Chef Chris Coleman of Stoke in Charlotte, North Carolina uses the radiant heat of embers to infuse oil and replicate pit-cooking.
Yes, barbecue might just be the most delicious food on the planet. Especially if, like chef Chris Coleman of Stoke in Charlotte, North Carolina, you live anywhere in the American South. But as we head to summer beaches and backyards, Coleman wants us to know there are more delicious ways to play with fire.
Or, the embers that come after the fire, to be specific.
Rather than use the smoke from live fire to slowly cook down food, Coleman uses the radiant heat of embers to infuse oil and replicate pit-cooking methods, teasing and layering notes of wood and fruit deep into dishes.
“You can actually taste the wood in the products afterward,” he promises.
Though the chef uses a double-entry oven at the restaurant to break down wood into embers, this unique technique transfers easily to backyard grills, beachside bonfires, and campsite cooking.
How to Prep
The first step is to “find a good wood guy,” the chef says. Most wood prepped for commercial sale is chemically treated, “and you certainly don’t want to infuse anything you’re going to ingest with chemical-laden embers,” Coleman warns. Know where your wood comes from and that it’s naturally dried. Whatever kind of natural wood you use – like his combination of long-burning white oak and soft peach wood – will subtly flavor your final product. Next, it’s time to burn a fire to ember point.
“Wood will produce a lot of fire, then it will burn down, then you’ll see it break apart into coals – that’s natural charcoal,” he explains. “Once it burns down a little further – to when it’s hot but not orange and glowing – you’re good to go.” Any further than that, and it’s ash. Start over. Have a metal shovel and fire-proof gloves nearby for transporting the embers to their next step. “Don’t burn yourself trying to do something fun,” he says.
How to Use It
“Think about applications where you need a heat that lasts a long time and is a gentle radiating heat – a temperature that doesn’t bounce up and down but stays where it’s at and then slowly dies,” Coleman says. His signature application at Stoke is his infused brasa oil – a combination of 75 percent canola and 25 percent olive oil he describes as “this wonderful, aromatic, deep, complex-tasting oil.”
He compares the aroma to childhood memories of smashing acorns into paste: green, fresh, and woody. Then, soft fruit notes come from the peach wood, and a subtle smoke lingers.
Put about a quart of oil in a metal container (plastic will melt). Fire safety is critical, here, as the oil and embers will combust if fed oxygen. With this in mind, add 4-5 nugget-sized embers and then immediately cover. Leave overnight to infuse, then strain a few times through a coffee filter. The result will look a touch grayish, but be packed with flavor that continues to other parts of your cooking process.
Toss vegetables into the oil and then throw them on the grill, and you’ve got a side dish teeming with natural depth. Whip it into an aioli, then serve with vegetables or spread on a sandwich for fireside flavor anywhere. Cut with a little plain olive oil “so it’s not overwhelming,” then use in a vinaigrette on a salad topped with grilled fruit, or drizzle over chocolate sorbet for dessert. Swirl some into a chiffon cake recipe, and now that’s got summertime notes of outdoor grilling, too.
Then, there’s Coleman’s slow-cooking method. He took inspiration from a Sephardic dish cooked for the Sabbath, where the Talmud “mentions the roasting of eggs in warm ashes and in sand heated by the sun." “I thought that was such a romantic idea and so very old-school,” he says.
To replicate, mix one-part embers with five-parts inexpensive cornmeal – this brings their temperature to around a steady 160-170 degrees. Pour it into a cast-iron pot, bury raw eggs in the center, and leave overnight until the embers are cold. “The white is caramelized all the way through, and the yolk is creamy,” he says. “It smells like roast chicken, a mixture of the long cooking time and the embers – the best tasting egg ever.”
Use the same process on vegetables, chuck steak, or smaller cuts of roast, all drizzled with oil and wrapped in foil.
Coleman recognizes his methods are a bit “cheffy” – an attempt to repurpose and reuse as much of everything as they can. But he also grew up with Mississippi farming grandparents. He remembers the slower-paced life they led, and prefers to emulate their slow-cooking style today. “I love techniques where you get something started, open a bottle of wine, cook, relax, and know you’re going to have some delicious food in a while,” he says. “I was born and raised here in Charlotte, a midsized city where it’s fast-paced all the time. Taking some time to relax a little bit and not rush things – the ember-cooking kind of speaks to that."