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Where There’s Smoke

Drifting soon through an open window near you.

You can see it. Smell it. Taste it. Yet it’s not always easy to put a finger on what makes one of humankind’s oldest cooking techniques so appealing. Different people have different reasons for loving smoked foods. For some, it’s tradition. For earlier generations, it was a valuable preservation technique. And for everyone who enjoys the simplicity — all you need are heat, wood and an enclosed space to protect the food, control airflow and concentrate the smoke — many more enjoy the subtleties of the process. But when the final embers have glowed their last, one fact remains. Smoking provides unsurpassed flavor.

A common pre-cooking step involves brining. The goal is to keep the chicken — the white meat in particular — as moist and tender as possible while it’s smoking. Both pre-cut chicken and whole birds can be brined, 2-4 hours for individual parts and as long as 8-12 hours for entire chickens (in the 3-3½ pound range). A basic brining solution is simply water and sea salt or kosher salt (1 cup salt to 1 gallon water), but you can also add sweeteners such as sugar or honey, dried or fresh herbs and spices. Just keep the meat fully submerged in the refrigerator while you’re brining the chicken, and discard the brining solution when you’re through with it.

Woods working.

The variety of wood and wood products available today for smoking has never been better. Nearly every hardware store, grocery store and cooking specialty shop offers a selection ranging from more mild in flavor (pear, apple, cherry) to stronger (hickory, oak, mesquite). Your choice of wood also influences the color of the finished food. Apple or cherry is a classic wood for smoking chicken, and you can find it in chunk, chip or pellet form. Often, wood chunks or chips are soaked in water ahead of time to produce smoke without catching fire and creating flames. And note, wood isn’t the only thing people use for smoking. Tea leaves are another option, even indoors.

You brined the birds overnight. You patiently tended the fire and kept an eye on the chickens throughout the day. Now it’s time to serve Rosemary-Peppercorn Brined Smoked Whole Chicken. Beautiful and full of flavor, this is pure smoked perfection. But wait. There’s something else you can do just before the chicken is done. An hour or so beforehand, add some veggies — halved red onions and beefsteak tomatoes, corn on the cob and fresh chiles. That’s all you need to make a simple, healthy side dish, Smoky Summer Solstice Salsa. And don’t forget about the sauce. To keep things easy, start with an off-the-shelf BBQ sauce, and make it your own with simple variations – Smoky Chipotle, Asian Zing, Tropical Zest, Sweet & Savory and North African Heat.

Want more information about smoking chicken? Those two search words yield more than 58 million results in Google. Another good resource is your county or university extension office, which often provide a wealth of information about food and cooking such as this flyer from Texas A&M. And of course, be sure and sample the local fare from the pitmasters in your region. Will they give up their secrets? Probably not, but with enough time and practice, you’ll start discovering secrets of your own.