The flavor of food that’s been cooked over fire—which, when you think about it, has been a “culinary technique” for around 800,000 years now—is having a very up-to-date moment. Inspired by culinary traditions from Kansas City to South Korea, smoked and charred flavors are showing up on menus and infusing ingredients. And we’re not just talking about classics like smoked salmon or barbecued ribs. You’ll find smoke infusing every menu category: You could start dinner by having a smoked bourbon old fashioned and cap it off with a dessert topped with smoked whipped cream.
The Institute of Food Technologists first named smoke as an upcoming trend five years ago, and the popularity of smoked flavors has only grown since then. In a bit of a culinary paradox, smoked foods can both seem appealingly novel and resonate on a deep level. “Smoke reminds us of the primal pleasure of sitting around a campfire,” says Steven Raichlen, host of PBS’s "Project Fire" and author of 31 books, including The Barbecue Bible. Raichlen calls smoke “the umami of barbecue”—so it’s no wonder that chefs have incorporated that complexity and unique depth into just about every other food you can think of.
Danielle Bennett, world champion BBQ pitmaster, host of the TV show BBQ Crawl and author of Diva Q’s Barbecue, attributes the huge rise of smoked flavors to improved technology, making it exponentially easier for chefs to experiment with smoking foods. With innovations like the pellet grill, which uses ignited hardwood pellets as the fuel source to produce heat for cooking, “you don’t have to stand there all night tending a 3,000-gallon offset smoker,” Bennett explains.
Better accessibility makes for more experimentation—with extraordinary results. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Japanese-inspired steakhouse and grill Salt + Charcoal makes smoky flavors its centerpiece. Order in their Hudson Valley smoked duck breast, served with balsamic soy, scallion salt sauce, and a melt-in-your mouth miso mille feuille potato.
If you’re looking for smoke put to more traditional use, there are plenty of options. Smoked fish is the name of the game at Russ & Daughters. Their pastrami-cured salmon is smoked before being coated in a rub of iconic pastrami herbs and spices (devour it on a bialy with a schmear.) Smoked sturgeon and sable are also sumptuously rich.
For as much smoky flavor as you can possibly cram into a sandwich, Boston’s The Smoke Shop is your spot. Their Burnt Ends Sandwich is all the most charred bits of the brisket stuffed into a potato bun. And there’s no better way to celebrate the glory of smoke than quintessential barbecue: Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn, Big Ed’s in New Jersey, Oden's Family BBQ in Belton, MO, and so (so!) many more.
You don’t need meat to showcase smoke, however. Beauty & Essex, on NYC’s Lower East Side, highlights smoke in their vegan sherry-glazed tofu, served with bright smoked tomato purée (although it’s also a feature of their dry-aged New York strip steak, which comes with smoked BBQ sauce).
Making smoked flavors achievable even without a smoker, ready-to-use ingredients are also crowding onto menus (and store shelves). You’ll find smoked sea salt, smoked honey, smoked olive oil, just to name a few. Mediterranean Exploration Company in Portland, OR, puts smoked olive oil to use in its roasted eggplant dip, also flavored with tahina and mint. The fragrant oil amps up the rich, roastiness of the eggplant, creating layers of flavor. It’s perfect for scooping up with fluffy pita.
Smoked cheese, from mozzarella to cheddar, is a well-known powerhouse ingredient. Cheese’s richness provides a welcome foil for smoky flavors. 940's Kitchen & Cocktails in Denton, TX, uses smoked gouda in its signature mac n cheese, which somehow amplifies the cheesy oomph. Topped with crunchy breadcrumbs and fresh chives, it’s also available with braised tenderloin.
But wait—don’t forget dessert. Smoke shows up there, too. San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream serves a Dark Chocolate Smoked Sea Salt ice cream. The smoky salt cuts through the rich chocolate. Or if you really want a campfire experience, dig into their Smoked S'mores Ice Cream. (And if your inner pastry chef is itching to try the trend, Raichlen’s book Project Smoke includes recipes for smoked flan, smoked cheesecake, and a smoky bacon bourbon apple crisp.)
Barbecue veteran Bennett is excited about the possibilities for this ancient flavor profile. (When we chatted, she had just finished smoking five pounds of garlic in a quest to develop the ultimate Caesar salad.) “There’s a strong psychological component” to smoke, she says. “It’s not just about feeding you nutritionally, but about feeding your soul.” Both of which sound like an excellent plan.
Humphry Slocombe by Sean Vahey
The Smoke Shop by Ken Goodman Photography