Kitchen Improv: Stovetop Smoking

If there's one thing Shiftwork Bites taught me, it's how to improvise. From poaching eggs in a coffee maker, to the space-management required to cook in 25 square feet, I learned how to make do with what limited resources, both in terms of space and equipment. I try to incorporate those lessons into my cooking on a regular basis, finding ways to do things that might not be immediately obvious. Over the next few posts, I'll explore some of these make-do techniques, and how you can employ them at home.

I love smoked foods. I've never owned a smoker. I see it as one of the few remaining items yet unticked on my personal "I'm a real Texan" list that I've never smoked a brisket, along with the fact that I've never gone hunting. Or owned a pair of boots. I put beans in my chili. Damn. I'm a crappy Texan ...

That aside aside, the point is, smoked foods are delicious. Smoked foods are so delicious, in fact, that smoking shouldn't be reserved for large cuts of meat, although it's easily argued that brisket is where smoking finds its pinnacle. Recently, I've been smoking everything. Cheese, potatoes, buttermilk, flour; nearly everything conceivable has taken a turn through smoke in the past few weeks, or is destined for the "smoker" in the weeks to come.

That brings us to the improv because, like I said, I don't have a smoker. Never one to be daunted by such a simple thing as lack of proper equipment, I thought about what makes a smoker. Aside from smoke, it seems that key factors are the ability to separate the food from the heat source sufficiently, and the ability to keep the smoke (mostly) inside the smoker. I could have gone outside and used my Weber kettle grill, but it seemed silly to do that for small-batch smoking, where I was just interested in flavoring foods with smoke.

Looking through my cookware, my eyes settled on my steamer pan. A piece of equipment that I rarely use, It's basically a saucepan with a perforated pan that nests inside of it. They fit snugly, come with a lid, and offer a good distance between the surface of the lower pan, and the surface of the perforated upper pan. If you think about it, the needs of a steaming setup are very similar to those of a smoking setup, so this seemed a natural fit.

A few wood chips in the bottom of the pan - on a layer of tinfoil, if you want, which will help to protect your pan from discoloration, and encourage the wood to smolder rather than burn and you're ready to go. You may want to dampen the wood chips slightly, again to inhibit burning, but I haven't found this necessary. Pop a lid on it, turn the heat to high, and wait for the smoke.

Once the chips start smoking, you can adjust the temperature for better control, which is important, depending on what you're smoking. I've found it critical to get that initial blast, though, to keep the chips smoldering and smoking properly. When I tried starting over low heat, I just got hot wood, no smoke.

With the smoke going, place your ingredient in the steamer pan, either loose or on a plate, depending on ingredient, put that on top of your base pan, and lid the whole thing. Depending on what I'm smoking, I've smoked for as little as five minutes (cheese), to as long as 20 minutes (raw, whole new potatoes). I typically pull the lid off once or twice to stir the ingredients around, to ensure more even distribution of smoke flavor, and I always turn my vent on full blast and open a door or window in the kitchen, hoping I don't set off a fire alarm. I have yet to have a house full of smoke, but the wood trim around my kitchen counters smells deeply of hickory.

Out of my experiments thus far, my favorites have been:

I've got my eyes on a bunch of other micro-smoking projects, with cream for ice cream base, eggs for poaching, and a host of fruits and vegetables slated for their turns through the smoker.

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