There's a primal wonder to smoked food — that such depth of flavor can come from so simple a technique. And then, of course, there's the lure of the sunny afternoon spent in a lawn chair with a cold beer while you're waiting, patiently, for the Weber to work its magic.
But what if it starts raining? The audacity of the weather! Of course, not all smoking needs to be done outdoors. Find a large roasting pan. Grab a cooling rack, some heavy foil and a baking tin for a makeshift drip container. You're ready to smoke. Right in the kitchen. Right on the stove top. Rain or no rain.
Stove-top smoking is certainly not a new concept: Scatter some wood chips in a roasting pan, and put the meat on a rack to sit above it. Loosely cover the pan and heat. Watch for the chips to start smoking, and cover tight; then smoke to desired doneness. Voila.
There's nothing complicated about stove-top smoking; it's probably easier to master than smoking outdoors. You don't have to mess with charcoal or vents, deal with chambers or manage chips or pellets for hours on end.
On the stove top, you regulate the heat by adjusting the burner knob. It's easy to set up (make a smoker from kitchen odds and ends, or buy a commercially made one).
And though you'll smell the smoke, most of it should be contained within the pan (you may get a faint wisp, but nothing to set off the smoke alarm).
But like everything, stove-top smoking does have its limitations. First is size: Since the smokers have to be small enough to fit on the stove, you may not have the surface area you get with a regular smoker.
Further, because the smoke is tightly contained, stove-top smokers can impart flavor quickly, so you'll need to keep a careful eye on them to make sure food doesn't come out smelling like a campfire.
It's amazing the depth of flavor just a little smoke can impart to a dish. But there's more to it than mere "smokiness." You'll find a great variety of character, depending on the type of wood used and its intensity.
Woods range from assertive hickory to delicate apple. Cherry is pronounced, and pecan lends a fragrant nuttiness. Mesquite can be either delicately sweet or overwhelmingly assertive depending on how (and how much) it is used. It's not hard to find alder chips (popular in the Northwest) or corncob (possibly best known in the Northeast). Or try flavored hardwoods — say, wine casks or bourbon-soaked oak.
For stove-top smoking, look for small chips or shavings; they smolder more readily than larger chips.
Experiment with different woods, and try blending. Like spice blends, smoker blends can impart distinct, layered flavors and lend amazing depth to a dish. Try adding aromatics to the blend, such as herbs, spices or citrus peel.
You can even smoke without any wood at all. You can use a variety of teas, including Lapsang souchong, which smokes beautifully. Fragrant jasmine tea imparts a flavor that's amazingly delicate and sweet, subtle and flirtatiously aromatic.
And you can't beat that smoky aroma. As the food smokes, reach into the fridge for a cold beer. Now if only a lawn chair would fit in the kitchen.
Hickory-smoked baby back ribs
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 2 hours
Makes: 4 servings
This recipe calls for a commercial stove-top smoker; a heavy-duty roasting pan with a rack and lid can be substituted. This recipe uses small hardwood hickory chips; the chips are available at select cooking stores and are widely available online.
1 tablespoon each: coarse salt, celery salt, black pepper, onion powder, dried oregano, New Mexico chili powder, cumin
2 tablespoons each: garlic powder, sweet paprika
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 rack baby back ribs, 2-2 1/2 pounds Small hardwood hickory chips
1/4 cup each: distilled vinegar, water, Dijon mustard
1. Whisk together the coarse salt, celery salt, black pepper, onion powder, dried oregano, chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, sweet paprika and brown sugar in a medium bowl. (This makes more than you'll need; store extra rub in an airtight container in a dark, cool place up to 2 months.)
2. Peel away the membrane on the underside of the ribs. Sprinkle a small handful of rub evenly over each side of the rack. Pat on the rub; gently shake to remove any excess. Place the ribs on a rack in a rimmed baking sheet; refrigerate overnight.
3. Spread about 3 tablespoons wood chips in the center of the base of the smoker, directly over the burner. Place the drip pan (if using) over the chips; place a rack on top of the drip pan. Place the ribs in the center of the rack; cover with the lid, leaving the smoker open only a couple of inches. (Halve the rack if the whole rack won't fit, and smoke half at a time.)
4. Heat the smoker over medium heat just until you see smoke escaping through the opening. Close the smoker; gently smoke ribs 1 hour, lowering heat to medium-low if ribs are cooking too quickly. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 250 degrees. Combine the vinegar, water and mustard in a measuring cup; add 2 tablespoons of the rub. Whisk together.
5. Place the smoked ribs in a baking dish; drizzle with the vinegar mixture. Cover with foil; bake until the meat easily pulls away from the bone, about 1 hour. Uncover the dish; cook the ribs under the broiler until the surface crisps, if desired.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 468 calories, 34 grams fat, 13 grams saturated fat, 134 milligrams cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 1,015 milligrams sodium, 1 gram fiber