Monday, 6 August 2012

Experiments in Smoking: Part 1

I have a new best friend, he is a smoker, not of cigarettes, of food, an actual smoking vessel. He looks a little bit like a second world war bomb and was a very gratefully received birthday present; that I fear is going to take over everything I cook from now on...

He travelled to the Lake District with us still wrapped up in his box, ready to be unveiled and to begin his life as a fully operational smoking machine. He needed a name. Old Smoky perhaps, Sir Smoke-a-lot? I spent the car journey trying to think of something fitting... The First Earl of Smokington, Mr. Smoky Smokerson? Mr. Smokerson seems to fit, he looks a bit like an old formal butler standing to attention in the corner of my yard, it suits him!

He is made up of quite a few different parts, so I will take you through how he works, even though I'm still figuring out the basics. The very bottom section contains a charcoal basket, where you put the charcoal funnily enough. Next up is the water bowl, this is filled with water for most hot smokes, it stabilises the temperature, you can also add beer or herbs to the water for extra flavour. Then there are two racks at different levels, just like the top of a BBQ, then finally the lid, which has hooks inside to hang fish from. It also has the temperature gauge on the top so you can keep an eye on things from the outside. There is a little metal box that you put wood chips in and place on the charcoal for hot smoking and a little metal maze type thing that you put wood dust in for cold smoking.

We assembled Mr. Smokerson carefully, a few weeks ago now, and ambitiously set about a 9 hour pulled pork as the first experiment in smoking, I used the Joe Beef recipe I have used previously and added some beer to the water bowl.

It took a while to get the temperature steady, lots of opening and closing of vents, but it was actually very consistent in the end, sitting at about 250°F for 4-5 hours. This is about 120°C, so quite low, the temperature is in Fahrenheit, which is a bit of getting used to, but I'm getting the hang of it.

I was unsure about how a basket of charcoal would last this long, as on a BBQ it burns out in less than an hour typically. But it does, one basket seems to burn for about 5 hours, it must be to do with the sealed container, and shutting the bottom air vents so it burns very slowly with not much air movement. You basically light the charcoal and put the water bowl in, seal him up and when it has reached the correct temperature put your chosen food in, place the little metal box with a handful of wood chips in directly on to the charcoal, I used apple wood, and wait...

We chose the wrong time to go for a walk, feeling confident that Mr. Smokerson was on a roll, and not knowing how long the charcoal would burn for, we set off, it started to rain and we came back to a burnt out, rapidly cooling, smoker... After some initial panic he was up and burning again and the pork back inside. It didn’t end up as pully apart as the first time I'd cooked it in the oven, I think it could have actually cooked for longer, as it was at a lower temperature, but it was 10pm and people were hungry! The flavour was delicious however, really deep and smoky and sweet, you can really taste the apple smoke... I was hooked!

So Mr. Smokerson travelled back to Tyneside and the next experiments were cold smoked cheese, hot smoked almonds and smoked pigeon. The cheese marinates in whiskey and maple syrup for 4 hours in the freezer, then into the smoker until it comes up to temperature.

Cold smoking is a different process. A little metal contraption, that looks like a maze gets filled with wood dust, which is then lit at one end using a little candle. When the wood has begun to smoulder and smoke you remove the candle, place the maze in the bottom of the smoker, with the cheese on the rack and leave for about an hour. This one was a triumph! Really smoky cheese, I used a cheddar and a ewes cheese, both delicious!

Last weekend's smoking adventures were two duck, out of the freezer from last season, the last two little fellas I had left. I followed a River Cottage method for them and cured them in salt, brown sugar, dried bay leaves, crushed star anise, crushed cinnamon sticks and lots of ground black pepper. The ducks sit in the mix for about an hour before going into the smoker. Then they cook at 220°F for 4 hours. I have much more to learn about curing, what it is doing, how long, which method...

There is the initial period of lighting Mr Smokerson and trying to get it to the steady temperature you require. This was difficult this time round. He was at 450°F for about an hour, opening doors, shutting vents, taking his lid off, it was a bit frustrating to say the least... It turned out I hadn’t put the water bowl in, which stabilises it at a lower temperature... First mistake of the day. Second mistake of the day was that one of the ducks was actually a pheasant! I didn’t notice this until we carved... oops...

Again I used apple wood, the smoky flavour was milder this time, but the duck was delicious, a touch dry, but the flavour had really got into the meat. I left the pheasant for the next day, I have found that the flavour develops the longer you leave things. The result was a delicious smoked pheasant and bacon sandwich with crisp little gem lettuce for lunch the next day.

I'm perhaps getting a bit carried away with my new friend, I'm constantly thinking about what to do next! Sausages, fish, a duck that you cure, smoke then confit! No wonder it is akin to a competitive sport in America, I'm totally hooked. We bought some herring to get them on the go, but didn’t read what to do with them first, it turns out that you need to cure them for a few days then cold smoke them for 5 days! This is perhaps not conducive with actually having a life, so we may just have to leave that to the guys in Craster...


  1. I am so jealous! I have ALWAYS wanted a smoker, even when I was little. I really want some smoked cheese now.

  2. Hi Jasmine, it's brilliant! I cook so much in it now, had some delicious duck this weekend!

    Anna x


Happy cooking! Let me know if you make any of my recipes, send a picture, and let me know any of your own recipes and tips! Anna x