Charcutepalooza is a yearlong project I’m participating in to make recipes from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. For more information, see my introductory post.
I consider myself a pretty up-for-anything kind of cook (I mean, I’m curing pork belly in a bedroom closet for this crazy Charcutepalooza project, for god’s sake), but smoking has always seemed off-limits to me. With its set of specialized, expensive equipment, baroque rituals of staying up all night to tend fires, and precise temperature controls, smoking struck me as impossible, given my lack of backyard and, well, a smoker.
But that’s not to say I don’t love smoked foods. Pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) and bacon are near-constant presences in the food I cook. Heck, my booze of choice is a smoky, briny Islay Scotch (Caol Ila 12-Year-Old, for those of you keeping track). I just didn’t think I’d have occasion to do it myself. Until this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge.
But it turns out you can smoke on a grill! Even a gas one! And the results are really damn good!
Now, this is not cold-smoking, something that really is out of reach without expensive specialized equipment (or Alton Brown’s insane school-locker setup). To do that, you need really low temperatures, like well under 90°, which means the smoke-producing fire and the place where the smoke hits the food have to be very far apart. Cold-smoking is how you make lox, bacon, smoked cheeses, and other foods that need smoke flavor without actually cooking.
No, this is hot-smoking, which is basically slow-roasting food in the presence of heavy wood smoke. Charcutegurus Ruhlman and Polcyn recommend 180 to 200° for hot-smoking. It’s kinda tough to measure air temperature inside a grill, but my setup hit about 220°, which is pretty good.
Here’s how to do it: Light one side of your grill, and turn the burner as low as it will go. Fold a couple handfuls of wood chips (get wood made specifically for smoking so there aren’t any poisonous chemicals on it; I found hickory chips for $2.50 a bag at my local hardware store) into an aluminum-foil packet, tear a couple holes in the top, and toss on the lit side of the grill. After about 20 minutes, the packet should be smoking pretty heavily. That’s when you add your food, on the opposite side of the grill.
The trick here is to be sure there’s plenty of smoke going the whole time. You’ll need more than one of those packets if you’re cooking anything larger than a pork chop. One of those packets is good for about an hour and takes a good 20 minutes to get going, so your best bet is to throw a second one on the grill after the first has been smoldering about half an hour. Once the first packet stops smoking, pull it off and replace with a third, and so on. (Be careful when you take the packets off the grill—they’re filled with hot embers. I dropped mine into a large bowl of water.) And keep the grill lid closed! Smoke in the air is not smoke in your food!
To cook a whole chicken, I needed four packets and about two-and-a-half hours. I have to say, the Charcuterie recipe for whiskey-glazed smoked chicken is fantastic. You brine the bird for 18 hours beforehand, ensuring it’s moist and juicy, then let it sit in the fridge a few hours so the surface and dry out a bit and get tacky, so the smoke adheres well. Then you glaze it with a bourbon-brown sugar mixture halfway through smoking. Yum.
The original recipe calls for maple syrup; being a good Southerner, I used sorghum instead. Either way, you get a wonderful mahogany color and sweetness that penetrates into the meat. Hold on to any extra glaze so you can use it as a sauce on the finished product.
Nadria and I devoured the entire chicken over four meals. Dinner was a breast sliced thinly and paired with Serious Eats’ Sweet Potato Salad with Caramelized Onions and Guajillo Chile Dressing. The sweet chicken and spicy salad made a nice contrast. Lunch the next day was the thighs, reheated and dunked in extra glaze. Then we made some dim-sum-style Chinese dumplings filled with leftover meat chopped with mushrooms and green onions using a recipe from The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide.
Smoked chicken just adds depth when used in place of plain ol’ chicken. Finally, the remaining morsels went into chicken salad, flavored with a little curry powder, rice wine vinegar, and almonds. I like my chicken salad smooth, so I ran it through the food processor to create a rich, smoky, pate-like paste. Spread some of that on a slice of bread, top with a dollop of sriracha, and you’ve got yourself a near-perfect lunch.
Since I had the smoker setup going and had room on the grill, I decided to try smoking some spices as well. Fortuitously, I just ran out of pimentón, so that was the first thing I wanted to recreate. I dumped a jar of regular paprika into a small metal bowl, dropped in on the grill, and gave it a stir every 15 minutes or so. After about an hour, it had taken on a lovely smokiness that, while not as intense as real pimentón, is quite tasty. (Purists will note that the real stuff is made by smoking peppers, then drying and pulverizing them. Yes, this is fake pimentón.)
I also smoked some salt, which was less successful. A bowl of regular kosher salt sat on the grill the whole time the chicken was smoking, and though it turned a subtle dirty-gray color, it didn’t really pick up much smoke flavor. I’ve only ever seen smoked sea salt, so maybe the uniform size of the kosher salt’s crystals had something to do with it.
And since none of my neighbors complained about the cloud of rich hickory smoke handing around the condo building that afternoon, I’ll be trying this one again.