By Lesley Mahoney / Photos by Katie Noble
While visiting their parents in Michigan for the holidays, in December 2012, Matthew Baumann and his brother Ben experimented with their father’s new smoker and ended up with some pretty tasty trout and salmon. They used their mother’s vacuum sealer and packaged the results to bring home to Boston. But this wasn’t just some passing food whim. Seeing a potential niche to fill—they weren’t blown away by the smoked fish readily available at retail, finding them too dry or too salty—Matt and Ben hatched the beginnings of a business plan on the 12-hour drive back to Massachusetts.
Back home, they bought the best quality smoked fish they could find. “We said, we want to match this or pass this. So we started deconstructing the different tastes and messing around with brine recipes,” said Matt.
For Matt—who had some background in creating brines for fish, chicken, and pork, and enjoyed smoking fish and meat on weekends—this meant taking what was already a keen interest to a new level. “It started as a hobby and my interest increased from year to year,” he said, noting that over the years, he had done a lot of research and acquired a nice collection of books about smoking, curing, and charcuterie. “Going back to primitive times, the idea of man over fire always struck a chord with me.”
The Baumanns put together a tasting panel and shipped the panelists their products to get feedback on the fish; in all, they did more than 80 iterations of brine testing. “We learned that the stuff tasted good. I feel like we really nailed the brine,” Matt said, noting it features a carefully guarded blend of fresh herbs and spices grown on Ben’s property in Sudbury.
Next, they looked into the regulatory aspect of launching a smoked fish business. Matt, who was working as a tax attorney for a large Boston firm, said his legal background helped him navigate all the regulations regarding food production, including regulations specifically about the brining and smoking process. Meanwhile, the Baumanns retrofitted the barn on Ben’s property in Sudbury into a 500-square-foot, FDA-approved food processing facility.
With everything in place for the business, in June 2013, Matt left his day job to open Matt’s Amazing Smokehouse. A week later, he debuted their fillets and patés at the Lexington Farmer’s Market. Recently rebranded as Sudbury Smoked Fish Co., to better capture its local connection, the business is growing; it’s a regular vendor at local farmer’s markets and many local retailers carry the products.
The brothers co-own the business and have decidedly different roles. Matt focuses on the day-to-day operations: production, sales, and marketing. Ben, an entrepreneur who has founded tech companies, manages big-picture strategy, including spearheading the rebranding effort.
For Matt, it’s a dream come true. “I’ve always wanted to go into business for myself. I’ve always taken food seriously but I don’t have formal culinary training,” he said. “Cooking leads to grilling and grilling leads to smoking. And I love smoked fish.”
These days, instead of donning dress clothes, Matt throws on a baseball cap and jeans, and heads down to the South Boston Fish Pier to check out the day’s catch. He buys between 40 to 80 pounds of whole fish and transports them back to the smokehouse. There, he fillets and portions them before brining. He cuts the fillets into pieces that will yield four- and eight-ounce portions (he explains that he cuts them larger than the final portion size to account for some shrinking in the smoking process.) For the patés, he portions the fillets into 10-to 12-ounce rough cuts, on a very big bias, to expose more of the flesh in order to achieve a smokier flavor.
On a recent afternoon at the smokehouse, brined fillets of wild Alaskan salmon and Jail Island Canadian salmon are drying on racks—what Matt calls the most important phase of the process from a smoked flavor perspective. Following brining, drying results in a layer called a pellicle on the fish. “This is what the smoke sticks to,” he explained.
At the same time, the batches of previously brined salmon are smoking in a commercial smoker. Matt uses pecan wood chips for salmon, hickory for bluefish, and a blend of the two for salmon he treats with a Cajun rub. He monitors the fish to make sure it reaches 145 degrees for at least the last 20 minutes of smoking. Several probe thermometers inserted into the fish track the temperature.
“I’m convinced this tastes better than what’s out there because it starts with a better product,” Matt said. “A perfect piece smoked fish doesn’t have too much salt, there’s a nice moisture level to it, and a nice harmony of flavors, coming from the brine.”
Consumers can also feel good about the sustainability of the fish. “I have a responsibility to my customers to let them know as much as possible. I’m completely transparent about where my fish comes from,” he said. “I’m excited to share that.”
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in Spring 2014; Matt’s Amazing Smokehouse is now called Boston Smoked Fish: www.bostonsmokedfish.com
Lesley Mahoney is a South Dartmouth-based writer, editor and content strategist who loves a new food find, whether at a farmers market, restaurant or local purveyor. She can be reached at email@example.com.