The practice of smoking food has existed for centuries. There’s no exact point in history that can be firmly determined when this began, but it is universally understood to be one of the earliest techniques known to man to help preserve meat and fish. Throughout the Stone Age, humans found themselves surrounded by water with a seemingly endless supply of fish to catch. But like everything in nature, there were seasons and times when fish were rarer. It was essential to preserve as much food as possible to last through harsh winters or barren seasons where food became scarce. Smoking meats, fish especially, became a solution to the problem of how to preserve food when it was needed.
Originally, before the refrigerator, smoked fish was heavily cured with salt and smoked until it was fairly dry for storage at room temperature or in a cellar without the worry of it going bad. Today’s cures and smoking are much lighter, which means you will need to refrigerate your smoked fish or freeze it for longer storage.
There are a variety of ways you can smoke fish, from commercial charcoal, propane, or electric smokers to even carefully smoking fish in your oven. While each method varies, all are based on a few common principles.
The Shared Basics of Smoked Fish
The best fish for smoking: The best kinds of fish for flavorful smoking will be the fattier types of fish. The reason why you will want to choose a fattier fish is that the fat itself will insulate the delicate fish meat and contribute to elevating the natural taste of it. Oily fish is also an excellent choice for smoking.
- Sea bass
Though these are the fattier types of fish you can smoke any fish should you like, they simply may dry out faster than the examples above.
Prepare your fish: Whether your fish was caught in the wild by you, or purchased from your favorite market, it is important to properly prepare your fish before smoking. If freshly caught, make sure your fish is thoroughly cleaned before preparation. Both whole fish (headless), fish fillets, or fish steaks can be smoked. Though keep in mind, how thin or how thick the fish is will impact how long it takes to smoke properly.
Place a pan-dressed (gutted, head removed) fish, fillet, or piece of fish skin on one side (if possible) in a basic brine solution.Basic brine:
- ½ cup non-iodized salt
- ½ cup of sugar
- 1-quart water
Stir the above ingredients to incorporate them until they’ve dissolved. Place the fish in the solution, cover completely and refrigerate. If the fish is thicker than 1 inch it should stay in the brine for 12 hours. For thinner pieces, 6-8 hours should suffice.
Pat dry: Remove your fish from the brine after the appropriate time and rinse each piece thoroughly under cold water. Gently pat as dry as possible with paper towels, then lay them on a piece of wax paper to air dry for at least an hour.
Smoking the Fish
With a smoker: If you have a smoker, heat your smoker to roughly 200 degrees. Use your favorite woodchip when smoking should you like, but since fish take so little time to smoke you may want to set aside using mesquite chips. Mesquite chips impart better flavoring on meats that take longer to smoke. The estimated time for smoking fish is roughly 2 hours, but a thermometer and cooking it until it is 160 F is highly recommended.
Follow your smoker’s manual for the right amount of woodchips to use. Some suggested woodchips for a deeply delicious smokey flavor are:
The fish is ready when its internal temperature reaches 160 F. It’s best to use a meat thermometer along with cooking times to ensure the fish is completely cooked.
You can enjoy your smoked fish immediately, or vacuum pack and freeze it. Unopened smoked fish lasts up to 2 weeks and retains its smoky, rich flavors.
Tip: If you want a bolder flavor to your smoked fish, wrap it tightly and place it in the fridge overnight so the smoke can permeate the fish completely.
Smoking fish in the oven: To smoke fish in the oven, your preparation should be the same. You’ll want a pan-dressed fish (gutted, head removed) that has been in the brine for the right amount of time for its thickness and size.Supplies:
- A tinfoil dish deep enough for wood chips
- A metal rack to place the fish over the wood chips within the dish
- Before attempting to smoke a fish in your oven, we strongly encourage you to open all of your home’s windows before doing so. Smoking fish in your oven creates smoke and will make your home filled with camp-fire like smoke.
- Place your oven rack to the very bottom of the oven and set the temperature to 250 F
- In a small skillet, toast your wood chips on the burner over medium-high heat until they just begin to smoke.
- Remove the rack the fish is laying on and place smoking chips within your liner tray, and place the rack and fish back over the tray. Wrap the entire drip tray and fish as tightly as possible in tin foil and place back into the oven.
- Cook for 1.5 to 2 hours. After 2 hours, bring the oven’s temperature up to 500 F and cook for 15-20 minutes more, or until internal temperatures reach 160 F.
The smoking process can seem more complicated than it truly is. Many have strong opinions on temperatures, times, smokers, family recipes all according to tradition. Luckily for you, at its most basic, how to smoke a fish is an easy process as long as you keep an eye on temperature and time.
At Wholey’s, we’re not simply passionate about serving our customers, but about everything, there is to know about the meat we cut and the food we fix. When you need the freshest cuts or the best of the catch, Wholey’s can deliver your next memorable meal right to your doorstep. The next time you want to try your hand at smoked fish, Wholey’s will have exactly what you need when you need it.