The Art of Smoking Fish
They say that after you’ve tasted smoked fish you’ll be well and truly hooked. Laurie & Julie Mc En ally don the chefs hats this month to tell us how to prepare fish this way.
Preserving fish and meats with smoke has taken place for thousands of years. This preserving process was essential for keeping meats as freezers, refrigerators and canning are all only recent technologies. Today in the modern age we have no problems keeping food fresh, and smoked fish I something of a delicacy. Really good smoked fish is hard to come by and often expensive, yet any angler with access to a kettle type BBQ can turn out premium smoked fish. Our own experience with smoked fish started about seven years ago when we purchased a Webber BBQ and found a recipe and directions for smoked trout in the instruction book.
This recipe was relatively simple and produced superb results, however when we tried to replicate it on other types of fish we ran into a range of problems. Solving all these little hiccups took time and more fish. Just as importantly though, we found there was very little information available on smoking different types of fish. We picked up a few clues here and there, but ended up solving most of the problems by trial and error. When TBF publisher, Andy Galwey, rang us one morning to find out about smoking fish and found we had a few answers he immediately asked us to come up with an article. Several months later this is the result.
The aim here is to give a point of reference out there for everyone. If the readers can add to the store of knowledge on the subject we’d be glad to hear from them and publish the details in coming issues.
Cold Smoke, Hot Smoke: There are two distinct ways of smoking fish – cold smoke and hot smoke.
Cold smoke relies on pickling the fish with a preservative (salt) and then hanging the fish in a box which is removed from a fire, but attached by a pipe to carry the smoke. The fish is then exposed to low temperature smoke for a relatively long period (up to 12 hours) and is completely preserved by the process. Fish treated in this way can be stored for up to six months and in cooler areas can be stored without refrigeration.
Cold smoking is too involved, slow and cumbersome for most people. Modern time demands make hot smoking the preferred option. Hot smoking both cooks and smokes the fish. It is marginally preserved by curing, but hot smoked fish should be eaten within seven days of cooking and it must be stored in the fridge after cooking. Around here, the chance of any of the smoked product lasting more than a few days is rare. The ‘gannets’ usually gather rapidly at the fridge door to load their crackers of freshly buttered bread with juicy smoked fish.
Hot smoking of fish is what the rest of this article is about.
Ingredients: Each ingredient in the process has a part to play, and each is equally important. There are no short cuts, but if the directions are closely followed there will be no failures either. The started point is to have a kettle type cooker. The fish are smoked with the air intake in the bottom and the air outlet at the top both fully open. Smoking of fish is a temperature controlled exercise and the kettle can only be used in the open. Strong winds can influence both the overall temperature of the kettle and the combustion rate happening inside.
Smoking is best done in calm conditions, or if its windy move the kettle to a sheltered location. Keeping a constant temperature while cooking is important. All our smoking has been done using heatbeads. The temperature is controlled by the number of beads used with each type of fish. Most of the recipes we use, have 20 beads per-side which produces a good result. The aim is to cook the fish slowly with smoke all round. Both the smoke and its flavour are carried through the fish by the movement of juices within the fish during the cooking process.
Do not rush the smoking by adding heat as it will diminish the resulting flavour. The heatbeads are also allowed to burn down for about 30 to 40 minutes before smoking starts. Look at the beads carefully, when they are light coloured and smouldering with little or any flame they are about right. Always ensure that the firelighters used to start the heatbeads are completely combusted and that no pieces of them fall into the ash at the start. Failure to monitor this will result in a distinctive kerosene flavour in the fish which is most unappetising.
Usually the firelighters are consumed in the first ten minutes and the burn down period takes care of them, but it is chips and splinters of the fire lighters which are dropped at the start that cause the problems. Smoke: Ah, the essential ingredient. Every wood when burned produces smoke of various flavours, most of them are not very tasty. By far the best smoke flavour is hickory followed by mesquite.
Both these timbers are from North America and are available from outdoor and BBQ speciality shops around the country. Australian tea-tree (Leptospermum and Melalueca) also make good smoke if you take the trouble to dry it out, and cut it into small chunks and chips. The hickory is the best bet and the easiest to find. It comes in either chips or a chunk form. We mostly use the chips but the chunks do last longer and produce smoke through the whole cooking process while the chips burn off in about 15 minutes and are topped up a second time after about 20 minutes.
To make either the chips, or chunks produce the required smoke levels they must be pre-soaked in water for about an hour before use. Once wet they burn slowly and produce lots of smoke. Warning – do not use processed or treated timbers of any kind.
These timbers contain large amounts of toxins and poisoning could result. Sugar and Salt: Both these agents act as preservatives and ‘cure’ the fish prior to smoking. They act on the moisture content of the fish and facilitate the transport of the smoke into the flesh. It the fish is not cured properly it will not smoke properly. Both the sugar and the salt will also enter the finished product so their use needs care and attention to detail. Salt is mostly used to cure whole fish products. The fish are entirely coated in a crust of cooking salt, including the gut cavity and then laid on a tray in the fridge for a specific period of time depending on the fish.
As an example, trout take four hours to cure whilst tailor and bonito take six or seven hours. Don’t overdo the time frames or the product will taste excessively salty. Trout left to cure for say six hours will have a distinctly salty taste while those left for four hours will have almost no salt in the taste. The salt encrusted fish is thoroughly washed under a tap prior to smoking to removed all trace of the salt. Anyone doing this will also note that the fish feels a bit leathery on the skin. This is dehydration caused by the salting and is part of the process.
Exposed flesh like fillets and cutlets take up too much salt to be edible if treated with salt so a wet pickle of brown or raw sugar is used with just a touch of salt. The wet pickle is usually 10 tablespoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt per litre ofwater. This is stirred till it dissolves and provides a near saturated solution. The fillets or cutlets are then placed in the solution and in a bowl or deep dish then placed in the fridge for about four to five hours.
When the fillets or cutlets are smoked the flesh takes up the smoke but the heat also dries off the sugar solution and provides a light honey sweet exterior to finish the product. Both the whole fish and cut pieces of fish are dried with paper towel prior to smoking the fish. Fillets and cutlets cook quicker than whole fish so cooking times are usually around 40 minutes compared to around an hour for whole fish depending on size. The Fish: While most fish can be smoked, some are much better than others.
Usually fish with a high oil content make the best smoked product. Trout, Atlantic salmon, tailor, bonito, trevally, slimy mackerel, spotted and Spanish mackerel, marlin, albacore, yellowfin, longtail and bluefin tuna are all good in this regard. Trout, tailor, bonito, trevally and slimy mackerel are all usually cooked whole while the larger fish are done as cutlets or slices. The fish used for smoking should be in absolutely premium condition. They should be caught and iced immediately on capture, even the trout and salmon.
When cleaning the fish, do not scale them, but gut and scrub the gut cavity to remove all traces of blood from along the spine. Most of the fish can then be frozen and smoked when needed. Tailor, bonito and slimy mackerel work best when captured one day, and smoked the next as they tend to go very soft when thawed. Big fish are cut into meal size pieces which can be thawed and recut to make serve sized portions for smoking. Always remove the skin on big game fish such as marlin and tuna prior to smoking. Big bonito, albacore, spotted and Spanish mackerel are cutletted and frozen for later use.
While some of the fish mentioned are not known for their good eating quality, some will surprise the palate with their great taste when smoked. Bonito and slimy mackerel are the most obvious in this group but quite a few of the others will provide some great flavours once smoked. Tailor tend to stay a little soft when cooked, but firm up well when served chilled. Lots of other fish can be tried once the art of curing and cooking has been mastered just to see how they turn out. Snapper come up all right as do mullet and small Australian salmon.
Basically it’s up to the angler to experiment a little. Note also that this cooking technique can also be extended to chicken and lamb if required. The key with the fish is to keep them in absolutely prime condition after capture.
The Process: While we’ve covered the basics, the steps in the process need remembering so we’ve combined them here to have the running sheet ready before we get to the recipes.
- Catch fish and place on ice immediately. Clean and freeze, or use fresh. Remove all blood from gut cavity when cleaning the fish.
- Whole fish are cured with a salt crust, fillets and cutlets are cured in a saturated sugar solution of raw, or brown sugar and a little salt. Fish is left in the fridge to cure for a measured time.
- One hour before cooking place four handfuls of hickory chips in a saucepan of water, or four to six chunks of hickory if chunks are used.
- Forty minutes before smoking light heat beads or similar, usually 20 per side, with three cubes of fire lighters under each group of heat beads to burn down at an even heat.
- Ten minutes before cooking remove fish from fridge. Whole fish are thoroughly washed to remove salt. Fish in sugar pickle are left in solution till ready to go into the smoker.
- When fire is ready, place fish on the cooking frame off the fire. Do not place any fish directly over the fire area. The fish must be down the middle section of the frame and out to the edge of the fire area.
- Place drip tray in the bottom of the kettle.
- Add one good handful of soaked hickory chips to the top of each pile of coals, place cooking frame into kettle and cover. Top and bottom air vents are fully open.
- After 20 minutes, lift lid, remove the cooking frame and place another handful of soaked hickory chips on the fire on each side. Replace everything and leave until cooked. (Whole fish 50 to 60 minutes, filletsand cutlets, 40 to 50 minutes).
- Remove and allow to stand for five minutes before serving, or allow to cool and place in the fridge for serving cold later.
Side Dishes: Smoked fish tastes great hot or cold. Hot fish can be served with mashed potato, cauliflower in white or cheese sauce, or with rice and pickled vegetables. Cold fish goes great with salads, avocado and whole beetroot. Extra taste can be added with yogurt and chopped dill mixed together as an accompaniment.
The important part of the process is to try it a few times and for most attempts the results will be outstanding. Once the basics are mastered the rest is easy and some great meals become available from what may only be an average fish.