How Local Chefs Are Using Smoke to Create New Flavors

Using smoke can add a whole new dimension to familiar dishes.

There’s a reason the “B” comes first in BLT: Bacon is the star of the sandwich. At Peekskill Brewery, aioli-slathered Texas toast is the bread of choice to hold together crisp lettuce, juicy slices of tomato, and that irresistible mix of rich, meaty, chewy, smoky taste and texture that can only come from bacon. Except it’s not bacon. It’s a vegetarian “BLT,” featuring portobello mushrooms that Chefs Jon Miller and Nick Mazza smoke in-house to get a flavor and chew that’s remarkably like the real thing. 

Peekskill Brewery is just one of several places in Westchester that are using smoke to transform dishes. Long associated with preserving food (salmon, ham, etc.) and barbecue joints with cult followings, smoke can also be used to add a whole new dimension to everything from sandwiches to beer to chocolate cookies. 

“We smoke the mushroom to give more depth of flavor,” says Miller of their BLT knockoff. “The technique ends up making the mushroom more bacon-like. The slow-and-low technique dries the mushrooms a little, giving them a bacon-like consistency.” Of all the mushrooms they tested, portobellos, which have an inherently meaty texture, were the perfect choice for a trip to the smoker. To really hammer home the bacon-y qualities of the smoked ’shrooms, Miller and Mazza rub them with a house-seasoning and lacquer them with maple syrup. “We wanted it to be playful,” explains Miller. “We wanted to take a traditional sandwich like the BLT and give people the flavors they are accustomed to in a different way.” 

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Captain Lawrence is keeping traditional smoked beers alive with this seasonal porter. 

Both Peekskill Brewery and Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. have smoke on the drink menu, too. “Centuries ago, before the advent of indirect kilns, all malt was dried over open wood fires and all beers were smoky to some degree,” says Captain Lawrence founder Scott Vaccaro. With the advent of new technology, brewers moved away from using wood, and today smoked beers are only made in some European enclaves and by a small number of craft brewers in the US. To create its Smoked Porter, Captain Lawrence imports smoked malt from Wyermann, a German company that uses traditional wood-fire methods to dry malt, to create a smoky taste. “The first thing people say when smelling our smoked porter is that it reminds them of bacon or smoked meats,” says Vaccaro. “It is a rich beer with layers of flavor, and the smoke adds to the depth.” 

On the lighter side, a glass of Peekskill Brewery’s blond ale, Smoke Trick, has a gently smoky flavor that comes from cherry-wood-smoked malt. “It’s a great beer for someone looking for something seasonal but who isn’t into heavier styles or heavily smoked beer,” says partner Keith Berardi. 

RELATED: Ossining’s Newest Brew Pub Taps Into the Local Community

While our local breweries are preserving tradition, Sherry Blockinger is breaking with it. At her Chappaqua bakery, sherry b dessert studio, Blockinger is using smoke to evoke a childhood classic: s’mores. Campfire Cookies, essentially a riff on traditional rocky road, employ smoke for a roasted-over-the-campfire flare. “You can taste the smokiness in the first bite,” says Blockinger, who uses a special smoke gun (it allows the smoke to permeate the ingredients without the addition of heat) to smoke her classic chocolate cookie dough and the walnuts, marshmallows, and dark chocolate chunks she’ll add to it. 

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Smoked chocolate Campfire Cookies from sherry b in Chappaqua.

It may sound strange, but read the fine print on a bar of premium chocolate, and you’ll see chocolatiers often include “hints of smoke” among the tasting notes, and that natural smokiness is what Blockinger’s method puts front and center. “If you didn’t smoke the ingredients, you would have a sweet rocky-road cookie, instead of a strong, smoky, powerful combination,” she adds. Also look for smoke-infused marshmallows that find their way atop steaming mugs of hot chocolate infused with vanilla and rum. 

At L’inizio in Ardsley, Chef Scott Fratangelo uses a similar cold-smoke technique to amp-up the flavor of Maple Brook Farm ricotta. Hickory and applewood chips are lit and smothered, allowing the ricotta to absorb the smoke without coming in contact with heat that would change the texture. “The smoke gives a dimension of earthiness to something that is rich and creamy,” says Fratangelo. Smoked foods lend themselves to sweet accompaniments (think barbecue sauce and smoked pork), he adds. “We use acacia honey for its amazing floral notes.” 

In Dobbs Ferry, wisps of smoke cross the dinner menu. “The octopus [with smoked marinara] has been a staple for years,” says David DiBari, owner/chef at The Cookery, who wanted to create a better version of “the infamous fried calamari.” To do that, he traded rings of squid for pieces of octopus that are braised until tender, then fried to a crisp finish. It’s served with a smoked marinara —whole tomatoes that are smoked over hickory chips, then crushed and cooked with olive oil, garlic, and basil. “Adding a little smoke to a light marinara adds depth of flavor without overpowering the octopus,” DiBari says. 

In the past, smoke has found its way onto other parts of The Cookery’s menu, with smoked local cabbage accompanying char-grilled chicken and smoked figs being tossed with house-made pasta. “Smoking figs enhances their meaty quality while concentrating their natural sweetness. It creates the illusion of having a meat component to the dish,” says DiBari. Pretty much anything goes: “It may sound cliché,” he explains, “But smoke ’em if you got ’em.”   

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