Saturday, May 26, 2012

Holy Smoke!

Memorial Day weekend is considered the official beginning of summer and for many of us, that means barbeques will be ablazin’. Time to take off the cover of your grill and clean it up to get it ready for the weekend’s cooking and entertaining.

If you’re like us, and especially if you live in milder climates like Southern California, you’ve probably already started grilling. It can be almost a year-round activity where we live, and we like it that way. Grilling is great for many reasons: it’s quick, clean up is easy, and you don’t have that cooking smell in the house, which is especially unwelcome when you’re making fish.  It’s also a nice alternative to baking or roasting, sautéing or pan-frying.

I’ve done some reading about smoking recently and thought it was appropriate for my post on grilling. I’ve not done much smoking myself, but found myself buying wood chips on sale somewhere not too long ago with the intent to learn how, so I am going to use them this weekend. My grill has a “fancy slot” on one side where you can slide out a narrow tray and lay in some wood chips. It is the perfect sized tray for laying down rosemary twigs. I’ve done that when grilling chicken. It’s also nice for beef. The smoke from the burning rosemary gave the chicken great flavor. Smoking food imparts a wonderful depth of flavor to foods. You can still marinade the food first, but then when grilling, the smoke adds another dimension resulting in layers of flavor that can be very interesting.

We have a gas grill and I like it a lot better than the carcinogenic charcoal variety. I just don’t like the taste of lighter fluid, thank you very much. Whichever kind of grill you have, you can smoke. (Of course, you can just go out and buy a smoker)! But you don’t need one, a regular grill will work just fine. Depending on the type of grill you have, the prep work is a little different. Here’s how to do it.

Charcoal Grills

Arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate and leave the other side empty to create two heat zones. The empty side is for cooking foods that require indirect heat; you can also move food there when you get flare-ups. To smoke, once coals are lit, scatter soaked and well-drained wood chips evenly over the charcoal. Wait for smoke to appear before you begin cooking.

Smoker box containing wood chips
Gas Grills

Gas grills are a little different because they require preheating to generate smoke, and wood chips need to be contained.  You can either purchase a metal smoker box or make your own placing chips in a small foil pan. Cover the top with aluminum foil, then poke holes in the foil to let the smoke out. You can even just use a piece of aluminum foil and fold it into a packet, again poking holes on top. Before you light the grill, remove cooking grates and place the aluminum pan directly on bars, preferably in a back corner. Replace cooking grates, light grill with all burners on high, and close the lid. If you are using a box, place it on top of the grate, directly over a lit burner. When smoke appears, turn one burner off completely, adjust remaining burners according to your recipe, and begin cooking.

Smoking Success

1. Start raw. Meats should be raw. The smoke won’t permeate cooked meat as well.
2. Don’t overdo it. Don’t add too much wood else the end result might be bitter. Better to start out with a small amount and add more next time.
3. White smoke is good, black is bad. White smoke layers food with the intoxicating scents of smoldering wood. If your grill however lacks proper ventilation, or your food is directly over the fire and its juices are burning, a black smoke will taint your food and give it a burned taste.
4. Don’t peek. Every time you open the grill, you lose heat and smoke – two of the most important elements to a great meal. Open the lid only when you have to tend to the fire or flip the food.
5. Keep the air moving. Open the vents on your charcoal grill and position the coals on the side opposite the lid vent. The open vents will draw smoke from the charcoal and wood below so that it swirls over the food and out the top properly, giving you the cleanest smoke.

Wood chips
The type of wood chips you buy will determine the final flavor. Here’s a guide to wood flavors:

Alder – Delicate smoke flavor. Good with fish (salmon and sturgeon), chicken and pork.
Apple – Slightly sweet but also dense. Good with beef, poultry, pork - especially ham.
Cherry – Slightly sweet and fruity. Good with poultry, game birds, pork.

Maple – Nicely smoky, somewhat sweet flavor. Good with poultry, vegetables, ham.
Oak – Assertive, but pleasing. Good with beef (particularly brisket), poultry, pork.
Hickory – Pungent, smoky, baconlike flavor. Good with pork, chicken, beef, wild game, cheeses.
Pecan – Rich and more subtle than hickory but similar in taste; burns cool, so ideal for very low-heat smoking. Good with pork, chicken, lamb, fish, and cheeses.

Mesquite – In a class by itself - a big bold smoke with a little bitterness. Good with beef and lamb.

I’ve included a simple grill / smoke recipe using the herb rosemary for you to try.

Grilled Lemon Rosemary Chicken

Rosemary, cut into 1-2” pieces, can also be used as a smoking medium. The thicker, woodier stems located near the base of the plant are especially well suited for this. Use the top of these stems for the more delicate “leaves” that end up getting chopped.


Chicken pieces: breast, thighs, drumsticks, whatever you like.
A pinch each of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly pressed lemon juice
Olive oil
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Rosemary stems, cut into 1-2” pieces, placed in your smoking contraption

Mix together the salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and chopped rosemary. Marinade chicken in this for as long as possible, ideally 12-24 hours. I like to place my marinade and meat in a large Ziplok bag and put it in the fridge the evening before I plan to cook it. The next morning, I’ll give the bag a turn, so that the other side of the chicken now rests in the marinade. When ready to grill, remove chicken from bag and discard both marinade and bag.

Follow directions above for placing your wood chips on your type of grill and grill away! Chicken takes about 8-10 minutes per side, over medium heat, depending on thickness. Better to cook it more slowly, on a lower flame for longer, than too quickly.

Delicious with roasted potatoes and other roasted veggies, or a big salad, and of course, a nice white wine, like a California Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio.

Wishing you a glorious summer of happy grilling.

Source: Better Homes and Gardens Magazine, May 2012

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