“True barbeque in my opinion is smoking meat. It’s an art form and it’s tricky to get just right.” — Brad Rocco, 2014 World Pizza Champion, Smoked Portobello and Pepperoni Pizza
Smoking is one of the oldest techniques for changing the flavor dynamic of vegetables, fish and meats. It is also a great way to preserve foods. The Romans smoked Westphalian ham and cheeses. The early Norwegians had an overabundance of fish but not enough salt to preserve them but eventually learned from the Celts and the Germans that a small amount of brine and a lot of smoke was the perfect solution. In France, wine was often matured in lofts where meats were smoked and this was thought to improve the wine, much to the dismay of the Romans.
These days world champion Ismaele Romano of Via Focaccia in Las Vegas says that in Sicily, smoking is usually done with orange wood or almond wood. Chef Romano says that in Sicily smoked meats are accompanied by fresh Sicilian oregano, fresh garlic, parsley and lemon zest. He says that when smoking lamb, you must add mint and that he is very fond of Sicilian roasted vegetables where onions, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant are roasted and smoked to make a salad. Brad Rocco, owner of Bexley Pizza Plus in Columbus, Ohio and a huge smoking enthusiast, has been creating tavern style and Detroit style pizzas with different smoked proteins and cheeses like low moisture provolone and Colby that, he says, are better for smoking than mozzarella or burrata.
My Cup Runneth Smoker
Some of the most successful barbeque places in the U.S. have fashioned smokers out of discarded drums and cans. Here are a few ways to smoke items in your pizzeria or restaurant.
Electric smokers: The older models like Little Chief are just boxes with heating elements in the bottom with a pan for the wood chips below a replaceable rack. You adjust the top lid to your liking of temperature. The new electric smokers use the same style with probes, timers and alarms.
BBQ grills and charcoal smokers: These range from barrel, egg or cabinet and are the gold standard to deep smoky flavor and that famous smoke ring on meats. These rely on the control of the flow of air to smoke which can lead to either dry and tough foods or ashy and bitter foods.
Propane Smokers: These are usually shaped like a cabinet, with the vents and burner at the bottom. Some have a water pan, and the chimney and dampers are located at the top. They are very fast and can be smoking within 10 minutes.
Offset smokers: These were originally made from discarded barrels. The firebox is located to the side and below the cooking chamber, so the smoke and heat is drawn across the food. These take longer than other smokers to get going but are great for smoking a lot of food.
Oven smoked pans: These are made to be used for small amounts of foods and can be heated quickly during or before service. Basically, just a pan with a raised wire rack and a lid for a small amount of smoking chips to enhance vegetables, fruit and thin strips of meat or chicken.
Smoking packets: Who would have thought it was so easy. By putting smoking chips in a foil satchel with holes in the top and placing it in the bottom of a large, lidded pan, you can smoke just about anything small like cheeses, potatoes, cabbage and carrots.
Wood for Flavor
Smoking has its roots around the world and the very center of any smoking enterprise is the fuel for the smoke.
Pecan: Doesn’t burn as hot as oak but has a gentle, sweet flavor. Best used for short term smoking fish, chicken and shoulder cuts of pork.
Oak: Many barbeque pros love white oak because it has a mellow, smoky flavor and gives a fairly even and moderate heat.
Hickory: This wood is more powerful than oak but is perfect for heavier meats like beef.
Apple, Cherry and Other Fruit Woods: These offer a rounded sweetness and gentle smoke that adds a very subtle flavor to fish chicken and pork. This wood burns fast and is great for short-term direct smoking.
Mesquite: This wood burns hot and fast and is strong flavored. This is great for steak or big meats for a quick hot smoked product.
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!
Here are some items that can turn your pizza line up from boring to… smokin’!
Root Vegetables: Smoked with cherry wood and thyme, garlic, savory, sage and rosemary. Moist root vegetables like kohlrabi and many radish variants benefit from a splash of smoke then a quick cure of salt and sugar. Best paired with celery, cucumber, lemon, bourbon, coffee or basil.
Mushrooms: My rule of thumb in smoking mushrooms is, the meatier and more boring the mushroom, the better. This is because many mushrooms have a nuanced floral and earthy flavor that gets saturated with strong aromas of smoke. Just 10 to 15 minutes in fruit wood like apple is enough to enhance the mushroom for further cooking. Best paired with leek and onion, thyme, lavender, pork and even strawberry.
Cheeses: Colby, Fontina, Gouda, cheddar, and even Swiss can be great after a dose of cold smoking.
Pork: This is the king of smoking in the pizzeria. Smoking big belly is the king but by smoking tougher, less fatty cuts like pork loin, you can make Canadian Bacon. This only entails a rub of salt, sugar and pepper, or the options of coriander, thyme, cayenne, rosemary, sage or fennel to steer the loin to your flavorful liking.
Lamb: If you can smoke less-pricey cuts of lamb like shoulder, breast or leg, you’ll be able to serve it on pizza. Lamb is a specialty on numerous flatbreads in the middle east like the Turkish Pide. Thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic, sumac and coriander are all good rubs. Sliced thin after the oven atop creamy goat cheeses with mint, pomegranate syrup and pine nuts.
Duck: Like lamb, this is often overlooked by pizza people as an affordable pizza alternative protein. It may seem like an “elitist” element but in my book, nothing beats duck pastrami cured with juniper, ginger, cloves and garlic and smoked to perfection. Sliced thin with cherries and burrata is a sight to behold.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.