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Smoking Fish FAQ

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Post Thu Nov 13, 2008 11:07 am
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Smoking Fish FAQs

Contributed by CharredGriller

Introduction

There have been quite a few requests for smoked fish recipes and techniques on this forum lately, so I put together these FAQs for all of you. Over the past 35 years I have enjoyed many different types of this delicacy. I've been to a few salmon cookouts with some of the Siwash and Salish tribes in British Columbia, eaten smoked marlin and bonito in Florida, and tried smoked trout fresh from the river up in Northern Alberta where I live.

Of course, you can also smoke fish you've caught yourself. When I was about 8 years old, I caught a couple of walleye (pickerel) at the summer cabin we'd rented. We had to go home for the weekend, so the cabin owner smoked them for me while we were away. When we arrived back at the cabin, he'd left them in the fridge with a note. Unfortunately, I only got a small taste - my mother and our other guests literally demolished that plate of smoked walleye within minutes. This taught me a few things: Smoked fish is great, you can easily--and should--make it yourself, and if you share, make sure you've saved a bit for yourself because it disappears quickly.

Like the Brisket FAQs, this is fairly long and geared more toward theory, techniques, and tips for smoking fish than it is toward recipes. I hope you enjoy it!

Why cure and smoke fish?

Smoked fish (aka BBQed fish or 'kippered' fish) has a very unique and delicious taste that is completely different from fresh fish. The combination of smoke, salt, and other curing ingredients makes for a wonderful flavor you just won't find with any other kind of fish. It's considered a delicacy by quite a few people, but the variety of fish in stores is quite limited and it's also very expensive. The curing and smoking process helps to firm up and preserve the fish, and it also kills off many harmful bacteria such as the ones that cause botulism. Finally, the process is quite simple compared to many other BBQ dishes.

Will this process allow me to make the smoked salmon (lox) like I can buy in stores, catalogs, or on-line?

Unfortunately, no. Commercially smoked fish is usually cured with a complex cold-smoking process. involving very low temperatures (around 100 degrees F) for several hours, or even days. This process requires a very different kind of smoker than those owned by all but the most avid barbecuers. A cold-smoking rig uses a small firebox, several feet of pipe, and an enclosed smoking chamber. This process also requires a lot of attention, and there are a lot more things that can go wrong for beginners. Cold-smoked fish is also uncooked (think of sushi) although it can keep for weeks in the refrigerator. Commercial producers must follow strict storage and handling rules to ensure a safe product.

These FAQs deal strictly with hot smoking fish. The end product doesn't keep as long in the fridge (days instead of weeks), but it has a very similar taste. Plus, hot-smoking also cooks the fish, which makes it great for folks who don't like the texture of raw fish.

How does the hot smoking process work?

Here are the basic steps:
  • Clean and prepare the fish
  • Cure the fish using a dry cure or a brine
  • Rinse off the fish and pat dry
  • Dry the fish to form a 'pellicle' (skin)
  • Smoke the fish at 225° F to 250° F until done
Preparation

What kind of fish should I smoke?

Generally, the heavier, oilier types of fish smoke better than the delicate types. The higher fat content absorbs the smoke better and keeps the fish from drying out too quickly. Salmon, trout, sturgeon, bluefish, mackerel, bonito, marlin, tuna, and other types of oily fish hold up very well to brining and smoking. Steelhead trout is also a great option: It's rainbow trout that has migrated to the open ocean, and it tastes very similar to salmon but at half the price.

More delicate, less oily fish like orange roughy, sea bass, sole, and redfish can be smoked, but tend to dry out quickly. Ditto for walleye and pickerel, pike, perch, whitefish, cod, and bass. You may want to stick to the oilier fish for your first few attempts.

Whatever fish you choose, it absolutely must be fresh. Stale or old fish doesn't cure or smoke very well, and it tastes positively awful. Plus, it can make you quite sick.

Frozen fish can be thawed completely and then smoked, too, but once again, make certain that it was in good condition before it was frozen. If you're buying your fish in a supermarket, choose fresh fish over frozen fish. That way, if you later need to freeze the fish you'll have no doubts about its initial quality.

How do I tell if a fish is fresh?

If it's a whole fish, check the gills - they should be pink or red, and not gray or brown (which can mean old fish, or fish that has been swimming in polluted waters). Check the eye of the fish - it should be clear and not cloudy or murky. Check the skin of the fish - the scales should be firmly attached and not falling or flaking off. Then, give the fish a poke � the flesh should spring back immediately. If your finger leaves a dent in the fish or if the flesh feels mushy, it isn't fresh. Finally, smell the fish: It should not smell overly 'fishy', but it should have a fresh, slightly briny odor. (Some folks call this a 'fresh from the sea' smell, and it fits.)

If the fish you're smoking is a filet, check the scales, firmness of the flesh, and the smell as above. (You won't be able to check the eyes and gills as there won't be any.) In addition, check the surface of the meat: It should be smooth, not slimy. The surface of the flesh should also look solid - any cracks in the flesh mean that the fish is too old to use.

How do I prepare the fish?

Clean the fish if necessary and blot the flesh with paper towels to remove any remaining blood spots. Rinse the fish and remove the fins and any scales, but leave the skin on. Blot the entire surface of the meat dry with paper towels, and either place the fish immediately into the curing mixture, or place it in the refrigerator until needed. (To slow deterioration, set the fish in a colander or perforated container filled with crushed ice, and set over a drip pan in the coldest part of the refrigerator.)

When preparing the fish, be sure to look for any bruised or discolored areas and cut them out. These areas (blood spots) are usually considerably darker than the rest of the fish, so they're pretty easy to spot. They taste absolutely awful and don't look good, either.

Smaller fish like trout can be smoked whole or cut into filets. Larger fish should be cut into steaks or filets in order to help them smoke more evenly. Smoking a large whole fish can be done, but it tends to cook unevenly and dry out a bit on the thin parts. Another way I like to prepare a large fish is to clean it by slicing through the backbone instead of the belly. This allows you to butterfly the whole fish, as the belly skin acts as a hinge.

If you are filleting the fish, here's another useful trick to try: Leave the collarbone of the fish attached to the filet. The collarbone acts like a small loop, letting you hang the filets from the rack of a vertical water smoker using S-hooks. This works well on both large and small fish. I've been able to smoke 20 trout (40 filets!) this way by hanging them from the upper rack of my smoker.

I just caught some fish and I want to smoke them rather than eat them right away. Is there anything I need to do differently?

Here's a good rule of thumb: the fresher the fish, the better the finished product. Freshly-caught fish should be cleaned quickly and put on ice (preferably crushed ice) immediately, or kept alive in a bucket or live well (if local fishing regulations allow this) until they are ready to be cleaned. Once you've got the fish to shore, proceed as directed above.

Believe it or not, I've seen improperly-handled, freshly-caught fish spoil in the 20 minutes it took to get the boat to shore. But if those same fish are handled correctly, they make some of the best smoked fish around.

What about the bones in the fish?

Fish bones can be a nuisance. Fortunately, you can remove most of these bones during the cleaning and filleting process. If you want completely bone-free fish, however, then simply run your finger along the center of the flesh to find the pin bones. These bones can easily be pulled out with a pair of tweezers or needlenose pliers.

Some fish, such as pike, have quite a lot of these pin bones, and removal can take a long time. Sometimes it's just better to put up with the bones and warn your guests accordingly.

Curing

What is curing, and how does it work?

Curing is the process of preserving meat or fish with the use of salt, and it's an important part of the smoking and preservation process. Typically, other ingredients such as sugar and spices are added to the salt to help improve the flavor of the finished product. There are two types of curing: dry-cure, and brine-curing.

Dry cures start with a 2:1 mixture of salt to sugar (2 cups salt, 1 cup sugar), and then other ingredients such as spices are added. The cure is then packed on to the meat, and over a short period of time the mixture draws out a lot of moisture from the meat and firms up the flesh of the fish. Dry cures work well because the curing mixture covers every bit of the meat, so the meat cures evenly.

Brines (also called wet cures) also start with a 2:1 mixture of sugar to salt, but this mixture is then added to about a gallon of water. Brining produces a slightly milder cure than dry curing, and it allows you to add other flavorful ingredients such as lemon slices that don't necessarily work well with a dry cure. If you're using a brine cure, make sure the meat is totally submerged in the brine. You can use a plate, or a resealable plastic bag filled with water. Keeping the fish skin-side-up also helps here.

NOTE: Because of the salinity of the curing mixture, it is essential that you use a nonreactive dish for the process. Glass, plastic and stainless steel dishes work well, but avoid copper, aluminum or other metals as they can react quickly with the curing mixture and cause off colors and flavors, as well as make you sick.

Another alternative is to place the fish and cure in a resealable plastic bag. This method works very well with both brine cures and dry cures. Be sure to place the bag into a larger bowl, though, in case the bag leaks.

Is there anything else I need to know about the ingredients?

Yes. If you're using lemon juice or anything acidic in the brine cure, don't use a lot of it - no more than about 1/3 of a cup per gallon of water. Lemon juice can actually 'cook' fish and shellfish in high concentrations.

Use pickling salt, sea salt, or kosher salt for your cures. Don't be tempted to use ordinary table salt it can contain iodine and anti-caking agents that will lead to off-tastes and bitter flavors.

Bottled water and distilled water are preferred to tap water. If unavailable, you can bring a large pot of tap water to a boil, boil uncovered for about 20 minutes, then remove from the heat, cover and cool to room temperature. This process drives off a lot of the chlorine in the water and causes some of the salts in the water to precipitate. I also use this process with water from my well, as it also kills off any harmful bacteria that may be lurking in the water, too.

How long should I cure the fish?

Brining time will depend on the size of each individual piece of fish, and not by the total weight of the fish as some folks might suppose. In fact, I've discovered that you can cure 40 filets of similar size in the same amount of time it takes you to cure a single filet - you just need to make enough brine or dry cure to handle it all!

Here are general guidelines for brining or dry-curing fish:
  • Less than 1/4 lb. - 30 minutes
  • 1/4 to 1/2 lb. - 45 minutes
  • 1/2 to 1 lb. - 1 hour
  • 1 to 2 lbs. - 2 hours
  • 2 to 3 lbs. - 3 hours
  • 3 to 4 lbs. - 4 hours
  • 4 to 5 lbs. - 5 hours
  • 5 lbs. or more - Not recommended (cut the fish into smaller pieces)
If the skin is still on the fish, add 25% to the brining times. In addition, if the fish you're smoking is not a particularly oily fish, you might want to reduce the amount of brining time by about 20%. Going over these times by a small margin won't spoil the fish (especially larger pieces) but it will make the fish a bit more salty.

What is overhauling, and how does it work?

If you are dry curing multiple pieces of fish for more than 2 hours, there's an extra step you'll need to take called overhauling. While it sounds pretty complex, it's an easy process. Every two hours , rearrange the fishand recoat any bare spots with extra dry cure. This process ensures every part of the fish comes in contact with the cure.

What is a 'pellicle'? Do I want one? If so, how do I get one?

Once the fish has been cured and rinsed off, it needs to be dried for 45 minutes or so. The pellicle is a sticky layer that the fish develops during this time. The pellicle helps the fish absorb more smoke, it helps hold the fish together, and it guards against overcooking the fish. It also helps spices stick to the fish better, so if you're going to add extra pepper or rub before smoking the fish (and this step is totally optional), be sure to add it after the pellicle is formed.

To dry the fish, place it on a rack of some sort and aim a fan toward it on low speed. It should take about 45 minutes to an hour to develop the pellicle. I normally oil a cooling rack and place the fish on it, and then place the whole thing on my oven racks before directing the fan at it. Tent it with cheesecloth to protect the fish from bugs. You can also dry the fish in the refrigerator, but it will take longer to develop the pellicle.

Developing this layer of pellicle is one of the most important steps in smoking fish. Without it, the surface of the fish will smoke unevenly. Even worse, the juices from the fish will seep up through the flesh and coagulate on the surface. These juices will form a white curd on the surface of the fish, and while the curd isn't harmful, it looks unattractive (like someone sneezed on the fish, in fact) and tastes bad. Oversmoking or smoking at too high a temperature will also produce this white curd.

Smoking

What type of smoking wood should I use?
Traditionally, salmon was smoked over alder wood (at least up here in Canada). But alder can be difficult to find in certain regions, so there are some nice alternatives. Fish is quite delicately flavored, so you'll want to stick to a smoking wood that gives off a light-to-medium smoke. The more delicate the fish, the lighter the smoke needs to be to keep from overpowering the fish.

GOOD CHOICES: Alder, almond, apple, ash, birch (without the bark), cherry, lilac, maple, most fruitwoods such as pear, peach, and plum.

USE WITH CAUTION: Hickory, mesquite, oak, pecan (wood and shells), grapevines. These woods produce a heavier smoke, so less may be better when smoking fish.

WOODS TO AVOID: Any wood that gives off a strong-tasting or dense smoke. Walnut is included in this category, as are corncobs (you'll want to save these for pork, anyway). Also avoid all softwoods (conifers), birch bark, any wood with lichen or fungus on it (and you shouldn't be using this anyway), exotic hardwoods, and old tires.

And while cedar-planked salmon is a great dish, cedar-smoked salmon isn't! If you smoke a fish with cedar or any softwood, your fish will taste like the road surface of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Here's a link that might be helpful:
http://www.barbecuebible.com/board/viewtopic.php?t=13800

How long will the fish take to cook?
Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the fish. Here are guidelines for a smoking temperature of 225-250° F:
  • Filets under one inch thick usually take about an hour
  • 1 to 1 1/2 inch thick filets take about 1 1/2 to 2 hours
  • 1 1/2 to 2 inch thick filets can take 2-3 hours
  • 2 inch or thicker filets can take 3 to 5 hours or more.
How do I know when the fish is done?

When the fish is done, the surface will have turned a much darker color. The thickest part of the flesh will be firm and springy but not mushy or hard, and it will flake easily. Check the internal temperature: it should be about 140 to 155° F.
Be very careful not to overcook the fish. Overcooking can cause fissures in the flesh, allowing the juices to run out. Not only will this dry out the fish, but it will also cause those same juices to coagulate and form that nasty white curd discussed above.

Serving

I've got a pile of smoked salmon. Now what?

Lucky you! Here are some ideas for using it:
  • Mix it with cream cheese, a bit of sour cream, and some herbs - mint, thyme, tarragon and dill work well, as do chives and capers. Use this mixture as a dip for crackers or pipe it on to canap�s.
  • Try the classic approach as seen on Episode 101 of Steven's new show, The Primal Grill (http://www.primalgrill.org): Serve it on a bagel or toast points with cream cheese. Garnish with diced red onion, capers, chives, sliced tomatoes, and chopped hard-boiled egg.
  • Here's a great one from Barbecue Board member QJuju: Smoked Salmon Quesadillas! viewtopic.php?t=15376
  • Serve it in an omelet with sour cream and some of the herbs above.
  • The Scandinavian approach - basically the same thing as Steven's approach above, but substitute pumpernickel or Russian black bread for the bagel.
  • My favorite: cut it into cubes or break it into chunks, grab some toothpicks, and eat it as is.
I've shared with you above everything I know about hot smoking fish. I hope this FAQ inspires you to try smoking your own fish, or if you're a veteran at smoking, I hope you've learned a couple of new tricks. Enjoy!

APPENDIX 1 - Recipes and Links

Steven Raichlen's Fish Cure (from Episode 101 of The Primal Grill)
This dry-curing rub is so simple it's elegant. Steven cured a 1 1/2 pound piece of salmon for 4 hours using this mixture:
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
This cure also works well as a launching point for your own dry-cure recipes. Steven also has some other excellent smoked salmon recipes in How to Grill and BBQ USA.

CBG's Maple Brine Cure

I came up with this cure several years ago but this is the most recently revised version. It's more of a wet rub than an actual brine, and it's about enough to cover a 2-pound filet:
  • 1 cup water
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup (the real and expensive stuff - which is why I don't use more of it. Honey, molasses or extra brown sugar can be substituted.)
  • 2 cups salt (I use sea salt or pickling salt, but stay away from table salt)
  • 1 tbsp black pepper (freshly ground)
  • 1 tbsp granulated garlic
  • 1 tbsp granulated onion
  • Optional: 1 ounce good scotch, bourbon or Irish whiskey
Mix all ingredients together and pour over salmon. Place salmon in a resealable plastic freezer bag, place the bag in the refrigerator, and let the salmon cure for 4 hours.

For those who are interested, here is the initial post:
http://www.barbecuebible.com/board/viewtopic.php?t=15241

Cardog's Salmon Rub

This is a popular recipe and it can be found at:
http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/salmon1.html

Linda's Smoked Salmon

This recipe was recommended by one of our members - Swamp Yankee.
http://whatscookingamerica.net/SmokeSalmon.htm

APPENDIX 2 - Cold-Smoking Fish

I don't normally try this type of fish as it can be very time-consuming and tricky. I have smoked a couple fish using this method with varying results. I don't recommend cold-smoking fish unless you are very familiar with the process, but here are some basic guidelines if you feel like trying it.

Please note: I picked up a lot of this information from several websites during a search. I take no responsibility for any ill effects that might result if they're wrong. Try at your own risk.

Cold-Smoked Fish
  • Clean and prepare the fish as directed above
  • Increase the amount of salt in the brine by 50% (so it�s now a 3:1 ratio)
  • Brine the fish: 1/2 to 1 hour for 1/2 inch filets, 1 to 1 1/2 hours for one-inch thick filets, and 1 1/2 to 2 hours or more for 1 1/2 inch thick filets.
  • Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels.
  • Dry the fish for 2-3 hours to get a good pellicle.
  • Place the fish in the smoker and smoke at a temperature of 80-90° F until done. The flesh should be an even medium brown.
When is 'done'? For small filets, it can be 24 hours, but larger filets (think 'salmon') the process takes about 3 to 4 days or more. Even with these times the salmon won't keep for more than a couple of weeks in the fridge. For long-term storage (several months in the fridge), you need to brine the fish for 2 hours and smoke it for at least 5 whole days (7 or 8 days for bigger pieces).
Lox

This stuff is the 'smoked salmon' you see in the store for astronomical prices.
Prepare the salmon using the above guidelines for cold-smoked salmon, but smoke it at 70-80° F for 1 to 3 days. Cover the lox with a thin coating of vegetable oil to give it a slight sheen. The lox should keep for 1 to 2 weeks in the fridge, and about double to three times as long in the freezer. Slice it paper-thin for serving.

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