Steven Raichlen talks barbecue, more in ‘Project Smoke’

Steve Pardo
The Detroit News

With Memorial Day behind us and the recent warmer-than-normal temperatures the last several days, it has certainly felt like summer in Southeast Michigan — even if the official start is nearly three weeks away.

Summer for many means grilling; fast cooking over high heat. Grilling is often — usually incorrectly — used as a synonym for barbecue, which is a method of cooking that produces smoke. And it is the delightful smoke in which author Steven Raichlen concentrates his latest efforts with “Project Smoke” (Workman Publishing, $22.95).

Raichen, 63, has already tackled the barbecue issue with the book “The Barbecue! Bible.” He decided to turn his attention towards the essence of barbecue — the smoke — as well as technique, recipes, the science behind the smoke-cooking method and even equipment in the new book.

Raichlen said he wanted to create more than just a cookbook. He threads in tips and history and runs through the pros and cons of different types of smokers from the whole-hog, competition-worthy offset smokers (also called “stick burners”) down to the petite handheld smokers suitable for smoking individual portions of soups, salads and even cocktails.

“All barbecue is smoked, but not all smoked foods are barbecued,” he said. “There’s so much out there, smoked cheese, kippered smoked trout, beef jerky and bacon are not barbecue. I wanted to push the envelope on the issue.”

Even libations are given the smoke treatment. He has recipes for a “smoky mary,” a smoked Manhattan and a hybrid margarita/mojito cocktail amongst others in the book.

Working on the tips and the histories was the “fun part of the book,” he said. More tedious were the recipes themselves and constant testing he had to do to make sure they worked and could be replicated by the home cook.

“Smoking is easy, but it’s not simple,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “What I mean by that is that with grill, gas, charcoal or wood you’ve got different manufacturers and hundreds of machines you can potentially use. And each one operates differently.”

Easy to start

Today, most people know how to grill or at least they think they know, said Raichlen, whose PBS series, also named “Project Smoke,” launched its second season over the Memorial Day weekend. But incorporating smoke to edibles isn’t something most people grew up doing. There can be a learning curve and it can be intimidating to the newcomer.

But it doesn’t have to be intimidating nor overly expensive to get started, he said.

“If you’re just starting out in the world of smoking and you don’t own a smoker, but you own a kettle grill, you’ve got a smoker. You can smoke anything in a charcoal kettle grill.”

And what’s a good dish if you’re just starting out?

“Pork shoulder,” he said. “Unlike a brisket, it’s intrinsically tender — not just on the fat cap on the outside. It’s almost impossible to overcook.

The brisket is best left to the more experienced barbecue expert.

“Brisket, in a way, is simultaneously the hardest and the easiest thing to smoke. It’s hard to get the temperature just right and get it to 205 degrees.”

Raichlen hopes people go beyond the traditional meats and expand out to the worlds of smoked seafoods, cheeses, nachos, desserts and drinks.

“The realm of smoked foods is enormous,” he said. “I would tell people just starting out not to get too hung up on the wood. There’s a lot of debate over apple versus cherry versus hickory versus oak. They all basically taste like smoke.”

Cherry Smoked Strip Steak

Cherry Smoked Strip Steak

Recipes from “Project Smoke” by Steven Raichlen

I like cherry for smoking this steak, but any hardwood will do. You’ll need enough hardwood chunks or chips (soaked and drained if using the latter) for 1 hour of smoking. This steak works best on a charcoal-burning grill or smoker, like a kettle grill or offset barrel smoker with a grill grate over the firebox. That enables you to smoke low and slow, then sear over a hot fire. Otherwise, you’ll need to start the steak in a smoker and finish it on a grill.

1 thick (2- to 3-inch) boneless strip steak, rib steak, or sirloin (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds)

Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and cracked or freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

If using a charcoal kettle grill, light 10 to 12 pieces of charcoal (preferably natural lump charcoal) in a chimney starter. When ready, place the charcoal in one side basket or on one side of the bottom grate. Adjust the top and bottom vents to heat your grill to 225 degrees to 250 degrees.

Generously season the steak on the top, bottom, and sides with salt and pepper. Insert a digitial-read thermometer probe through the side of the steak, deep into the center.

Add the wood to the coals. Place the steak on the grate as far away from the fire as possible. Cover the grill and smoke the steak until the internal temperature reaches 110 degrees. This will take 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the steak from the grill and let rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, add 10 to 15 fresh coals to the bed of embers and build a hot fire in your grill, readjusting the vents as needed.

Lightly brush or drizzle the steak on both sides with olive oil. Place it on the grate over the fire and direct grill until the top and bottom are sizzling and darkly crusted and the internal temperature on an instant-read thermometer reaches 120-125 degrees for rare or 120-135 degrees for medium-rare (2 to 3 minutes per side, 4 to 6 minutes in all), turning with tongs. If you like, give the steak a quarter turn on each side halfway through searing to lay on a crosshatch of grill marks. For really thick steaks, grill the edges, too. Serve hot off the grill. I like to cut the steak on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Serves 3.

Per serving: 456 calories; 29 g fat (11 g saturated fat; 57 percent calories from fat); 0 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 145mg mg cholesterol; 343 mg sodium; 44 g protein; 0 g fiber.


Mezcal is tequila’s smoky cousin: a spirit made in central Mexico from fire-roasted agave cactus hearts. Good brands include Del Maguey, Sombra, and Montelobos. Avoid the cheap stuff with the worm in the bottle.

Cross a margarita with a mojito and you get a Mezcalini. Add smoke and you achieve nirvana, not to mention notoriety — especially if you brandish the handheld smoker in front of your guests. It may be the most refreshing cocktail ever to slake your thirst (cucumber and yerba buena will do that). I discovered it at the rooftop dining room of the sophisticated Casa Oaxaca Hotel in this colonial city in south-central Mexico. No, you likely won’t be able to replicate it exactly — unless you have access to the chinicuiles (fried cactus worms) that are nibbled along with fried grasshoppers and crickets in this part of Mexico as bar snacks. Said worms (think miniature Cheetos that taste of bacon and butter) are ground with salt and dried chiles to make a rub for the glass rim. Smoked salt works fine for rimming the glass in the United States.

Yerba buena (“good herb,” literally) is one of the many Mexican wild herbs that go into mole verde and other green sauces. It has a distinctive, pungent, mild anisy flavor, like a cross between spearmint and Thai basil. Look for it at Mexican markets. Spearmint or peppermint makes a reasonable approximation.

1 cup mezcal

1 cup fresh lime juice (it must be fresh)

3/4 cup simple syrup or smoked simple syrup

2 tablespoons Cointreau (or other orange-flavored liqueur)

1 medium-size cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)

1 bunch fresh yerba buena, spearmint, or peppermint, rinsed, shaken dry, and separated into sprigs

1/2 cup smoked salt (use a good commercial brand or make your own or kosher salt

1 lime wedge, for moistening the glass rims

6 jumbo ice cubes or 18 to 20 regular or smoked ice cubes

Combine the mezcal, lime juice, simple syrup, and Cointreau in a pitcher, cover, and refrigerate until serving. You can do this several hours ahead.

Just before serving, place the cucumber and yerba buena in a mortar or bowl and lightly crush them with a pestle or muddler. Stir this mixture into the pitcher. If you make the Mezcalini right before serving, you can muddle the cucumber and yerba buena right in the pitcher using a long-handled wooden spoon.

Optional — for even more smoke flavor, smoke the Mezcalini with a handheld smoker: Cover the pitcher with plastic wrap, leaving one edge open for the smoker tube. Just before serving, load the smoker with sawdust following the manufacturer’s instructions. Insert the tube and fill the pitcher with smoke. Quickly remove the tube, seal the pitcher with plastic wrap, and let stand for 4 minutes. Stir well with a bar spoon and repeat once more.

To serve, spread out the smoked salt in a shallow bowl. Moisten the rims of 6 large glasses with the lime wedge, then dip them in the salt. Shake off the excess.

Place 1 jumbo or 3 to 4 regular-size ice cubes in each glass. Pour the Mezcalini into the glasses. Spoon some of the cucumber and yerba buena into each glass, taking care not to drip on the salt.

Notes: The beauty of jumbo ice cubes is their slow melt, which means less dilution of your drink. Look for molds for spherical and cube ice at bar supply stores or Williams-Sonoma.

To make simple syrup, combine equal parts (1 cup and 1 cup for example) sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until clear, 2 to 4 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then transfer to a bottle or jar. Yields 6 drinks.

Smoked Bacon Bourban Apple Crisp

Smoked Bacon-Bourbon Apple Crisp

You can cook this crisp low and slow in a traditional smoker, but you’ll get a crisper topping if you work at higher heat. This is a good dish to smoke-roast on a charcoal grill.

For the filling

2 strips homemade or thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slivers

3 pounds crisp, sweet apples such as Honeycrisps or Galas

1/3 cup packed light or dark brown sugar, or to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of salt

3 tablespoons bourbon

For the topping

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and placed in the freezer until icy cold

1/2 cup crushed gingersnap cookies or granola

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar

Pinch of salt

Vanilla iced cream, for serving (optional)

Set up your grill for indirect grilling and preheat to 400 degrees.

Make the filling: Fry the bacon in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat, stirring with a slotted spoon, until crisp and golden brown, 4 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a large bowl. Pour off and reserve the bacon fat for another use. Don’t wipe out or wash the skillet.

Peel and core the apples and cut them into 1-inch pieces. Add them to the bacon. Stir in the sugar, flour, lemon zest, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in the bourbon. Taste the mixture for sweetness, adding sugar as needed. Spoon the filling into the skillet.

Make the topping: Place the butter, cookie crumbs, flour, white and brown sugars, and salt in a food processor. Grind to a coarse mixture, running the processor in short bursts. Don’t overprocess; the mixture should remain loose and crumbly like sand. Sprinkle the topping over the apples.

Place the crisp on the grill or smoker rack away from the heat. Add the wood to the coals and cover the grill. Smoke-roast the crisp until the topping is browned and bubbling, the apples are soft (they should be easy to pierce with a skewer), and the filling is thick, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Serve the crisp hot off the grill or smoker. Serves 8.

Per serving: 427 calories; 14 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 30 percent calories from fat); 74 g carbohydrates; 55 g sugar; 33 mg cholesterol; 144 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 5 g fiber.

The egg whites for the Deviled Smoked Eggs are bronzed by smoking them for about 20 minutes at 225 degrees.

Smoked Deviled Eggs

Eggs may be late-comers to America’s barbecue repertory. But elsewhere on the world’s barbecue trail, grilled and smoked eggs are common currency. Cambodians grill cilantro- and chili-stuffed eggs on bamboo skewers over charcoal braziers. The chef at the Auberge Shulamit in Rosh Pina, Israel, smokes eggs to make the most remarkable egg salad you’ll ever taste, served on, what else, grilled bread. Smoke takes the commonplace egg in gustatory directions you’ve never dreamed of. Hard-boiled egg? Okay. Smoked hard-boiled egg? Inspired.


12 smoked eggs

1/3 cup mayonnaise (preferably Hellmann’s or Best Foods), or to taste

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Sriracha,Tabasco sauce, or other favorite hot sauce, or to taste

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

For the toppings (optional)

Chopped chives

Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón)

Regular or smoked salmon caviar

Fried bacon slivers

Finely shredded smoked beef brisket or pulled pork

Hard-cook the eggs in boiling water.

Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s directions and preheat to 225 degrees. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.

Place the eggs on a lightly oiled wire rack placed over an aluminum foil pan filled with ice (the eggs should not touch the ice). Place in the smoker, and smoke the eggs until bronzed with smoke, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

Cut the eggs in half lengthwise. Cut a thin slice off the bottom of each half so it won’t wobble. Pop out the yolks and place them and the egg white trimmings in a food processor. (Alternatively, you can mash the yolk mixture with a fork.)

Add the mayonnaise, mustard, Sriracha, and Worcestershire sauce, and process to a thick puree. For a creamier filling, add more mayo.

Spoon the mixture back into the egg white halves or pipe it in with a pastry bag or a resealable plastic bag with a lower corner clipped off. Top the eggs, if desired, with a sprinkling of chives and/or smoked paprika, or a dollop of salmon caviar, bacon, or shredded brisket or pork. Refrigerate in a covered container or loosely covered with plastic wrap until serving. Makes 12 servings.

Per serving: 119 calories; 10 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 76 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 189 mg cholesterol; 136 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 0 g fiber.

Smoked Shrimp Cocktail

Smoked Shrimp Cocktail with Chipotle-Orange Cocktail Sauce

Here’s a Mexican twist on conventional shrimp cocktail, with smoke and fire coming at you from all directions. First from the shrimp, which you season with hot red pepper flakes and cumin and smoke over smoldering mesquite. Then from a cocktail sauce that features the sweet, smoky flavors of fresh orange juice and chipotle chiles. Add chiles to your liking — one for mildly spicy shrimp, two for pyromaniacs. Beats the traditional cold boiled shrimp cocktail hollow.

For the Chipotle-Orange Cocktail Sauce

1 cup ketchup

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 or 2 canned chipotle chiles, minced, plus 2 teaspoons adobo sauce

2 tablespoons finely diced white onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro, plus 4 sprigs

For the shrimp

1 1/2 pounds jumbo shrimp, peeled with tails intact, and deveined

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2 scallions, trimmed, white and green parts thinly sliced

1 to 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly cracked black pepper

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for oiling the rack

Make the cocktail sauce: Place the ketchup, orange zest and juice, Worcestershire sauce, chipotles, adobo sauce, onion and chopped cilantro in a bowl and whisk to mix. Divide the cocktail sauce among four small bowls. Cover and refrigerate until serving. Place a cilantro sprig in the center of each just before serving.

Rinse the shrimp, drain, and blot dry. Place the shrimp, cilantro, scallions, hot red pepper flakes, cumin, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a large bowl and toss to mix. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the oil, cover, and marinate for 15 minutes. Thread the shrimp onto bamboo skewers, 2 to a skewer. Leave 1/4 inch exposed skewer at the point end and the bottom half of the skewer shrimp-free. Place the skewers on a lightly oiled wire rack if smoking.

Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225 degrees to 250 degrees. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer. Place the rack with the shrimp in the smoker and smoke until bronzed with smoke and firm to the touch, 30 to 60 minutes, or as needed. Baste with the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil after 20 minutes.

For a grill method: Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high (450 degrees). Toss the wood chunks or chips on the coals. Direct grill the shrimp, turning them over once, until sizzling and brown on the outside and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Slide a folded strip of aluminum foil under the exposed parts of the skewers to keep them from burning. Baste with the remaining oil after you turn the shrimp.

Serve the shrimp on the skewers with the Chipotle-Orange Cocktail Sauce for dipping.

Per serving: 346 calories; 16 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 42 percent calories from fat); 24 g carbohydrates; 16 g sugar; 239 mg cholesterol; 1,028 mg sodium; 27 g protein; 1 g fiber.