Up In Smoke

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The day had not been an especially good one. Between a hefty workload, arguments at work, and my own physical exhaustion, 7pm last night found me wearily huddled outside in my raincoat, under the portico of a friendly beer cart.

The weather had been threatening a nice, heavy, Portland soaker all day, and now it was coming through. My body ached in places I didn’t know existed. I was angry, cold, and exhausted. Bryan, my friend at the beer cart, poured me a Cherrywood Smoked Porter. Saint Burrito was also open a few steps away. I could smell the grilling meat and yellow rice.

One porter and an ancho chile chicken burrito later, I was feeling much better.
Yeah, it could have been low blood sugar or something similar- maybe “hangriness.”
Either way, the taste and smell of smoke helped.

Smell and taste are the two senses most closely tied to memory, and in my case “smoke” is tied to most of the good ones. I don’t remember when the connection was made exactly, but it was likely in the Scouts. One of my favorite times on camping trips was when we would be sitting around a campfire. There would be songs and jokes- sometimes we were baking foil-wrapped bananas and apples in the coals. The whole time, the thick smoke of fallen pine and oak wood would spiral around us, curling its way up to heaven. It was over one such fire that I cooked for a crowd for the first time- Dutch Oven Lasagna. The smoke permeated our clothes, our hair, everything.
The smell of wood smoke came to mean warmth, comfort, feeding others, and enjoying company in my mind. Whenever I smell or eat something wreathed in that scent, I go straight back to 12 years old- sitting in the woods and staring at the stars.

The Black Hat Baker at 12 years old with his father on a Scout camping trip.

The Author as a Young Man. And his Dad.

In an article for the Washington Post, food writer Jim Shahin offers a number of ideas and reasons why the flavor of smoke fills so many of us with delight- from simple experiences like mine, to atavistic memories of our primitive human past where the smell of woodsmoke meant “cooking food.”
Interestingly, the flavor of smoke is primarily in its smell- comprised as it is of water vapor, gases, and minuscule particles resulting from combustion- all of which we can smell, but not necessarily taste
Smoke also carries the results of the Maillard Reaction- something every cook and baker knows and looks for. It’s what happens when heat is applied to sugars on a surface, creating caramelization. It’s what causes meat to brown, steaks to grill- and bread to bake.
Not hard at all to see why smoke has deep, warm, snuggly, and probably-blackened place in my heart.
An animated time-lapse GIF of croissants baking.

Aw yeah… look at those flaky layers. I could watch this all day.

None of this is to say, however, that all smoke/ smoking applications are the same or even worthwhile. Flavors/scents can vary greatly depending on what is being burned to create the smoke, with different materials obviously generating different particles in their combustion and releasing different amounts of gases /water vapor.

Hardwoods- These are the go-tos everyone thinks of for smoking, and for good reasons. Woods like oak, hickory, alder, mesquite, and fruitwoods are made up mostly of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. When burnt, cellulose and hemicellulose (being sugar molecules) caramelize and produce the variety of delectable flavors we associate with smoke. The lignin can create scent compounds that vary from spicy to vanilla-like.

Close-up of a half-eaten Prigo sandwich from The Bivy in Portland, OR.

I deserve credit for my self-control here. I remembered to get a picture before COMPLETELY housing this sandwich.

Softwoods- These are used FAR less often, as woods like fir, spruce, and pine tend to be very pitchy. Pitch, when it burns, creates a more acrid, “somethings burning” scent that maybe a bit more pleasant to smell than to taste. Certain teas, such as lapsang souchong, are smoked over pine boughs specifically to capture this scent. Similarly, if you ever get a cosmetic product that claims a “campfire” or “smoky” scent, it is likely derived from the by-products of these softwoods.
Other Stuff- I’ve only had a few foods that used other substances for smoking. In one case, I had tobacco-smoked lox at a restaurant in Boston. While interesting, was not something I’d necessarily seek out again. As any smoker OR non-smoker can tell you, there are significant differences between “tobacco” smoke (such as pipe tobacco or from a hookah) and “cigarette smoke”- a primary difference being that in smoking a cigarette, one also gets the smell of burning paper. It’s not uncommon for a person to routinely smoke a pipe, and yet be disgusted when someone near by lights a cigarette.

For myself, my go-to sources of smoky scents are PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING. Culinarily, smokiness is practically its own ingredient for me, and I pursue it every way possible- usually through the use of smoked/roasted spices, or fire-roasting ingredients.

Cosmetically, that was settled many years ago. After a weekend of camping back in college, I came back and noticed that every single one of my female friends was sitting closer to me- and sniffing my hoodie. As it was, I had sat up all night by a campfire wearing it, and the hoodie was completely suffused with the sent of burning pine and oak.
Guess how long I put off running it through the wash.

Stay Classy,