low”.
You can also apply a marinade or rub to the tofu before it goes on the grill to add an extra dimension to it. BBQ style and Asian style marinades and rubs would taste fantastic, or get creative and have a play with whatever you’ve got in the cupboard.
Hot smoked tofu
By Gavin Wren
Makes enough for 2 – 4 as a side
Uses 1 pot
400g plain tofu
Foil tray, or piece of aluminium foil
Kettle BBQ, or BBQ with lid
A handful of smoking chips – lots of options available online, such as: Hickory BBQ Smoking Wood Chips
Prepare your BBQ by making a foil tray (see photos below) which is slightly larger than the area the tofu will occupy on the grill, and about 1 inch deep. Place it on the bed your charcoal goes on, at one end of the grill. Pile the other end of the grill high with charcoal, then light it.
Take the tofu block out of the packet and place between two chopping boards, with a weight on top and leave for 30 mins, tipping the fluids away occasionally. Once this is done, remove and cut into half inch thick slices and brush both sides with sesame oil.
Once the BBQ has burn down, so that the flames have stopped and it’s glowing, you’re ready to go. Fill the water bath with water and add a few smoking chips to the coals (just a few, NOT a massive handful, you can always add more!). Put the lid on the BBQ and make sure that the lid vent is over the tofu and wide open, to pull the smoke past the tofu. If there is a second vent on the lid, close it. I had the vents on the base half open. You’re aiming for a gentle outpouring of smoke, not a raging torrent.
Now, open the BBQ, put the tofu on the grill, directly over the water bath and replace the lid.
Periodically check that there is heat and a gentle trickle of smoke coming out of the BBQ. You can always add just a few more pieces of charcoal if it’s burning out, you will also need to add a few more wood chips if the smoke stops. I was adding some every 20 minutes or so. If the water bath dries up, add some more water to it.
After 45 minutes, turn the pieces and replace the lid, leave for another 45 mins, checking periodically.
Once removed, your smoked tofu is now ready to go!
Foil Tray Instructions.
Fold a piece of foil over on itself, so that it is double thickness. Fold all four sides inwards, about 1 inch from the edge.
Fold the sides up to form a tray, pinching the corners outwards diagonally.
Fold the pointed corners over on themselves, until they are tight against the corner of the tray.
Place it in position and then fill it, but only go about 1cm deep as the sides won’t hold much more!