When a person thinks about barbecue, the “smoke” part of the equation can sometimes feel like an afterthought. Open flames? Very important. Wood? A given. Meat? Of course. But what exactly does smoke even do, anyway?

Enter Project Smoke, the latest venture from author and television host Steven Raichlen, that’s poised to get millions of Americans into their kitchens or in front of their Big Green Eggs to learn how to smoke in all the right ways.

In the new television series, Raichlen explores how you can smoke (literally) everything—including desserts, cocktails—without a traditional smoker. Raichlen chats with First We Feast about why smoking is the “next grilling” and where it fits into the historical picture of barbecue and cooking over an open flame.

What’s the new show about?

I have this belief that smoking is the new grilling. Meaning, for people who have really mastered the grill—grilling vegetables, grilling appetizers, grilling desserts, getting beyond meat—the next frontier is smoking. How do I know that? Propane sales and charcoal sales are pretty stable, but wood sales have gone through the roof and that’s because so many people are smoking.

The advent of new technologies and devices like the Big Green Egg—which has been experiencing double-digit growth for the past 10 years—also points to that. So, what I tried to do with Project Smoke is to do for smoking what my previous show Primal Grill did for grilling.

How is it structured?

It’s a teaching show. The menus were all planned by pedagogy to teach six methods of smoking, how to smoke using all the smokers on the market, and how to smoke all the various food groups—from animal proteins to desserts. I also show how to use all the woods and wood in various forms. Smoke is kind of the umami of barbecue. Smoke used to be a very niche thing and now I believe it’s really going mainstream. The purpose of the show is to make people comfortable with that.


How do you make people feel comfortable with smoking unusual things, like a cake?

First, we do a lot of smoked cocktails on the show using a smoking gun. There’s a whole show about how to smoke when you don’t own a traditional smoker, so there’s this eggplant dip that’s charred on a burner and a smoked salmon that’s done on a stove top. There’s a really awesome smoked cheesecake.

I only smoke stuff that makes sense to smoke, and there are some things you don’t get a payback for. Smoked chocolate is one of those, because it has such a rich, intense, bitter, malty flavor. Smoke doesn’t do anything for it. There’s a smoked flan, though, that does that I did in a water smoker. It’s astonishing what smoke does to that vanilla and egg flavored dessert. It’s off the charts astonishing.

What’s one of the most surprisingly successful things you’ve smoked?

The smoked cheesecake. There was enormous skepticism about that when we did it. There’s a smoked shrimp cocktail that’s served with a chipotle cocktail sauce that makes you feel like you’re eating shrimp cocktail for the first time.


Photo: barbecuebible.com / Richard Dallett

From a historical perspective, how do smoking and grilling intersect?

Homo erectus began cooking meat with fire about 1.8 million years ago. That discovery of cooked meat gives us a huge boost in brain power because it’s easier to metabolize than raw meat. I imagine smoking happened this way: You have these prehistoric ancestors sitting around a smoky fire, and someone notices that when you have this smokey fire, there are fewer bugs and insects. So, it’s a great way to keep bugs away. Someone puts a piece of meat in the smoke as a way to keep the bugs off of it, and in doing that realizes that the bugs are kept away, but also, “Wow, this tastes awesome!”

There’s archeological evidence that smokehouses have been in use for at least 10,000 years. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had smokehouses, and your wealth was measured by how many hams you had in the smokehouse. Smoking has always been a very big deal.

Stay tuned for Raichlen’s 10 Commandments of Smoked Food.