Smoke Oil (with Lapsang Souchong Tea)

For someone who has always lived in cramped urban apartments with ineffectual kitchen ventilation, I have an unfortunate enthusiasm for smoky flavors. I developed this recipe while I was living in a studio apartment, the kind where practically speaking, the smoke detector is in the kitchen even if it’s in the bedroom. Which is to say, smoking food at home was not on the table. 

Enter lapsang souchong tea, which my father drank almost daily during my childhood. Originally from Fujian, China, it is black tea that’s dried by being smoked over a pinewood fire. It is very, very smoky, with nice herbal-quincey nuances from the tea itself (from some of the same norisoprenoid molecules in quinces; see page 132). The tannins and astringent-bitter components of tea are not very soluble in oil, so (I hypothesized) an oil extraction would capture mostly just the aroma. 

The result was this nicely balanced, very smoky oil with no burning necessary. You can use it to garnish finished dishes, especially raw or cured meats like tartare, or tomato salads. I also like to use it for confit or oil-poaching, which really infuses the food with smoke flavor. 

The recipe is completely scalable for any amount of tea or oil you have; I like to do an 8:1

TST_Flavorama Book cover Flavorama: A Guide to Unlocking the Art and Science of Flavor Arielle Johnson

ratio by volume. If you want it to be very concentrated, think like an enfleurage: infuse once, strain out the tea, and then infuse the oil a second time with new tea. And if you’re looking for avenues to experiment further, try some other oil you like the flavor of—perhaps a blend of grapeseed and sesame, some sweet and light olive oil, rich and dark-green pumpkin seed oil. 

1.     Combine loose lapsang souchong tea leaves with 8 times their weight in grapeseed or good-quality canola oil.

2.     Blend in a blender, and let steep in the fridge for 2 days.

3.     Strain through cheesecloth or a very clean dish towel (that you don’t mind getting very oily). This will keep for a couple of months in the fridge, or indefinitely in the freezer. 

Ratios, for reference

  • For 1 cup of oil, add 2 heaping tablespoons of lapsang souchong tea.

  • For 750 ml (a regular-sized wine bottle) of oil, add 6 to 7 tablespoons of lapsang souchong tea.

For 1 quart (about 1 liter) of oil, add 8 to 9 heaping tablespoons of lapsang souchong. 

General Infused Oil Steps

  • Pick something to infuse, like an herb or spice.

  • Weigh it and mix with 2 parts to 5 parts neutral oil.

  • Blend the oil and aromatic ingredients.

  • Pack into a container and keep away from oxygen.

  • Gently warm it up for 1 to 2 hours (see sections below for specific techniques and temperatures), then put it in the fridge or somewhere else dark and cool to continue extracting for 1 to 2 days.

  • Strain, my recommendation being a colander or strainer lined with an extremely clean, flat textured kitchen towel over a coffee filter, which clogs easily.

Smoke Oil–Poached Fish

 Here, both smoked fish and oil-poached fish combine into a succulent, lightly smoky, smoke-detector-friendly center-of-the-plate protein. You’re essentially making smoked salmon, without any smoke. Other fish that work well: mackerel, tuna, mussels, and arctic char, as well as white fish like cod and halibut or shrimp. 

If you can use an immersion circulator like an Anova (or even a pot, a thermometer, and a sharp eye) to cook the fish in a water bath, it will come out even better and use up less oil. 

Besides Smoke Oil this works with any strongly flavored oil: an intense olive oil, a garlic-thyme oil, a rasel-hanout-infused oil, oil that you’ve roasted onions in, or even duck or any other animal fat you find yourself with a lot of. 


Remove as many fish fillets or steaks as you desire, and fit in the pan you’re using (I figure 6 to 9 ounces per person for dinner) from the refrigerator about 1 hour before you plan to cook them, so they come to room temperature. Season the outside with salt and pepper to infuse in while it sits. 

Using the Stove and Oven

1.     Survey your cooking pans and identify which one can fit all your fish, with as little overlap, and as little unused space, as possible. The wider it is, the more oil you will have to use to fill it. I suggest an oval Dutch oven, perhaps a deepish pie plate, or even a deep skillet.

2.     Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 170°F (or 200°F if that’s the lowest your oven will go). Pour 1 quart (945 ml) Smoke Oil (page 210) into a not too wide Dutch oven. Heat the whole pot (in the oven, or on a very low burner) to bring the oil to 125°F, measuring with an instant-read thermometer.

3.     Nestle the fish into the warm oil, then transfer to the warm oven for 20 minutes, or until just cooked all the way through, but not tight and opaque. Remove the fish from the oil, which you can strain and save in the freezer, tightly wrapped, for further fish poaching for up to 6 months.

4.     Pat the fish dry on a paper towel, and serve immediately. 

Using an Immersion Circulator

1.     Fill a large pot or plastic container with water, and set up the immersion circulator. Set the water bath to 125°F. In vacuum bags to match whatever type of sealer you have, or Ziploc brand freezer bags, lay the fish in one layer and add 1 cup (200 g) Smoke Oil before sealing.

2.     This will be easy to seal in a chamber vacuum sealer, and harder to seal in a FoodSaver vacuum because of all the liquid oil. If using the Ziploc, zip it closed 95 percent of the way, leaving a fingertip-space of zip open. Push out the air in the bag by displacement: dip the bag into a plugged sink full of water, holding it by the open corner. As you push the bag underwater, the air will be pushed out. Just before the open corner goes under, quickly zip it shut, and you should have a decent zip seal with very little air in the bag.

3.     Cook the bagged fish in the water bath for 35 minutes, or until cooked through but not opaque, then drain and serve as above.

Reprinted from Flavorama by arrangement with Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2024, Arielle Johnson.

When you shop using our links, we earn a small commission. It’s a great way to support public media at no extra cost to you!