They’re big, they’re heavy, they’re expensive and they’re American. What is a smoker, how does it work and should you get one? Krisinda Merhi investigates.
The smoky smell of a barbecue is practically arousing. The sizzles and cracks have sweat beading across your forehead. You swear you’ll never eat another lettuce leaf in your life.
Carnivore, vegetarian or other, this response is innate in us: a part of our DNA dating back roughly two million years. Our prehistoric ancestors hung up meat to dry in smoky caves, eventually realising that slabs hung closer to the smoke developed a different flavour. And so smoked foods were created: an art form which has since transcended countless generations and cultures.
Each end of the world has developed its own distinct flavour. A smoked-signature of sorts. In Europe, alder is the traditional smoking wood. In New Zealand, the native manuka is popular, especially when smoking fish. Iceland locals use dried sheep dung to cold-smoke mutton and seafood. Tea smoking is popular in Eastern-Asia, using a mixture of uncooked rice, sugar and tea, heated at the base of a wok. And in North America (the world’s unofficial-official barbecue kingdom), a combination of smoky and sweet is a must. Anything from hickory, alder, maple and woods from fruit trees are all used widely.
This kind of barbecue is not reserved for the T-bone gnawing, moustache-growing, warm-blooded Texan. It has become a delicacy in its own right: the swirls of smoke like a drug to any foodie (and even better when served with a cold one).
So hot right now
For Christopher Hogarth, executive chef at Merivale Group’s Papi Chulo in the northern Sydney suburb of Manly, smoking is all about flavour: “It’s just extremely tasty,” he says. “The depth of flavour that you get, it’s so much more confronting to the palette and exciting.”
Australian barbecue is undergoing a flavour evolution, and Hogarth believes it is crucial for restaurateurs to not only understand the change but immerse themselves in it.
“American-style barbecue, we didn’t know anything about it. We watched stuff on YouTube and we had a bit of an idea of how it was done but you’ve got to actually experience and taste it,” he says.
For Hogarth, this meant taking a trip to the US to learn all there is to know about southern style American barbecue. But worthy inspiration also exists closer to home.
“You need to go and eat at big barbecue places, like Vic’s at Pyrmont or Papi Chulo–somewhere where they’re doing good-quality barbecue,” he says. “You’ve got to know what result you’re trying to achieve.”
But the product is only as good as the sum of its parts. Or, in this case, one big 200kg part.
Food smokers are the heart and soul of the American barbecue industry–something which foodservice equipment brand Smo-King has tapped into.
“Smoked ham, bacon and other small goods have always been very popular,” explains John Hodgkinson, managing director of Smo-King.
“But the latest trend is American-style barbecue … where we traditionally sold our smoke ovens to butchers, fish processors and specialty food processors, we are now selling many to restaurants who are following the latest trends.”
Smo-King oven specialists have been in the business for almost 20 years and are responsible for some of the industry’s best smoked meats, including Papi Chulo’s divine eight-hour smoked brisket.
Although smoked foods are heavenly to devour, do they translate to the commercial kitchen?
Meat the makers
There are two basic types of smokers: vertical water-smokers and horizontal pit-smokers.
Water smokers consist of a base heat source with a water pan just above to help control temperatures and tenderise meats. Pit smokers are the quintessential southern unit. Consisting of two chambers—one for food and one for flame—these smokers cook by indirect grilling. Modern convection ovens are the perfect hybrid: electrically powered with inbuilt steam generators, they are significantly easier to use without compromising the quality of the meat. The busy chef no longer needs to hover over the grill for hours, but can step away and let the magic happen.
“We can control the cooking of our product really well, really easily by programming and setting the temperature and time and bettering the humidity of the cabinet and the amount of smoke,” Hogarth explains.
But, he adds, “This took a long time to work out.”
“To be able to get the product not overcooked or dried out and not undercooked…the trick of temperature and timing, it’s a real art.”
Burnin’ it up
While the emergence of electrical smokers shows just how far we’ve come since the age of the caveman, the humble woodchip still plays a key role in the smoking process.
“It’s a very versatile medium to cook with and it’s quite unique: you can add different types of wood to achieve different flavour accents on the product,” says Hogarth.
“The flavour and intensity, it’s so much more exciting than just cooking something on the grill or roasting it.”
This variety is what keeps chefs excited and customers coming back for more.
“We do a mix of oak, and then we use fruitwood: cherry, orange, apple. Whatever we think is suitable,” says Hogarth.
But smokers aren’t just good for flavour; they’re good for business.
“The competition’s pretty fierce and you need something that people are going to go out of their way for—a point of difference,” explains Hogarth.
“The sheer size of smoking units means more yield can be produced at any one time. [Woodchips are] a very versatile medium to cook with and [are] quite unique: you can add different types of wood to achieve different flavour accents.”—Christopher Hogarth, executive chef, Papi Chulo, Manly, NSW
American barbecue is a trending food topic, with customers welcoming any addition of smoked brisket or hickory ribs to a menu.
Tastebuds aside, smokers are also economical.
The sheer size of smoking units means more yield can be produced at any one time. This enables efficient customer turnover, and also allows businesses to make notable savings on their bottom line, without compromising on quality.
“In terms of cooking things like whole pork shoulders or pork legs, there’s not much wastage. So it’s good on an economic scale. For a restaurant who would serve mainly prime cuts of meat, it is a cheaper way to cook,” Hogarth says.
All of this doesn’t just relate to meat. Barbecue masterminds are now trying their hand at smoking all kinds of foods.
“We mainly use it [the smoker] for our barbecues, for low, slow-style smoking, but we also smoke things like butter, or cheese and cured meats and seafood,” says Hogarth.
One thing’s for certain: our prehistoric love-affair with fire and smoke is far from history.