Many of us love the taste of smoked food, but the prospect of actually smoking food at home can be daunting. Standalone smokers are large and expensive and must be used outdoors; they also take a long time to achieve the best results. Portable smoke infusers promise to solve a lot of these problems: They are small and comparatively inexpensive, can be used indoors, and work quickly to deliver a hit of smoke. Plus, they’re portable, so they can be used tableside to add a bit of dramatic flair to your meal—there’s nothing like presenting your guests with a drink or plate of oysters that has a cloud of aromatic smoke rolling off of it!
Like most standalone smokers, portable smoke infusers rely on cold smoke to impart flavor to food. With these infusers, you burn wood chips, spices, or herbs over a filter set inside a small chamber in the main body of the gadget. A battery-powered fan blows the smoke in the chamber through a tube toward the food, which you must enclose in a sealed vessel or plastic bag. By the time the smoke reaches the food, the heat has dissipated, leaving just the flavor-bearing chemicals in the smoke to infuse the food. Unlike traditional smokers, however, these smoke infusers aren’t meant for larger projects such as smoking salmon or making bacon from pork belly—their smaller size means that they can produce only so much smoke at a time, so they’re meant to “finish” already cooked food with a smoky flavor.
Once found only in modernist bars and restaurants, these tools have recently become more common and accessible to home cooks and bartenders. We wanted to know if any were worth buying, so we tested five portable smoke infusers, priced from about $20 to about $150, using them to smoke a wide variety of foods and drinks with different types of wood chips, dried herbs, and spices.
Here’s the good news: All the smoke infusers are fairly easy to operate, and every model impressed tasters with its ability to produce smoky food and drinks (though it took a little experimentation to get the levels of smokiness just right). These machines are fun, and because they’re so quick and easy to operate, we found ourselves smoking everything within arm’s reach, from butter and flake sea salt to popcorn, pork tenderloins, tofu, whiskey, horchata, different types of cheese, and more.
That said, we found that these machines don’t replicate the intensity or depth of flavor found in food smoked the traditional way. While our tasters very much enjoyed food and drinks that were treated by these infusers, some found the smoke flavor to be somewhat less fragrant and complex and slightly more bitter and “ashy”-tasting than they were expecting. Perhaps more intriguing, many tasters found that the food and drinks smelled far smokier than they actually tasted—and the aroma itself often dissipated over time, especially when the food was smoked and then heated (see “Some General Tips for Smoking Food”). Curious to understand what was going on, we talked to Greg Blonder, food scientist and professor of product design at Boston University.
As Blonder explained, the portable smoke infusers aren’t truly smoking the food at all. Compared with traditional cold smokers, these infusers hold minuscule volumes of smoking material (⅛ to ¼ teaspoon of wood chips, herbs, or spices in the models we tested) and thus can only generate a correspondingly small amount of smoke for a very short length of time (up to a minute in our testing). As a result, the food comes into contact with only a relatively small number of smoke molecules, especially in comparison to a good standalone smoker, which replenishes the supply of smoke molecules constantly and often over the course of several hours.
“In reality,” Blonder said, “the handheld models are not going to significantly infuse any food with much smoke flavor at all. But when used right before serving, while the last smoke plumes waft across the table, they can fool your nose into thinking that the food is smoky.” Basically, as our tasters had noticed, the infusers excel at creating smoke aroma, not flavor; what flavor they do create exists on a fairly superficial, if still highly enjoyable, level.
In addition, because the smoke infusers rely on such limited fuel sources, the fire and the resultant smoke is also different from those produced in a standalone smoker. The fire in a smoke infuser runs much cooler, generating what’s known as “white smoke,” a type of smoke that’s considered somewhat less ideal than the sweet, complex “blue smoke” created by the hotter fire of a good standalone smoker. Compared with blue smoke, white smoke is sootier, more acrid, and heavier on creosote (a tarry chemical released by wood as it burns)—and it transfers these characteristics to the food it infuses, as our tasters noted. That said, with the smoke infusers, the food isn’t being exposed to this white smoke for long enough for those qualities to become intolerable, which is why most of our tasters were still quite happy with the smoky foods and drinks they tasted.
A few factors made certain models more stable, easier to use, and easier to clean than others. Heavier machines, weighing at least a pound, sat more stably on the countertop. Models weighing less than a pound were prone to tipping over or getting knocked off the counter while in use—a worrisome tendency, considering that these gadgets hold burning wood chips.
We also considered the tubing that conducts the smoke from the infuser to the food. We preferred models with tubing of medium length; 18.5 inches was the ideal span between the infusers and the bag or bowl of food, with a little wiggle room in case we needed to adjust. Shorter tubes sometimes didn’t extend far enough to get close to vessels that sat on the counter, forcing us to hold the bowl or bag up to the unit while smoking. And longer tubes sometimes folded over on themselves, restricting the flow of smoke.
We appreciated machines that allowed us to alter the speed at which the fan rotates; a faster fan speed helps draw air through the machine at a faster rate, making it easier to ignite the wood chips, and a slower fan speed helps maintain a slower, steadier flow of smoke once the smoking material is ignited. Models with only one fan setting offered less control over the smoke, and one model, with just one low fan speed, was notably harder to light. Among the models with variable fan speeds, we preferred the one that had a dial, which allowed us to shift from high to low fan speed in one fluid motion. Other models had a toggle switch; to get from high fan speed to low fan speed on these machines, the machine must first be turned off, which was mildly annoying.
Finally, we considered how easy the machines were to clean. As you burn wood or other materials on a filter set over the smoking chamber, creosote and other residue builds up in the chamber underneath; you need to wash the filter and lower chamber on a regular basis or that detritus will impart a bitter, harsh flavor to your food or drink. Unfortunately, two of the models came with fixed smoking chambers that could not be removed—a no-go from our perspective, as food infused with smoke from those machines tasted progressively dirtier and more acrid with every use. Models with removable chambers and filters were much easier to clean and infused food with better-tasting smoke.
Our favorite portable smoke infuser is the Breville|PolyScience Smoking Gun Pro. It’s the heaviest model, so it’s less likely to be knocked over while in use, and it has an 18-inch tube that gave us plenty of leeway to maneuver both the machine and whatever we were trying to infuse with smoke. Both the filter and the smoking chamber can be removed for easy cleaning, and a rotating dial gave us excellent control over the flow of smoke. At about $150, it’s not cheap, but it’s still less expensive than most standalone cold smokers; as such, it provides a great entry point for those who want to try infusing foods and drinks with smoke at home.