Infusing a Sauce with Smoke

I love smoky flavors–one of my standby snacks in the summer is a quesadilla with cheese, a few slices of local ripe tomatoes, and a few dashes of Bufalo chipotle hot sauce. Looking for a way to get smoke without “fire,” I recently tried using lapsang souchong tea–a tea which has been dried over a smoky pine fire–to bring smoke into my cooking without firing up the grill or setting off the smoke alarm with slightly unwise stove-top cooking techniques.

My History with Smoke

First, some backstory: for reasons unknown to me, I have strong memories of buying the small package of lapsang souchong tea that has been in my cupboards since 1999. It was at a charming little tea shop called Teaism in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C., that I found the tea. I was not very knowledgeable about tea in those days and the words lapsang souchong leapt off of the tea selection board.

The next day, I brewed my first–and last–cup of full-strength lapsang souchong tea. The smoke flavor was overpowering, like drinking a raging bonfire. And so the little 2 ounce package went to the back of my tea shelf (it’s a good thing that there wasn’t a special deal on one pound packages). Eventually I started using it again, mixing just a few lapsang souchong tea leaves with my regular black tea (something like a 1:100 ratio) to provide a hint of smoke.

Using Smoky Lapsan Souchoung Tea in ponzu sauce

The Japanese sauce called “ponzu” is a magical mixture of soy sauce, citrus juice, citrus zest and other flavoring elements (“ponzu” is derived from the word “pons” which means citrus fruit in Dutch). My recipe is based on the one in Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku, with katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes) replaced by the smoky tea.

The sauce is complicated — it has two prepared flavorings (a simple sea stock and a more involved soy concentrate) — and requires some planning ahead (the stock and concentrate need many hours of soaking). But it is worth the effort and planning: it is one of the most delicious sauces that I can think of. Good enough to eat poured copiously over hot steamed rice. It is also good as a noodle dipping sauce or poured over roasted or steamed vegetables (asparagus is a match for the sauce).

The two preparations needed to make ponzu sauce are useful in other dishes, so your work will have benefits beyond the delicious ponzu sauce. The sea stock, for example, can be a base for miso soup or a vegetable chowder. The soy concentrate looks like it has great potential, but I haven’t done much experimentation with it.

More about lapsang souchong tea leaves: basic info from Wikipedia and Cooking with Amy‘s recipe for “smoky citrus shrimp.”

The following three recipes are adapted from Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku. Preliminary notes: 1) you need only 1/3 cup of sea stock for a batch of ponzu sauce, 2) if you are cooking in the evening, start the soaking for the sea stock and soy concentrate in the morning.

Sea stock

Kombu sea vegetable, 4 to 5 square inches per cup of water
Shiitake mushroom stems, 1 stem per cup of water
1 t. lapsang souchong tea
Water, preferably filtered

Place the kombu sea vegetable, shiitake mushroom stems, and water in a glass container. Let this mixture steep for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator, at least 8 hours. (the soaking allows the natural glutamates–flavor enhancers–to infuse into the water. Slimy kombu is a sign of this.). When ready to make the stock, put the mixture in a pan over medium heat. Bring it almost to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to keep it near, but below, the boiling point (a few bubbles along the sides of the pot, perhaps) for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes more. Strain into a saucepan or heat-safe glass jar (e.g., a canning jar or Pyrex measuring cup) though a fine strainer (one of those permanent gold coffee filters works well).

Optional step for smoke infusion: Measure 1/3 cup of the hot stock and pour it into a ceramic mug or heat-proof glass container. Add 1 t. lapsang souchong tea. Let steep for 5 minutes. Strain into a heat-safe container and let cool before using in the ponzu sauce.

Soy Concentrate

8 to 10 square inches of kombu sea vegetable
1 dried shiitake mushroom or the stems of 3 or 4 fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms
2/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup saké
3 T. sugar
3 T. water
2 T. mirin

Combine the kombu, mushroom or mushroom stems, soy sauce and saké in a deep, non-reactive saucepan. Let the mixture sit for between 1 and 12 hours at room temperature. This releases the natural flavor enhancing compounds in the kombu and mushroom (or stems).

Add the remaining ingredients to the soy-saké mixture and set the saucepan over low heat. Bring it to a simmer, and then adjust the heat to keep the liquid at a strong boil, but not one that causes the liquid or foam to overflow from the pan. Cook until the volume of liquid has been reduced by about one-quarter. The sauce should become somewhat syrupy as it reduces.

Remove from heat and strain the liquid through a coffee filter into a glass container. (The strained-out solids can be used to make a broth, see note below).

After the mixture has cooled, cover the glass container and store in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Ponzu sauce

3 T. soy concentrate
1/3 cup sea stock (with optional infusion of smoky tea)
2 T. fresh grapefruit, lemon, yuzu, or lime juice (or a mixture)
1/4 t. grated lemon zest (optional)

Combine all ingredients in glass container. Store the unused portion in the refrigerator for up to one month.

A note on the soy concentrate solids: Elizabeth Andoh says that the kombu and mushroom (or stems) can be used to make a simple broth. She recommends returning the solids to a sauce pan, adding 2 or three cups of cold water, and bringing the mixture to a boil. Strain, and use as a broth for noodles.

Image Credit:  Photo of chopsticks from jen_maiser’s flickr collection.

1 comment

  1. Thank you soooo much for the recipe for ponzu. I just love getting Beef Tataki at a local Japanese restaurant; It’s thinly sliced, rare beef over shredded daikon with ponzu. It’s just so delectable!! I tried purchasing a bottle of ponzu, but it’s definitely not the same. I’ll try this out soon!

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