As you walk through the doors of Elm Street Bakery, there’s something in the air that causes your mouth to water almost instantly. It is the scent of a beautiful wood-burning oven, its gentle smoke pulsing through the food it’s cooking and into your nostrils. The bakery utilizes this oven to roast scallops, mussels, chicken, shishito peppers, even mac and cheese. But why should a diner care about little smoke? Have a bite of chef Brad Rowell’s seemingly simple yet remarkable cuisine, and you’ll understand that the proof is truly in the puddin’.
Rowell loves the wood oven for its super intense dry heat. The restaurant bakes bread at a lower temperature during the day, increasing the heat for dinner service to almost six hundred degrees. With that kind of heat, the oven can roast half a chicken from raw to done in just eight minutes.
Chef Rowell has tinkered with the oven’s coals, setting onions and other root vegetables directly atop the cooked-down fuel. Showing their industrious nature, the staff at Elm Street has also suspended grates inside the intense enclosure to create a grill, allowing the oven’s dry heat and wonderful flavor to be imparted into ingredients and dishes in yet another way.
Chefs love the aroma smoke gives to cuisine, but it doesn’t have to be just wood smoke. Whether smoking salmon for an hors d’oeuvres preparation, cold smoking rapeseed oil over hay for smoked aioli, or adding burned wood chips to dashi broth, the list of items you can smoke extends well beyond basic barbecue. Smoking isn’t limited to wood—nut shells, hay, vegetable and citrus skins, herbs and spices, and other items can all change your end result for the better. For example, black walnut shells and a bit of apple wood makes an excellent bed for duck breast pastrami. In many cases, a combination of charcoal and logs can create a more reliable and simple way for both chefs and home cooks to achieve a great smoked result.
Chef James Roberts of downtown’s recently opened Toutant uses a combination gas and wood grill. With it he creates dishes like the restaurant’s Charred Ribeye or Wood Grilled Black Drumfish. Roberts loves this gulf fish, explaining it was the first fish he ever caught in his native Louisiana. He’s able to achieve an intense and smoky richness in it by roasting the fish solely on its flesh side. He then finishes it in a hot pan on the reverse side, creating a crispy skin. The deep sweet and smoky flavor from this cooking technique is a gorgeous way to elevate this fish.
That small charcoal grill in the back of your garage may be all you need to get a little smoke at home. The sweet smell of wood smoke on meat, fish, vegetables, and even broth adds incredible flavor. Whether using logs for a long and slow cooking process, or wood chips for a quicker and shorter cooking approach, both methods impart flavor and can be used on a home charcoal grill.
Start with a bit of lump charcoal and light it, allowing the coals to burn until they are red. Add them to your grill and top with logs. Make certain to use wood that has not been sealed or chemically treated as such treatment will impart odd aromas and toxic chemicals to your food. Once the wood begins to burn you can keep feeding it like a fire, allowing the logs to burn down into coals and embers. Put the flames out; add a well-seasoned and brined bone-in pork shoulder. Roast slowly in the wood smoke until tender, about five hours, checking that your fire is still warm and emitting smoke—about 220-300 degrees. Once finished, the smoked pork makes an excellent sandwich, addition to beans, pairing to charred avocado and tomato salad, or any number of applications. That whole Bronzino you bought from your local fishmonger is also begging for a trip over the hot wood’s flames. Master this technique and you’ll find yourself thinking of ways to include the heavenly flavor of smoke in your favorite dishes.