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The Art And Science Of Smoking Fish

Author: Allison Stattner

Smoking Your Catch!

Smoking Your Fish

Preparing and enjoying your catch brings fishing full circle. Smoking fish can be so much more than fish dip! In this article, I explain some of the science behind smoking fish and share some of my own secret tips to elevate your technique to an art form.

Which species work best for smoking? 

King Mackerel, salmon, tuna, amberjack, bluefish and mullet all have one thing in common: higher fat content. The fat is not only a good source of omega 3, or "good fat", but it helps the protein absorb flavor and maintain a soft, flaky interior. 

Smoked Fish

What makes a great brine? 

The basics of a good brine are salt, sugar and a spice mix that you enjoy. There is a dual function to infuse flavor and to extract moisture from the protein. (The salt pulls out moisture which is one reason why a low-fat fish will end up dry even when properly smoked.) The complete process of smoking fish is complex and can span several days so I take steps to prepare ahead of time, including making and storing brine base in jars. My recipe is 3 parts sugar to 1 part salt. For the sugar component, I never use just one kind but a combination of white, brown or demerara (sugar in the raw). I also add bay leaves, garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne pepper. All of these ingredients are warmed over low heat in a large pot filled with water until ALL OF THE SALT AND SUGAR ARE DISSOLVED. The mixture is then set aside, fully cooled and jarred to store in my garage fridge. 

What is the preferred method of breaking down the fish? 

Most importantly, for me, is to remove the bones before soaking and smoking so I fillet all the fish instead of making steaks. Although it is perfectly acceptable to leave the skin on, and it can prevent sticking to the smoking racks, I remove it so that the delicious candy coating will be on all sides of the bricks. The fillets are laid and stacked in a large plastic bin with a lid, covered in brine base, and topped off with lukewarm water to soak in the refrigerator overnight. 

Do I really need to dry the fillets?

YES! This is a crucial step - and I don't mean dry them briefly or pat the fillets dry. First thing in the morning, I remove the fillets from the brine and lay them in a single layer on paper towels. I set up these trays on the counter under a fan and leave them ALL DAY. Yes, I leave the fish for hours until I come back from fishing in the afternoon. If I happen to be home, I will rotate the trays but it is not necessary. The purpose of fully drying the protein is to create a PELLICLE. The pellicle is a thin skin or membrane which allows the smoke to fully adhere to the protein, or in other cooking applications to achieve a crisp sear. 

Smoked Fish

Do I need a fancy smoker and special wood chips or pellets?  

NO! Big Green Eggs, Traeger Grills and other pellet smokers do work very well but they are certainly not required, especially for someone just starting out. I have always used a Masterbuilt smoker box from Home Depot and will likely stick with this simple style. I do not use electric settings, apps on my phone, or propane to maintain temperature - only natural charcoal and wood chips. The fish must be heated at a high enough temperature for a long enough time to ensure it is sufficiently cooked through. This formula is approximately 160 degrees for a minimum of 2 hours. Of course, there are many variations including the thickness of fillets; clearly, a thin piece of trout will take less time than a thick piece of king mackerel. When in doubt, keep the heat a little lower for a longer period of time; rushing at a higher temperature will scorch and dry out the product you have invested so much time in preparing up to this point. Now you may see why the article's title is "The Art and Science of Smoking Fish"- perfect bricks are a balance of both! Personally, the light flavor of applewood chips accentuates the smoky taste while allowing the fish to be the star. I skip the water pan - no water, no apple juice, no wine. One extra tip: use high heat canola spray on the smoker racks after you clean them to prevent sticking. 

Whew! Your extra efforts will be rewarded. 

Remove the fillets when the outside has a dark golden color. These bricks will have an incredible candy exterior with a soft interior. If you see white coagulation bubbling out of the meat, you did not fully dry the protein! This is called ALBUMEN. Next time, try a longer brine and/or longer dry under the fan. Once this much time is spent on the process, it is a pleasure to savor your harvest (and hard work!) sliced with crackers, maybe even drizzled lightly with fine olive oil. I love fish dip too - using these superior fillets will boost your dip recipe to a whole new level - or look for a future article on best recipes to make with smoked fish. Good Luck and ENJOY! 

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