Chefs embrace playing with fire

 Cookbooks for fire cooking

In recent years innovative chefs have experimented with new tools and techniques like sous vide and anti-griddles to up their game. Now they're returning to a more basic - some would call primitive - method in restaurants around the world. Live-fire cooking is on fire as chefs embrace the technique to get smoky flavors and contrasting textures that you can't replicate with modern equipment.

Live fire-cooking is similar to the worlds of barbecue and grilling, but there are some distinctions. Myriad tweaks and methods separate live-fire cooking masters from those who toss their steaks on a grill. According to FSR Magazine, "Some chefs use wood-fired grills supplied by various manufacturers or outfitted by their own means, while others rely on Japanese-style Robata grills, outdoor pits, and even large smoking boxes that can roast a whole hog at a time." Different types of wood or charcoal impart specific flavors, and long-forgotten methods are resurrected. 

Chefs also adapt techniques from other countries. Stephen Barber, executive chef of Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena, California, puts his spin on the Argentine asado method of roasting whole lamb on metal crosses. "We'll butterfly the lamb and rub it with chimichurri overnight as a marinade," he says. "Then, we'll figure out where the wind is coming from and put the cross in the ground with the wind facing it, and build a low, crackling fire in front of it so the smoke drifts over to the lamb and slowly cooks it."

While the trend is coming to the forefront, backyard enthusiasts know that cooking over fire has never really gone away. You can find a plethora of cookbooks on the subject in the EYB Library. Chef Francis Mallmann has been a vocal proponent of live-fire cooking and has published Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way as well as the highly regarded Mallmann on Fire. Other books in the genre include Michael Chiarello's Live Fire by Michael Chiarello, Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux, The Art of Wood-Fired Cooking by John Thess and Andrea Mugnaini, and Smoke: New Firewood Cooking by Tim Byres.

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