Smoking for dummies: Hersh's Josh Hershkovitz breaks it down, with recipes

In about two weeks, Josh Hershkovitz will be welcoming a beautiful 400-pound baby into his home.

In about two weeks, Josh Hershkovitz will be welcoming a beautiful 400-pound baby into his home.

This baby, made of quarter-inch-thick steel, comes from Horizon Smokers, America's Barbecue Outfitter, based out of Perry, Oklahoma.

"It was important to me to get an American-made one," Hershkovitz says of the horizontal offset-style smoker with a 16-inch barrel that will soon be delivered to his home.

Hershkovitz, who owns and operates the pizza and pasta restaurant Hersh's (1843 Light St., [443] 438-4948, hershspizza.com) with his sister Stephanie, is eager to get his newest gadget onto his deck and fired up, with the help of his family and co-workers.

"I promised them if you help me get it on the deck then first thing I will get a small suckling pig, throw it on the smoker, and you guys will be there to help eat it," Hershkovitz says.

After MacGyvering a smaller smoker out of a hotel pan on top of the stove in Hersh's, Hershkovitz decided that he was ready to experiment with a bigger and more efficient version. He explains that the larger horizontal style smoker's thick steel skin makes it better at retaining smoke than the smaller, vertical-style smokers that are more popular for purchase. Although there it is a trend to work with high-tech gadgets such as immersion circulators for cooking sous vide, he prefers older and more traditional methods. "The way people have been using smoke for millennia is amazing to me, and I love playing around with stuff like that," Hershkovitz says.

Smoking meats in modern smokers can take seven hours or more depending on the size of the meat, but that's nothing compared to the multiple days or week it took to cure meats in smokehouses during the days of George Washington in the 18th century, says Hershkovitz. He's inspired by and enamored with these historical methods of preserving and cooking foods that include salted and dehydrated meat in smokehouses and the French-style duck confit.

"I'd love to build a smokehouse," he says, "but I don't think anybody really does that anymore."

He distinguishes between cold smoking, hot smoking, and traditional barbecue, and explains that the trick is all in the temperature and the amount of time you cook it for. "Anything over 180 degrees is going to be barbecue," Hershkovitz says. Hot smoking happens at a lower temperature for a longer period of time, allowing the meat to take on more flavor. Cold smoking happens at an even lower temperature typically for a much shorter time, so that the food gains the smoky flavor without getting cooked. Keeping a steady temperature with the live flame, he says, is the most challenging part of learning how to use a smoker.

You can alter the flavor of the smoke by swapping out the more-common wood chips for charcoal, or even dried-out corncobs. The dried and crushed corncobs, Hershkovitz says, will yield a sweet, nutty flavor in the same way maple wood gives bacon that sweet flavor. Sometimes he chooses his material based off what he is cooking, like using apple wood from the apple trees in the Northwest to complement the flavor of the wild Alaskan salmon currently in season. Both Hershkovitz and his family are barbecue fanatics and enjoy sampling all the different styles of barbecue from St. Louis and Texas styles, to Hawaiian and even Korean and Chinese. He wants to try some of the methods these latter regions use to flavor their meats, such as wrapping it in banana, fig, plantain, or even tea leaves.

Hershkovitz especially enjoys smoking fish, particularly salmon, trout, and mackerel, a fish he says is perfect for smoking due to its oily composition. Smoking vegetables using cold-smoking techniques is another method he often incorporates into his cooking. Through the use of a nifty kitchen gadget called a smoking gun that, according to Hershkovitz, "was definitely developed by drug users" because of its uncanny resemblance to a pipe, he can smoke foods at a lower temperature of under 100 degrees to not cook the food, but just give it that smoky flavor.

The smoking gun allows Hershkovitz to fill the receptacle on top of the device with either wood chips or spices such as cumin seed, heat them up with a lighter, and, using a fan that pulls the smoke through the chamber and out of the tube, cool the smoke and direct it right onto the intended item. The smoke is cool enough that it can be used on just about anything, from cheese and nuts to olives.

Hershkovitz sounds like a barbecue expert as he describes his many methods of incorporating smoky flavors into his cooking, but "it's all been trying to figure it out as I go," he says. The internet, while a great source of misinformation, he says, has been a central tool for him in figuring out how to play around with the various methods and variations. Online forums and Facebook friends have also been helpful, although Hershkovitz hopes to talk at some point to a few of the many food truck owners in Baltimore who smoke their own meats in their small traveling restaurants.

With the arrival of his next baby just around the corner, Hershkovitz's only concern is that after using it at home he will want a second smoker on site at Hersh's. He's provided instructions below to make a stove-top smoker as well as two recipes for smoking meat at home.

So you wanna smoke at home (Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the kitchen supply store), by Josh Hershkovitz

To smoke food, you basically need a receptacle for burning/smoking wood that can withstand direct flame and is big enough to hold a perforated receptacle to hold the smoked food with enough room to let the smoke circulate, as well as a well-fitting lid (or foil or wet towels or anything else) to keep the smoke in. You probably have lots of pans and containers in your house that would work for this, but I made mine using parts easily found at kitchen supply stores or Amazon.

Supplies

A full-size hotel pan, preferably 6 inches deep ( I prefer stainless steel to aluminum as you will be sitting this over the gas burners on your stove and want it to last)

A full-size perforated hotel pan, preferably 2 inches deep

A 10-by-18-inches wire grate/cooling rack

A domed full-size hotel pan cover

Directions

To set up, place the full-size hotel pan over two burners on your stove, preferably front to back. Place the perforated tray in next, then the wire rack, and finally your lid.

To use, put piles of soaked wood chips/chunks of your choice over the approximate location of the burners inside the hotel pan. Start with 2 cups of chips per pile just to get a sense of how much you are using. Turn your burners on to medium and put the lid on. When you start to see the desired amount of smoke, it is ready. It is easy to adjust the burners to adjust for too little or too much smoke.

While the smoker is heating up, spray the wire grate with nonstick spray and arrange the subject to smoke on the grate, making sure to leave enough room around individual pieces to allow smoke to freely circulate. Place the grate in the perforated hotel pan.

When the smoker is ready, carefully (as it should be pretty hot and smoky at this point) place the perforated hotel pan, wire rack, and smoking subject in the full hotel pan and cover.

If too much smoke is escaping, you may line the lid with wet towels or anything else that will hold the smoke in. Remember that you do want some smoke to escape, as a traditional smoker has a chimney so that your food is just not getting pumped with new smoke that will mix with the soon-to-be-acrid smoke that is not escaping.

From time to time, depending on your smoke time, you may need to refresh the pile of chips as they do burn up. Carefully remove the lid and perforated pan (again, HOT!) and place the wet chips on the already smoldering piles. Reassemble and keep on smokin'.

I suggest getting a thermometer for the smoker to help control smoking temperature and a thermometer for whatever meat you are smoking to help determine doneness.

Smoked wild Alaskan salmon

Ingredients

2 2-pound fillets of wild Alaskan salmon (I prefer sockeye, second choice is coho), pin bones removed but skin still on

1 gallon cold water

1 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

1 lemon

Directions

Whisk together water, salt, and sugar. Halve the lemon, squeeze the juice into the brine, and throw lemons in as well. Pour brine over fish in a tub or baking dish. Brine for up to 24 hours, but at least 8 hours, in the refrigerator. This brine is super simple, as the wild salmon speaks for itself. The brine just adds salt and helps the fish retain moisture while smoking. It also starts the "cooking" process by curing the fish.

Remove fish from the brine and rinse.

For the smoking, I prefer maple or apple wood for the chips for this recipe, as they lend a slight sweetness to the finished product. If using the stovetop smoker, heat over a medium flame, so that the fish can be smoked right at 300 degrees or so.

Smoke the fish for 20 minutes, or until it reaches your preferred doneness. Pull the fish out when it is still a tiny bit underdone in the center as it will continue to cook once off the heat, producing a perfectly moist smoked salmon.

Smoked lamb belly (aka lamb bacon)

Ingredients

2 1-pound lamb breasts (try to get them boneless, but boning it is pretty simple. If you don't want to bone it, smoke it whole and you'll have an amazing rack of smoked lamb ribs)

2 tablespoons ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ground fennel seed

1 teaspoon red pepper flake

1 teaspoon mustard powder

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin (you can omit this if you are one of those crazy cumin haters)

1/4 cup kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground coriander

Directions

Combine everything except the lamb in a bowl. Put lamb in baking dish and pack the rub onto the lamb. Press down making sure lamb is covered all over.

Wrap bellies tightly in plastic and leave in baking dish. I let the bellies sit for 48 hours with the rub in the fridge. If you only have 1 day to let them sit, put a brick or other weight on top.

Remove the bellies from plastic and allow them to dry some in the air as you get the smoker ready. I prefer maple wood chips here, but something heartier like hickory works well too. Heat over a medium flame to get to about 300 degrees in the smoker.

Smoke for 2 to 2.5 hours. Keep a thermometer handy to check the temperature on occasion. You don't want the belly going over 160 degrees as it will dry out too much.

Feel free to eat right out of the smoker, or chill, slice, and fry like bacon.

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