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The Art of Smoking Fish

In the Beginning ..........

First there was Man. Then came Fish (not Woman !) Then came Fire and Brimstone. The combination of all three gave us Smoked Fish ! No ?, but seriously, smoking foods have been around for thousands of years. It is an historically important method of preparing food because of its preservative qualities. Before the age of refrigeration, that was extremely important. Unfortunately, most smoking methods were aimed at just that, preserving food. The usual result was that smoked foods were dry, frequently quite salty, and generally unappealing by today's standards.

Now a days, the fisherman's catch, if properly preserved, can be a welcome addition to family meals over a period of several weeks or months. Smoking is an excellent way to preserve fish that you don't plan to eat right away. Fish is smoked as it dries over a smoldering fire. Wood smoke adds flavor and color; the brining process helps to preserve the fish.

By today's standards, with our culture's emphasis on healthy eating, one is drawn to wondering about how healthy it is to eat smoked foods. Also of particular concern is today's level of pollution, ie are the fish I am eating fresh? These are legitimate concerns. With reasonable caution and moderation there should be nothing to worry about.

How Safe Is It ?

The question has come up from time to time, "Is it safe to eat smoked foods? Can they cause cancer?" The answer seems to be yes. But in moderation, the risk is probably minimal. You are at much greater risk driving to work. But you knew that.

According to some experts, smoked foods contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (say that around people you want to impress) as well as formaldehyde, both known carcinogens.

Furthermore, smoked foods are known to be carcinogenic when eaten as a regular part of a person's diet. In one study, workers in smoke houses were observed to exhibit elevated occurrences of some cancers. So it would appear that eating smoked foods does elevate the risk of developing certain cancers.

How Great is the Risk ?

How great is the risk? At the very least, it is probably related to the quantity and regularity of consumption. There may also be some sort of threshold effect below which the risk would be negligible. I have read some extracts from experts stating that a single carcinogenic molecule in your body can cause cancer. "One is all it takes."

So what are you going to do? Enjoy smoked fish, bacon, sausage, and barbecue as you have always done? As for me the answer is, "Sure I will!" I just wont do it every day. All things in moderation, that includes health food, exercise, and listening to experts !

Smoking Methods

There are two general methods of smoking fish, namely hot-smoking and cold-smoking. Commercial Hot-smoking requires a short brining time and smoking temperatures of 90F for the first 2 hours and 150F for an additional 4-8 hours. Hot-smoked fish are moist, lightly salted, and fully cooked, but they will keep in the refrigerator for only a few days.

Commercial Cold-smoking requires a longer brining time, lower temperature (80-90F) and extended smoking time (1-5 days or more of steady smoking). Cold-smoked fish contain more salt and less moisture than hot-smoked fish. If the fish has been sufficiently cured, it will keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Parasites in Fish

Freshwater and marine fish naturally contain many parasites. These parasites are killed during the hot-smoking process, if the temperature reaches 140F. Use commercially frozen fish for cold-smoked fish, or freeze the fish to -10F for at least 7 days to kill any parasites that may be present. Freezing to -10F is not possible in most home freezers.

Preparing Fish for Smoking

Any fish can be smoked, but species high in fat (oil) such as salmon and trout are recommended because they absorb smoke faster and have better texture than lean fish, which tend to be dry and tough after smoking.

Use only freshly-caught fish that have been kept clean and cold. Fish that have been handled carelessly or stored under improper conditions will not produce a satisfactory finished product. Do not use bruised, broken, or otherwise damaged flesh.

If you catch your fish, clean and pack them in ice before starting home. When you get home, store the fish in the refrigerator until you are ready to prepare them for smoking.

Different fish species generally require specific preparation methods. Salmon are split (backbone removed) where as bottom fish are usually filleted. The following preparation steps can be applied to any fish:

Preparing Brine

Prepare a brine of 3 cups salt (preferably sea salt, but table salt will do) in about 4 - 5 litres of cold water in a plastic, stainless steel, or crockery container. Red or white wine can be substituted for a portion or all of the water, if desired. Stir the salt until a saturated solution is formed.

Use 2.5 litres of brine for every 1 kg of of fish. Brine fish in the refrigerator, if possible.

If you use table salt, you should know that it contains chemicals to prevent it from caking (forming a hard crust). This will give your brine a cloudy appearance. Fortunately, the cloudiness will settle to the bottom as a fine sludge after about 30 minutes. Skim off the clear brine and leave this behind.

Spices such as black pepper, bay leaves, seafood seasoning, or garlic, as well as brown sugar, may be added to the brine depending on your preference. Also, the juices of 2 lemons can be added, as well the lemon peels.

Make your brine up before you bone the fish and leave the lemon peels in the brine while you are boning. This will give the brine some of those fragrant oils found in the lemon skin. Remove the lemon peels before curing, as you decant the clear liquid. If you are using sea salt, you should not need to skim off the clear liquid. These salts do not contain those added chemicals.

Curing and Drying Your Fish

Salt is important to the preservative process. There is too much water in the fish's flesh and some of it must be removed. Curing accomplishes this. Also the little extra salt in the flesh helps retard bacterial growth.

Once your brine is ready and your fish are boned, submerge the fish in the brine. It is not necessary to stir your brine as curing is going on.

Keep the fish covered with brine throughout the brining period. A heavy bowl can be floated on the brine to keep the fish submersed, but do not pack the fish so tightly that the brine cannot circulate around each piece.

When the curing is over, lift the fish out and allow them to drip. Do not try to rub off the excess brine. An important chemical process has occurred during the cure. Proteins from the fishes' flesh have leached into the brine. The thin coat of brine now covering the flesh is rich with these proteins.

After curing, the fish is rinsed to remove the salt and other curing ingredients from the surface, then allowed to dry in cool flowing air until a shiny, slightly tacky skin (pellicle) forms on the surface. The pellicle serves several functions, as firstly, it provides an ideal surface for the smoke flavor to adhere to and helps seal in the remaining moisture through the smoking process, and secondly, it prevents the fats in the fish from rising to the surface and spoiling. If the pellicle is not there, the fish will form little deposits on the surface of the flesh. These do not affect the fishes' flavor but they do degrade their appearance and are a sign of hastily smoked fish.

Drying is accomplished at room temperature. Place the fish splayed on a wire rack, skin down in front of a fan for about an hour. When the flesh is dry to the touch with no puddles of moisture, it is ready. At this point, you will be able to feel the pellicle. The fish will probably feel a bit oily too. That is natural. They are now ready to smoke.

Smoke Woods

Hickory and Oak are by far the most popular woods. They are well suited for smoking red meats, foul and fish. The following is a list of type of woods that are suitable for smoking.

  • Alder - Very delicate with a hint of sweetness. Good with fish, pork, poultry,and light-meat game birds.

  • Almond - A nutty and sweet smoke flavor, light ash, very much like pecan. Good with all meats.

  • Apple - Very mild with a subtle fruity flavor, slightly sweet. Good with poultry (turns skin dark brown), pork and fish.

  • Ash - Fast burner, light but distinctive flavor. Good with fish and red meats.

  • Black Walnut - Very heavy smoke flavor, usually mixed with lighter wood like hickory or mesquite. Can be bitter if used alone. Good with red meats and game.

  • Cherry - Mild and fruity. Good with poultry, pork, fish and beef (turns skin brown).

  • Grapevines - Tart. Provides a lot of smoke. Rich and fruity. Good with poultry, red meats, game and lamb.

  • Hickory - Most commonly used wood for smoking. Sweet to strong, heavy bacon flavor. Good with pork, ham and beef.

  • Lilac - Very light, subtle with a hint of floral. Good with seafood and lamb.

  • Maple - Smoky, mellow and slightly sweet. Good with pork, poultry, cheese, and small game birds.

  • Mesquite - Strong earthy flavor. Good with beef, fish, chicken, and game. One of the hottest burning.

  • Oak - Heavy smoke flavor. Red oak is good on ribs, white oak makes the best coals for longer burning. Good with red meat, fish and heavy game.

  • Orange and Lemon - Light and citrusy. Good with pork and game birds.

  • Pear - A nice subtle flavor. Much like apple. Excellent with chicken and pork.

  • Pecan - A cool burner. Nutty and sweet. Tasty with a subtle character. Good with steaks and racks of meat.

  • Sweet Fruit Woods (Apricot, Plum, Peach) - Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork, fish. The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.

Another trick you may want to try is smoking with herbs. Next time you are smoking, try draping some rosemary across the flames or coals. There are actually a number of herbs and spices well suited to smoking. Do some experimenting with this. You will find it worth your while.

In any case, white oak, citrus, sweet gum, cherry, apple, pear are all good for imparting flavor. Also fresh herbs such as dill, fennel, lemon mint, apple mint, etc. may be used.

Make certain that the longer the period of "smoking", the less the intensity of the smoke should be. Smoke flavor should enhance, not over power the subtle flavor of fine fish.

Cold Smoking
1.Follow steps in Preparing Fish for Smoking.
2.Brine -inch-thick fillets for hour; 1-inch-thick fillets for 1 hour; and 1-inch-thick fillets for 2 hours. Brining times can be lengthened if the cold-smoked fish are to be preserved for long periods of time.
3.After brining, rinse the fish briefly in cold running water.
4.Place the fish skin-side down on an oiled grill in a cool shady, breezy place to dry. The fish should dry for 2 to 3 hours or until a shiny skin or pellicle has formed on the surface. A fan will speed pellicle formation.
5.Place the fish in a homemade or commercial smoker. The temperature of the smoker should be kept at about 80F, and should never exceed 90F. If a thermometer is not available, the temperature may be tested by hand. If the air in the smoke-house feels distinctly warm, the temperature is too high.
6.Smoke the fish until its surface is an even brown. Small fish that are to be kept 2 weeks or less may be ready in 24 hours. Salmon and other large fish will require 3 to 4 days and nights of steady smoking. To store longer than 2 weeks, smoke all fish a minimum of five days; for larger fish, at least a week or longer.
7.The smoker should not produce a lot of smoke during the first 8 to 12 hours if the total curing time is 24 hours, or for the first 24 hours if the curing time is longer. When the first part of the smoking ends, build up a dense smoke and maintain it for the balance of the cure.
8.If cold-smoked fish has been brined for at least 2 hours and smoked for at least 5 days, it will keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Hot Smoking
1.Follow steps in Preparing Fish for Smoking.
2.Brine -inch-thick fillets for about 15 minutes, 1-inch-thick pieces about 30 minutes, and 1-inch-thick pieces about 1 hour. Brining times can be adjusted to give the fish a lighter or heavier cure.
3.After brining, rinse the fish briefly in cold running water.
4.Place the fish skin-side down on an oiled grill in a cool, shady, breezy place to dry. The fish should dry for 2 to 3 hours or until a shiny skin or pellicle forms on the surface. The pellicle seals the surface and prevents loss of natural juices during smoking. A fan will speed pellicle formation.
5.Place the fish in a homemade or commercial smoker. For the first 2 hours, the temperature should not exceed 90F. This completes the pellicle formation and develops brown coloring.
6.After the initial 2-hour period, raise the temperature to 150F and smoke the fish for an additional 4 to 8 hours. The length of time will depend on the thickness of the fish, and on your preference for dry or moist smoked fish. Generally, -inch-thick pieces are smoked for 4 hours, 1-inch-thick pieces for 6 hours, and 1-inch-thick pieces for 8 hours.
7.Store hot-smoked fish in the refrigerator. Freeze hot-smoked fish if it will be stored longer than a few days.

Smoking and Serving Your Fish

One of the greatest pieces of equipment I have in my cooking arsenal is the humble Barbecue Kettle, or the Weber. Many a times have I used the Weber to cook a roast, or a pork, some simple kebabs and snags or for that matter a nice sized Snapper or Mulloway, and always to perfection ! Using the Weber for smoking is just another great way where the process of cooking is so effortless.

The trick with using any cooking appliance, is to use it often enough so that you can correctly judge its usage of timing and cooking. This naturally takes time and practice, and it's usually the family that ends up being the guinea pigs for the food that you cook.

There are two ways of cooking using the Weber, the indirect or direct method. These methods dictate the position of the barbecue briquettes within the Weber itself. In the case of smoking fish, the indirect method is used, where the position of the coals that provide the heat are positioned to each side of the Weber, rather than in the middle, directly under the food that is to be cooked.

Always use the indirect method when using a Weber to smoke food. As my Weber is the large 57cm variety, I use about 40-45 briquettes on each side of the Weber, and yes, I do count them, then usually add 1 each side for good luck ! Indirect fires are transformed into smoke-cooking fires by adding just one or two chunks of Hickory to the coals on each side of the Weber. Its a good idea to leave the lid off for a little while when adding the Hickory. This allows it to catch fire. Once it is burning, replace the Weber lid, and it will start to smoke intensely.

You will need to brush or spray some oil onto the grill, so as the fish does not initially stick to the grill during the course of smoking. You will also need a large cake pan to use as a drip pan. The drip pan is important to keep the direct heat away from the fish, to force the smoke to spread throughout the Weber, and to catch the drippings which could flame up if they fell onto the coals below. I also make a habit of filling up the drip pan with a small amount of water. The heat from the briquettes against the pan will heat up the water, causing it to steam. This will keep any foods being cooked from drying out to quickly. It also prevents the pan from getting too messy with all the fat and oil that can drip down, making cleaning of the pan that much easier.

Place the fish on the oiled grill and close the lid. Make sure that the top and bottom vents are partially open, so as to allow the briquettes to continuously smoulder the Hickory blocks, rather than completely extinguishing them. You can leave the fish splayed on the rack or fold them closed. If smoking fish whole, I think closing them gives a better appearance, but splaying them gives them more surface area through which to absorb the smoke, hence a smokier flavour. It is all a matter of personal taste. If you splay them it is better to leave them that way when you serve them. The skin will crack open when you fold them closed after you smoke them. On the other hand, if you serve them splayed you might as well have filleted them in the first place.

As the fish smokes keep an eye on the grill. If you see the smoke thinning out, replenish the wood. Once the fish is cooked, remove the fish and close all the vents on the Weber, both top and bottom, so as to suffocate the briquettes. Once cool, these briquettes can be re-used for your next Weber barbecue.

Remove the fish to the kitchen to cool. The nice swollen shape it had on the grill will go away and the skin will wrinkle somewhat as it cools. This is natural. You can now serve the smoked fish, or bag the it and place it in the refrigerator. It will keep for weeks if you keep it cold.

Have a look at Smoking Rainbow Trout for an in depth insight into smoking fish in a Weber.

Most Common Mistakes made when Smoking your Fish

  • Trying to rush things along - Barbecues take time and patience. You can't afford to rush it. My Weber Cooking Guide states for Fish (Whole), smoke-cooking should be 25 minutes per kilo, where as Fish (Fillets) are 8 - 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets.

  • Being a novice, and a lack of confidence - It helps to be a semi-good cook in the kitchen before you venture out onto the barbecue. If you can't boil water, let someone else do the barbecuing.

  • Opening the lid to peek too often - This lets out the heat and the Weber will be below recommended cooking temperature. Open the lid only when necessary to mop or move or turn the meat. The meat's not going anywhere, so you don't need to keep checking up on it.

  • Using the wrong fuel starters to start your barbecue briquettes - This can give you some really awful odors and tastes in your smoked meat. Use the prescribed fire starters for heat beads - such as Jiffies. Also keep in mind to allow the fuel to completely burn out, and for the heat beads to ash over.

  • Using green wood - You must use seasoned wood to get good results when you begin barbecuing. Using green wood without knowing what you're doing is the surest way to ruin the meat. You'll get creosote (oily liquid from the wood) and that will make the meat bitter.

  • Trying to adjust too many things at once - Don't adjust everything on the Weber at once. Change one thing, see what happens, then change another. For example, adjust one vent at a time to get the desired flow of air and burn of wood to generate the right amount of smoke and heat.

  • Changing things too much at once - Make small changes to the Weber. Open or close the vent(s) a little at a time, not a lot all at once. If you are continually making big changes, you will continually overshoot the correct temperature point. Make the changes in small increments.

  • Putting cold meat into the smoker - This can lead to the condensation of creosote (oily liquid from the wood) on the surface of the meat. Always allow the meat to come to room temperature, about an hour, before you put it in the smoker.

  • Having a Trial Run - Don't invite the family, the in-laws, or the next door neighbours over the first day you get that new Weber. Practice first, get to know your Weber on a personal basis. Try cooking a roast pork, or a couple of chooks (very easy !). Then venture into the Art of Smoking Fish !


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