The inescapable, almost primal appeal of smoke is much in evidence this summer as clouds of it billow over back yards, patios, porches and parks.
Most of it seeps out from all the kettle and gas grills that dot the landscape, but there's another way to get smoke in your eyes.
Smoke-cooking is a hot trend, fueled by barbecue buffs and restaurant chefs who have found that a little whiff of wood smoke works wonders. An estimated 1 million water-smokers will be sold this year, a number that has been rising about 10 percent annually over the last few years, says Donna Myers, director of communications for the Barbecue Industry Association.
Restaurants often trigger food trends and smoked foods are turning up on more menus of late. Restaurant chef Russell Bry says that when he smokes foods such as prime rib, ribs and pizza, he's not bowing to a new trend but instead is celebrating regional American cuisine.
"Smoked food is one of the most traditional of all American foods. Every region of the country smokes [food.] We're bred on foods that have a smoky taste, whether it's cheese, salmon or even hot dogs," Bry says. "It's a complex, outdoorsy taste."
But it is as hard to describe the taste of smoke as it is to hold it in your hand.
"If you haven't tasted hot-smoked food, I'm not sure it can be described. It adds an earthy character and a different level of complexity," says Bill Jamison, who, with his wife, Cheryl Alters Jamison, has written "Sublime Smoke," (Harvard Common Press, Jane Butel, author of "Southwestern Grill" (HPBooks, $15), agrees that the taste defies description. "It's just something you have to experience," she says.
Butel goes so far as to suggest that a haze of nostalgia lurks in its allure. "For a lot of people, it brings back the taste of bacon or ham, those big childhood favorites. But count tenderness, juiciness, flavor and versatility among the things that are really drawing cooks to the smoker."
Whatever the words used to describe smoked foods, the result is elementally summer, a fusion of fire, wood and food that adds up to knock-your-socks-off flavor.
Butel adds that the ease factor can't be overlooked, especially in summer.
"Once you've mastered your control of the fire, you're off and running. It's lazy-day cooking at its best. All you have to do is check the food every hour or so."
Just exactly what is smoke cooking? Traditionally, smoked food has been one of two things: regional barbecue fare such as pit-cooked brisket, or smoke-cured meats such as country ham.
"Increasingly, [smoking] also means something different, a more contemporary style of smoking that's easier than the others to master at home, less time consuming and broadly applicable to dishes of today's kitchens," the Jamisons write in "Sublime Smoke." "It's emerging out of our evolving food interests and improvements in home smoking equipment."
Hot-smoking is what they are referring to. The method is made-to-order for back-yard cooking. Unlike cold-smoking (also called curing), which uses a combination of salt, smoke and a temperature of around 100 degrees to preserve food for later use, hot-smoked food emerges fully cooked. With a temperature of about 225 degrees, a hot-smoker adds deep, smoky tones that penetrate but don't preserve the food.
Salmon and sausage may come to mind first but they aren't the only foods fit for smoking.
Butel offers mesquite-smoked trout with cilantro salsa and smoke-roasted asparagus with garlic. In "Sublime Smoke," the Jamisons offer summer-minded suggestions such as Vietnamese scallops, tequila-soused beef burritos and mango-tango chickens. "The Art of Smoke Cooking," by Milly McDonald (Brinkmann, $29.95), kicks off with hickory-smoked turkey, one of the most traditional suggestions. But beyond that, it offers oak-smoked Italian sausage with pasta in smoky garlic sauce, mesquite-smoked chicken, and pepper and onion pizza with two cheeses.
"Part of the excitement is discovering all the foods that can stand up to smoke," Butel says.
That includes lean meats. Because the water pan creates a moist cooking environment, water smokers are especially well-suited to lower-fat cuts such as pork tenderloin, chicken breasts and fish. Marinades can be applied as a preliminary, but dry rubs pungent seasoning blends that contain no fat are particularly suited to smoking. The lengthy cooking time creates complex partnerships of smoke and spice. Other flavor nuances can come from using branches of fresh herbs and by soaking the wood in wine, beer, tea or fruit juices.
One thing smoking is not, however, is quick. Bill Jamison says that it takes about three times as long to smoke something as it does to cook it on a charcoal or gas grill. But except for an occasional peek to make sure there's still a smoldering hunk of wood and enough heat, the cooking is unattended. This, he says, makes it perfect for the slow ways of summer.
"You can go on about your business and come back to something that's smoked to perfection."