Smokers are closely associated with meat. But there is a world of meatless uses for them as well, from potatoes and eggs to water and even ice cream. Project Smoke author Steven Raichlen tells Joe Yonan all about them.

Joe Yonan: To some people, the idea of smoking without meat is an oxymoron.

Steven Raichlen: I knew this was going to be the topic of today's talk. I actually went through the book and I did kind of a tally, and it turns out that 25% of the recipes in the book are meatless. Now, I don't know if your world is broad enough to include cheese, but there's a very venerable tradition of smoking cheese.

JY: Of course, smoked mozzarella.

Steven Raichlen Steven Raichlen Photo: Roger Proulx

SR: Exactly, and the traditional way to smoke mozzarella is not with wood but with hay. And the epicenter of smoked cheese in Italy is around the ancient Greek town of Paestum. I remember the first time I saw it: mozzarella cheese and what amounted to a metal box - no smoke chamber, no  wood pile. The cheese maker just put a big pile of hay in the bottom of the smoker, lit it, and smoked the cheese with a blast of smooke. Incredibly fragrant, incredibly flavorful, and the whole process took maybe five minutes.

JY: To some of us, if we're faced with two piece of cheese, and one is smoked and the other is not, chances are you know which we're going to pick.

SR: I know where you're going!

JY: Is there much difference to the cheese you smoke youself versus the cheese that you can get at the supermarket?

SR: If you buy a cooked smoked cheese, you'll taste a wood smoke. As with a food like bacon, some commercial bacon never sees the inside of a smokehouse; it's flavored in a factory with liquid smoke. Such is the case with cheese, too. When you buy smoked cheese you want to make sure that it is a smokehouse cheese smoked with real wood.

The interesting thing about smoking cheese -- and this is true for most meatless smoking -- is you want to smoke the cheese without actually cooking it, and that requires a technique called cold smoking. If you're a fish lover, you use this technique to make Nova Scotia-style salmon or Scottish-style salmon. But if you are a meatless griller, you might use it to smoke cheese. I have what I call 'tofu ham,' where you cure tofu in a brine and then smoke it. It's absolutely fantastic.

Are you a tofu fan, Joe?

JY: Yeah, I was going to get to tofu as quickly as I possibly could with you. I love tofu. And when I tell people how wonderful smoked tofu is they look at me like I'm crazy. So I was excited to see that you talk about it.

SR: I treat tofu two ways in the book. There's a smoked tofu, which is more like a ham, where you cure tofu in a brine and then smoke it. And then there's what I call a barbecued tofu, which is seasoned with a barbecue rub. The key to smoking and grilling tofu is you want to give it a sear in a skillet with either oil or butter first, because you need to firm up the exterior. Then you grill it, and it's fabulous, you get all those smoke and fire flavors. Although even as we're having this converation I'm thinking it would be cool to smoke a silken tofu; whip it up with maple syrup or smoked honey.

Because that's another way to go about this whole smoking business. I built a smokehouse and one day I took every imaginable flavoring and kind of primary ingredient I could think of, then I cold smoked it. So I smoked mayonnaise, which is fantastic for making a smoked potato salad. I smoked flour. I smoked water, and I used those two to make smoked bread.

 JY: Wait, wait, wait.  You smoked water?  How do you smoke water?

Project Smoke Project Smoke

SR: Well there are actually two ways, and this is a great bartending trick. One way to smoke water is you put it in a pan, and you put it in a smoker and you smoke it low and slow at 225 degrees for a faster version; that takes about 45 minutes to an hour. Or you can cold smoke water in a smokehouse, which takes four or five hours. You can make bread with it. You can freeze it in ice cube trays, and you've got smoked ice cubes, which are fantastic with smoked cocktails.

JY: Some of your best-looking smoke recipes of the many in the book did seem to deal somewhat with carbs. I happen to be a carbitarian as much as I'm trying to cut back, but potatoes looked incredible on the smoker.

SR: Smoked potato salad. You start with new potatoes, cut them in half, smoke roast them. It's a technique that I use a lot. It's called smoke roasting, and it's a cross between indirect grilling and smoking, done at a slightly higher temperature than the traditional low and slow smoking barbecue. What I like about it, for vegetables like potatoes, is you can give a food a crisp crust, all the while imbuing it with a profound smoke flavor.

There's a smoked mushroom bread pudding. There's a smoked vegetable cassolette picked up from my friend Vitaly Paley in Portland, Oregon. It's a funny notion: a vegetarian cassolette. But when you smoke the vegetables and you smoke the cassolette, you get all of those meaty, umami flavors, but without meat.

JY: It seems to me that what smoke does for vegetarians is add a lot of those flavors that you don't necessarily get unless you're eating meat. That seems to be a big part of the appeal, don't you think?

SR: Very definitely. I like to call smoke the umami of barbecue. And like conventional umami foods that we associate with meat and fish, smoke has this ability to bring out nuances and depth of flavor to suggest ethnic profiles in very neutral foods. Like a potato for example. If you make a smoked potato salad, you feel like you're at a meat-based barbecue. And another of my favorite foods that may come as a surprise is smoked eggs. You would never associate it with smoking, and yet it's like a sponge for those smoky flavors. And a smoked egg side by side with a regular hard-boiled egg, I mean it's just wow. It's sort of like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when you go from black and white to Technicolor.

I'll tell you what the coolest discovery in the book was for me. Smoked ice cream. And I had kind of gotten a hint of this at an amazing grill restaurant called Etxebarri in the Basque Country in Spain, where the chef smokes the cream and then churns it into ice cream.

It's fabulous but it's a lot of work. But I had the idea at one point to take very good vanilla ice cream and unmold the package, put it in a pan of ice to keep it cold and put it in a kettle grill that's set up for indirect grilling. Then I loaded it with wood chips, unsoaked, so they'd start smoking right away. The idea was to apply the smoke in a rapid blast before the ice cream had a chance to melt. It'll make you see and appreciate ice cream in a whole new light.

Double-Smoked Potatoes Double-Smoked Potatoes (Photo Credit: Roger Proulx)
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post and author of Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (Ten Speed Press, 2013).