Where There’s Smoke There’s Flavor

Wood-fire fumes are pepping up all manner of delectables, from bread to sweets to cocktails

Photo courtesy smokerestaurant.com

In the beginning there was fire. Humans caught on fast that flames not only provide light and warmth, they also break down stubborn proteins, which allows us to digest meat and grow strong. As our ancestors began to hang their kill over burning logs, something else happened: The wood smoke rose up and penetrated the flesh, helping to preserve the food as well as flavor it.

When refrigeration rendered other preservation methods unnecessary, the smoke flavor was largely relegated to the realms of barbecue, lox, and scotch. Now the same DIY trend that’s > brought canning and pickling into vogue has us again experimenting with smoke—this time less as a technique and more as an ingredient.

“To me, smoke is the essence of cooking,” says Stefan Doomanis, who along with his partner, Ricardo Carrera-Lowe, has begun to sell smoked bread under the brand name Smohk. Doomanis bakes the loaves in his Santa Clarita offset smoker (the same kind you’d use to cook tri-tip), which he fuels with oak and hickory wood. The resulting dark-colored boules taste of the campfire and make one heck of a grilled cheese sandwich.

“With just the right amount, smoke adds an amazing depth to sweet and savory applications,” says Michael Voltaggio of Ink. and Ink. sack. He uses smoke in traditional ways—like sticking his house-made pastrami into a makeshift smoker—as well as in more unconventional applications (incorporating burned wood chips into cream to flavor his apple dessert). Ernesto Uchimura uses a similar method at Plan Check to create the smoked milk gravy that’s served with a revelatory plate of fried chicken.

Bartenders, too, are seizing upon the vapor’s rise in popularity. Julian Cox, who designed the cocktail programs at Picca, Sotto, Rivera, and Short Order, has helped designate mescal, a smoked cousin of tequila, as L.A.’s spirit du jour. “The agaves are thrown into a pit and smoked for anywhere from a day to a week,” says Cox. The extra step adds a burnished twist to classic drinks mixed with citrus and even to a Bloody Mary. “You want to have bitter, salty, sweet, and then smoke—it’s just a really fantastic balancing layer.”