How to Smoke a Fish
Smoking is one of the oldest methods of preserving fish. Long before there were refrigerators and freezers, our fishing ancestors learned to use a combination of salt and smoke to keep fish from spoiling. Today, smoking is no longer necessary, but it remains a popular method of preparation to add flavor to fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, sturgeon and catfish.
In pre-refrigeration days, smoked fish were heavily cured and smoked fairly dry for storage at room temperature or in a cellar. Today’s cures are lighter, so most forms of fish smoked at home need to be refrigerated until use. You can freeze smoked fish for even longer storage.
Today’s cook has a variety of smokers from which to choose, and all can be used to prepare excellent smoked fish. Many cooks prefer inexpensive, vertical charcoal smokers such as those made by Bass Pro Shops, Weber, Master Forge and other companies. These utilize a water pan inside for moist cooking.
Smokers that run on propane are popular for use in fishing camps and at home. The Browning Smoke Vault Cooker, for example, has convenient snap ignition and features such as nickel-plated steel cooking racks, a cast-iron wood chip plate, built-in thermometer and stainless-steel door with overlapping edge to lock heat in.
Electric smokers are great for preparing delicious fish, too, and come in many varieties, from inexpensive basic models such as Brinkmann’s Gourmet Electric Smoker/Grill to high-tech products like Bradley’s 6-Rack Digital Electric Smoker with advanced digital circuitry that allows you to precisely control the time, temperature and smoke level for succulent results every time.
If you plan to cook for a crowd, and want to invest in a smoker that will last a lifetime, you also may want to consider some of the big fabricated-steel smokers on wheels such as those available from Horizon.
Fish smoking methods vary, but all are based on a few common principles. The following are very generic steps you can use to smoke your own fish. You may want to experiment a little with some different ingredients to create your own brine. Start with the basic brine solution listed under Step 1, then add what you like to it. Additions to try include lemon juice, garlic cloves, rum, soy sauce, onion salt, garlic powder or other ingredients whose taste you like.
Place small pan-dressed (gutted, head removed) fish, fillets of fish or pieces of boneless fish with the skin left on one side, in this basic brine solution:
- 1/2 cup non-iodized salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 quart water
Stir the ingredients together until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Then place the fish in a bowl, completely cover the pieces with the brine solution, and refrigerate. Fish pieces 1 inch or more thick should be in brine eight to 12 hours. For thinner pieces, six to eight hours is sufficient.
Remove the fish from the brine, and rinse each piece under cold water. Gently pat dry with paper towels, and lay the pieces on waxed paper to air dry for about one hour.
Smoke the fish for two hours in a smoker heated to 200 degrees. Use your favorite wood chips or chunks when smoking. You can cut and dry your own wood or buy prepackaged materials like WW Wood Smoking Chips and Cooking Chunks or Jack Daniel’s Wood Smoking Chips. Experiment to find the taste you like most. Good woods for flavoring smoked fish include hickory, alder, apple and cherry. You also can soak the shells of pecans from which you have removed the nut meats. When added to the smoker, these impart a mild hickory-like flavor to the fish. Add more wood chips or pecan shells during the smoking process if necessary, depending on how much smoke taste you want.
With some types of smokers, you also can add flavor using prepared smoker ingredients such as Jim Beam Smoking Bisquettes or Bradley Smoker Flavor Bisquettes.
Smoked fish is delicious alone, or can be used in a wide variety of recipes, including those that follow.
Smoked Fish Dip
- 1-1/2 cups crumbled smoked fish
- 1/2 cup milk
- 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
- 1/4 cup finely minced onion
- 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
- 3 teaspoons sweet pickle relish
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- Cayenne, salt and pepper to taste
Put the smoked fish in a medium bowl and add the milk. Cover and chill for 30 minutes to an hour. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cover and chill for 2 to 3 hours until flavors have blended. Serve with your favorite crackers.
Smoked Fish Cakes
- 12 ounces smoked fish
- 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish
- 1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
- 1 red bell pepper, minced
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- Butter for frying
In a food processor bowl fitted with a steel blade, pulse the fish, relish, bread crumbs and bell pepper until finely chopped. Scrape into a bowl and mix in the soy sauce, mayonnaise, eggs, dried herbs, dill and pepper. Add more bread crumbs, if necessary, to make a firm fish mixture. Form into twelve or so 3-inch patties.
In a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, heat enough butter to generously coat the bottom of the pan. Arrange the fish cakes, not touching, in the pan and cook until brown on both sides, turning once (about four minutes per side). Cakes should be moist but not mushy inside. Top with a dollop of tartar sauce or your favorite fish sauce.
Smoked Fish Omelets
- 12 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 6 oz. smoked fish, chopped
- 4 tablespoons chopped red onion
- 8 tablespoons whipped cream cheese
Whisk eggs, salt and pepper in a large bowl to blend. Melt two teaspoons butter in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Ladle 3/4 cup of the egg mixture into the skillet. Cook until eggs are softly set, stirring often and lifting the edge of the eggs to allow the uncooked portion to run under, covering skillet if necessary to help set the top. Place 1/4 of the smoked fish on half of the omelet. Sprinkle with one tablespoon onion and top with two tablespoons cream cheese. Fold omelet in half and slide out onto a plate. Repeat with the remaining ingredients to make three more omelets.