Friday, March 8, 2013

The A-Maze-N-Pellet-Smoker and our hickory-smoked almond recipe

I’ve had some questions about the device I use to cold smoke and maybe it’s time to do a product review here on A Man for All Seasonings.

Since we love smoked salmon around here, I’ve been keen on making our own for quite some time. Last summer, when Karel and I bought our entry level Brinkmann smoker, I decided that cold smoking would be on the docket as soon as I could figure out how to do it without breaking the bank, because in initially looking at it, I was led to believe I’d either have to cobble together something on my own using a bar fridge and some sort of container for generating the smoke (which in itself wouldn’t have been cheap), or go whole hog, get a Bradley smoker and use their cold smoke adaptor with additional ice to cool things off enough.

Because, you see, the idea behind cold smoking is to get the smoke to what you’re smoking without raising the temperature. The things you cold smoke (salmon, nuts, cheese, etc.) need to get that smoke flavor without being cooked. In reality, in order to get smoke, you need burning (or at least smoldering) and that means heat. My research led me to the benchmark of 90 degrees F. Go north of that, and you’re also cooking your food rather than just smoking it.

Faced with spending a chunk of change, I put the idea on the back burner. Around Christmas, I decided to look further for a solution to my quandary.

Lo and behold, I found not one, but two solutions, both variations on the same idea: keeping heat to a minimum. One was the Cold Smoke Generator. It burns sawdust and got good reviews. We also found the A-Maze-N smoker which comes in two versions: one that burns sawdust and is very similar to the Cold Smoke Generator, and the other, following a similar design, burns compressed sawdust pellets. In the end, I decided on the A-Maze-N line simply because it seemed to be more ruggedly constructed. The pellets seemed more convenient to use, too.

All set to order one, I found a store, Ontario Gas Barbecue, just north of Toronto that carries the A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker, along with the pellets. Not being the patient sort, I decided to immediately take a run up there. Seeing one of these in the flesh, as it were, I was immediately impressed with the workmanship. It’s made of fairly thick steel with small holes punched in, and has two supports underneath to aid in airflow and also to stiffen the whole affair. Everything is spot welded and construction is neat and tidy.

A-Maze-N also makes excellent pellets containing 100% of whatever wood you’re purchasing, no cheaper “fillers”. We bought a few pouches: apple, cherry and pecan.

Back home, I got busy on a one-pound salmon filet we’d bought at Dominic’s at the St. Lawrence Market, curing it in the fridge with salt, sugar, peppercorns and dill for around 36 hours. I wanted a really smoky flavor, so I completely filled our A-Maze-N smoker with cherry pellets and prepared to smoke overnight. It being rather cold (-5C), I probably should have been worried about the meat freezing if everything worked the way it was supposed to.

It’s recommended to light the pellets using a blow torch. I concur. The pellets are very hard and won’t start readily any other way. The cherry pellets are especially prone to going out if they’re not lit well enough. Since that was what I was using, I decided to follow a recommendation I saw online and mixed in a bit of pecan pellets which burn more readily, and that worked fine.

Next morning, I was surprised to find the unit still smoking away after 11 hours. The temperature inside the smoker was about 1 degree C above the ambient temperature. The salmon filet had turned darker with the skin side having a nice, golden sheen.

The results? Well, it turned out to be maybe a bit too smoky for our taste, but it was undeniably not cooked and the overall flavor and texture were lovely. Needless to say it didn’t last too long!

On our second cold smoking attempt, we smoked almonds for Christmas gifts my son Karel was making. After 6 hours in hickory smoke, the almonds were very tasty. We roasted them in the oven afterwards to crisp them up, and after salting (through the use of soy sauce) the results were quite satisfactory. We’ve since cold smoked other nuts, cheese, pork chops and bacon, all with excellent results.

My opinion is that for cold smoking at home, the A-Maze-N pellet smoker is the way to go. It’s easy to use and works very well. If you want double the smoke output, you can light it at both ends through the provided holes. The construction quality means that it should last for many years. You can use it in any barbecue with a lid. Heck, you could smoke in a cardboard box if you protect the bottom of it from the slight bit of heat the unit generates. All you need is an enclosed area and a way to get a bit of a draft through it so the smoldering isn’t stopped because of lack of oxygen. To read another review from BBQ Island with some excellent photos of the smoker in action, click HERE.

You can purchase these units from retail outlets (there’s a list on the left-hand side of the page) or directly from the company. Amazon also sells it.

So if you’d like to try your hand at cold smoking, the A-Maze-N pellet smoker is the best way to go, to my mind.

Here’s our smoked almond recipe to whet your appetite. It’s adapted from a recipe given to me by Michele Jacot (thanks, Michele!), who doesn’t smoke the almonds first…yet.

Roasted & Salted Hickory-Smoked Almonds
Makes 2 pounds

2 lbs Raw, unsalted almonds (go for quality!)
Hickory pellets
Soy or tamari sauce (with some sort of spray bottle so you can mist the nuts)

1. First you need to cold-smoke the almonds. Sounds complicated and expensive, doesn’t it? It isn’t. You only need an A-Maze-N pellet smoker and a bag of their hickory pellets, some sort of mesh tray or a sheet of aluminum foil with a lot of holes punched in, your BBQ, a butane barbecue lighter (we use a blow torch). Read the directions for the smoker carefully and trust them. They know about what they talk!

2. Fill the A-Maze-N smoker with about a 6-inch length of pellets (one inch of pellets works out to about an hour of smoke) and light as per the instructions. Once it is smoking well, place the almonds into the BBQ and cover it. We try to keep them as spread out much as possible to improve the exposure to the smoke.

3. We like to go out and shake up the almonds every 30 minutes so they get exposed to the smoke evenly. When the smoke stops, you’re done with this step.

4. Heat your oven to 375°. Put the almonds on a couple of baking sheets and roast them in the oven for 10-15 minutes. It’s good to keep checking them after 10 minutes. You want them to be slightly browned, but they can burn quickly so don’t leave them unattended.

5. As soon as you take them out of the oven – and leaving them on the baking sheet – mist the almonds with soy sauce. It’s critical to spray them while they’re still really hot. They will let off some steam (totally normal). Spray once, stir them around and spray again so they’re more evenly coated. Taste one. If they’re not salty enough, spray them more. This is a feel sort of thing. If you mist them more than twice, slip them back into the oven for another minute to aid in keeping them crisp.

6. Let them cool, thoroughly. They will snap, crackle and pop, again totally normal. If you try them before they’re completely cooled, you’ll be disappointed because they will seem soggy and “stale”. Just be patient. When they’re down to room temperature, they’ll be satisfyingly crispy.

7. Store the almonds in a tightly-sealed container or plastic bag to maintain freshness – but they probably won’t last long!

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