The banks of the rushing mountain stream are dotted with fly fishermen angling for precious cargo. At the end of the day with their baskets empty, a stop at the local fishmonger gives them what has eluded their fishing lines – rainbow trout. The advantage of buying trout is that it's already de-scaled, gilled, gutted and for the queasy, the head is removed. It's ready for cooking, and smoking is an effective way to add a variety of flavors to this delicate fish.
Understanding the Technique
The technique of smoking was originally devised as a means of food preservation. Without refrigerators, the process of curing meat and fish with salt gave people enough food to carry them through the cold winter months without the food spoiling. This process was known as cold smoking. When the fish or meat was placed over a slow, smoking fire for many hours, hot smoking took place. For those in the far north who were surrounded by cold waters stocked with fatty fish, smoking was a life saver.
Today's use of smoking for fish is lighter in its preparation than that of previous centuries, and the refrigerator has replaced the storage larder. The preparation of the trout for smoking has remained basically the same, however, with a few creative additions.
Brining For Flavor
Smoking starts with brining – submerging or covering the fish with a salt-based cure. Originally, brine consisted of one part non-iodized salt to seven parts water. Sugar, either white or brown, is now considered a base staple of the brine, adding sweetness and color to the finished product. Creative cooks go beyond the basics and add low-sodium soy sauce, chiles, herbs or seasonings to ramp up the trout's delicate taste.
Dry brining in a mixture of salt and spices creates a rub for the flesh and skin of the trout. Once rubbed, the fish absorbs the seasonings for eight to 16 hours. The result is a flavorful smoked trout and one that has more texture than trout that has been water brined.
The purpose of all brining is to allow the trout to absorb the salt. This breaks down the muscle protein, making it juicy and tender.
For those with dietary restrictions, Cook's Illustrated tested a salt substitute and found that there was little taste difference between brining with non-iodized salt and with a low-salt substitute. They do advise against using a "no-salt" substitute as it adversely affects the chemical reaction of the brining.
Swimming with Brined Fish
Wet or dry, brining is essential to smoking. It creates a unique flavor in the trout and preserves the fish. Both processes take patience and time.
To wet brine, place the trout in a glass bowl and pour the salt solution over it until the trout is completely swimming in liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for eight to 12 hours.
For a dry brine, pat the fresh trout with paper towels until it's completely dry. Spread the dry brine over the entire fish, including the flesh and skin. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for 24 hours.
After wet or dry brining, wash the trout thoroughly in cold water and set it out to dry on roasting racks for several hours. You'll know it is ready for the smoker when a sticky residue forms over the trout.
Smoking the Trout
Mild wood, such as oak or fruit woods are best for smoking trout as their flavors won't overwhelm the taste of the fish. Alder is another choice if you can find it.
Rushing the smoking process is doing a disservice to the trout. Long, slow and easy smoking yields a flavorsome piece of fish. Place the fish on a rack in a way that the smoke can permeate both the inside and outside of the fish. Don't worry about the tiny bones. Removing them is easy once the trout is smoked.
Set the smoker at 225 degrees Fahrenheit and smoke away for four hours. Just know that different smokers set different temperatures and smoking lengths for the process. A high temperature and short smoking length dries the fish out, so opt for low and slow until finding the right combination.
Don't just plunk a piece of smoked trout onto a plate and serve it. Too much time has been invested in the masterpiece and it deserves a royal presentation.
Smoked trout makes an excellent appetizer, flaked into room-temperature cream cheese or a cream cheese substitute, with a little almond milk or cream added to make it more liquid. The spread is ideal over Swedish crackers, with diced chives added for color.
A light lunch finds smoked trout flaked then mixed with Thai spices, Asian flavors or summer herbs and served over chopped spinach. Add sliced grape tomatoes, zucchini dices and a sprinkling of thinly-sliced green onions for additional flavor. A drizzle of good, extra-virgin olive oil completes the platter.
For the pure at heart, serve smoked trout as an entree, accompanied by wild rice, pearl barley and parsley or quinoa and green onions. A splash of fresh lemon brings the tastes together and emphasizes the delicate taste of the smoked trout.
Smoked trout can be wrapped and refrigerated for several days. If freezing is an option, remove the skin and bones before wrapping the smoked trout in plastic. Freeze only the flesh.