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Where there’s smoke, there’s . . . flavorful food

Citizen Staff Writer



Want to adopt a healthier lifestyle? Take up smoking.

Smoking is the new frying, as it allows you to achieve flavorful, heart-healthier meals without saturating food with oil, butter or other fats.

While indoor stovetop units, ranging in price from about $30 to $150, won’t give that full-on smoky payoff of traditional, outdoor smoking techniques, they can get pretty close, said Wayne Bennett of Barbecue World, 5068 N. Oracle Road.

There’s a learning curve with indoor smokers, as they can be a little tricky, notes Aaron “The Smoker King” Ralston of Victor, Texas. Use too much liquid and too little ventilation, and you’ll cross the line between smoking and plain-old steaming. Use too much wood and too little ventilation and you’ll smoke a bitter, acrid flavor into your food. Use too much temperature and ventilation and you’ll be poking a broom toward your ceiling to turn off your blaring smoke alarms.

With a little practice and persistence, indoor smoking can become a fun and flavorful habit, said Ralston, a lifelong south Texas barbecue buff who runs a popular Web site and forum devoted to all things barbecue and smoking (thesmokerking.com).

“I prefer smoking the old fashioned way, but I have one of those stovetop smokers, and it actually works quite well,” said Ralston, who works as a financial consultant to support his smoking habit. “What’s nice about it is the temperature is easier to control than with charcoal, where you have to keep working with the amount of charcoal.”

The smoker’s mantra of “low and slow” still holds for indoor smoking, as keeping the temperature below 250 degrees will yield the best results, he said.

That’s complicated with indoor units, as they work by heating smaller, sawdust-type wood chips to about 375 degrees to get them to smolder, Bennett said. If you don’t initially heat the unit up to at least that temperature, you won’t get any smoke going. If you leave it at that temperature, however, you’ll have dry, bitter results, he said.

There’s an easy workaround to that problem, Bennett said: start the smoker on the the stovetop at 375 for about 30 minutes, then transfer it to the oven heated to 200 to 250 degrees.

That’s a tactic that outdoor smokers have long used Ralston said, as the meat is smoked conventionally, then wrapped in foil and finished low and slow in the oven.

You only need about a quarter-inch depth of liquid (water or otherwise) in the drip pans of stovetop smokers. Bennet’s liquid of choice is beer. Wine and orange juice are also popular alternatives, though they’re usually diluted with water, he said.

Ralston likes to cut up onions and garlic and toss them in the water, depending on what he’s smoking.

Good choices for beginners to optimize your chance of success are lighter meats or vegetables.

“Salmon or trout,” Ralston said, “come out nice in the stovetops with a nice, light woodlike Alder.”


• Camerons Stovetop Smokers: Models can be used to smoke or steam. The 3-inch deep, 11- by 15-inch oventop model retails for $49.50, while the Gourmet Mini Smoker (3x7x11 inches) is $29.50. cameronscookware.com/Smokers.aspx

• Emerilware 5-in-1 Smoker: Cast iron unit can be used to smoke, roast, grill, broil and deep fry. $100, emerilware.com

• Nordic Ware Kettle Smoker Indoor/Outdoor Cooker: Domed top allows for larger capacity. Includes removable thermometer. $100. nordicware.com


Half the fun of smoking is experimenting with different types and combinations of wood.

With outdoor smokers, you want to use wood chips that you soak in water, beer, wine or the liquid of your choice. Stovetop smokers use much smaller chips or sawdust. A less-expensive way to get small chips for stovetop smokers is to buy the cheaper, larger chips, drill holes in them and collect the sawdust, Bennett said.

If you’re using your own wood, make sure it’s dry, as green wood is a recipe for inedible bitterness.

Here is a primer on popular wood types from Ralston:


• Alder: Delicate wood is mild and smooth with a hint of sweetness. Good for fish, pork, poultry and vegetables.

• Apple: Gives off less smoke than other types. Imparts a sweet, fruity flavor and is often used in combination with mesquite or hickory.

• Cherry: Mild and fruity. Often combined with other woods.

• Grapevine: Brings a fruity, tart quality, but can be too acidic, so it’s not usually used solo.

• Pecan: Often used with mesquite for ribs. If used by itself, can actually result in meat that is too sweet.


• Hickory: Good for smoking pork ham and beef. A powerful wood that imparts a lot of smoke flavor but can result in bitterness if you use too much or smoke for too long.

• Mesquite: Burns hot and is also very powerful. Raslton’s favorite, though it must be used carefully to avoid overwhelming food.

• Oak: Red Oak variety is the most popular, but Ralston finds oak to be “superstrong and smoky,” thus he normally cautions against its use.

• Acacia: Similar to mesquite but less powerful. A good choice for softer meats and vegetables.

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