We have a lot of different types of deciduous trees that grow in the Berkshires whose hardwood can be used for smoking food. Smoking can take hours or even days – this process is not to be confused with wood grilling which uses a hot, fast fire to sear the meat and impart a rich flavor. Those who remember the Dakota Restaurant in Pittsfield will also remember the smell of food being cooked on mesquite, which is a fast-burning, very powerful-tasting wood. Great for grilling, but not so great for smoking. The harder deciduous woods such as fruit, nut, maple, and others burn evenly and slowly and impart flavors that are perfect for smoking a variety of foods. This does not include any of the softer coniferous woods (pine, spruce, and so forth), which burn fast and leave a bitter, pitch flavor not suitable for smoking or grilling.
Almost as important as the wood, the smokers themselves can range from inexpensive backyard homemade versions to professional multi-floor smokehouses. Foods can be cold smoked or hot smoked and the more indirect the heat source the slower the smoke process. An indirect cold smoke can be as low as 100 to 120 degrees and is usually reserved to flavor cheeses, fish, veggies, fruit, and such. Some foods that are cold smoked can be cooked thoroughly later, like bacon. Hot smoke typically runs between 165 and 185 degrees and is used on foods that can be eaten without cooking, like hams, kielbasa, and some hard sausages. One of the most imaginative smokers I ever saw was an old refrigerator, motor removed, with holes cut in the top and bottom. A remote firebox and adjustable stovepipes made it usable as a cold or a hot smoker, and all you had to do was open the fridge door to obtain the finished product. It actually worked great!
I interviewed several local pit master chefs while writing this piece and each had their own favorite wood and method for smoking their products. Most them prefer to use lighter-tasting woods, many of which come from the area. The knowledge they have acquired allows them to pair certain types of wood with the meat or fish being smoked, much in the same way different wines can be paired with food to complement a dish. The flavors of wood are varied to accompany the heaviness or lightness of the product. The pairing of wood to foods can be different for each chef and recipe. Sometimes a mix of different woods is used for a specific flavor. The milder-flavored woods like apple, alder, and maple (bark peeled) are good with most fish, poultry, cheese, and produce. The medium-flavored woods such as peach, pear, plum, cherry, apple, and oak pair well with poultry, pork, oily fish, and duck. Strong-flavored woods such as hickory, walnut, and other nut woods do well with beef and most pork, but it is a matter of taste. It should be noted that the pit masters stay away from orchard wood as the trees may have been sprayed with pesticides that would transfer to food. You can buy smoking wood in stores, but it is usually chipped for grills and won’t do well in a big smoke project. Most smoke chefs or pit masters prefer wild woods and some cut it themselves for the size they need.
The owner of Bash Bish Brew & ‘Que in Sheffield, MA, and an old friend I know from Cape Cod both use a secret dry rub before anything goes into the smoker. Bash Bish has two smokers in back of his Sheffield restaurant and he uses apple and pearwood to smoke pork shoulder, beef brisket, chicken, and fish. The pearwood in fact once lined the streets of Great Barrington before the trees were cut down and replaced. Jim Hallock from the Morgan House will only use a local red oak for all his smoking and he peels the bark off each piece of wood because the bark can give an oily taste to the food. He also factors in atmospheric pressure and temperature when doing a batch and he says he would rather smoke in below-zero weather as it’s easier to control the fire. David Pullaro of Fiddleheads has the biggest smoker I have ever seen, capable of holding tons of chicken, whole pigs, and a side of beef.
I have maple, black walnut, oak, and crab apple growing in my yard and an old smoker coming up from the cellar. I’m inspired! It’s trout season and we love smoked trout so if I happen to catch a few “we’ll be smoking.” Just follow your nose!
~ Michael Romano has lived with his wife, Susan, in Great Barrington, MA, for almost 40 years. He is a retired chef, an avid fisherman, and writer.
Read this article in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Our BerkshireTimes Magazine.