Smoked Fish

CopyRight @ 1998

This is an old method of preparing fish that not only makes for a taste treat, it also can be used to help preserve the fish. Some fish can be smoked lightly like lox. Some fish can be smoked heavily into a jerky. Both dry and oily fish can be smoked. It allows for the tasty preparation of fish that are otherwise rather hard to use, like Sheephead or Perch.

A Couple Of Nice Loads.

Not to make an ad for Little Chief Smokers, but that is what I use and I get great results with it. It is a dry electric smoker. Most smokers these days are wet smokers, that actually seem to cook the meat, more than smoking it. They don't dry the meat much either.

The Little Chief Smoker comes in a cardboard box, that they say you must remove before use. They didn't used to say that. They used to say that the smoker works in the box and that it is the cardboard that insulates the smoker to get it to the proper heat. I have tried it without the box and it did not seem to work nearly as well. I almost think they now say to take the box off due to fire hazard concerns, but it works far better with the box on. Just cut a hole in the back for the cord and one in the front for the wood pan. I suspect that there is a real fire hazard to having the cardboard box on still when smoking, so be careful. I have had no fires YET, but there is a lot of heat near that cardboard. I am always careful of that. Sometimes I actually put some news paper on the top and over the sides to increase the heat a bit more. This would be for a big load of fish or a cold day.

Especially with oily fish, you may want to line the drip pan with a bit of aluminum foil before smoking. It will last longer and make clean up go better.

Spraying vegetable oil on to the smoking racks or rubbing it on with a paper towel, will help prevent the fish from sticking when the smoking is done. Clean the racks after use.

The smoker comes with a bag of hickory chips or perhaps I should say "hickory sawdust". These work fine and there are other types sold by Little Chief, including Apple, Alder, Rose and Mesquite wood chips. These are all good, though Alder and Apple are a bit lighter and so may be more appropriate for lighter, less oily, fish. You can also get bigger hickory or mesquite chips that are made for a Bar-B-Que. I put some of this in the pan first and then cover them with the finer wood chips.

The idea behind smoking is that it is a 2 step process of cooking. The brine mix flavors and chemically cooks the fish while it is cold. Then the smoker uses heat to cook, flavor and dry the meat the rest of the way. It is a slow heating process, that should operate at a bit below 150 degrees.

The brine is basically water, salt and sugar. This is all it takes to chemically prepare the fish, but I have never wondered what it what it would taste like. I always add spices.

I make my brine the night before I am going to use it to help the salt dissolve and to let some of the spices soak in. Of course, sometimes I have had to just make it right before the fish go in. It works.

Add 1 cup rock salt and one cup sugar to 2 quarts water. I use Sugar In The Raw because turbinado sugar tastes better. Add perhaps 4 ounces of molasses for flavor. Add lots Italian spices including oregano, bay and sage. I don't use garlic for smoking and I do not add any onion before the fish, though I often do put in 1/2 chopped onion at the same time as the fish. Putting it in the brine overnight may bring out too much of the onion flavor.

You can add some serious cayenne pepper if you must.

A lighter fish like Salmon or Halibut, should get a lighter brine. I have made brine with honey instead of molasses.

Brine can be used for more than one batch of fish, but after 2 batches, it is getting a bit strong.

The fish can be prepared in a number of ways. I usually like to put in boneless and skinless filets, but the fish can be just gutted or steaked and it does not have to be skinned, though I would try to remove all scales.

I rarely smoke a piece more than 1 1/2 inches thick, but I have. Just figure that the thicker it is or if it has skin still on it, it will cook slower and need more time or heat.

Put the fish into the brine and try to get it well covered. The fish will tend to float some, so you stir it once in a while or perhaps lay a fork or something on it to hold it under the brine. If there is a lot of fish, with the brine made this way, you can easily add another quart of water to the mix without overly diluting it.

The fish should set in the brine in the refrigerator for 12 hours.

Take the fish from the brine. I pour out the brine first if it is not going to be re-used. Your hands can get frozen by repeatedly reaching into the stuff. Put the fish onto paper towels to dry off and pat or rub the fish with paper towels to get off the excess brine. Put them on the racks for the smoker with some spacing between them.

Put the racks in the smoker and plug it in. Put wood in the pan and insert it onto the heater element. After 1 or 2 hours, empty that and put in a new pan of wood.

I have seen trout turn out well cooked in less than 10 hours. I have needed to cook a large batch of tuna for more than 16 hours. I have cooked tuna bellies and fish for jerky, over 18 hours. It all depends on the size of the load, the heat of the smoker, the thickness of the fish and what you want at the end. I normally smoke a batch for 12 hours and always check it at that point. A smaller batch, I check even earlier.

Take the fish out and enjoy. It is best to let it cool some before refrigerating or freezing the fish, to get rid of some of the moisture that will come out of it.

I have smoked large prawns before. They come out tasty, but with a truly strange texture. The first bite is interesting. Sorta like good tasting rubber bands. It's worth trying.

You can actually smoke cheeses and even fruits, at a lower temperature. This is described in the Little Chief cooking book that comes with the smoker. They also give a number of other methods of smoking, that are similar, but different than what is written here.

Like almost all cooking, smoking has a few ground rules and after that, you can do all kinds of different things to experiment or to tune the taste to what you want.

Part of the fun of smoked fish is what it can be used for. Here are a few suggestions of what it can be especially good for:

  • Crumble it up onto a salad.
  • Make a spread of smoked fish and mayonnaise or cream cheese. The fish must be cut or crumbled finely and mixed in with a fork or such.
  • Break it up and put it with a fettuccini sauce on pasta. That recipe can have capers cooked in with it.
  • I like to make sandwiches with it. Stronger smoked fish is sometimes best eaten with a loaf of sourdough bread.
  • Anyway you make it, you will probably enjoy it.

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