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Till We Eat Again: Smoke... It's What's for Dinner

By Jay Reed

Jay Reed: Smoke, it's what's for dinner

My wife found a deal on baby-back ribs: buy one rack, get one free. I decided it was time to dust the spring pollen off my Big Green Egg (it was beginning to look like a John Deere) and try my luck. If I messed them up, at least I was messing them up for half price. Naturally, the first step is to light the charcoal; I have an electric magic wand for this. Once the charcoal is glowing, it’s time to add the wood chips. They produce the smoke that will soon permeate the ribs. Because I didn’t have the smoker pushed far enough out, the smoke lingered under the porch roof, ultimately permeating my own personal ribs, or at least the t-shirt covering them. When I came back in the house, my wife said, “Wow, those smell good already.” What she meant to say was, “Wow, you smell good already.” The point is: grill smoke smells good. Furthermore, smoke-bathed foods taste good. But what is it? And why do we like it so much?

There is a lot of science behind smoking meat. What we see rising from the flames is a collection of tiny particles the heat releases from the wood. Logically, different kinds of wood release different kinds of particles resulting in different flavor profiles. Fruit woods are good for some meats, nut woods for others, and mesquite for Texans. The smoke adds flavor, but whether or not the meat gets safely cooked depends on the temperature. And let’s not forget the flip side of smoking science: it’s also an art. Any pit-master worth his rub will testify to that.

As we move into the fall, smoke rises more often than in other seasons. Football players erupt through clouds of smoke as fighter jets leave smoky trails overhead. Granted, this is not food-flavoring smoke (nobody wants jet fuel-infused brisket), but there are other offerings at these Friday and Saturday worship meetings. At our hometown high school stadium a grill is nestled behind the concession stand. As soon as I walk through the gate, I know they’re getting my smoke-kissed jumbo hot dog ready. At college games, my go-to is barbecue nachos, and if I happen to be watching from home, it’s also… barbecue nachos.

As I pondered the presence of smoke in my life, it didn’t take long to come up with a variety of ways the scent has penetrated my memories.

We generally think of smoking the main dish, the meat: pork shoulder, brisket, chicken, etc. But those sides, though. A few years ago I asked my son what he’d like to eat on his birthday. His choices included smoked mac-and-cheese. I took the challenge. A good bit of the prep took place indoors, but it was finished in a Dutch oven inside the smoky environs of a Big Green Egg, and it was worth the effort. And for those without a smoker? There are plenty of smoked cheeses around that could get you to a similar flavor destination. Smoked salts are tasty, too. As the saying (kind of) goes, there’s more than one way to smoke a cat.

My son was a Boy Scout, and in his journey to Eagle, one of the merit badges involved cooking over coals. We aren’t really a camping family unless it involves an RV with AC and a WC, so we adapted. But rather than bake biscuits in cast iron, we went off the grid with a personal-sized cake baked inside a hollowed-out orange, nestled in the coals. Yes, desserts can also be smoked. And if desserts can be smoked, why not the cocktail before dinner? Smoking your Old Fashioned table-side is all the rage right now.

Purist alert: I am an advocate of liquid smoke in limited situations. I did my research and discovered that some brands are just what they say they are: legit liquified smoke. I use it to elevate store-bought salsa. My wife has long preferred a very basic name brand salsa, and I like her to be happy even if my homemade salsa with smoked tomatoes is better. I add a dash of liquid smoke to a portion of her big-box favorite and voila: smoky goodness. But beware: a little liquid carries a lot of smoke. By the way, liquid smoke was invented by a pharmacist (like me) back in 1895. Respect.

Looking to add flavor to your meal this fall? Add smoke. It’s what’s for dinner.

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