How to Create a Soft Smoke.
Smoke That Isn’t Too Strong
I’VE FOUND AN EXCITING NEW/OLD SMOKING CAR. It’s a fuel for smoking fish that can be found in any farm supply store, hardware store, or even supermarket, and it’s also cheap. Corn. Corn kernels, dried whole.
The aroma is reminiscent of tall cornstalks rustling while hunting pheasant on a cool autumn day. A hint of popcorn wafts an organic, sweet vegetable smoke into the air, giving off an almost floral scent. It has an earthy flavor, similar to wood smoke, but it is not as rough. It’s the smoke that’s “soft.”
Corn smoke, in contrast to the harshness of mesquite and hickory wood for smoking (except for hams, bacon, and the like), is calming to the palate and has a more… serene aroma.
Like the aroma of a fine, aged burgundy, if you will. Fish that has been gently caressed with corn smoke is naturally sweet.
Encasing fish in what I call a soft smoke environment could just be a case of rediscovering something old — corn has a long history, and I’ve been using corncobs in my smokehouse for years — but stick with me; I think you’ll be pleased with the results if you try it.
Stoves that burn corn
I first noticed dried corn being used as a heat source in corn-fired stoves a few years ago, which was a relatively new concept in heating units. I’d heard of pellet-fired stoves before (we live in a cold climate and use wood-burning stoves), but corn-fired stoves were new to me.
It had a lot of potentials. I went looking for corn-fired stoves to look at (which were few and far between, given how new they were), but I ended up finding dried corn in a farm supply store, the same one where you buy garden seeds, spring sets, and bird feed. I thought I was on to something while sleuthing with my culinary curiosity.
The owner of the farm supply store proudly lit both his new stove and a cooking grill, which he used to heat the storefront. Many small, unglazed porcelain plaque-like squares, pierced full of holes, cover the top of the grill, just beneath the grate. The goal is similar to that of lava rocks: to collect, store, and expel heat. The porcelain plaques, on the other hand, are placed between the food and the burning corn. The store owner informed me that the food did not benefit from the smoldering corn.
Why not? I wondered. While burning, the corn released a distinct perfumed aroma, not sickly perfume sweet, but organic, more fieldlike, like a downwind breeze off a late summer cornfield or popcorn popping. “Why not put that byproduct to use?” I reasoned. It had a pleasant fragrance. Why not use the dried corn for more than just heat?
I realized why a corn-fired grill imparts very little flavor to food if any. It has been fired at an excessively high temperature in order to generate heat. It will not smolder or emit smoke.
That system is something I would change in the future.
So, to begin experimenting and testing recipes, I mixed two-thirds whole dried corn kernels with one-third dried cracked corn, based on my experience burning hardwood chips over the years. Small chips, shavings, or sawdust are frequently mixed with larger chunks of wood in my projects. The mixture ignites the smaller chips first, followed by the larger chips, effectively blending the burning process from one size to the next.
Large chunks of wood, on the other hand, take longer to burn. The size ratio is, of course, \sconsiderably different — large wood chunks are bigger than dried corn kernels yet the concept still applies. I continued my experimenting, mixing, and \ssmoldering; I wanted to devise a way for a grill to be used as a smoker.
I filled a pan with dried corn kernels, covered it, ignited it, and laid a fillet on the grill. I shut the lid but couldn’t contain my eagerness and opened it too \smany times, until the need to slap my own hand took over and I behaved long \senough to eventually smoke-grill the first fillet, which was, incidentally, a \srainbow trout.
The most impressive aspect of that first time smoking with a corn smoke \swas the aroma. Wonderfully delicious it was, as I described earlier. Tasting, \ssmacking my lips, and embracing the results of my newfound process, I \sdeemed it a success; indeed, it smokes.
Read on and you, too, can create a delicate, smoky taste using dried corn \skernels. The best part? It’s easily accomplished on any outdoor grill.
Often, even while using the soft smoke technique, I’ll lay on a stick or two \sof pruned grapevines that I’ve cut to fit the smoke pan or a chunk or two of \sapple, maple, or sassafras wood, whichever I have on hand. Once the corn has finished smoldering, the wood continues to burn, thus increasing the length of \ time for smoking. Usually, however, I prefer just the use of corn kernels. I’ll offer instructions for both a pure corn smoke and a mix because the taste is \different and some people like the added woodsy flavor of a mix to their \sfoods.
I suggest you first try a recipe using corn alone and then compare by \sadding a few pieces of wood to the mix with another recipe — or better yet, the \ssame recipe — and discover how they vary. What do you have to lose? About \s35 cents, the cost of 1 pound of dried whole corn. (Cheaper even in 50-pound \sbags in my area — 12 cents a pound!)
How to Do It Yourself
Now for the how-to business. Whole corn will combust occasionally \sthroughout the smoke-grilling process, especially if you don’t use a cover on \sthe smoke pan. A cover, however, is a must to choke off oxygen, so don’t go without one. Even with a cover, you need to be vigilant, handy with a misting \sbottle or a cup of water to sprinkle over the flames.
Combustion will occur whether you are using corn kernels or wood chips. So don’t go off to split some wood or pick up the telephone to call Aunt Millie; the grill needs your full attention.
To the grill. I’m generalizing now perhaps, in describing a typical grill that many outdoor cooking enthusiasts own, but let’s assume your gas grill — more about charcoal later — is on a portable frame with wheels, is waist-high, and has at least two burners down in the innards of the unit, possibly four, six, or \seven eight burners if you’ve spent more money for a substantial product.
This grill will have one or two ascending warming shelves above the \sgrilling area. The porcelain or enameled grates that support the food are in two \ssections and able to slide back and forth and be removed for ease of cleaning.
Many grills are adaptable in one way or another. With a little ingenuity and improvisation, anyone can convert a grill for smoke grilling within minutes.
The internal size of the grill on which I primarily used to test recipes can \saccommodate a smoke pan (a cast-iron box in which to hold corn kernels) equipped with a vented cover. Your specific size requirements may vary, but a good smoke pan should span two cast-iron burners.
I’ve found this to be enough for one smoking session, 45 minutes to an hour, and enough time to cook and flavor fish. With additional wood, or more corn, you can easily extend the time needed to complete smoking but you’ll have to first remove the charred \sbits and discard them. Read more about smoke pans on page 14.
In a pinch, you may simply fashion your own makeshift smoke pan out of \sheavy-duty aluminum foil. Some grills’ high BTUs, however, are powerful \senough to melt the aluminum.
This happened to me the first time I tried it on a \snew grill. Use two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil and don’t place the \saluminum directly on the burner where the heat is the most intense. With the \shelp of small stones or half a brick, create an air space between the aluminum pan” and the burner by raising the pan off the flame. This small bit of extra effort will serve you well for many smokings.
Charcoal. Charcoal? Of course. The same standards apply whether you use gas or charcoal for the heat source. It doesn’t matter; you merely want to combust the corn and/or wood. You are not using corn or wood for heat gas or charcoal will be doing that.
First, you must ignite the charcoal to get it burning and hot. Never use \scharcoal lighter fluid! It will taint your food to the point where a distinct \spetroleum flavor will dominate, something you definitely do not want. Some \smanufacturers claim that their product does not affect the flavor of the food, \sbut why even worry about it when small sticks or newspapers are readily available and often more efficient?
Electric coils are handy when you grill near the house or close to an outlet.
Lay the coils on a baking or other type of flat fireproof pan. Mound charcoal on top and plugin. The coals will ignite in about 20 minutes; you can then transfer them directly to the grill.
Chimney starters are a smart concept. Old newspaper is lit inside and at \sthe bottom of an aluminum “tower,” above which is held charcoal chunks. As the newspaper burns, the charcoal ignites, ready in about 15 minutes. Even with a small bowl-shaped tabletop grill with a lid, you can create a \ssmoky environment, just on a smaller scale.
Make an aluminum smoke pan as \sdescribed above, to fit under one side of the grill. After lighting the charcoal and letting it come to the proper temperature, place the covered aluminum or \scast-iron smoke pan holding corn kernels and/or wood chips directly on the \scoals, on one side. The other side will hold the food directly on the grate.
Cover and cook for about 45 minutes, depending upon the recipe, size of the \sgrill, and amount of food.
A note on cooking times: In my recipe testing, most fish that had been \sgrilled over charcoal took about one-third less cooking time than those cooked over gas because of the more intense heat from charcoal. So take into \sconsideration the time for gas grills as opposed to charcoal grills and adjust the \scooking times, or you may burn your carefully prepared meal.
The following applies to either a gas or a charcoal grill. Using either a castiron smoke pan or an aluminum foil “pan,” pour in 2 to 3 cups of whole corn \skernels and cover. Set the pan on top of the heat source, either directly on top of the charcoals or over the cast-iron gas burners. The box should be centered \sunder the grate.
After about 10 minutes, when the smoke begins to rise, place \sthe food on the grill, directly over the smoke. When you use charcoal, you may \sneed to occasionally shift aside spent charcoal ashes and replace them with new coals if the smoking time exceeds, say, an hour. For most fish recipes, 45 \sminutes to an hour should be enough for a hot smoke, however.
You will see the corn become a solid, blackened mass, a wafer that when \scooled down is light as a feather and can be picked up and snapped in half.
Why? This is the sugar burning off within the corn, leaving its residue.
Continue to smoke until the mass is totally black. It will not adversely affect \sthe food, as charred wood and charcoal do not influence taste as they burn. If you need to continue smoking beyond the time the corn has expended itself, remove the pan with protective mitts or gloves, lift out the burned wafer with a \smetal spatula or simply dump it out into a metal or other heatproof container, \sadd more corn kernels, and return the pan to the grill.
The wafer may continue to smolder when you are finished, so be sure to put \sit into a metal container or clean an aluminum paint tray lined with aluminum foil.
Once it has cooled, it can be easily and safely discarded.
There you have it. Enjoy soft smoke on a grill.