How to Hay Smoke Meat and Cheese Like a Pro

We’re confident crowning Steven Raichlen the King of Barbecue since the grill master has 31 barbecue-related cookbooks (the newest comes out in April and is all about brisket), five James Beard Awards, three IACP Awards, and seven TV shows all in homage to his saucy skills. That’s why Raichlen is one of the only men we trust to teach us the unique method of hay smoking — a sped-up cooking technique of grilling meat and cheese that rivals the taste of slow smoking.

It’s (quite literally) lit.

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)

Heck, be adventurous and try grilling one of these 4 scrumptious meats that aren’t beef.

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.

hay smoke fire

A note before beginning: Hay smoking generates a lot of smoke. Do it outdoors, not in your apartment.

So … What Actually is Hay Smoking Meat?

If you can’t make it down to Colorado Springs for Raichlen’s Barbecue University this May, you should still add hay smoking to your barbecue toolbox. Raichlen tells 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 says.

The ‘how’ is basic AF. 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).

Project Fire by Steven Raichlen

“Hay combusts so much quicker than wood,” Raichlen adds. “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-percent 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.)

Hay-Grilled Mussels with Charcoal Butter Recipe

Hay Grilled Mussels Project Fire
Matthew Benson

Prep time: 10 minutes

Grilling time: 3 to 6 minutes

Grill and gear: Can be grilled 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 ammoniated.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 lb 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 tbsp 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. Photographs by Matthew Benson.

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