You've swooned over butterscotch pots de crème garnished with smoked sea salt, but have you wondered how the salt ended up with that flavor? It's called cold smoking and it's ridiculously easy to do at home if you're so inclined. You don't need special tools either. For less than $12 you can make your own cold smoker and by the weekend, you'll be on your way to smoking all sorts of food.

Cold smoking is not very mysterious: it's simply when smoke is applied at temperatures between 70 to 100 degrees F so the food doesn't actually cook so much as it absorbs flavor. It's perfect for oven-dried tomatoes; spices; dehydrated chiles; salt, maple syrup; nuts (though you will need to roast them afterwards for a few minutes); olives; cheese and other dairy such as butter, sour cream, crème fraiche and crema. Proteins like fatty fish and bacon can be cold smoked, but should not be attempted with this method. That requires far more temperature regulation and time. This method is for whatever can be imparted with smoke flavor in three hours or less. Food safety first.

To make your own cheap and cheerful cold smoker you'll need:

  • A clean, new, plug-in, 15-watt soldering iron
  • Empty, unlined/BPA-free soup can. Label removed.
  • ¼ cup food-grade wood chips
  • Foil
  • Food-grade container large enough to hold a rack and your product
  • OR a grill with a lid
  • A thermometer is helpful but not entirely necessary

Credit: Rachael Narins

Credit: Rachael Narins

Super simple version: soak woodchips in cold water for 20 minutes. Drain the wood chips and add to the can until it's 1/3 full. Insert the clean soldering iron. Place that on a lightly oiled rack in a food grade box, grill or large pot. Add your product, (cheese, olives, whatever) making sure not to crowd. Plug in the soldering iron. Cover the box snuggly with foil or close the lid of the grill if that's what you're using and wait. If you have a probe thermometer, include that to monitor that the temperature doesn't get above 100 degrees F. Oh, and please be sure to do this outside on concrete.

You can also drill holes in the soup can if you really want to get all Martha Stewart about the endeavor. It's a bit harder to do, but does look nice. On the bottom of the clean can, drill one hole large enough to insert the soldering iron, then drill six more holes along the side. Insert the iron through the large hole, fill 1/3 with soaked woodchips, cover the open end with foil and proceed as with the less complicated version.

Here are just a few quick tips about cold smoking.

Keep everything clean. Your hands, tools, surfaces, everything should be scrubbed to reduce risk of introducing bacteria. Nobody should get sick from this.

The operative word here is cold, so do this on a cool day. It isn't about the internal temperature of the food, you just need to make sure the smoker stays under 100 degrees F. If the smoke feels at all warm, the temperature is too high, so just turn off the heat source and wait to start again.

Fat absorbs flavor, so the higher fat content of the product (cheese, mayo), the less time it needs. Generally, nothing you cold smoke this way should take longer than three hours, unless you really love smoke flavor.

Small and liquid products can be smoked in foil or in a disposable pie tin.

Credit: Rachael Narins

Credit: Rachael Narins

How to cold smoke tomatoes:

4 large organic tomatoes

½ teaspoon vegetable oil

1. Lightly coat the tomatoes with oil.

2. Place in smoker box, cover the box with foil and smoke for 2 – 3 hours.

3. Check periodically to make sure the smoke is not getting hot and the tomatoes are not cooking.

When the tomatoes are smoked to your liking, you can slice and put on sandwiches; puree and use as a base for salad dressings or use as an ingredient in homemade bbq sauce. Keep in mind a little smoke flavor goes a long way in cooking, so try smoked foods as a garnish more than as a main component.

Find more by Rachael Narins at twitter.com/chickswknives

LA Weekly