The Easiest Way to Smoke Food When You Don't Have a Backyard
No backyard? No grill? No problem. Enter the Ibushi Gin, the donabe smoker designed to simultaneously cook and smoke dishes indoors. It's having a moment at restaurants across the country like Sonoma's celebrated SingleThread Farms, and if you're looking for smokey flavor this summer in the comfort of your own kitchen, it's the cooking appliance you need.
Just ask SingleThread chef and co-owner Kyle Connaughton, who developed a passion for donabe cooking when he lived in Hokkaido more than a decade ago. Donabe are traditional Japanese clay pots, and can be used to braise, steam, smoke, sear—anything except deep fry, depending on the style of the vessel. About the Ibushi Gin, Connaughton says, “The quality, the textures… the food is so much more interesting and refined than with other smoking devices."
Food & Wine Culinary Director Justin Chapple agrees: "They're great because the technology allows you to use minimal wood chips, while still imparting lots of smoky flavor to foods."
Take a look at some of the country's most progressive restaurants—State Bird Provisions and The Progress in San Francisco, Ardent in Milwaukee, Necco and Alimento in L.A to name a few—and you'll see donabe in the kitchen. There are a bunch of different styles of donabe, from the steamer to the tagine-style donabe, and “there are no restrictions on ingredients or cooking method you have to apply," says L.A.-based donabe specialist Naoko Takei Moore, who literally wrote the book on Donabe, co-authored with Connaughton and published in 2015. "For Japanese people, it’s something you can use on a super lazy day when you don't go outside of the house—you can just see what's in the fridge and assemble them in a donabe to make a beautiful one-pot meal."
By now, the clay pots well-known for braising and slow-cooking. “We use it as all-purpose cooking ware. Braising short ribs, beef bourguignon, braising chicken thighs," Connaughton says. But the smoker model is just as effective and versatile.
While Connaughton might use the Ibushi Gin to smoke delicate morels, for example, Tim Hollingworth of Otium in L.A. uses it for barbecue eel, which he serves with black rice and ponzu, or pastrami, which comes with beet, rye and housemade Thousand Island dressing.
“I've been constantly amazed by all that creative dishes that chefs make,” says Takei Moore, whose own recipes—smoked duck breast, smoked Chinese-style cold noodles, smoked olive oil and seasoning, and smoked camembert and walnuts—can be found under Ibushi Gin recipes on her website, where she sells clay cookpots from Iga, Japan.
Unsurprisingly, the smoker is one of her biggest sellers both online and in her L.A. brick-and-mortar store.
How It Works
Takei Moore grew up with donabe cooking at home in Japan before she moved to L.A. to study at Cordon Bleu Culinary School in 2001 (where she met Connaughton, who was one of her instructors). Though she had developed a refined palate for the nuances of both Japanese and international cuisine in her youth, her 2007 experience tasting rice from a Kamado-san, the specialty double-lid rice cooker donabe made by eighth generation artisans for the Nagatani family in Iga, a city 250 miles southwest of Tokyo, was a revelation.
Iga has a history of pottery making that spans 1,300 years, and Takei Moore says the unique, pre-historic fossil-filled clay here makes the centuries’ old Iga-yaki (Iga style) traditional ceramics one of Japan’s most esteemed; it's superior to any clay pots she has found elsewhere.
When the clay is fired, the fossils in it break down to create tiny holes. This porosity improves the pot’s durability, and because air is a poor conductor of heat (it's why we heat conventional ovens to 450 degrees to cook a dish to 160 degrees), the donabe heats up and cools down gradually, radiating heat throughout its entire body for minutes after the heat source has been removed, providing even cooking with sealed-in flavors.
The Ibushi Gin donabe is unique in a few ways. Unlike multipurpose classic styles, which must be heated with fluid and seasoned prior to use, the Ibushi Gin is made from special, extra-heat-resistant clay and a strong glaze that can be heated empty and is designed to promote the heating effect of Far Infrared Rays (FIR) in the same way charcoal embers cook without a direct flame. Also unlike most donabe, which have holes to let steam escape, there’s no hole in the lid of an Ibushi Gin. A reservoir in the lid creates a water seal, trapping smoke and moisture inside, and minimizing the number of woodchips required to create a really smokey flavor.
How to Use It
Whether you're using the mini, personal size or the large size, Takei Moore recommends lining the bottom of the Ibushi Gin with some aluminum foil for easy cleaning before adding a handful of your preferred wood chips for smoking. Fruit woods, such as cherry or pear, offer a lighter smoky flavor, ideal for fish; woods such as hickory and maple are more mid-range, with mesquite delivering intensity. If you’re cooking anything with a high-fat content, you can lay a smaller piece of foil across the chips to catch any drips and keep the wood dry—just ensure the edges are slightly folded upwards to allow the smoke to rise to the food.
Once you've prepped the donabe with foil and woodchips, place your pre-seasoned ingredients on the grates as you would a barbecue grill, making sure nothing overlaps, with thicker pieces on the lower grate where the heat and smoke tends to be more intense.
Set the pot over high heat on a gas stove and once the chips start to smoke, which usually takes around five minutes, cover with the lid and fill the reservoir where the lid touches the bowl about halfway with water to seal the pot.
Once the chips start to emit smoke, Takei Moore recommends keeping the gas on for the following amount of time, depending on the size donabe you're using: five to seven minutes if you're using the mini, and six to eight minutes for the large Ibushi Gin. When you turn off the gas, you then let the donabe sit anywhere from four (mini) to 20 minutes (large).
When the food is ready, stage the big reveal—cue puff of smoke—and eat! Because you can cook and eat out of it, the pot doubles as a beautiful family-style dining presentation piece.
“I always tell people that they should never feel intimidated by donabe," Takei Moore says, "Donabe, for me, is something that makes your life easier and cooking more fun."