No greeting beats the sound of crackling wood and the smell of savoury smoke when you walk into one of those special eateries dedicated to smoked foods.
Normally we associate fire and smoke with campfires, a pitched tent and stretching out under the stars, but smoking has moved indoors, permeating food and drink culture in restaurants across Alberta. We asked three chefs why they took up smoking, and where to start for the home chef interested in one of the oldest methods of cooking.
The History Behind Smoke
Chef Ryan O’Flynn from The Guild, one of Calgary’s newer smoking establishments known for dishes like their succulent wood-grilled squid and applewood roasted chicken, says his love for smoked foods sparked when he learned of Canada’s long history behind this style of cooking.
“If you go back thousands of years, the First Nations had been smoking with birch in Alberta and the Northwest Territories for as long as the history books go back,” O’Flynn explains. “It’s happened naturally for humans to utilize smoke as a necessity. It’s in our DNA and we don’t even know it.”
O’Flynn says he was fascinated after a trip up to Fort Providence, N.W.T, where the Dene people taught him how to utilize birch smoke to cook and preserve meats, and concoct glazes using smoke and tree sap.
“When we glaze things like our rack of ribs, we don’t just make a barbecue sauce with Coke. We us pine sap, wild tree glaze, botanicals from the forest,” he says. “You can take natural things from the forest to make something that tastes better than barbecue sauce, and is better for you.”
Smoking as Preservative
Jenny Burthwright, owner of Jane Bond BBQ in Calgary, is known for her southern-style cuisine, grilling up everything from smoked brisket to fried catfish. While Burthwright says smoking foods adds a distinct, unique flavour to dishes, the technique also serves to preserve food.
“Smoking adds great natural flavours while promoting the low-and-slow technique that makes smoked foods so delicious,” she says. “In addition, smoked foods have a longer shelf-life.”
Smoke is both an antioxidant and antimicrobial agent, and is used to preserve ham, fish, poultry and even foods like nuts and cheese. While there was a period of abstaining from smoking after the discovery of chemical preservatives in wood, there’s been a shift back to smoking with natural woods like hickory, maple, birch, oak and cherry wood.
See here for Jane Bond BBQ’s recipe for Jamaican Jerk Chicken
What Else Can You Smoke?
Most chefs will say you can smoke just about anything. But Chef Daniel Pizarro with Provision, Calgary’s newest veggie-forward spot nestled in Central Memorial Park, says unlike other chefs, his favourite foods to smoke are vegetables.
“I mainly enjoy lightly smoked produce,” Pizarro says. “I feel simplicity is best, and if your beef is great on its own, there’s no need to smoke it.”
Pizarro says he smokes everything from celery root to beets, and Provision has become famous for their smoked potato dish, which fires up your palate with its simple, cherry smoke-infused flavour. “I always aim for one smoky dish with vegetables at Provision,” he says. “I find the different layers of flavour help generate a protein feel from a vegetable.”
See here for Provision’s recipe for Signature Smoked Potatoes
Smoke and Save
The beauty of smoking is it’s relatively low cost. Chef O’Flynn says while he enjoys the challenge of working with full fire logs, he recommends starting out with wood chips — which can be found in a variety of flavours at places like Canadian Tire — for the home chef.
“Chips smoke a lot easier. You can use your barbecue, but if the home cook wants to take it seriously, egg-barbecues (Kamado grill) smoke things very well,” O’Flynn explains. “A lot of people use cherry wood, but I use birch because it’s indigenous to our land. You can even buy birch and have it chipped — that’s a good way to keep it authentic.”
Chef Burthwright uses all types of woods and flavours to make her spiced rubs and roasted meats at Jane Bond BBQ, but says cherry wood is her favourite for its subtle, sweet smoke.
“Cherry wood is commonly used in Alberta due to its accessibility and lower cost,” she says. “Smoke your meats typically no higher than 200º F to avoid shrinkage and drying out the meat.”
Smoking with Hay
Did you know there’s another way to smoke grass (last smoke joke, we promise!)? Believe it or not, hay is a great alternative for smoking foods. Growing in mass quantities across the province, hay is also extremely easy to get your hands on, and is just about the most affordable product any chef could work with.
Chef O’Flynn says hay is a go-to for simple smokes, adding that the sharp, yellow grass is easy to light using a blowtorch.
“You can fill your barbecue with hay, and then blowtorch it,” he explains. “I’ve used hay to smoke a piece of bison or smoked salmon on ice. I also like hay-smoking potatoes before I mash them.”