Smoking Fish – How to prepare and cook fish by the hot or cold smoking methods

Fresh trout and salmon cooked on a smoker beside the lake is hard to beat.
Fresh trout and salmon cooked on a smoker beside the lake is hard to beat.

Smoking Fish in a Hot Smoker by Allan Burgess

Table of Contents

I must admit that some of my earlier smoking fish sessions have produced less-than-perfect results. I finally caught on and would like to pass on the following advice.

This is really a method better thought of as quick smoke/cooking, rather than the more involved, and much slower, cold smoking process traditionally used to preserve fish and meats. Fish cooked in the smoke/cooker should be eaten straight away. If kept in a fridge treat as cooked fish!

Start by preparing your fish the moment they are caught by getting them into ice immediately. Fish flesh goes bad quickly if not kept cool.

Smoking fish featured image.
Metal dishes burning methylated spirits are used to cook the fish and burn the sawdust or fine wood chips.

I like to remove all the bones from a fillet and leave the skin in place. Sprinkle salt over the fillets and leave for 30 minutes to draw out some of the moisture. Rinse in cold water then pat the surface dry with a paper towel. You can omit this step if you wish but it is essential for watery species such as red cod.

Rub brown sugar into the flesh. Put heaps on. This acts as a buffer to the smoke and improves the taste. Too much will simply run off so there is no danger of over-sweet fish. You can add a drop of whisky, pepper, herbs and the like at this stage. The brown sugar really is an essential ingredient; without it, the taste is too bitter.

Fresh salmon in the hot smoker at Lake Coleridge.
Fresh salmon in the hot smoker at Lake Coleridge. The cooking time is about fifteen minutes.

Line the smoker with foil. This makes it easier to clean. You only want a handful or two of manuka sawdust – too much also gives a bitter taste.

Place the two metal dishes filled with methylated spirits spirit on the ground. Light the spirits and place the smoker over them.

Resist lifting the lid until the methylated spirits have all burnt off. This should take about fifteen minutes.

A smoke/cooker is very portable, easy to use and great taken on your trip to the lake. Fresh fish cooked on the spot. You just can’t beat it for the taste!

A smaller compact smoker is also worth having as you are more likely to pack it in your car, van, 4×4, or campervan. Larger smokers like the one pictured above take up a lot of vehicle space.

Try mullet, kahawai, rig, and cod, as well as trout and salmon. Smoking fish is well worth the effort and easy to do!

Hot and Cold Fish Smoking Methods and How to Make a Cold Smoker by Stephen Coote

Cold Fish Smoker. This designed to produce smoked fish with a long storage life even without refrigeration.
Cold Fish Smoker. Designed to produce smoked fish with a long storage life even without refrigeration.

Producing smoked fish doesn’t have to be difficult or costly. Fish prepared this way can provide a delicious meal and immense satisfaction to the person who smoked it.

All sorts of fish can be smoked. Some people reckon species they don’t particularly enjoy eating fresh taste better smoked; kahawai and conger eel for instance. It’s a matter of taste.

Although smoking adds flavour, it probably originated as a preservation process. Meat and fish have been dried for centuries and it is not hard to imagine how an enterprising ancestor would have hung fish near a fire in order to hasten the drying.

Smoking can be done “cold” or “hot”. I regard hot smoking as a relatively quick process that cooks and flavours the fish. Cold smoking takes longer but has the potential to preserve fish for a long time (even without refrigeration) if done properly. Bear in mind though, that smoking is probably approached in dozens of ways by different peoples and cultures. I’m just describing my understanding of it.

The most convenient way of hot smoking I know is in a commercial type portable hot smoker. These compact units can turn your catch into a meal of smoked fillets in a matter of minutes. They can be set up on the patio or even in a boat. Methylated spirits is used as a heat source, and sawdust (usually manuka) provides the smoke. The last time I visited a tackle shop, I saw one of these priced at under $100.

Even a barbecue can impart a smoke flavour. This could be enhanced by enclosing the grill area and throwing a handful of sawdust on a low bed of coals. Some ventilation would be required to keep this system running for any length of time. With ingenuity, trial and error most fishers would come up with a passable method of hot smoking.

Cold smoking is a little more involved. Here’s my version of it.

Leave the skin on the fish; this holds it together. Keep in mind that thinner pieces should become properly smoked before thicker pieces.

Small fish can be smoked whole (after removing the guts and the gills) and bigger fish can be filleted.

Fish like blue cod can be given a different treatment. Remove the head, gills and guts. From the belly side, cut along one side of the backbone just as far as the skin along the back. The fish can then be opened up like a book.

Next comes salting. I don’t know why, but plain salt often seems to be specified for this. Some people like to use a mix of salt and brown sugar for the job. A suitable ratio would be 50/50, but you can alter it to suit your taste. You may even like to add herbs and spices. If unrefrigerated preservation is the object, it would be best to use salt alone until proved otherwise. The salt (and sugar) can be applied dry or you can mix it with water to make a strong brine in which to soak the fish.

If you’re dry salting, rub handsful of salt all over the fish leaving plenty sitting on the meaty side. Stack the salted fish in a container and leave it in a cool place for several hours. The thickness of the fish you are salting is a factor to consider when deciding how long to leave the salt on. Typically, fish is left in the salt overnight. At the end of the prescribed time, wipe the fish dry with a clean cloth, removing all visible salt. If you wish, you can give the fish a quick rinse in fresh cold water to remove excess salt before you wipe it. Don’t be surprised to find a quantity of juice in your container at this stage.

If you’ve soaked the fish in brine overnight, simply remove it and wipe it as above.

Next, the fish has to be hung to dry in an airy place where flies can’t get at it. The fish shouldn’t be smoked until it is perfectly dry to the touch.

Some smokeboxes may have racks or netting to lay the fish on. For an average-sized box, it is better to hang the fish from rails. The fish may be attached to the rails using string or hooks made from wire. Hanging the fish is an economical use of space and allows good smoke circulation.

Small whole fish can be hung from the gill cavity with string or a hook. Fillets or slabs may need two or more hooks. The tendency of a split fish slab to curl may be countered by weaving a metal or wooden pin through both fillets at the head end of the fish. This holds the “book” open. One hook inserted under the middle of this pin is often all a small slab needs.

Cold smoking is done at low temperatures. The smoke shouldn’t be hotter than a warm day in autumn in the vicinity of the fish. I once read that the best results are had below 21 degrees centigrade.

To ensure the smoke is cold by the time it reaches the fish, the fire has to be suitably located. Some smokeboxes achieve this by being big and tall. A baffle of sheet metal above the fire helps contain the heat, and sufficient cool air mixes with the smoke to stop the fish cooking. A “walk in” smokehouse may operate this way.

A better way to ensure cold smoke may be to have the fire a metre or more away from the box itself. The smoke travels through a tunnel or a pipe to the box. If the box is at ground level, the tunnel doesn’t have to be anything more than a trench in the ground covered with a sheet of corrugated iron. If a pipe is chosen, remember that a metal one will readily dissipate heat.

A smokebox needs holes at the top, or on the top of its sides, to let out the smoke. These holes should be coverable so the operator has some control over the flow through the box. The other things a box needs are rails to hang the fish from and some sort of a door.

A smokebox doesn’t need to be flash. Simple, cheap improvisations will do as good a job as anything. Oil drums, old fridges, freezers and clothes dryers readily lend themselves to the task. A campsite smoker can be built using a framework of branches covered with greenery or sacking. Don’t start a forest fire though.

The smoke tunnel should at least be level or rise slightly toward the smokebox. To achieve this, a hole may have to be dug for the fire. The fire has to be hard against, or in, the entrance of the tunnel. Propping a piece of sheet metal over the fire should help coax the smoke in the right direction. Locating the whole set-up on a bank or sloping ground can be a help.

Building a good fire may take a bit of experimenting. Manuka sawdust is a widely used smoke fuel. To get the sawdust burning, it is placed on the hot coals of an ordinary wood fire. You’ll probably find it essential to include a few lengths of unburned wood among the embers to stop the sawdust from settling right down and cutting off the fire’s oxygen supply.

Other fuels can be used for smoking. Sawdust from various hardwoods and fruit trees has been used. You don’t even have to use sawdust, but it may be harder to effectively control the fire.

When smoking is in progress, the operator has to keep fuel on the fire and maintain control of the airflow. This may include actually covering the fire as well as opening or closing the holes in the smokebox. Sawdust should be available from some firewood merchants or individuals who cut their own wood. It’s possible that a tackle store in your area sells it by the bagful.

Steer clear of sawdust from building sites. Likewise, I recommend that you never use treated wood, painted wood or wood from any source you are unsure of. Even if toxins aren’t always released in smoke, chances are you’ll get a quantity of small ash or wood particles on your tucker. Resinous woods are considered unsuitable. Fish may be tainted if things like oil are used to start the fire.

How long do you smoke fish for? A good flavour may be imparted after just a few hours. If you are preserving the fish long-term then several days may be necessary.

If you aren’t going to eat your fish straight away, it’s a good idea to refrigerate or freeze it. It is true that properly cold-smoked fish do stay preserved without refrigeration. However, I wouldn’t want any reader to assume his or her fish to be OK to store outside the fridge just because I said so. You have to be sure you are doing it right.

If you want to preserve fish without refrigeration, I suggest you consult with someone who has actually done this. In addition, your librarian could probably get you a good book on the subject. Here are some points to consider if you want to preserve fish:

– Observe hygiene rules when handling and storing food products.

– Salt helps to prevent spoilage. Use plenty and make sure the salt-soaking stage is long enough.

– Make sure the fish is dry enough after smoking. Generally speaking, the dryer (and harder) the fish the better it will keep.

– Lean fish should dry more easily than oily ones.

– Storage is important. I recommend a cool, dark dry place with good ventilation. Make sure mice and insect vermin can’t get at it. Wrapping individual portions will help keep them clean.

Current thinking indicates a week is long enough to keep cold-smoked fish outside a fridge. There is little need to do otherwise nowadays. If done properly though, it will keep longer. In trying to find a definite answer as to how long it will keep, I’ve found people to be fairly non-committal. I believe properly done fish would keep for months. I have yet to prove this, however.

The only time I’ve seen smoked fish stored outside a fridge was years ago in the Marlborough Sounds. The leathery sand-polluted fillets were kept in a paper bag in the pantry. I can’t remember how long we kept them, but they sure tasted okay.

If you do find yourself in a situation where some “long-term” fish is on the menu, be wise. As of any food you are unsure of, it may be best to eat just a little of it and then wait for a day or so to make sure all is well. Then perhaps, you can make a pig of yourself.

Before cooking salted fish, soak it to remove excess salt.

Smoking fish can provide a welcome change at the dinner table, or enable a fisher to preserve the catch in primitive conditions. If you haven’t tried it before, it’s an activity well worth considering.

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