Smoking fish is as old as fishing itself. Some techniques, and of course equipment, have evolved since our ancestors first attached a line to a stick, but some universal truths remain as relevant as ever. It’s not complicated to smoke your own fish, but there are mistakes to avoid. Whether you smoke saltwater or freshwater fish, if you want the best texture and flavor, keep the following in mind.
Know the difference between cold smoking and hot smoking
Cold smoking requires a constant low temperature (65-85 degrees F) to dry the fish over several days, and without a lot of experience or the right equipment, there’s a bit of a learning curve. Hot smoking, on the other hand, is easy to do with pellet grills, electric smokers, and wood-burning stoves. The tips below are for hot smoking fish. With smokers set at around 160 degrees F, hot smoking doesn’t take as long as cold smoking and produces a fantastic finished product.
How to choose the best types of fish to smoke
Bottom line: the fattier the fish, the better. The fat helps the fish stay moist and absorbs more smoke, which gives more flavor. Some great fish to try smoking are trout, rainbow trout, salmon, tuna, swordfish, mackerel, and sturgeon.
You can smoke leaner fish like walleye and pumpkinseed, but they’re usually better cooked another way. If you’re determined to smoke leaner fish anyway, follow the methods outlined here, but include an extra step to apply a thin layer of grapeseed oil to the fish before smoking. This adds a very small amount of fat on the outside, but more importantly, since grapeseed oil is a semi-drying oil, it will partially harden when exposed to air, forming another layer to help lean fish absorb the flavor of the smoke.
The best wood for smoking fish
The choice of wood for smoking is largely based on personal preference, but most people who smoke fish agree that some woods are too “hard” for the flavor of the fish. The best woods for smoking fish include alder, maple, pecan, apple and even cherry, while you may want to avoid hickory and mesquite unless they are mixed with another wood. For me, a blend of mesquite and cherry is probably the strongest wood blend I would ever use to smoke fish.
The best types of smokehouses for smoking fish
Electric smokers, pellet grills, and wood-burning stoves all work for smoking fish. In my experience log burners offer a much fuller smoke but have a lower degree of control and require more work to operate. For example, you’ll need to cut logs to a specific size (larger logs burn at lower temperatures longer) instead of using chips, and you’ll want to cut off any bark as it adds harsh tones to the smoke.
Generally speaking, pellet grills and electric smokers are the easiest to use. But the smoke is much less concentrated and, in turn, the smoked flavor is less concentrated. After all, there’s a reason why world-famous smokers and barbecues get trailers of wood logs delivered to them every day. Ultimately, however, the choice is yours.
Smoke fillets or smoke whole fish
It’s up to you whether you want to fillet a fish or try smoking it whole. I prefer to smoke fish in the size I could serve. For example, if I have a limit of small to medium trout, I will cut their backbones, butterfly them, brine and smoke them whole, then serve. For a single larger salmon, I might cut a fillet into 8 ounce pieces before brining and smoking.
Nevertheless, the sight of a whole peach smoked is something special, and smoked trout skin is also tasty. Note that removing the backbone helps keep the fish open so smoke can enter the cavity. I like to use a wire mesh, which I can place the fish in, then tighten the wire mesh to keep the fish open. You can also use a wooden skewer to open a fish and expose the fillets to more smoke.
Preparing the fish before smoking it: dry brine or wet brine
There are those who argue that there is no dry brine because a brine requires water, but I would also argue that salting meat draws out moisture which is then reabsorbed, creating what the you could call it a self-contained brine (because the humidity, thanks to salt, pools on the meat). But this concept is also more true for red meat, so it is indeed possible that a dry brine for fish will only “salt the fish”.
A wet brine, by definition, is water with a high concentration of salt and includes other ingredients. To be clear, whether dry or wet, salt is the main component here, as it penetrates the meat while all the other ingredients add more surface-level flavor. Salt binds to muscle fibers, which enhance flavor and help retain moisture during cooking.
I’ve steered clear of wet brines for most forms of cooking. Minerals in water (especially tap water) can denature proteins (not in a good way, usually) and affect flavor. And your tap water will be different from my tap water in terms of mineral content. If you’re determined to use a wet brine, I suggest buying spring water from the store and making sure you boil a good amount of salt before adding a saltwater fish. Dry-salting a fish is faster and produces something called pellicle on the outside of the meat, which is a thin, sticky membrane that smoke can stick to.
Whether wet-brining or salting, you will need to rinse the salt from the meat, blot any moisture with a towel, then allow the meat to dry completely before smoking. (Wet fish creates a mushy texture and doesn’t absorb much smoke.) To completely dry fish, you can either leave it on a wire rack overnight in the refrigerator or place it under a fast-running fan in a place cool (no more than 60 degrees), shaded place for one hour. The objective is a slightly sticky dry fish.
Basic Smoked Fish Recipes
As mentioned at the beginning, this article is intended to establish safeguards while leaving you room for improvisation. Below are some basic brines and methods for smoking your favorite fish.
Wet Brine Ingredients:
- 1 liter of spring water
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 bulb of fresh garlic, crushed
- 1/2 cup black peppercorns
Bring to a boil and stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Chill in the refrigerator and only add your fish once the brine has completely cooled. Brine 8-16 ounce cuts of fish or whole fish for 6-8 hours (slightly longer for larger cuts or whole fish), rinse thoroughly with cold water when removing, pat dry and let completely dry fish before smoking at 160 degrees for 2-1/2 hours.
Dry Brine/Salt Mix Ingredients:
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons of paprika
- 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 tablespoon of white pepper
Combine all ingredients in a non-active container (glass or plastic) and add fish flesh side down in 8 ounce pieces. Leave to rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Flip the fish and let it rest in the fridge for 1 more hour. Rinse off all the salt under cold running water (this is a quick rinse but you don’t want any granules or flakes on the fish), pat it dry and leave the fish to dry in the refrigerator overnight or under a fan (in a cool place) for 1 hour, until completely dry. Smoke at 160 degrees for 2 to 2-1/2 hours.
While smoking fish, after letting the fish smoke for the first half hour, you can add a maple syrup or agave glaze every half hour until the fish is done. I also like to mix a tablespoon of pureed chipotle in adobo sauce for every cup of maple or agave syrup and brush over the fish.