When it comes to smoking meats, often the more time and effort you put in, the better the results will be. Matt “Smokey” Oak gives the low down on how he gets a premium smoke on his fish.
It is best to properly dry fish before smoking. This process forms a ‘pellicle’ – providing a coating (like a second skin) that helps seal in moisture, allows better smoke adhesion and provides a betterlooking finished product. Fish won’t develop flavour or colour well if still wet when smoked.
After brining or dry curing your fish, pat it dry and lay on racks in a cool, shaded place with a gentle draught. This may take anything from a couple of hours to six, or even longer depending on the weather (an electric fan can be used to speed up the process). A smoker with minimal heat and no smoke can also be used for drying too. Be sure to keep flies and insects away and never put fish in the sun to attempt to dry it quicker as the warmth and UV will spoil it. When it has dried sufficiently the pellicle will have a slightly tacky feel when touched.
Cold, warm or hot smoking can be differentiated by the smoking temperature and duration. A long (cold) smoke uses a cooler smoking temperature which produces a stronger flavour and a longer shelf life. A hot smoke is fast – using high temperatures where the smoke doesn’t penetrate the fish completely and produces product that is usually eaten fresh.
Smokers exist in a variety of forms ranging from purpose-built smokers (large or small), off-the-shelf cabinet, barrel or offset smokers, and small smoke boxes. Cold smoking typically requires a larger smoking chamber and a fire pit that is normally detached from the smoke chamber to allow the smoke to cool whilst traveling to the chamber. Store-bought cabinet smokers used for warm or hot smoking can be electrical pellet/bisquette burners or gas fed chip/dust burners. Each has their merits and drawbacks.
Characteristics of a successful smoking environment include acquiring and maintaining desired temperatures, enough space within the smoke chamber to hang or lay fish generously, plenty of dry airflow, an evenly distributed heat without condensation build-up, and generating enough good smoke for the chamber volume. An accurate thermometer can be one of the most worthwhile additions to any cold or warm smoking setup.
Traditionally wood and fire generate smoke is used for fish, and is arguably the best source of flavour. Manuka has been the staple Kiwi wood over time but other hardwoods and fruitwoods such as pohutakawa, apple, peach, feijoa etc. are becoming popular for good reasons.
Cold smoking involves a fire pit where smoke is generated, and a smoking chamber where the fish is either hung or laid skin side down on racks. The process can take several days and temperatures inside the smoking chamber are kept below 26°C. It is essentially a slow drying process that allows maximum smoke penetration of the flesh, which is never cooked. The final smoked product is normally salty with a firm texture and has a long shelf life.
Warm smoking is the most common method and consists of two steps: smoking and cooking. The main smoking process is performed below 50°C, then the temperature is increased to around 75°C to start cooking. Keeping temperatures between 25°C-50°C in the first stage of smoking is important for smoke penetration. Vents should be open allowing good medium to heavy smoke-flow around the fish. This (smoking) stage can take anywhere from two to six hours depending on the thickness of fish, oil content and desired smoke flavour. Proteins on the outer layer of the fish are denatured but the inside remains raw. If fish is smoked too fast and hot it will sweat and develop ‘boogers’.
The second (cooking) stage should be done at 75°C-90°C for two to four hours to cook and finish off the fish. During this phase the fish dries out more and develops colour. At the final stages of the cook, the temperature can be ramped up for a short burst. Some people like to periodically glaze the fish with honey or maple syrup during the cooking stage which can add a touch of sweetness and a golden finish. Technically, it is said that fish should be cooked to an internal temp of 70°C for a minimum of 30 minutes.
Hot smoking is a fast and familiar backyard method of smoking by using small portable stainlesssteel smoke boxes. Fish is placed skin side down on a rack above sawdust or small chips in the top compartment then covered with a lid. The wood chips are heated by burning methylated spirits in trays underneath which produces a temperature around 120°C for roughly 30 minutes. Use sawdust or chips sparingly as too much sawdust can leave a bitter smoke flavour – one to two handfuls should be ample. This method smokes and cooks the fish quickly at the same time. It creates a shallower smoke taste and a product that is great eaten straight off the smoker while still warm.
Cooling & Storing
After smoking fish, cool it completely before refrigerating. This should be done at ambient temperatures, not forced, and within 12 hours to prevent onset of bacteria. Once cool, wrap in foil, plastic-wrap or zip-lock bags and store in the refrigerator. Hot-smoked fish should be treated like normally cooked fish in regard to shelf life. Warm-smoked fish will keep for a couple of weeks, and cold-smoked should last easily up to a month in the refrigerator. Vacuum sealing will extend the shelf life even more. If not eating immediately, vac seal and store in the freezer. Properly stored smoked fish will last in the freezer for several months.
Smoking fish is the perfect way to make use of certain species or cuts that are not suited for normal cooking. It’s also great for preserving fish and producing an alternative flavour and texture.
The smoking process can be quite demanding if care is taken to follow steps methodically, but it is (usually) super rewarding. Have some fun with it, try new cures or curing times, different woods or smoking temps and times. It’s the experimentation that will lead you to figure out the best smoke for your particular smoker and fish species. Smoking becomes quite addictive and nothing beats the smell of a smokehouse in use. There is something to be said for keeping things simple and old fashioned though – sometimes you can’t beat a lengthy plain salt cure, sufficient drying for a good pellicle, and a long, low smoke with a suitable wood.
Article by: Matt (Smokey) Oak