Virtues of Smoking

Ben Barlow is a part of our amazing culinary team and one of the four guys at B&H that actually grew up in Ballard.  He really enjoys cooking French and Latin cuisines and considers himself a big baseball enthusiast, lover of the outdoors and fan of horror movies.

He started cooking professionally somewhat by accident. After finishing his degree in Chemistry at WSU, he was a little lost on next steps. Working outdoors was a big pull and tried his hand (without much luck) getting into environmental field work. The next best thing was finding work with access to outdoor recreation, which led him to apply for work at wilderness resorts.

Ben always liked to cook, but had never actually worked in a restaurant. With little understanding of how the industry worked or what line cooks did, he began applying for these positions at a number of resorts.  He received a call back from exactly one chef, Jim Roberts of the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch in the Sawtooth Mountains. He told him more or less, "you're not a line cook, but if you want to work in a kitchen, I'll find a place for you." Jim did a lot to foster Ben's knowledge and get him going in the industry and a big reason he's still at it three years later.

Each month B&H hosts an all team meeting where someone from our service and culinary crew shares a little knowledge nugget to help boost our understanding on various topics.

Last month Ben blew us away with his presentation on the virtues of smoke, as a flavorant and preservative. Clearly his background in organic synthesis has complemented his career in food.  We thought you too might enjoy this explanation along with a recipe of smoked trout.



Wood smoke contains a great deal of flavor compounds, as well as organic acids and antioxidants that slow rancidification of meat. While the benefits of smoking are clear, the process is sometimes misunderstood. The following are some points on how smoking works.

How do we smoke?

Because smoking alone is not a great preservative, smoked foods are often cured in salt beforehand.

Smoking is virtually always done with hardwoods (fruitwoods), as softwoods (conifers) contain resins which create unpleasant tar-like flavors when burnt.

Low temperature is critical, even for hot smoking, so the smoke can work before the meat is overcooked. Hot smokers rarely go above 180F.

The key to smoking is to use smoldering wood, which is wood burning around 600F.  Wood is kept around this temperature by using a low oxygen environment like tightly packed chips or soaked chips.

How does smoking work?

Keeping the wood burning at a low temperature is critical.  Complete combustion of wood would produce only carbon dioxide and water vapor, which would be flavorless.  By keeping the temperature and oxygen levels low, we create incomplete reactions.  Because plant molecules are so big, they break down in lots of intermediary steps.  It’s these intermediary steps that produce the flavor compounds in smoke.

Understanding wood is critical to understanding smoke. Wood is primarily composed of two components, cellulose and lignin.  Cellulose makes up the bulk of all plants and the same is true with wood.  What makes wood special is its high lignin content, which makes it hard.  Cellulose is a carbohydrate, just a gigantic string of simple sugars.  Lignin is a phenolic polymer, a big string of aromatic alcohols.

As cellulose smolders, it produces ketones and organic acids responsible for the sweet and fruit flavors in smoked foods.  The organic acids like acetic acid and formic acid lower the pH and help preserve the meat.

As lignin smolders, it produces phenols.  Phenols are hugely important flavor chemicals that flavor wine, coffee, and just about everything tasty.  It is the phenols from lignin that preserve the meat (as antioxidants) and produce the complexity and that signature smoky aroma (guaiacol and syringol).  Smoked meat often tastes like other things because the same compounds are present in the meat.

Wood also contains some nitrogen, which produces nitrogen dioxide as it burns.  This nitrogen dioxide affixes to the myoglobin in the meat, which preserves color just like a nitrate salt.  However this can only be accomplished before the meat reaches 140, when the myoglobin is destroyed.

Smoked trout - this is the most basis approach and Ben suggests improvising with your own herbs and spices to make this your own.  You can use this in a salad, put on top of zucchini cakes, make a spread, top your toast, or anyway your taste buds guide you...

2 trout fillets
2 cups salt
1 cup sugar
4 cups hardwood chips, such as apple or oak

1) Pack the fillets in salt/sugar mixture overnight
2) Remove fillets, rinse clean and pat dry
3) Use what you can to smoke. If you have a smoker, just put the chips in and go. If not, soak the chips
for an hour and spread them over the coals of your barbeque. The key is to keep the temperature low (less than 120 F).
4) Smoke the trout for four hours, or until the flesh is firm and the outside is tacky.