Learn How to Smoke Fish

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Photo by On The Water

I consider myself a casual, “intermediate” smoker. I’m pretty much self-taught, and I’ve figured things out through many years of trial and error. However, I recently made a batch of smoked bluefish that came out a bit bitter and disappointing, so I decided it was time to step up my game. I put in a phone call to Pitmaster Patrick and listened closely, absorbing everything he said.

According to Paquette, the number one mistake people make when smoking fish is that they simply overdo it. Yes, you want a nice smoky overtone to the finished product, but you should still maintain the delicacy of the fish and not overwhelm it. Food that has been over-smoked is too dry and has a harsh, bitter aftertaste.

A good digital thermometer is a crucial gadget for serious smokers. Your smoker should stay below 225 degrees, and the fish should not be cooked at a temperature higher than 150 degrees. Keep a keen eye on it toward the end of the process.

A couple 3-pound blues are the perfect size for smoking.

A couple 3-pound blues are the perfect size for smoking. Photo by On The Water

Paquette also schooled me on using the proper wood to match what you are smoking. For fish and poultry, he prefers hard fruitwoods such as apple, pecan, or his favorite, cherry.

“They all taste pretty much the same, but cherry adds a bit more color and will make the finished product come out a little darker,” he proclaimed.

He also explained to me that hickory produces more potent smoke and is better suited for hearty (or fatty) meats like pork. As far as mesquite goes, he says, “Stay away! It’s too strong and overpowering.” Paquette told me none of the seasoned pros he knows use mesquite.

I also learned that chunks of wood are better than small chips, which burn hotter and can produce too much smoke. He reiterated the importance of not overdoing it; your smoker should emit subtle “blue” smoke – it should never be pure white. If it’s white, you’re overdoing it. If it’s gray or black, something has gone horribly wrong.

I had always been under the impression that soaking the wood chunks in warm water for an hour or two was standard protocol with any type of smoking.

“Don’t bother. It’s a myth and a waste of time,” was Patrick’s thought on the matter. The amount of water the wood actually absorbs is insignificant, and doesn’t make a bit of difference. One BBQ aficionado who goes by the name of Meathead Goldwyn conducted a test and soaked a chunk of dry cherry wood in water for 12 hours. The wood retained only a measly 3 percent additional weight, and when cut in half, it revealed that the water (which had food coloring in it) had penetrated merely 1/16 of an inch. Myth busted. Soaking your wood also slows down the burning process and emits added moisture, which can have negative effects on the smoking process.

Lining the racks with foil will help prevent sticking and make clean-up easier. Make sure to poke some holes to allow for better circulation.

Lining the racks with foil will help prevent sticking and make clean-up easier. Make sure to poke some holes to allow for better circulation. Photo by On The Water

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em

Creating a batch of quality smoked fish is a long process and can be an all-day affair. Because of this, I like to load up the smoker with as much fish as possible. If you’re going to invest the time, you might as well make up a big batch and fill up the racks.

Oily fish are ideal for smoking, and my favorites include bluefish, mackerel, bonito, rainbow trout and salmon. (I recently made a batch with fresh lake trout and it was phenomenal.) Always leave the skin on, as it will help prevent the fillets from sticking to the grates.

Brine time

Brining the fillets is a crucial step. The brine adds both a sweet and salty flavor to the fish and helps it retain moisture. Many people simply use salt, water and sugar, but I like to spice it up a bit. There are hundreds of recipes out there that can be easily found online. Here’s the one I use, which will handle 5 to 6 pounds of fillets.

1 gallon water
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup kosher salt (use a bit more for freshwater fish)
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoons minced onion or shallot
3 bay leaves
1 8-ounce can pineapple juice (orange or apple juice will work as a substitute)

Place all of your fillets in a nonreactive container, top it off with the cooled brine solution and place it in the refrigerator. Soak large fillets (bluefish, salmon, lake trout, etc.) for about 6 hours, and small fillets, like trout or mackerel, for 3 to 4 hours.

After your fillets have soaked in brine, it’s important to dry them for a few hours in the refrigerator before putting them on the smoker. Sprinkling a little brown sugar on them will help form a nice glaze on the finished product.

After your fillets have soaked in brine, it’s important to dry them for a few hours in the refrigerator before putting them on the smoker. Sprinkling a little brown sugar on them will help form a nice glaze on the finished product. Photo by On The Water

Dry them off to form pellicle

When the brining time is complete, rinse the fillets under cold water and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. (This is also a good time to trim them up and remove any bones that remain from the rib cage.) Make the extra effort to wipe off any scales that are stuck to the meat-side of the fillets.

The next step seems insignificant, but will make a big difference in improving the final product. Lay all of those nice fillets on a baking sheet lined with paper towels, and put it into the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. This will dry the outer layer of flesh and result in a nice shiny glaze (called a pellicle) that lets you know the fish is ready for the smoker.

Fire up the smoker

If you don’t already have one, invest in the best smoker you can afford. You can find some great information online at www.AmazingRibs.com, a very resourceful site. It has detailed reviews on most of the smokers available on the market.

Whatever smoker you use, don’t forget to add water! Most have a pan, usually located right above the heat source, that should be filled with liquid. Forgetting this crucial step can result in fish jerky. As much as I’m a fan of jerky products, fish and jerky don’t mix.

A useful trick that I learned the hard way is to cover the grate in the smoker with a sheet of aluminum foil. (If you place the fillets right on the grates, there is a very good chance they will stick.) Poke a bunch of holes in the foil with a wooden skewer to allow the smoke to get through. Give it a quick blast of cooking spray and you’re ready to smoke! (This will also help when it comes time for cleanup.)

Smoke the fish until it’s done. How long is that? Well, there is no secret number for the time it will take because there are a lot of variables like the outside air temperature, the amount of meat in the smoker, and the size of the fillets. As a good rule of thumb, start the cooking at a cooler temperature, let’s say around 175 degrees, and then kick it up to around 225 degrees about 90 minutes in. Basically, your eyes and a good thermometer will tell you when the fish is done. The fillets should have a nice glaze to them and be dry to the touch. In my experience, a batch usually takes around 3 to 6 hours to complete.

Extras

I’ll sometimes give the fish a thin glaze of maple syrup about halfway through cooking. This adds some sweetness and creates a nice, caramelized glaze. You can also simply sprinkle some brown sugar over the fillets after brining and before resting them in the refrigerator.

Time to pig out

I like to eat smoked fish caveman-style. Grab a fillet with your hands and dig right in. It’s good stuff and quite addictive. If you want to get fancy, you can incorporate your smoked fish into chowder, pasta or fish cakes (one of Paquette’s favorites). Make sure to remove the skin before serving and also scrape off all the dark-brown meat that lies under the skin. Smoked bluefish pâté is one of my wife’s favorite ways to use smoked fish, and the following is her recipe.

Smoked Bluefish Pâté

8 ounces softened cream cheese
8 ounces smoked bluefish, with the skin, dark meat and bones removed
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
A few dashes of hot sauce
2 tablespoons diced scallions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

Break the smoked bluefish into small pieces. Mix the remaining ingredients and gently fold the bluefish into the mixture. Serve with crackers or toasted French bread slices (it’s also yummy on a bagel). Or, spread the cream cheese mixture on some good bread, add the smoked bluefish on top along with some fresh greens, and you have a most excellent smoked bluefish sandwich!

By Andy Nabreski / On The Water

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