People have been smoking fish since ancient times, dating as far back as the caveman era. Back then, due to lack of refrigeration, the purpose of curing and smoking meats was purely functional – meat preservation and human survival.

Although fish is still smoked for preservation, over time the process has evolved, and fish is now commonly smoked to enhance flavour and offer an alternative meat appearance and texture. The topic of smoking fish can be complex as there are countless techniques and opinions. It is both a science and an art that is understood through the act of trial and error as there are so many variables to the equation: fish species, fat content, size of cut, size of smoking chamber, ambient temperature, humidity, breeze etc.

Larger fish should be steaked or chunked into uniform pieces

In its purest form, smoking fish is the process of removing moisture content from the meat to slow down the growth of bacteria. Taste and shelf life will depend on the smoke temperature and length of smoking. Each smoking scenario is different, and the method can be as simple or as technical as you wish. Use your own judgment and develop a method that suits you as there is no definitive technique. As the saying goes though, good things take time, and that applies to most of the following phases. Important stages in smoking are cleaning/processing, curing, drying, smoking and storing.

Depending on the temperature in the smoking chamber, the process can generally be divided into either cold smoking or hot smoking, with ‘warm’ smoking being somewhere in-between. These will be briefly explained in Part 2 of this series.

Cleaning & Processing

If keeping a fish for smoking, dispatch it quickly and humanely then bleed the fish before chilling. A lot of the bacteria present in a fish is in its digestive tract so it can be beneficial to gut and gill while at sea. Avoid exposing the flesh to fresh water – if the fish needs to be washed while processing use salt water only.

Try to cut fillets or steaks into similar sizes to help with uniform smoking times.

It helps to have a clean, spacious workstation and a variety of ‘tools’ when butchering fish. Fish can be processed differently depending on the species and size. If leaving the skin on, rub it dry before processing as the slime on most fish is the perfect habitat for bacteria. Larger fish should be broken down into sections such as fillets or steaks and smaller fish can be split open to smoke whole, or filleted. When processing larger fish try to cut fillets or steaks to similar sizes to help with uniform smoking times and attempt to remove as much blood as possible.

Curing & Brining

The two following stages of curing and drying are as important, if not more, than the smoking itself. Curing fish is essential for smoking because it draws moisture out of the protein, kills surface bacteria, and flavours the meat.

Fish must be cured before smoking by either applying a dry rub or soaking in a liquid brine. Both methods use salt or sugar, or more commonly, both. Use a fine sea salt and avoid iodised salt as it imparts a bitter taste. Other ingredients that may be added to a brine are herbs, spices, rum, whiskey, soy sauce, honey, ginger etc.

Dry salting may be used instead of liquid salt brines, but brines will give a more uniform salting. A dry cure can be used when refrigerator space is limited or just for ease. A basic dry rub may consist of sea salt and soft brown sugar at a ratio of 1:1 or 1:2. The more cure applied to the flesh, the more efficient the cure will be and the longer the shelf life will be. However, if a ‘salty’ taste is not desired make your cure ratio holds enough sugar. Once rubbed, or sprinkled, place the pieces of fish in a plastic container or tub large enough and refrigerate for 1-5 days (minimum 24 hours). Moisture extracted from the fish by the cure will pool in the container so periodically drain it off.

Smaller fish are well-suited for splitting open

A typical brine may consist of 2 cups of salt and 2 cups of brown sugar to 5 litres of water (unchlorinated if possible) with quantities adjusted to taste. Make sure the brine is chilled before using it on the fish. The stronger the brine, the shorter the time of brining. Depending on the type of fish, it should be brined anywhere from 2-24 hours and should be completely submerged in the solution – use weights if necessary.

Keep your eyes peeled for Part 2 of my Smoking Fish series in the next edition of Rheem OffSite which will cover drying, smoking, and storing.

Article by: Matt (Smokey) Oak