Fish takes on an earthy, salty flavor and a uniformly flaky texture when it’s smoked. Smoking was originally a way to preserve fish, but today’s home-smoked fish still requires refrigeration for safety. Safe preparation and careful handling of fresh fish, followed by proper smoking techniques, ensure a tasty smoked fish suitable for a entree or an appetizer.
Fillet and Debone
Choose fatty, meaty fish for smoking. Lean white fish, such as tilapia and grouper, won’t stand up well to the smoking. In addition, the smoke and salt flavors can be overpowering. Instead, choose swordfish, salmon, mackerel or lake trout. Rinse and chill the fish after cleaning it. Fillet the fish using a sharp knife, removing all bones and the skin, if you prefer. Cut each piece of fish so it’s less than 1-inch thick.
Brine for Flavor
Brine the fish before smoking it to infuse salt and moisture into the flesh. Brining adds flavor and keeps the fish moist during the long smoking process. A basic brine requires salt, water and seasonings. Dissolve 1 cup of kosher salt into each gallon of warm water, then ice the mixture until it’s fully cold before submerging the prepared fish. Mix enough brine to fully cover the amount of fish, approximately three times as much liquid as fish. Add sugar and small amounts of acid, such as apple cider vinegar, for flavor. Whole peppercorns, herbs and spices add flavors to brines, too. Soak the prepared fish in the brine for as long as one hour.
Pull the fish from the brine, rinse it in cool, clear water and blot it with a paper towel. Allow the fish to dry on a plate in the refrigerator for another hour or so. Drying the fish allows it to form a pellicle on the surface. The pellicle appears shiny and smooth and works to preserve moisture in the fish during smoking. Smoke the fish once the surface appears shiny and smooth.
Hot-smoke fish to producer safer results, compared with cold smoking. Hot smoking brings the internal temperature of the fish to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit while cooking. Prepare the grill or outdoor smoker using charcoal heated steadily to about 300 F. Place a foil pan full of water, or water-soaked hardwood chips for additional flavor, on top of the charcoal, then arrange the grate over the charcoal and water. Cook the fish on the grate, adding additional charcoal as necessary to keep the smoker’s temperature at about 300 F. Plan to add charcoal each time the smoker lid opens, because heat escapes quickly. Use a remote meat thermometer if possible to monitor the fish’s internal temperature without opening the lid frequently. Remove the fish from the smoker and allow it to rest after the internal temperature reaches 160 F, which takes three hours or more.
Refrigerate smoked fish for as long as two weeks, or freeze it for as long as three months. Smoking fish won’t preserve it, despite the high salt content. Cooking the fish to an internal temperature of 160 F kills most bacteria and parasites found in raw fresh fish. Keep the fish cool throughout the preparation, brining and seasoning process. Monitor the smoker’s temperature using a thermometer on the grill to avoid a dip in temperature. A decreased temperature may put the fish in the temperature danger zone, which increases microbe growth. Serve smoked fish immediately, if possible.
References and ResourcesUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service: Smoking Fish at Home
Weber's Charcoal Grilling: The Art of Cooking with Live Fire; Jamie Purviance
The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook; Jack Bishop
A Pacific Northwest Extension Publication: Smoking Fish at Home -- Safely
ResourcesNPR The Splendid Table: Pan-Smoked Fish
Minnesota Sea Grant: Lake Superior Fish Recipes