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Oak and alcohol go back a long way. Oak tanks and barrels were once the only thing used for fermenting and then transporting wine and other drinks. More latterly the use of sherry and then whisk(e)y barrels became a common way to infuse drinks in more complex ways. And now the age-old practice of barrel ageing has even been appropriated by mixologists, who use short-term ageing (of several weeks rather than months or years) to put a fresh spin on familiar cocktails.

But here’s the thing. These mixologists are ageing their product in barrels, whereas much of the wine industry now simply mimics the original process using wood chips and micro oxygenation. So why not do the same on a far smaller scale? Even better, why not massively accelerate the whole process?

Some things are lost, obviously. You can’t expect to do any actual maturation by converting tannins and acetic acid into more desirable elements. But drawing out some of the beneficial aspects of the hemicellulose (which, when toasted releases wood sugars that provide caramelised and smoky aromas and flavours), lactones (woodiness and a coconut element), and lignin (vanillin and further spicy smokiness) to add another layer is another matter.

The geniuses over at Cooking Issues discussed the concept of cavitation, using nothing more than a cream whipper and nitrous oxide cartridge, some time back now, and for a while the technique got everybody – especially those without access to an expensive sonic cavitation wand – pretty hot under the collar. Aside from a mention in Modernist Cuisine, there’s been less talk of this technique recently. But it remains a great way to draw flavours from porous things into liquids (we use it at Restaurant Allium for quick Sloe Gin, for example).

Remarkably it even works with wood.

I’ve got a couple of ideas for increasing the level of infusion even further, but for now try this. You’ll be surprised how well you can oak age something in  a little over an hour.

Ingredients: Untreated oak wood chips or oak barrel chips. Optional: Whisk(e)y, sherry etc

Equipment: ISI Cream Whipper and two cartridges. Optional: Vacuum chamber

1. If you’re lucky enough to have genuine barrel oak chips (previously used or otherwise) then you’re good to go. If not, fake the coopering process by toasting the chips in a dry pan. Different levels of toasting will emulate different types of barrel. Sherry barrels are lightly toasted, bourbon casks are usually set alight inside to create a layer of black char.

2. If you want to mimic the effects of ageing in a bourbon or other type of used barrel, then turn off the heat and ‘deglaze’ with a slug of your chosen beverage. Some will burn off, but the rest will be pulled into the dry wood chips. Leave the chips to cool, put them an open container and add more of your chosen alcohol. If you have a vacuum chamber then place the container inside, switch on the machine and then shut it down before the cycle ends. Leave for 20 minutes before completing the cycle. If not, just let ’em mingle for an hour or two. Drain the wood chips and either leave to dry naturally or place in a very low oven to speed things up.

3. Load the cooled wood chips and your chosen CHILLED drink into the cream whipper. It’s even worth doing this with water for the first test, just to get some idea of the strength of the infusion – more chips will mean a stronger brew. Fire two canisters into the whipper, shaking vigorously each time. Leave for another half hour.

4. Strain the contents of the cream whipper, through muslin or a superbag and enjoy. Or go mix yourself a nice cocktail.

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There’s an art to successful hot smoking. Cold smoking, on the other hand, now that’s a science.

Ensuring a continuous supply of flavour-imparting smoke while maintaining a steady, safe temperature generally either requires an expensive rig or some cannily McGuivered homemade network of offset chambers and pipes – with both solutions requiring some skill to minimise the amount of heat that reaches the food. Digitally controlled smokers, on the other hand, offer a fire-and-forget alternative, but they don’t come cheap. All of which makes the fact that the ridiculously inexpensive Pro Q Cold Smoker really works so surprising.

Out of the box, the Pro Q looks every bit as cheap as it really is. But this is one gadget where the genius truly lies in its simplicity. Though little more than a mesh basket with a set of barriers that create a spiral maze into which you dump a supply of fine sawdust, the Pro Q will stay alight for up to 10 hours. And all the while it will produce smoke without fire, and without the need for a draft of any kind. As a result you can dump it into just about any container – a wok, crockpot, even a cardbox box, place your food on a shelf above, and leave it to work its magic.

The sawdust burns so gently and slowly that you just need to control the ambient temperature to effectively control the smoking temperature. Logically that should also mean this will work a treat for very accurate (and cheap) hot-smoking, too – simply by placing the unit and a suitable smoking chamber inside an oven. At the risk of this post turning into an infomercial, you can find out more about the Pro Q here.

RECIPE

Equipment: Pro Q Cold Smoker, oak sawdust

Ingredients: Salmon fillet (preferably wild). Freeze at -20c for 7 days, or until -35c core temperature, if you want to be sure of killing any parasites.

  1. Rub an even cure mix of salt and sugar onto boned salmon fillet, at a ratio of 8g salt and 8g sugar for every 100g of salmon.
  2. Vacuum seal if possible, or pack tightly. Place in fridge.
  3. After 12 hours, rinse off the cure. Pat excess moisture from fish, bu don’t dry it too much. Leave it slightly tacky.
  4. Place in a chamber with the Pro Q Smoker filled to halfway (enough for at least 4 hours smoking.) Ensure the food won’t drip onto the sawdust – use foil to create an ad-hoc barrier, if necessary.
  5. Light the Pro Q and close chamber. Ensure the temperature inside the chamber remains around between 18c and 24c. Do not allow to exceed 26c.
  6. After 4 hours remove salmon from the smoker and refrigerate until use.

Note: Curing is a necessary process, but the cure ratio can be altered to some extent to suit individual tastes. Try varying the salt percentage from 3.5% for something milder to 10% for a saltier end result, for example.

Scribbling, ponderings, and maybe a little food porn…

by Mark Ramshaw

owner at feast for the senses
food design, private catering, consultancy

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