Food, Food Artisans

Nueske’s Smoker Tells All

An Interview with Mike Zoromski, Smokemaster at Nueske’s

*Note: Mike will be a guest speaker at this year’s Camp Bacon® where he’ll give us “A Look Behind the Smokehouse Door.” Recently, Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig had a quick chat with Mike about his background, and the smoky magic that happens at Nueske’s
Visit our website to reserve your Camp Bacon seat and find more info. Please join us! 

Pretty much every morning for the last 34 ½ years, the Deli kitchen crew has begun its day by cooking many pounds of Nueske’s amazing applewood smoked bacon! The same can be said for the Roadhouse over the past 13 years. Their wonderful product graces the menus at the Deli and the Roadhouse, shows up on sandwiches, in Bakehouse breads and Creamery pimento cheese. It’s a regular feature in our Mail Order bacon of the month club. It’s safe to say that without Nueske’s, Zingerman’s would be a very different place today!

It’s also safe to say that without the work of Mike Zoromski to design, build, and manage the artisan smokehouses in which all that bacon gets smoked, Nueske’s would be a pretty different place as well. To get a look, so to speak, behind the smokehouse door we’ve gotten Mike to make a rare public appearance at Camp Bacon this year!! What follows is an interview with him, and a chance to hear some behind-the-scenes, behind-the-smoke, sense of what makes the Nueske’s smoking so special. Come to Camp Bacon® 2016 and meet Smokemaster Mike in person!

How did you get involved with smoking? How did you get involved with Nueske’s?

Robert Nueske_truck

Founder R.C. Nueske

I was so young and foolish back in ‘83 when I was asked if I wanted to work here, that I had no clue of what I was getting into. But what I do remember was that everything that Bob and Jim Nueske, (sons of founder, Robert “R.C” Nueske), and my brother Jeff taught me about smoking this product stuck with me. Even back then it seemed like I had a knack for doing it, but I was young and still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I left to get back into the building trade.

After fifteen years in construction, Jeff asked me if I wanted to come back. He needed someone to tend the smokehouses, so I came back and it was amazing. Everything that I was taught in 1983 came right back to me, almost as if I hadn’t left. I knew I was where I belonged, and I took it very seriously. I was going to make these smokehouses my own. Soon I started to see that each one had their own personality, and I knew I needed to figure them out so that the all the products came out looking and tasting the same every time.

What are some of the things that go into building a great smokehouse?

A controlled heat source, which distributes and disperses the heat and smoke evenly through the product, and a good consistent draft throughout the house that you have control of with a good damper system.

Many consumers love bacon but don’t really understand the details of the smoking process. I know some of the details will be proprietary, but can you take us novices through the process of smoking?

There are three basic cycles in almost every smoke process. There is a drying cycle, where you might have more of an open damper setting with smoke, and you slowly bring up the temperature. Then there are some critical meat temperature ranges that you need to get through in certain amount of time for food safety reasons. During that time you would have a more closed damper to hold the heat and humidity in, and during that that time you are getting a lot of smoke penetration into the meat. I have looked at the product during these early cycles, and you never believe that the product will end up with the beautiful deep color that it does at the end, but the smoke and flavor is getting in throughout the night. The last cycle in this long process is to start bringing up the smokehouse temperatures slowly to reach your final meat temperature. I like to use this time to put my final touches on the finish color, adding more smoke or adjusting the dampers. There is a science behind what really happens during the whole smoke process and there is always something new to learn.

What are some of the things that distinguish artisan smoking the way you do it at Nueske’s from the commercially smoked meats that people are used to buying in the supermarket?

Our competitors probably think we are nuts when we keep building single truck houses. They think the way to increase production is to build fifteen truck houses and mass-produce. Well, that’s not the way to hold onto what we have done for 80-some years. We use real Applewood logs in our houses, they use smoke injectors that burn wood sawdust, or even liquid smoke that tastes fake. We have a 24-hour cycle to get that full flavor; their process is about half that. Our houses are seasoned with a year’s worth of smoke on the walls; theirs are cleaned every day. You could probably run product through ours without putting any wood on and they would end up with more smoke flavor than a normal cycle with wood at one of those other places. That special attention that each rack gets in our houses is something that no mass-producing smokehouse could ever duplicate.

Are there seasonal differences in the smoking?

Yes, very much so. In the cold winter months, you have to control the draft more. The air is dry and it wants to get up and out, and if you don’t make those adjustments, you could end up with lighter colored meats. Then when the cold nights switch to the spring thaw and the frost turns to dew, we again make adjustments. Then comes the heat and humidity of the summer. Thunderstorms are tricky; they are unpredictable and usually bring a quick change in temps outside. Then, when the summer air starts to change to fall, and at the beginning there is a lot of dew, you start to see the differences again, then when the dew switches back to frost again, the draft in the houses start to speed up, and then we are back to winter. If I had a choice as far as how the houses best perform, I would pick the winter, because we have more control over the air flow in the houses.

Nueske’s has long used the applewood—have you smoked with hickory? How are they different?

I have not used Hickory here at Nueske’s. I have tried products that were smoked with Hickory and I do like the flavor, but it doesn’t compare to Applewood. Applewood has a much sweeter flavor and produces a deeper golden color. Hickory is a much harder wood that produces a bitter nut, so I think the differences in smoke flavor are similar to the fruit they produce, not that hickory smoke is bitter, but the oils that are trapped in the wood from a tree that produces an apple compared to that of a nut.

With the new cherrywood smoked bacon… Was it hard to learn to work with a new wood?

It’s funny how much your past helps you in everything you do. I spent a lot of time with my dad logging, making pulp and firewood, and all that time he would teach me about the different types of wood we would be working with. One of the trees we had worked with a lot in our area, was the Wild Cherrywood we now use here. The Wild Cherrywood is a lot different type of wood than Applewood; it is a solid but light wood, with a closed grain and a very bitter berry. When we were kids we called it a choke cherry.

When we decided to try it for our Cherrywood smoked bacon, I knew it would probably burn away faster than Applewood does. So on my very first try in our smokers, I figured I might have to use a little bit bigger size piece of wood than I do with Applewood, and I was right on. We use that much all the time now and the color is very good. A little lighter than Applewood, which I thought it would be, but by using the bigger pieces we get very close the color of our Applewood bacon.

I think that having that knowledge that was passed on to me from my dad really helped me, and it still does every day when I’m picking wood for the houses. I go through and select only the higher quality wood and the rest goes home to my fireplace.

Nueske’s products are clearly very special. But so is the company. What’s it like working at Nueske’s?

It is pretty special to work for a company that produces the products we do, and it has always been like working for family. I always admired Bob’s toughness on how he ran this company, yet I considered him a friend. It is no different with Tanya, she too is my friend, and I would never let them down. It’s quite an honor to have the title of Smokemaster of Nueske Meats.

What else should we know about your work at Nueske’s?

I now have three guys working for me in the smokehouses, including my son Matt. I also now have Steve and Dallas, and I couldn’t be more proud of the job they are doing. Every day it seems like they learn more and more about these smokehouses. It doesn’t take four guys to do this work right now; it’s about a two and a half man job. But with expansion on the horizon, we need to train them now, so that when there are more smokehouses to run, the products will continue to get the personal attention they need. These three guys have shown a lot of passion towards this job already, so it will be in good hands when I retire…someday.

Are you excited about coming to Camp Bacon?

Yes and no. I never considered myself to be a very good public speaker, but this bacon and my smokehouses are not hard to talk about. So I’ll try and pretend that I’m walking around and giving a tour of my smokehouses.