Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

How to hay smoke meat and cheese like a pro (according to one)

Try something new at your next barbecue — smoking with hay

Person grilling
Vincent Keiman / Unsplash

King of Barbecue and Grill Master extraordinaire Steven Raichlen has 31 barbecue-related cookbooks, five James Beard Awards, three IACP Awards, and seven TV shows, all in homage to his saucy skills. So when it comes to hay smoking — a sped-up cooking technique of grilling meat and cheese that rivals the taste of slow smoking — Raichlen is the guy to turn to.

Charcoal burning
Ben McLeod / Unsplash

What you need for hay smoking

  • Charcoal grill or smoker, like a Weber kettle grill or one from Smoky Mountain
  • Large foil drip pan or chestnut roasting skillet with holes in the bottom
  • Spatula (for cheese)

Foods to hay smoke:

  • Shellfish (like mussels)
  • Cheese (like mozzarella)
  • Steaks (like New York strip)

Hell, be adventurous and try grilling one of these scrumptious meats that aren’t beef.

Hay smoke fire
Jure Širić/Pexels

What type of hay to smoke

Most likely, you’ll smoke with hay or straw — the former is a dried grass, the latter the hollow stalks of grains such as wheat, alfalfa, or barley. Look for hay and straw at garden shops and pet shops. Hay smoking in the great outdoors? You can use dried pine needles from a pristine forest … just don’t use the shed needles at the dog park.

Fire burning
LAWJR / Pixabay

What actually is hay smoking meat?

If you couldn’t make it to Colorado Springs for Raichlen’s Barbecue University a few years ago, you should still add hay smoking to your barbecue toolbox. Raichlen told The Manual he first saw hay smoking in Central Italy. “It was used to smoke mozzarella cheese … what intrigued me was that it was so fast. Usually, when you smoke with wood, you’re talking several hours [cooking],” Raichlen said.

How to hay smoke meat is pretty simple. Take a handful of dry hay, put it in the bottom of a smoker, put cheese or meat on top, and light your charcoal or gas grill. If it looks like an explosion, you did it right (unless it actually explodes, then you have bigger problems than not hay smoking correctly).

“Hay combusts so much quicker than wood,” Raichlen added. “In a burst of fire and smoke, it both cooks and smokes the meat/cheese.” In the case of steak, wrap the full flank in hay and light that shit on fire. “In a big flame, you burn the hay off. Then brush off the ashes and serve. This works on a thick cut as well as a thin.”

The taste is more herbal and not as heavy of a smoky aroma as you’d get with wood chips or chunks, but it’s 100% there.

Hay smoking is perfect for people in a hurry who can’t commit to true smoking. Plus, who doesn’t like setting explosive fires and calling it vogue grilling?

Be a fire starter and try Raichlen’s recipe from his book Project Fire. (And try gathering your own mussels with this guide.)

Arm being bandaged
aebopleidingen/Pixabay

Safety tips for hay smoking

The process of hay smoking creates a lot of smoke, so never attempt to do this inside. It’s also important to use hay that hasn’t been treated with any chemicals, as it could be unsafe to burn. And as with any cooking process that involves fire, be sure to have a hose or fire extinguisher nearby in case things get out of hand.

Hay-grilled mussels Project Fire
Matthew Benson

Hay-grilled mussels with charcoal butter recipe

Prep time: 10 minutes

Grilling time: 3 to 6 minutes

Grill and gear: Can grill over charcoal, wood, or gas. It helps to use charcoal, so you have an ember for the butter. You also need a grill wok or mesh grill basket, about 12 inches across; needle-nose pliers; and safety matches or a butane match.

Tip: Buy mussels from a fish store with a high turnover rather than at the supermarket. (Chances are they’ll be fresher.) There’s a simple test for freshness: The shells should be tightly closed (or should close promptly when tapped). Avoid any mussels that smell fishy or ammonic.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 pounds of mussels
  • 3 large handfuls of hay or straw
  • Charcoal butter

Method:

  1. Pick through the mussels, discarding any with cracked shells or gapped shells that fail to close when the bivalve is tapped.
  2. Right before grilling, pull out and discard the tuft of threads (called the beard) at the hinge of each mussel, using needle-nose pliers. Alternatively, pinch the threads between your thumb and the back of a paring knife.
  3. Twist the knife away from the mussel to pull them out.
  4. Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean; there’s no need to oil it.
  5. Fill the bottom 2 inches of the grill wok or basket with hay. Arrange the mussels on top in one or two layers.
  6. Place the grill wok with the mussels on the hottest part of the grate. After a minute or two, the hay should start smoking, then burst into flames. You may need to touch a match to it to help it along.
  7. Continue grilling until the mussel shells open, 3 to 6 minutes, or as needed.
  8. Transfer the grill wok with the mussels to a heatproof tray and serve the mussels right out of the wok with the Charcoal Butter on the side.
  9. Eat with your fingers (use an empty mussel shell as tweezers to remove the mussels from their shells), dipping each mussel in melted butter before popping it into your mouth.

Charcoal butter

Ingredients:

  • 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 1 lit piece of natural charcoal or charcoal briquette (do not use instant-light charcoal)

Method:

  1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add the glowing charcoal.
  3. The butter will hiss and sputter.
  4. Let the flavors infuse for a minute or so, then return the briquette to your grill.

Excerpted from Project Fire by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2018. Project Fire photographs by Matthew Benson.

Topics
Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
How to Use One Ingredient for Five Different Dishes
How to Use One Ingredient for Five Different Dishes

As we're all stocking up on pantry essentials, there are only so many frozen blueberry smoothies and fried rice bowls you can make before your palate starts to get bored. But our favorite chefs know how to turn some of the most common pantry ingredients into extraordinary meals without too much time, effort, or money. So we challenged some of them to show us how to use one pantry staple in five different ways. The next time you find yourself with a surplus of chicken stock or canned tuna, refresh your palate and get creative with one of these ideas.
Artichokes
Canned artichokes have always been one of our favorite pantry staples, whether we’re making a crowd-pleasing dip or stirring them into a creamy pasta sauce. Anna Francese Gass — author of the cookbook Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women — agrees, and she has some great ideas to switch things up if your in an artichoke rut. Check out her recommendations, plus a recipe for an artichoke tart that will make any normal day feel like a celebration.
Rocio’s Peruvian Artichoke Tart

Ingredients:

Read more
How to Make Spatchcock Chicken in One Easy and Delicious Recipe
spatchcock chicken recipe

For most people here in the States, it's been less than a week of quarantines and isolations. By now, you've probably gone to the store and stocked up on things. But what happens when you get there and they don't have the pre-cut chicken pieces and only the whole birds? Well, you make lemonade out of lemons (figuratively) and cook that bird up. Don't know how? We've got one word for you: spatchcocking.

The name -- and if you can say it without giggling then bravo for you -- dates back to the 18th century and was a shortened version of the phrase "dispatch the cock." (Get your laughs out now. We'll wait.) The first references to the phrase come to us, according to scholars, from Irish cookbooks. Now, when we talk about spatchcocking, we are talking about splitting the bird down the middle so that it lays flat in the roasting pan.

Read more
How to Make a Cuban Sandwich, According to Chefs
cuban sandwich

A South Florida creation dating back to the turn of the century, the Cuban sandwich (also known as the Cubano) is a flavorful spin on the classic ham and cheese. The Cubano often includes creative additions and ingredient swaps, but at its essence, this grilled sandwich involves Cuban bread, thin-sliced ham, roasted pork, deli pickles, and a hearty swipe of mustard. It’s a handheld masterpiece that appeals to all flavor centers ... and if you’re armed with the following seven useful tips from pro chefs, the Cuban sandwich can be easily re-created in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Pay attention to the marinades used for your pork and pickles.
The rich umami of roasted pork and the bright tang of pickled cucumbers are crucial to the Cuban sandwich’s appeal, so it’s important to get your brines, marinades, and cooking times right. Chef Lisa Toro of The Liquor Store in Memphis, Tennessee uses a “12- to 16-hour seasoned and roasted pork shoulder” for her Cuban sandwiches, allowing the slow marination process and gentle roasting to infuse the pork with as much flavor as possible.

Chef Julian Medina of Latineria in New York City tells us that “the key ingredients to an amazing Cuban sandwich are the pork and the pickles. Marinate the pork shoulder for two days in a mix of garlic, fresh herbs and olive oil, then slow-roast it so the meat gets a nice sear all around it. For the pickles, make [a brine] with rice vinegar, dill, and chiles de Arbol for a tart and spicy aspect."
Don’t skimp on the quality of cheese.
Look, we get it. The cheese counter is a notorious money vortex, and it can feel a bit silly to drop big bucks on a block of dairy that’s intended for a sandwich rather than a cheese board. But when it comes to a well-executed Cubano, quality cheese is a must-have. And according to culinary director Tom Berry of the soon-to-open Mariel in Boston, MA only one type of cheese will do: “Cave-aged Gruyere maketh a Cubano.”

Read more