Chef Grant Achatz, of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, has served a dish in which he set a stick of wood on fire with a blowtorch, blew it out, then trapped the smoke in an overturned glass tumbler. The smoke-filled tumbler was placed over a morsel of smoked beef tongue on a plate, then whisked out to the diner. At the table, only a miniature maelstrom was visible until the server removed the tumbler, setting the fragrant smoke free.
Whether it’s the charred smell of a backyard burger or the yeasty, sugary aroma of a doughnut, scent has a lot to do with how we taste food. Traditionally, the aroma of a dish has come only from the ingredients it was cooked with. Not anymore. Chefs like Achatz are making complementary-smelling smokes and vapors, capturing them in chambers and plastic bags, and then releasing them tableside to add depth and complexity to their accompanying dishes.
To do this, they’re using two new, unconventional tools.
The Smoking Gun
(Presently in its prototype phase, it can be ordered directly from PolyScience starting in early February. It is not currently pictured on the company’s website.)
The problem with setting fire to wood in the kitchen is that occasionally the fire has to be stomped out. Achatz asked inventor and collaborator Philip Preston, president of the manufacturing company PolyScience, to create a simple, portable method for making smoke to trap under glasses and serve to diners. The result was the Smoking Gun.
At a glance, the Smoking Gun looks like a black handgun with a pipe bowl fitted on top. You put what you want to burn in the bowl, light it (preferably with a long candle lighter), and then flip a small switch on the back of the handle that turns on an internal fan that sucks air from the bowl. Your smoke comes out the plastic pipe barrel. The device runs on two AA batteries.
A sample of mesquite sawdust comes with the gun to get you smoking quickly. You can also buy a wide variety of sawdust from barbeque-wood suppliers or make your own. Just use a dedicated burr grinder to process fine chips.
When we tried adding herbs and spices on their own, they tended to smell acrid when burned. Mixed with sawdust, they worked fine. Sage, thyme, lavender, and clove all burned well and released intriguing scents.
Beware of your smoke detector, especially if you have a sprinkler system. And be forewarned that the smell of smoke will linger on your hands, hair, and clothing—not necessarily a bad thing.
Try filling a clear glass with smoke and using it à la Achatz. If smoked beef tongue isn’t your thing, try obscuring something incongruous, like a tiny salad.
You can also marinate foods in smoke by capturing the smoke in a bag or container that holds your food. Wylie Dufresne has served a smoked lettuce at wd-50 infused with the Smoking Gun.
Storz & Bickel, $539
The German-made Volcano is widely used by discerning cannabis connoisseurs because it allows them to inhale active ingredients without smoking. It heats substances with hot air rather than burning them, releasing aroma without carbon particulates.
The silver volcano-shaped base has a filling chamber at the top, and attaches to a large inflatable balloon that captures the wispy-white vapors.
Because the Volcano does not burn substances, it will not make a dramatically visible smoke, but it will still create powerful scents. These can be released directly from the vaporizer tableside, or into individual gallon-sized Ziploc bags, punctured immediately before serving so that the aroma gently wafts around you.
Chefs at Alinea make their own custom bags for the Volcano, fill them with vapor, and then fit them inside fine linen pillowcases that serve as puffy placemats for some dishes. Before serving, they pierce the pillow with a large syringe needle so that the aroma can be slowly released when a plate is placed on the pillow.
Warmly scented spices, such as mace, which comes from the same fruit as nutmeg and smells similar, work very well with the Volcano, as do clove, cinnamon, and star anise. These strong flavors can overpower a dish, but used as an aroma, they offer complexity even to simple root-vegetable purées.
The Volcano comes with a wiry stainless steel liquid pad that lets you vaporize essential oils.
Concentrated substances work best, releasing the most aroma without having to evaporate water first. So if you want an apple aroma, dehydrate the apple first, and then crush it so that there’s more surface area.
You’ll still want your salt and pepper, but aromas as seasonings can add an ethereal dimension to your dishes.