- Barbecue was identified as the most popular flavour on restaurant and pub menus in 2018, according to MCA Insight's Menu Tracker.
- The kind of wood used to fire the grill or the smoker has a huge impact on flavour. Oak and hickory provide a pungent and heavy smoke flavour, while fruit woods like apple and cherry impart a milder, fruity and sweet flavour.
- A smoked watermelon 'ham' sold out at Duck's Eatery in New York last November after it received widespread attention online. The fruit is cured for up to six days before being smoked for eight hours and finished in a pan to resemble a smoked gammon joint.
Barbecue and smoking cured ingredients are, of course, well-used cooking techniques found in cuisines around the globe. But as Richard Turner told Food Spark last year, the skill levels on show in the UK are improving every year.
Smoking is seriously hot in restaurants right now and experimentation knows no bounds. Professional kitchens, new and old, are being kitted out with wood-fired grills and smokers as chefs embrace fire and smoke.
Innovation is there in many quarters. You'll find smoked spuds – cooked over a covered grill until the insides turn soft – on the menu at Brat in London and Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, with the latter poaching the potatoes in kombu butter before they hit the grill.
At the Berber & Q restaurants in London, a wide array of vegetables – from cauliflower and broccoli, to sweet potato and beetroot – are given the same treatment on a charcoal mangal grill as their meat and fish counterparts.
Up in Cumbria, chef Kevin Tickle smokes ewe's curd with oak chips in a Bradley Smoker, serving it with salt-baked and smoked golden beetroot at The Forest Side. “The idea for this dish was conceived while I was pike fishing on Lake Windermere in front of a camp fire and over a few cans of beer," he says. "The smoky elements of the beetroot and ewe's curd are balanced by crispy puffed barley and peppery cuckoo flower.'”
Chef Tommy Heaney is a “massive fan” of ceramic barbecue grill Big Green Egg and had one installed in his kitchen when he opened his eponymous restaurant in Cardiff. He's been experimenting widely with different wood and ingredients since.
“I've made smoked milk ice cream, smoked salmon, smoked pork belly and smoked lamb belly, which I also did on Great British Menu,” he says. “And our new wine bar, which will be next door to Heaney’s, will have briskets and other cured/smoked meats such as pastrami.”
Tommy Heaney, head chef and owner of Heaney’s, Cardiff, makes smoked duck ham for the restaurant's charcuterie board: “We dry age our Goosnargh duck breast for about two weeks before we start to cure them. Then it’s a two-day process of curing in salt and maple syrup – nothing too overpowering as I still like the flavour of the duck to come through. This cure just slowly cooks the duck, much like tiger’s milk does with ceviche. Once we’ve cured the meat, I then use apple wood, which is very sweet and mild, and smoke the duck meat on the Big Green Egg at a very low temperature for a long time. Then it’s just a matter of slicing the duck ham and serving it up as part of our charcuterie board. The curing process changes the texture of the meat and the slow cooking prevents it from becoming tough. I've found that apple wood lends itself the best to the duck meat. It adds a very sweet and mild flavour that doesn’t overbear the natural flavours of the duck; rather, it just heightens the flavour, giving it notes of sweetness. The duck ham can sing for itself and we serve it just as it is.”
Vincent Menager, corporate executive chef EMEA at The One Group, serves smoked aubergine puree with roasted lamb saddle at STK in London: “I enjoy smoking ingredients at STK as it brings a very different experience to the plate. To make the smoked aubergine puree, I grill the aubergine without adding any oil to it, turning up the heat on the grill until the skin is fully blackened and the aubergine is fully cooked. Once cooked and warm, I peel off the skin and remove the head, then chop with a knife until it's fine, but still with some texture. Then I add a touch of extra virgin olive oil, seasoning, confit garlic and chopped coriander leaves just before serving it. The smoke brings a great range of extra flavour and smell to the food. The smell is a very important factor in the sensorial aspect of eating and as such develops the intensity of flavour. Lamb and smoked aubergine is a very traditional flavour from the Mediterranean. Alongside the lamb we also have a cucumber, mint and yogurt sauce and a quinoa salad which makes the dish fresh and varied in texture too.”
Jeremy Chan, head chef at Ikoyi, London, makes a dish of tiger nut mousse with golden caviar and smoked oil: “The dish is a light mousse made with tubers called tiger nuts. We cook the tiger nuts with smoked peppercorns, black garlic and organic beetroots. It’s then whipped for a very long time to allow the starches in the tubers to give a rich velvety texture to the mousse. The smokiness of the peppercorns interacts wonderfully with the earthiness of the beetroot. There is something primal and earthy about the two flavours, sweet, deep and aromatic. The caviar, which is slightly smoked, also has a really light burst crunch to it, combined with the sweet and smokey mousse creates a really interesting synergy. The smokiness is enhanced by finishing the dish with smoked oil, adding an even more complex texture and flavour profile.”