Smoke is an aroma that permeates the senses of Kansas City, literally and metaphorically.
By TYLER FOX
It is as much a part of our city’s identity as the bubbling waters of our fountains or the green-bordered boulevards that we drive daily. Smoke is the backbone flavor and ingredient that makes up the soul of Kansas City’s particular take on America’s most unique cuisine – barbecue. But it is important to understand smoke as an ingredient.
Smoke in many forms was on full billowing display last weekend as the American Royal World Series of Barbecue took place in the West Bottoms of Kansas City. Barbecue teams from around the country competed in various categories showcasing the art of barbecue from pork ribs and shoulders to chicken and brisket, each emerging from eclectic smoking vessels as varied as the team members themselves.
Judges picked winners based on specific criteria and awarded champions for their ability to harness and flavor with the power of smoke. It was, quite simply, a barbecue nirvana.
While numerous books have been written on the difference between “smoking” and “grilling” when it comes to barbecue, these are only a small part of understanding how smoke works as an ingredient.
It is a distinctive and almost indescribable component to any recipe in that it is not something that can be measured in cups and tablespoons. But smoke is also a method as much as an ingredient and it goes far beyond the realm of just barbecue.
The method of smoking ingredients has been used since the early days of humanity to cook and preserve food. Certainly early man’s meals didn’t resemble a juicy bite of LC’s burnt ends, but smoking played an important role, along with other curing methods like salting, in allowing people to make food supplies last longer. Over time other preserving methods took more prominence and smoking became used more for its flavor than any preservative qualities.
Today, there are a number of different ways smoke makes it into our food. There are cold and hot smoking techniques, which use different temperatures to infuse the flavor into ingredients like fish and meat.
Cold smoking is used to flavor rather than cook cured ingredients like bacon or salmon. Hot smoking is also used for flavoring but at obviously hotter temperatures. It is not to be confused with smoke roasting or barbecuing, which are the “low and slow” method pit masters always talk about.
This generally is an indirect method of cooking over fire or in an oven where the temperatures hover in the sub 300-degree level and the smoke slowly permeates the food as it cooks for hours. The magic combination of low heat source and smoke produce ethereal results from otherwise tough cuts of meats, breaking down the various intramuscular tissues and fibers.
Modern cooking has seen newer technology bring smoke into ingredients that would have never been possible before. Today you can get smoked beer and spirits, wood smoked fruits and cheeses and more. Chefs and mixologists have become particularly adept at finding ways to add smoky flavors to dishes and cocktails. These speak to the sentiment that technology is often the craftsman’s way to make modern statements on traditional practices.
But it is that time honored, subtly sauced tradition of barbecue that serves as America’s homegrown food pastime. Whether it is the open fires of Texas, the metal smokers shaped like pigs or the generations of smoke seasoned, blackened walls of Arthur Bryant’s smokers in Kansas City, barbecue is unique and slightly different in every corner of the country.
In that way, it defines identity in its differences, bringing all types together to form one far-reaching cuisine to call our own. Smoke is the one ingredient that runs through every component of our barbecue pastime, classifying, cooking and flavoring it for us all.
Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.