Smoking fish is a practice that’s nearly as old as fire. Long ago, in some remote cave, it is believed that it was most likely discovered by accident when a fish hanging in the vicinity of fire acquired a delectable flavor.
Imagine the discoverer’s delight when he first tasted it! He also discovered the smoked fish lasted far longer without spoiling. Whoever found the process, there is no doubt that the practice had a long-lasting effect on food preparation and preservation from then on. Practically, every nation of people in the world has a specific smoked method for fish.
By the time Europeans began immigrating to the new world, smoking food was considered normal. Practically every home had a smokehouse in the backyard. Those that didn’t have a special chamber in the fireplace where food could be smoked while the fire provided warmth and light for families.
Smoking in those days was considered a preservation method, not a flavor enhancer. For this reason, smoking food as a process nearly dropped out of sight by the time people owned their ice boxes, refrigerators and freezers became the norm. Smoked fish, though, kept its appeal.
Brine or Salt your fish
Smoking fish does far more than altering the flavor of the food. Meat, including fish, contains a lot of water. Some fish contain as much as eighty percent! Water is the primary breeding ground for yeast, mold and bacteria.
Armed with that knowledge and before smoking, fish must be brined or salted. Salting is when you pack or sprinkle the fish with salt, which is not to increase flavor, but for pulling much of the excess moisture out of the meat/fish.
Brining is when you soak in a salty liquid, usually water. While in the brine, the fluid is drawn out of the fish as opposed to a dry salting process.
After the brine or salt process, you smoke; smoking dries the meat in much the same way as cooking. Once the fish has been prepared and smoked, only a fraction of the original water content remains.
Smoking the Fish – The Chemistry
Hardwood smoke contains many chemicals that were once part of the life process of the living tree. While in the smoke, these chemicals are driven out of the wood and the fish absorbs them. The method of driving the substances out of the wood is called destructive distillation; the same process that converts wood to charcoal.
In the smoker, the wood chemicals are first driven out of the wood, and then the remaining charcoal powder burns just like your backyard barbeque. The natural compounds in hardwood smoke have the added benefit of both killing and inhibiting the future growth of mold, yeast and bacteria. These chemicals are the underlying reason for the preservation power of the smoking process.
Cold vs. Hot Smoking
There are two different smoking methods. The original is called cold smoking. In a cold smoker, the temperature is generally below 120 degrees F. This is the traditional smokehouse method that was used by most people before refrigerators. Cold smoked meats require cooking – can be before or after. Cold smoking takes a lot of time. You can hang meats in a smokehouse using the cold smoking process for three or four days; a good smoke flavor is then infused into the meat. If smoking ham, it must then be cooked before eating.
The modern method for smoking, especially suitable for fish, is the hot smoking process. Hot smoking takes place at temperatures exceeding 140 degrees F. This 140 F temperature is crucial because it is the temperature that kills all undesirable bacteria (Milk is pasteurized at 140 F to kill any bacteria and render it suitable for storage before it is consumed).
In the hot smoking process, the fish is cooked while smoked. There are many advantages. It can be accomplished in 2 to 4 hours for most cuts with no additional cooking required. Fish may be eaten as soon as it comes out of the smoker. It also keeps very well. No refrigeration is necessary for about a day if you want to take some along on a fishing trip. However, you should refrigerate to make it last longer. All of the smoked fish you see in the fish markets is hot smoked.
Dad’s Story about his Father’s Smoke House
Hot smoking was used in my dad’s childhood. They had a smokehouse in their back yard for smoking ham, sausage and beef. They hardly ever smoked fish as it wasn’t their favorite. When it came to meat, Dad was in charge of going out to check if it was ready. However, the funny part of the story was, his dad would be sure to make Dad leave his pocket knife inside – he was notorious for slicing a little piece here and there before he made it back into the house. In the corner of the smokehouse, there was a deep bucket – made of cast iron. Inside was a salt solution or brine. Even though it was a hot smokehouse, my Grandfather would put pork in the pot with cheesecloth on top to keep out the bugs. It would make “salt meat.” Dad calls it salted pork and to this day loves it.
Aside from the old smokehouses, now there are much more effective ways to smoke meat and fish. There are cardboard box smokers, smokers made from old refrigerators, fancy brick smokers and smokers made from garbage cans. The most practical smoker for fish is the trusty electric hot smoker. These can be either store-bought or readily made from inexpensive components.
Portable electric smokers are commercially available in many barbeque and sporting goods stores. They can be very inexpensive. For example, one popular brand is “Little Chief.” This smoker has been around for several years, and its popularity seems to be increasing. The price runs $35 for the original and $30 for an off-brand.
The Little Chief style smoker is entirely adequate for most home smoking needs. When treated well they last years and can smoke everything from nuts to whole turkeys; it is a metal box with a latched lid on top and an electric hot plate on the bottom.
Because they are not insulated, this type of smoker is useful only in mild weather. A drawback of the portable metal electric smoker is its size. It will smoke a half a dozen smaller fish or one bigger fish (in pieces).
The smoking process takes time to do correctly. You’ll spend a day and a half; therefore, you might as well smoke a bunch of fish to enjoy the eats for more than a couple of days between smoke batches.
Other Types of Smokers
In addition to the electric smokers, there are many others. Perhaps the most common of these is the water or charcoal smoker. These have been around for many years and in many incarnations – from inexpensive sheet metal affairs to sophisticated ceramic and stainless-steel creations.
As with most things, we recommend starting with something basic and before you decide to splurge on a fancy digitized smoker.
There are two kinds of trees: deciduous trees (broadleaf) and Conifers (evergreens). Deciduous trees are generally called hardwood trees and include all of the fruit trees, nut trees, oak, ash, hickory, mesquite, cottonwood, and the like. Conifers are needled trees like pine, fir, yew, juniper, and others. For smoking, only hardwoods are acceptable. The conifers contain too much pitch and tar and if used for smoking will cover your food with a gummy, foul tasting residue.
Top Hardwoods for Smoking
Hickory is old faithful. It is the standard by which all others are judged. Hickory imparts the classic, smoky taste on fish. Hickory wood almost exclusively comes from the mountains of the eastern US, the Appalachians and Ozarks. It is a light-colored wood commonly used for tool handles. It is hard, durable and burns cleanly and evenly.
Mesquite is extremely popular as a barbeque (slow cooking) fuel. You find mesquite cooked fish specials in seafood restaurants. In truth, mesquite is a great wood for smoking heavy meats, however just fine for fish too. Just be sure to burn for a limited amount of time.
Mesquite has a slightly heavier flavor than hickory. It is a “real man’s” smoker fuel because of the taste. Mesquite is a western tree that grows in the vast deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona. It’s medium dark to light in color. It doesn’t burn quite so nice and is prone to some sparking.
Alder imparts a light, delicate flavor to fish. I prefer it with the less oily fish like tuna and halibut; however, with oily fish like bonito and mackerel, I lean towards hickory. Alder is a popular smoker fuel sold in bags where smokers are sold.
Cherry is another top choice for smokers. Cherry smoked fish and has a mellow flavor that’s similar to hickory, but slightly less harsh. It has a more likable taste to people who have never tried smoked fish before. Once you’ve eaten a lot of smoked foods, cherry may be a bit wimpy.
Orange wood smoked fish is a little like alder with more zing. The problem is where to get it. If you happen to know someone with an orange grove, make friends with them STAT!
Walnut is one of the more interesting woods with which to experiment if you get the chance. It imparts a woodsy flavor and is good if you like smoked foods. Like mesquite, it is strong and may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Oak is another classic smoking fuel, giving the fish a robust woodsy taste. This wood is used a lot when the price is a factor as it is a cheap wood and can be found all over.
Many, many other kinds of wood can be used for smoking. People have smoked fish with apple, peach, pear and rose wood; even a South American hardwood called nato that has been used to make truck beds.
SIZE of YOUR WOOD
Size does matter when it comes to wood used in the smoking process. For smoking fish and using an electric smoker, sawdust is perfect. Most places that cut and sell wood have bags of sawdust and wood chips. These are the ideal shape and size for smoking in electric hot smokers.
If you know of a furniture making or cabinet making shop that uses a lot of walnut or oak, they’ll often give you all of the chips and sawdust for free. I used to have a friend that had an oak furniture business. Just cleaning out his table saw for him once a week kept me in all of the smoker fuel I could ever need.
For a water smoker or charcoal smoker, the best shape for wood is small chunks. They can be around the same size as a carton of cigarettes, and often in a bag you will get a wide variation in sizes from chips to near logs. Most charcoal smokers aren’t fussy about the size, and just so long as you can get them into the pan, you should be fine.
In most metropolitan areas, some companies sell the wood to commercial smokers; however, they will sell the general public wood as well in different sizes and will fit the amount needed. Just remember smoke only a short time or only part of the total cook-time to ensure you don’t over-smoke your fish.
PREPARING FISH TO BE SMOKED
Before smoking or any other kind of preparation, for that matter, fish should be thoroughly cleaned. Take out the guts, chop off the head and cut off the fins. Fish should be cleaned as soon as possible after being caught. The innards rot very quickly and will start spoiling the meat.
I always clean the fish while I am still out on the boat. I don’t cut off the heads, but I slit open the body cavity and dump the guts right away, even if planning to fillet the fish when I get home. You can eliminate a lot of the offensive tastes with a quick and thorough cleaning job right after you catch your fish.
Quick note, you always want to keep the fish’s skin intact. It takes the smoke flavor well and doesn’t let the fish dry out while smoking. What you’re looking for is smoked fish, not fish jerky. For smaller fish, up to two pounds, the fish can be smoked whole. Just clean, remove the head and fins, then cut through the meat from the body cavity to the tail so you can open up the fish a little more. Cooking a fish whole is a prevalent dish in Thailand; however, they fry the fish in a wok instead of smoking. In traditional Thai cuisine, as advised earlier, notice the use of fresh herbs after cooking.
If the fish is too big, cut the fish into fillets. You can smoke the whole fillets for fish up to about 20 inches long or so. If the fish is more substantial, cut the fillets into two or more pieces. Better than true filleting, you can simply “slab” these fish, or fillet it, but leave the ribs and skin intact.
If you happen to like fish steaks, bigger fish can be steak cut for smoking. Cut the steaks about one inch thick for best results. Some people say that the bone gives the fish more flavor, but in my opinion, they are confusing fish with beef. In beef, it may be true that the meat is better closer to the bone, but in fish, all you do is keep a bunch of small, pesky bones in the meat. My preference has always been fillets, but I’d recommend anyone to give both ways a try and decide for yourself.
SMOKING YOUR CATCH
Smoking is a two-step process. The first step is salting, which is what I mentioned earlier. To be more specific, I always salt the fish the night before I smoke to allow them to sit overnight. You can salt for as little as three hours for thinner fillets or steaks where a lot of the meat is exposed, but for whole fish, overnight is the ticket.
The perfect salt to use is coarse ground, un-iodized salt. It is sold in almost every grocery store. If you can’t find coarse ground salt in the salt section, it is often carried in the kosher food section or canning section of the store. Mix three parts salt with one-part sugar, either refined or the coarser raw sugar.
You can add spices if desired. I add some garlic powder and onion flakes. Other goodies you can add are allspice, paprika, cayenne pepper, white pepper and similar spices. Herbs such as basil, oregano and sage, can add a little freshness, but don’t expect a lot of flavors imparted from fresh herbs. The characteristics don’t make it to the fish, or the smoke flavor overpowers them. It’s better to use the fresh herbs to make a sauce to use after cooking.
Once you make up your mixture, pack it all around the fish in a shallow dish and stash away in the fridge for 3-to-6 hours. Use less time for thin fillets and more for whole fish.
After salting, rinse the fish thoroughly with cold water. Make sure you remove all traces of salt from the surface of the meat. After rinsing, pat dry with paper towels and allow the fish to air-dry until the surface moisture is gone. While the fish is drying, set up the smoker, turn on the hotplate (if using electric smoker), and let the smoker start warming up.
Since you’ll have smoldering wood and an electric heater in a closed box, make sure the smoker is outdoors and well away from any flammable materials. A fire could quickly start if something got carried away with the electrical device. I usually put a pan of fuel on the hotplate about 30 minutes before I put the fish in. This gets the pan started because when you put a new pan of fuel on the hotplate, it usually takes 30 minutes or so to get going and make any smoke.
I always hang the fish in the smoker, especially a hot smoker, but if using a commercial smoker or charcoal and water smoker, you can certainly place the fish, skin down on the racks provided with the unit.
In all cases, make sure that the fish pieces in the smoker neither touch each other nor touch the walls of the smoker when they are hanging. Once you seal the fish in your smoker, you shouldn’t lift the lid until the fish is done. It’s called the no peek method. Just seal the top and trust that everything is working.
For the first hour or so, keep the smoke vent closed and keep an eye on the thermometer. You want to get that temperature up to 140 and keep it there for at least an hour. If using a hot smoker, about every half hour or so, pull the fuel pan out, shake it to redistribute the smoldering fuel, add a handful of new fuel if needed; then get it back as quickly as possible to not lose the heat you’ve been working to generate.
If using a charcoal smoker, add chunks of water-soaked smoker fuel or pieces of wood every half hour or so to keep the volume of smoke. If the smoker starts to cool off, add charcoal to increase the heat. Also, be sure the water pan doesn’t boil away. Add water as needed. I use a turkey baster and hot water.
After a while, the pan may get pretty full of ashes so that you can dump it out into a metal can. I use a coffee can to catch the ashes. Be careful, though, the wood is still burning, and there will be lots of live coals in the ashes. Refill the pan and get it back under the fish.
Once the smoker gets hot, you can regulate the temperature by adjusting the smoke hole on top of the smoker. Open the vent to cool off the smoker and close it to heat it. Again, you should keep the unit at 140 F for about 4 hours.
Experiment with your smoker until you get the desired results. There are many, many variables to smoking fish, experimenting is essential. The outside temperature, the insulation value of your smoker and all sorts of other things go into the finished smoked product. If the fish seems too dry, try a lower heat or less smoking time. If the fish is too damp, salt it longer and smoke it longer. If it’s done well but doesn’t have enough smoky flavor, salt it for less time and smoke it longer. If it’s moist the way you like it but too smoky, salt it longer and smoke it less.
Every smoker is a bit different; it could take a while to get used to making fish to your tastes. Remember that salting and smoking both dry the fish, but smoking is the only thing that controls the smoky flavor, so balance the two to get your own desired result. Usually, about four pans of fuel in 3 to 4 hours is all that’s required to produce delectable smoked fish; sometimes even less. Once you try it, I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s no finer way to enjoy many types of fish.
Good luck with your smoking!
Chef Bobby is a Chef and Cookbook Author. He loves to share his knowledge of cooking and handling of fish with our community.